Saturday, July 22, 2017

On the Big Screen: DUNKIRK (2017)

How ironic that reviewers have rushed to call Dunkirk Christopher Nolan's best film, as if in implicit rebuke to all his genre pictures, when all he did was make a war film just as he would make a genre picture. As for reviews declaring Dunkirk one of the greatest war pictures, don't make me laugh. It's neither that nor Nolan's best film -- for me, that is either The Dark Knight or The Prestige -- but it is a decent war film and admirable in its compactness at under two hours. More than anything else, Dunkirk is a battle movie done as a thriller, designed to keep the audience in constant suspense regardless of their knowledge of history. Most people going to the movie  know (I hope!) that the good guys win this one, that the British manage to evacuate their army with help from a cross-channel civilian flotilla. But that doesn't tell you whether Nolan's fictional characters will make it through or not. Unlike most battle films, Dunkirk is a micro-epic, focusing on whether a few particular characters whose individual fates are uncertain will survive or succeed. We don't really get the macro perspective except for Kenneth Branagh's scenes as an anxious naval commander, and unlike the classic World War II battle film template, we don't get the enemy perspective at all. On one level that hurts Dunkirk because it can't answer the question of why the Germans didn't make a serious effort to wipe out the British army, though any film of this story can't help but beg that question. On the other hand, it's a matter of artistic license not to care what the Germans were thinking.

The whole point of Nolan's Dunkirk is to immerse 21st century movie audiences in the terrifying immediacy of 20th century war, and it succeeds at that as much as any film can that simultaneously distracts the audience with Nolanesque gimmickry. To Nolan's credit, he's upfront about the gimmickry as he introduces his three storylines. The gimmick is that the three stories, while intercut with each other constantly, aren't actually concurrent until near the end of the picture. The opening story, dealing with some stray soldiers straggling to the beach and struggling to worm their way onto any available escape ship, takes place over the course of a week. A second narrative featuring Mark Rylance as a civilian boat captain taking part in the rescue mission over the objections of Nolan stalwart Cillian Murphy (who has a seemingly incomplete story arc of his own linking the beach and boat stories) takes place over the course of one day. The third thread, focusing on Tom Hardy's Spitfire pilot (the actor again spends much of a film behind a mask) battling German planes, plays out over the course of a single hour. There's no real reason to do this apart from "Christopher Nolan," but as long as audiences understand what the onscreen notes explain it doesn't really hurt the picture, either. None of the storylines spoil each other, allowing the audience to concentrate on each individual deathtrap or combat episode. Structurally, Dunkirk is not unlike those feature-length condensations of golden-age serials that include all the cliffhangers but leave little room for much else. Think of it as a Republic picture made with absolute mastery and a grown-up screenplay on an unlimited budget, with the added Nolan virtue of minimal fakery of the sea and air action. There's no disputing that Nolan is very good at suspense, and credit is definitely due the skill with which he (as sole writer) finally converges the three storylines, as Hardy battles to keep a German plane from slaughtering helpless soldiers, including our beach heroes, swimming from a sinking minesweeper to Rylance's boat. The hyperbole of early reviewers might provoke a backlash that the film doesn't deserve, but that hyperbole does compel me to say that Dunkirk, for all its virtues, is the most overrated film of 2017 so far.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1898 (...Los ultimos de Filipinas, 2016)

There's something about the Philippines, I guess, that makes foreign soldiers very reluctant to leave. The U.S. definitely overstayed its welcome there, but at least we didn't leave last-ditch fanatics behind when we decided to leave. When I was growing up, however, the world was fascinated by stories of Japanese soldiers holed up in the islands for up to thirty years after the end of World War II. There was precedent for this, on a more modest scale, after the 1898 war in which the U.S. "liberated" the Philippines from Spain. Despite that crushing defeat, a Spanish garrison held out at Baler, in eastern Luzon, for nearly a year, surrendering only in June 1899. The siege of Baler was the subject of a heroic war film in 1945, during the Franco dictatorship. Salvador Calvo's remake is far less celebratory.


The garrison is made up mostly of recent arrivals from Spain, few of whom have any real training. Our point-of-view character among these recruits is an aspiring artist who befriends the resident priest. While the soldiers can hold out for months with the ammo available, the important thing for the priest and his new protege is a plentiful supply of opium. One important thing the unit lacks is nutritious produce. Berberi breaks out, killing the original commander. The men continue to hold out, though at least one deserts.


Meanwhile, as the besieging Filipinos well know, Spain is negotiating a sale of the islands to the victorious U.S. to bring the war to a definitive close. Anticipating their next war with the Americans, the natives would like to end the siege with minimal fuss and hope to convince the Spaniards with up-to-date newspapers. The new commander dismisses all reports as fake news, contrived to trick them into surrendering. Eventually, our artist hero is sent out on a mission to get authentic news from Manila, the capital. He's promptly captured by a courteous Filipino commander who sends him on his way in the hope that the truth will set everyone free. The commander still won't believe and condemns the artist as a drug-addled traitor. Our hero will survive the siege, but his artistic ambitions end up one last casualty of a hopeless war.


The siege of Baler was something new to me, and that lent novelty to 1898. The siege was no Alamo and its conclusion -- the commander finally reads a piece of news he can't dismiss as fake -- is inescapably anticlimactic. The maiming of our artist hero serves as a symbolic catastrophe on top of the already pointless deaths during the siege. The film's real strength is its ensemble cast, led by Luis Tosar, Javier Gutierrez and Alvaro Cervantes as the artist. There's nothing really innovative here as far as battle films go, but for audiences outside the Spanish-speaking world 1898 provides a fresh look at the absurdity of imperialism and the folly of war.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

George A. Romero (1940-2017)

Romero died bitter. Once you get past today's obituaries, a Google News search will point you to interviews published earlier this month, as he struggled to raise funds for another Dead film that he had co-written and planned to produce. He railed against today's zombie movies and shows, convinced that such things as World War Z and especially The Walking Dead, products he apparently saw as bastardized versions of his vision, had made it impossible for him to get financing for his modestly-budgeted ideas. Romero apparently took it as an insult that he had been invited to direct episodes of Walking Dead, and he showed what strikes me as a reactionary blindness toward that show's significance, based on what fans of the show tell me, when he complained that it had reduced the "zombie apocalypse" to a mere backdrop for what he called soap opera, while the Dead films always were elevated, or so the auteur implied, by his inclusion of satiric subtexts. I don't watch The Walking Dead, but the impression I get from those who've watched and commented on it is that such a show can't help but comment implicitly on the world of here and now. In short, in his frustration Romero was unfair to those who followed in his footsteps or, as he may have seen it, stood on his shoulders to reach glories denied him. But George A. Romero was a filmmaker entitled to some indulgence of his unfair moods. The shows he despised at the end of his life were only further proof that Romero himself had made, in Night of the Living Dead, one of the handful of most culturally influential movies ever made. It introduced the world to what is still often called a "Romero zombie," to distinguish it from both the voodoo-driven thralls of past movies and the more articulate (sometimes muscularly, sometimes verbally) brain-eaters seen later. It was a milestone in horror cinema despite its tiny budget and its unlikely appearance as a black and white gore film in 1968. It was also indisputably a work of genius that earned his follow-up zombie films Dawn and Day the status of unique events, and not just because their standard-setting gore defied the ratings system and normal exhibition policies. A second trilogy of 21st century films was less successful, but Land of the Dead was still a great entertainment that advanced Romero's mythos in major, tantalizing ways, and Survival of the Dead proved him still a fine storyteller in the pulp tradition at the effective end of his career. It's important now to remind people of the great films Romero made outside the zombie genre. My favorites include his vampire film Martin and especially his neo-Arthurian biker movie Knightriders, while Creepshow, his and Stephen King's homage to EC Comics, still has many fans. In the end, Romero had a right to be bitter, if only because he never cashed in on the incredible popularity of his zombie innovation the way he should have, but lived to see many others feeding on the harvest he'd planted. But if history can be a solace, Romero should rest in peace -- unless, like John Leguizamo in Land, he wants to see "how the other half lives."...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On the Big Screen: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Matt Reeves' Planet of the Apes trilogy has gradually moved away from the concept's dystopian foundation, as established by original novelist Pierre Boulle and original screenwriter Rod Serling, making the saga of Caesar the chimp revolutionary a crowd-pleasing fantasy series. His movies remain superficially dystopian, portraying the further decline of the human race, but by now they don't feel dystopian in any meaningful way because no one's rooting for the humans. From the beginning, the Apes myth has been the sort of dystopia in which the victims had it coming; Charlton Heston's final rant in the 1968 movie sets the tone. Keep at it and the victims are bound to lose viewers' sympathy, especially when the filmmakers don't treat them as victims, but villains. The best proof of Reeves' success is that people don't ask themselves whether, as human beings, they should be happy with the results of his films. A lot of people will credit this to Andy Serkis's by-now overrated (But still good! Don't kill me!) motion-capture performances as Caesar and the sympathy he earns for the apes, but it really comes down to the writing -- and maybe also to a more misanthropic spirit in our time. You might expect a divided audience, some identifying more strongly with the apes while identifying the humans with certain more obnoxious or oppressive members of the species, while some still regard even the purely fictional prospect of human extinction with horror. But I doubt whether anyone watching War is not on Caesar's side, no matter what that means for those who aren't.

We open with the war promised at the end of the last picture underway. Diminished as they are by the simian flu, humans in northern California still outnumber and outgun Caesar's band of artificially-evolved apes, but still can't overcome the ape defenses in the dense forest. Nevertheless, each skirmish brings unacceptable losses, and Caesar hopes to break out of the forest and head south, where there are, presumably, fewer humans. Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the local army, isn't going to let the apes go so easily. Doubly resentful now that he's discovered that simian flu is a gift that keeps on giving, McCullough (referred to by everyone else as simply "The Colonel") intends to exterminate the apes through slave labor. He's put captive apes to work building a wall -- don't freak out, anybody; the screenplay was written before anyone took Trump seriously, and in any event the wall is meant to keep out fellow humans, fellow soldiers even. A main force further north hasn't taken well with the Colonel's method of controlling the spread of secondary simian flu, which is to shoot anyone who contracts it, including his own son. Despite his extinction agenda, McCullough has simian collaborators: followers of the late Koba (Toby Kebbell takes a few encores to haunt Caesar's dreams) who paradoxically make common cause with humans out of fear and resentment of Caesar. In his greatest blunder as a leader, Caesar sends the majority of the apes south while he seeks personal revenge for casualties inflicted in one of the Colonel's raids on the forest. He's accompanied by his stalwarts: Luca the gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite), Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and Rocket the chimp (Terry Notary) -- and by a little human girl (Amiah Miller) that Caesar's crew inadvertently orphaned, and for whom the kindly Maurice in particular feels responsible. We learn eventually that her muteness is a result of the secondary virus, but more on that later. While this motley band, joined eventually by the first evolved ape they've ever seen who isn't part of their original group, heads toward a border station where they expect to find the Colonel, that clever man swept down upon the refugee apes with such swiftness and efficiency that they all arrive there and are put to work before Caesar reaches the place.

I prefer to keep spoilers at a minimum for non-superhero movies so I won't say much about the rest of the film, except to describe it as a cross between Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments, the latter proving the dominant strain even though Reeves openly invites comparison with the former with a bald, crazy colonel and some "Apepocalypse Now" graffiti. There's clever symbolic labeling throughout the film; the Colonel's soldiers call the apes "Kongs" but dub their gorilla collaborators "Donkeys"; one soldier's battle slogan, written on his helmet, is "Bedtime for Bonzo." There's more overt humor here than in the previous films, perhaps because Reeves recognizes by now how popular these films are. We even get a comedy-relief ape in the aforementioned but just-now identified "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), whose nebulous origin story opens the door to further exploration or the increasingly apish planet. He got smart like his fellow zoo apes but he honestly isn't very bright. His main trait is old-school comic cowardice of the sort that gets set aside when your buddies apply enough pressure. The little girl, who is given the easter-egg name "Nova" after one of Bad Ape's car-ornament trinkets, often proves more useful than this simian who never learned sign-language and thus can't communicate understand the other apes when Caesar's not around to translate. About the girl and her sickness: anyone who knows the history of Planet of the Apes can see that her plight evokes the mute humans Charlton Heston encounters. But what has happened to her exactly? For Col. McCullough the secondary flu is a fate worse than death because it robs people of speech. He also claims that victims are reduced to a "primitive" state, but we have only his hysterical word for that, compared to the evidence of Nova, who picks up the apes' sign language readily enough and displays numerous positive character traits that belie the Colonel's pejorative sense of "primitive." One could almost believe that the secondary flu has purified the girl, whose future is one of the more tantalizing threads that could be picked up in a post-Reeves sequel. For now, at least, it looks like Reeves and co-writer Mark Bombeck may have meant to make a point about our identification of sentience with speech or our reluctance to ascribe sentience to those without speech, but if so they fudge it a little by having Caesar talk more often than he probably needs to or should in story terms, for the obvious reason of reinforcing audience identification with the hero chimp.

As I said, the Ten Commandments gene ultimately overwhelms the film, inflicting a gratuitous disaster climax on top of the genuine climax of Caesar's escape from the Colonel's base in the middle of an air attack by the enemy army. It keeps up after that extra-climax with a sadly flat denouement at the edge of the promised land, with Maurice as Caesar's Aaron and Rocket as his Joshua, while Reeves can think of nothing better for Nova and Bad Ape to do than romp around in circles in something like a parody of play. But I won't hold the end of the picture against its actual story or Reeves' overall direction. War relies on emotional intensity rather than frantic action, often lingering on the wondrously expressive faces of Caeasr -- surely you can't credit Serkis alone for all of this -- and the other lead apes, and emphasizing Harrelson's profoundly menacing presence as the Colonel without requiring him to emote villainously. Reeves is at his best simply framing Harrelson watching the imprisoned Caesar from his balcony, or receiving the adulation of his troops while preoccupied with shaving his head. Harrelson does a tremendous job under Reeves' direction to compete with the lead apes, who probably are the best CGI creations on film to date, not counting Pixar movies. Reeves can shoot close-ups of their faces with Leonean intensity with full justification; you really do feel like you can see the inner workings of Caesar, Maurice or Rocket's mind when they're not talking or signing. War may not really stick the landing, but it should still go down as one of the best third films in a series. While there can and perhaps should be more films in this Apes series, Reeves' trilogy should stand for some time as one of the most impressive achievements in modern genre film.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Too Much TV: PLANET OF THE APES (1974) AND RETURN TO THE PLANET OF THE APES (1975)

Pierre Boule had an idea in 1963 that may keep going forever. His novel La Planète des Singes has inspired two successful movie franchises, not counting the one-off Tim Burton reboot from 2001. With Matt Reeves' third Apes film opening this weekend, it seemed time to give some recognition to two of the more obscure manifestations of the Planet phenomenon. After the original movie series wrapped with 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox decided to start over in a different medium. Coming so soon after the last movie, the Planet of the Apes TV series must have looked like second-class stuff, despite the presence of Roddy McDowall, the Cornelius and Caesar of the movies. Objectively speaking, as a matter of production values the show was second-class, to be generous, and McDowall may only have confused fans by playing neither Cornelius nor Caesar but an entirely new character, the privileged dissident chimpanzee Galen. In fact, the cast of characters is entirely new except for the elite orangutan Zaius (Booth Colman), and in the most noteworthy change from the 1968 original, the planet's humans are intelligent and articulate, more serfs than cattle. This was a sensible and pragmatic change, since it gave the show's protagonists characters they could talk to who did not require ape makeup. Galen befriends two human astronauts, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) who've made the usual crash-landing into their own world's future, only on the west coast rather than the east-coast setting of Charlton Heston's adventure. These three fugitives make their way up and down the coast, pursued by soldiers answering to the gorilla General Urko (Mark "Sarek" Lenard), and confronting different aspects of ape civilization along the way. The two astronauts are the show's great weakness. They're utterly whitebread bland, infinitely skilled in outdoor crafts and initially distinguishable from one another only by hair color, though one eventually shows a more cautious personality than the other. The show's real virtue, which only became apparent too late to save it from an early cancellation after 14 episodes, was its more in-depth exploration of the planet's society than was possible in any of the movies. It drove home that the Planet of an Apes was an oppressive regime even for most apes apart from privileged landowners and gorilla soldiers. At the same time, it rejected a simplistic apes bad-humans good dichotomy not just by having Galen along as a hero but by portraying a wide range of human responses to ape oppression, from servile collaboration to genocidal terrorism. Often the guest star characters were more interesting than our weekly protagonists, as was very often the case in that era before story arcs and metaplots. While McDowall and the writers sometimes played off Galen's increasingly misplaced sense of privilege, that wasn't enough to distinguish the TV character from the actor's generic gentle-ape performance, and the impression was inescapable that he wasn't really thrilled to be wearing the makeup again. The show might well have fared better without him, so long as McDowall's presence reminded audiences of what the show was not.

The next step down the evolutionary ladder, presumably, was Saturday morning animation. The 1970s were a dark age for TV cartoons, doubly constrained by cheapness and anti-violence censorship. At first glance, DePatie-Freling's Return to the Planet of the Apes was just another Seventies failure, surviving for only thirteen episodes. In fact, the show was almost a miracle. It's animation probably was as limited as any of its contemporaries, but it was still often impressive to look at thanks to production design by Doug Wildey of Jonny Quest fame. Where Return really excelled was in its writing. It has probably the tightest continuity of any Seventies cartoon series, being for all intents and purposes a serial. Rather than a follow-up to the TV show, it's another reboot, though it retained the Urko character as well as Zaius while bringing back the beloved Cornelilus and Zira, the former this time voiced by someone other than Roddy McDowall. The indigenous humans are primitive once more and mostly speechless except for the rebooted Nova from the first two movies. Thanks to cherry-picking from previous Planet mythology, Nova has been taught to speak by Brent, the astronaut from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, who in this Taylor-less reality has been living his life among the primitives. He's joined on the future world -- once again on the east coast -- by three new astronauts: Bill (white male), Jeff (black male) and Judy (white female). In a daring move for a Saturday morning cartoon in 1975, the first episode teases Judy's death. In a perhaps more daring move, the show expects us to remember this when it reveals, two episodes later, that Judy was rescued, and is now worshipped as the goddess Usa, by a race of telepathic human underground dwellers analagous to Beneath's bomb-worshippers. Once she rejoins her fellow astronauts Judy becomes a hugely important character (and, for what it's worth, a progressive exemplar) since she's the only one who knows how to fly the airplane that the apes have reassembled for human-hunting. The show does a fair job portraying the three astronauts as equals, but where it really excels is in its truly expansive survey of the ape planet.

Budgetary limitations aren't necessarily limits on imagination. Return is arguably the most imaginative version of the Planet myth to date, at once bringing us closest of all adaptations to Pierre Boule's own vision of a thoroughly modern ape civilization (TV, movies, more advanced weapons) while taking us away from the typical Ape City milieu to a Shangri-la like mountain colony of enlightened simians guarded by a giant, magically self-thawing yeti-like gorilla. Better still, it picks up plot threads only hinted at in the live-action series and runs with them like a pick-six. Mark Lenard's Urko was mostly a peevish, somewhat corrupt fellow with occasional outbursts of brutality and an increasing impatience with Zaius's supervision. On Return, voiced apoplectically by Henry Corden in a virtual rehearsal for the Fred Flintsone gig he landed soon afterward, Urko is an increasingly unstable menace to both the wild humans and the ape political order. He is often shown verbally duelling with Zaius in the courtroom-like setting of the ape legislature, while Zaius grows increasingly certain that Urko needs to be put down. Their conflict, with the more moderate Zaius abetted by Cornelius and Zira, and more indirectly by the astronauts, forms the backbone of the series, climaxing when Urko stages a series of false-flag attacks on Ape City, getting suspended from command after his conspiracy is exposed, and convincing his replacement to defy the civilian government by attacking the human settlement. By the standards of Seventies Saturday mornings, this is epic stuff, and while the show apparently was stopped short of any planned conclusion, it ends on possibly the most optimistic note of any version of the Apes myth. I don't remember whether I watched Return during its original run, when I was just a kid, so seeing it a few months ago on the El Rey network was a real revelation. For all its weaknesses, all handicaps of its time, it probably is the best American TV cartoon of the 1970s. It may just be hard to do "Planet of the Apes" badly. Something about the concept still resonates with us and inspires genuine creativity, even when the results are as radially different from earlier movies as the Reeves trilogy or the Seventies cartoon. We'll probably have more versions of the myth to talk about generations from now -- unless life actually imitates art beforehand.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) in SPOILERVISION

The official beginning, after a high-profile cameo appearance in Captain America: Civil War, of the third Spider-Man movie cycle of the still-young century brings with it a huge risk of reboot fatigue. Who needs, much less wants, to see the origin story yet again? Not I and not you, presumably, and neither, fortunately, do director Jon Watts and his five co-writers. You never see or hear of poor Uncle Ben, whose tragic fate is only implicit in a reference to everything that's happened to Peter Parker's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) in recent times. Homecoming is the sort of superhero movie we need at this point, less concerned with beginnings or becoming, though it's still all about Peter (Tom Holland) proving himself as a hero, than with the everyday business of fighting crime and helping people. The stakes are lower here than in any other Marvel movie except Ant-Man: the climactic battle has Spidey thwarting a mid-air robbery rather than saving the city or the world. Yet they don't feel insignificant, and Homecoming feels less like an "ordinary" superhero movie than, say, Age of Ultron does. This reboot isn't just a do-over for its own sake to indulge a new generation of creators, but an effort by Sony Pictures to get Spider-Man right, with the help of Marvel Studios, after the retrospective debacle of the now-underrated Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield films. The new film is a more successful effort to translate many of the tropes of the earliest Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics to the 21st century.

Peter is back in high school, on this time he and his usual supporting cast of age-peers, many of them racially diversified with little fuss, all attend an intellectually elite science-and-technology school. That includes archetypal jock-bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), who here becomes an underachieving asshole, while Peter remains the archetypal outcast, for the ironic reason that he's always bailing out on school activities to seek out crime as "the Spider Man from You Tube" while awaiting a summons from Tony Stark (must I say?) to join the Avengers. He's chafing at the bit, his superheroism kept on a tight leash but also largely ignored by Stark henchman Happy Hogan (as usual, Jon Favreau) and various infantilizing protocols built into his Stark-designed deluxe costume. Peter sees a chance to impress Stark when he stumbles upon bank robbers using exotic high-tech weapons that nearly devastate Parker's neighborhood. Thanks to a prologue, we know that these are the handiwork of Adriam Toomes (Michael Keaton), a disgruntled blue-collar entrepreneur who has his salvage contract for sites wrecked by the alien invasion from The Avengers abruptly snatched away by a federal government collaborating with Stark. Toomes and his inventive techies decide to keep what they've gleaned, retooling the alien tech into weapons, and in Toomes' case, a flying costume that earns him the nickname "Vulture," for stealing more alien tech to sell on the black market. Spider-Man's skirmishes with Toomes' gang escalate, with neither side fully appreciating the destructive power in play, until the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry are nearly wrecked -- at which point Tony Stark grounds Peter. Like the typical parent who doesn't get it, and with a great irony that the man himself partly appreciates, Stark only sees his young protege behaving irresponsibly and dangerously, blaming him rather than the bad guys (who should be left to the authorities to deal with, Stark says hypocritically) for all the destruction. Stripped of his high-tech suit, which he'd hacked with the help of best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) in order to access extra features, Peter now must really prove himself by continuing his war against Toomes, even after he learns that Toomes is the father of Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter's current crush, and after Toomes quickly deduces that the awkward kid taking his daughter to the homecoming dance, who looks at him with a constant expression of horror, is more than he lets on...

Like Civil War, Homecoming is sort of a generic "Marvel Universe" movie, or at least an Iron Man 3.25 thanks to the participation of Downey, Favreau and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Captain America himself (a shameless Chris Evans) in a private hell of mind-numbing PSAs. It cleverly calls back to Civil War by showing us the buildup to that film's famous airport fight from the vantage of Peter's cellphone and teases the hero's graduation to the Avengers, only to have Peter keep his distance, as Marvel and Sony presumably will keep their distance hereafter, in order to remain, in Stark's own words, a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. That's a good call, because Homecoming leaves us ready to explore Peter Parker's milieu more. Like Sam Raimi's cycle, if not more so, Watts gives Spidey's world a real-life feel as Peter scrambles to keep up with schoolwork, struggles to have a social life, and patrols his inner-city neighborhood. Tom Holland and the other kids all seem to have the right amount of charisma, the standouts being Batalon as a kid living out his sidekick dream of being "the man in the chair" and Zendaya as the sardonic school rebel who may yet end up the love of Peter's life. The villain role doesn't demand much of Michael Keaton at a time when he's become one of our leading character actors, but he lends the part authoritative menace and the overall idea of a working-class villain is in keeping with the early comics. In some ways, and not just because of Stan Lee's dependable presence, this new film is more faithful to those earliest comics than even the Raimi films, down to a recreation of Spidey's most famous inspirational feat of strength from the Ditko era. I'm not prepared to say that Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie, but I definitely liked it better than the Webb films and was happily surprised to find it not imitating the Raimis very much. In short, Homecoming amply justified its existence as a new take on Spider-Man, but one thing about it really annoyed me. This is a film set in the present day, either 2017 or 2020 depending on when you think The Avengers took place, yet its high-school students sure listen to a lot of oldies music, mainly from the Eighties.Really? I don't even consider myself a fan of modern pop music, but I find this preposterous and clueless, even as I can guess why Marvel does this. All this tells us is that we've yet to see a superhero movie fully integrated with modern youth culture, but until we see such a thing -- if we really want to, that is -- Homecoming will do.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: NO MARRIAGE TIES (1933)

On September 22, 1927, arguably the biggest sporting event in the U.S. during the 1920s took place: the rematch for the heavyweight championship between Gene Tunney and the man he had dethroned the year before, Jack Dempsey. The Chicago Reflector assigned star sportswriter Bruce Foster (Richard Dix) to cover the fight, but Foster is too busy getting drunk to see the famous Long Count. He's preoccupied with a novelty game that requires him to lift a little ball with his breath and latch it onto a tiny hoop. By comparison, arch film drunkard Arthur Housman is the model of sobriety as a sympathetic speakeasy bartender. By the following morning Foster has lost his job, but he makes a new friend in Peggy Wilson, one of those too-good-to-be-true movie dames, more like a screwball comedy heroine, who doesn't give a damn about anything and is only amused by Foster's erudite inebriation. Peggy's a lucky girl, winning a jackpot on one of the speakeasy slots on her first try, and she clearly has an instinct for befriending the right drunks, as Foster, though blackballed from journalism, soon finds himself an advertising executive.

Bruce just happens to be haunting the bar on a night when a real ad executive (Alan Dinehart) is chewing out an incompetent copywriter (Hobart Cavanaugh) who can't come up with a strong slogan for toothpaste. Bruce proves to have a knack for slogans, an instinct for fearmongering. He wins a job, and eventually a partnership, with something along the lines of "Don't Let Your Teeth Kill You!" Director J. Arthur Ruben and his writers clearly had in mind Listerine's long-lived ad campaign warning that halitosis could ruin anyone's career and social life. As a successful ad man, Foster applies that principle to all his clients, and just as he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the threats the products can remedy, he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the products' benefits. Peggy's along for the ride as the agency's new graphic artist -- her stuff is "pretty bad," but that's getting off lightly at company conferences -- but Bruce has his eyes on bigger game.

Told by his increasingly disillusioned partner that no truly classy client will sign with him, Foster picks a name at random and applies his personal brand of supersalesmanship on Deane Cosmetics. Adrienne Deane (Doris Kenyon) is an entrepreneurial superwoman in her own right, not only designing her own products but modeling in her own ads, but in Bruce's hands, after he sneaks into her office disguised as a chemist, she turns to emotionally needy mush. He confuses winning the account with winning the woman until he realizes that he's been a heel to Peggy, whose artistic ambitions can no longer be contained by advertising work. Foster decides that the right thing to do is break off his engagement with Adrienne, but he's hardly returned to his office before word comes by phone that Deane has killed herself. This drives home to our hero the pitfalls of false advertising, and lest the great agencies who presumably placed ads for RKO Radio Pictures in all the magazines take offense at this picture's portrayal of their trade, he delivers a numbing mea culpa in praise of the ad industry and its important contributions to the nation's economic growth, blaming any excesses of the profession on bad people like himself. And so Bruce Foster returns to his level, getting wasted at the same old speakeasy before finally figuring out the breath game. As if on cue, Peggy returns from a European sojourn and embraces the big slob once more. This "Mad Men of 1933" is interesting as a wishy-washy satire of advertising but unimaginative in its melodrama and preposterous in imagining a drunk Richard Dix as irresistible to anyone, much less two seemingly intelligent women. I suppose it was a kind of power fantasy of making a fortune through misanthropy and bailing out before any real comeuppance with the assurance that someone still loves your true pathetic self.  There probably was an audience for that sort of stuff during the Depression, and for all I know you could remake No Marriage Ties today and win over similar people.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

DVR Diary: LAST OF THE PAGANS (1935)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a fascination with noble savages during the golden age of Hollywood that found expression not only in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies but in a small cycle of pseudo-ethnographic films that includes White Shadows in the South Seas, Eskimo and this picture, presumably filmed on some French Polynesian locations also used for Mutiny on the Bounty. Richard Thorpe, who moved on to Tarzan pictures from here, directed a screenplay by John Farrow that reunited the romantic leads of Eskimo, "Mala and Lotus," aka Ray Mala and Lotus Long, with the implication that, despite their previous film appearances, the stars -- Inuit and Japanese-Hawaiian respectively -- were natives of the location, speaking their authentic language. Last of the Pagans is one of the first Hollywood features, to my knowledge, to use subtitles translating foreign-language dialogue into English while the characters speak. Previous experiments, including Eskimo and the German scenes in Hell's Angels, used silent-style intertitles for translation. You can tell especially with Mala that you're dealing with actors of some experience, at least in the lead roles, but the foreign dialogue helps sustain an illusion of authenticity.

The story -- Wikipedia says it's based on Herman Melville's Typee but since my sole experience with that novel is another film adaptation, Alan Dwan's Enchanted Island, I saw little resemblance -- is that Taro (Mala) claims Lilleo (Lotus) as his bride in his island's time-honored fashion, by raiding another tribe with his buddies and stealing her away. Lilleo is little more than irked by this, probably having been brought up to expect it, and then only temporarily, for Taro is good humored, a good provider, and presumably good in other ways that Hollywood under Code Enforcement could not suggest as plainly as they used to. The problem is, the local chief has eyes for Lilleo as well, and takes advantage of the arrival of a white trading ship to recommend Taro to the whites as an ideal candidate for a five-year labor contract in a faraway phosphate mine. This matter-of-fact expose of French colonialism -- all the European characters speak English, by the way -- got this film heavily censored in France, but the chief's selfish complicity in sending many of his young men off this way makes him the film's real villain.

Initially rebellious, Taro's forced to work in shackles until a near-disaster allows him to show the whites his true good character. He's in such good graces after that that arrangements are made to bring Lilleo to the mining colony, but it soon becomes apparent that taking her from the chief could create a crisis on his island. Lilleo is allowed to make a conjugal visit -- and despite what I said about Code Enforcement it could not be more clear why the bosses allow Taro to quit early when she arrives -- but Taro only learns later that it's to be a temporary and last visit from her. He's not having that, however, and stages a breakout with her, defying a storm and eventually finding a new island to live on free from oppressors of all races.  That denies us a perhaps-desired showdown between Taro and the chief, but such a climax may have underscored the picture's pulpy nature too strongly for audiences struggling to suspend disbelief. It's a pretty thin story but has some documentary value, presumably, in its presentation of the phosphate mine if not in its portrait of tribal life. Last of the Pagans benefits from a halfway-decent budget and especially from lead performances by actors whose charisma really needs no translation. It may be hooey, but at least it's entertaining.

Friday, June 30, 2017

DEVIL'S BRIDE (Tulen Morsian, 2016)

Saara Cantell's film turns a 17th century witch craze on a Swedish-ruled Finnish-speaking island into something of a Christian allegory. That's an interesting twist when most of the film feels like The Crucible with Abigail Williams -- the Winona Ryder character from the most recent movie version -- as the heroine. Anna (Tuulia Eloranta) lusts for a married man and tries to ruin his wife by accusing her of witchcraft. All she wants, though, is to drive the other woman from town, as Anna's own mentor, Valborg the midwife (Kaija Pakarinen) is banished early in the picture. It's not Anna's fault that the witch mania escalates to a lethal degree. The persecution is driven by hypocrisy and learned intolerance. The local pastor is the hypocrite, a serial rapist of young women whose main beef against Valborg seems to be that she performs abortions, presumably killing his children. The local judge (Magnus Krepper), for whose mother Anna works as a maid, is a pharisaical figure as intolerant of "superstition" as his like in future generations would be toward religion itself. He flaunts the latest thinking from academia, somehow more credulous toward rumors of witchcraft than the literature of his mother's time, which Anna, a bright girl, is able to read. As Valborg's banishment opens a flood of accusation, the patriarchs increasingly demand death for the accused, who in all too familiar fashion are tortured into confessing and denouncing others.


To her credit, Anna is horrified by this. She never really wanted her supposed rival, Rakel (Elen Petersdottir) to die, and the death sentence pronounced on the innocent wife crushes Anna's spirit. She begs forgiveness of the prisoner, promising to baptize Rakel's newborn daughter and eventually (and blasphemously?) doing it herself, but Rakel is understandably reluctant to forgive. Guided by the judge's mother, whose wits remain sharp despite a stroke, Anna challenges the entire premise of the witch trials, only to have the old literature scoffed away by the judge -- who nevertheless suspects that something is fishy about the anti-witch evidence pushed by the pastor. Finally, there's only one thing Anna can do to save Rakel. It won't be enough to admit her original lie. She has to accept guilt for all the fantastical sins others have attributed to the other woman, or that Rakel has been forced to admit -- in effect, to confess to witchcraft and effectively sentence herself to death.


Cantell may be best known in her own country for a popular series of films about the friendship between two young girls, so Tulen Morsian must have been a profound change of pace for her and those familiar with her work. She nails the terrifying escalation of the witch-craze, from the minor tragedy of Valborg's banishment to brutal mass executions. These are the makings of a horror movie, but  Devil's Bride proves to be a powerful emotional experience as Anna accepts martyrdom -- though the film teases us with a legend of her miraculous escape -- in order to expiate her own sins and those of the entire community. The awakening of her sexuality initially drives Anna wild and makes her a menace, but the awakening of her conscience -- her true coming of age -- redeems what might have been written off as a misogynist stereotype and makes a real heroine of her.  Taking the viewpoint of an accuser strikes me as a novel approach for a witch-trial film, and the gamble of inviting identification with an apparent villain pays off emphatically. In many ways Tulen Morsian is as horrifying and infuriating as any film in its grim genre, but in a modest way, with less of the barnstorming bombast of The Crucible (which is still tremendously entertaining in its own right), it's one of the most sincerely moving of witch-trial films.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Too Much TV: IRON FIST (2017 - ?)

Word of mouth was already toxic by the time Netflix released the thirteen episodes of Iron Fist in March. The consensus among those who'd had an advance look was that it was easily, by far, the worst of the Marvel Studios Netflix productions. It was troubled before the reviews started coming in, thanks to a stunning bit of "p.c." overreach that saw people demand that the protagonist, Danny Rand, be played by an Asian man. The idea that a blonde white man would become the world's greatest martial artist, offended many who decried a "white savior" trope, as well as some who no doubt simply wanted an Asian actor to get a big payday. Once people finally saw it for themselves, Iron Fist seemed to add injury to insult. Not only was a white man the world's greatest martial artist, at least theoretically, but the martial arts themselves, to many observers, were lame. People simply expected a very different sort of show -- something more like Into the Badlands in modern dress, perhaps -- from what Marvel and Netflix delivered.

Iron Fist stands apart from its sibling shows in the Defenders cycle by abandoning the grungy inner-city milieux of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage for the corporate heights of Marvel's Manhattan. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is super-rich in the comics and is supposed to be on television, but the show introduces him as an Oliver Queen-like castaway reintroducing himself to 21st century America, albeit without the publicity attending the TV Ollie's rescue. A disheveled, barefoot Danny returns home after growing up, having survived the plane crash that killed his parents, in the magical land of Kun-L'un, where he was taught to be The Iron Fist, a living weapon of defense against The Hand, the yellow peril last referenced in Daredevil's second season. As Iron Fist, Danny can channel his chi to make his punching hand like unto a thing of iron, as they used to say in the funnybooks. It glows white-hot and can punch through walls with devastating force. Despite the responsibility placed upon him, Danny's in New York to reclaim his heritage as heir to Rand Enterprises, which has been maintained since the Rand family's disappearance by the children of Harold Meachum, the partner of Danny's dad. The kids, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) don't know what to make of this hairy hobo beating up guards in the lobby of corporate headquarters. Ward, an addict who bullied Danny when they were kids, distrusts the stranger whether he's Danny or not, while Joy more quickly comes to believe our hero's odd story. While he struggles to sort things out with the corporation, Danny hangs out at a more Netflix-typical inner-city dojo run by part-time cage fighter Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). It's so typically Netflix a setting that Defenders mascot-in-advance Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is one of Colleen's students.

The corporate shenanigans continue as we learn Harold Meachum himself (David Wenham), believed long dead by the general public, is alive and in hiding from The Hand, represented by Mme. Gao (Wai Ching Ho) from the Daredevil show. Harold is Ward's puppetmaster but finds himself at odds with his boy, who'd like to get rid of Danny while Dad thinks the kung-fu kid could be useful to him. Publicly acknowledged, Danny has a tumultuous stint on the Rand board of directors that leads to he and the Meachums getting sacked by the board majority, while he, Colleen and Claire battle drug smugglers in New York and China. Things get still more complicated as we discover that The Hand has contending factions, one of which has Colleen as a member, while Ward decides to free himself from his father but finds him very difficult to get rid of, and Danny's old Kun-L'un schoolmate (Sacha Dhawan) arrives in Manhattan to convince our hero to resume his duties at the alma mater.

I actually appreciated the change of pace and setting Iron Fist provided, and one of the show's most pleasant surprises is Ward Meachum's character arc. Ward starts out as the show's number-one scumbag, but as he sobers up and recoils from his dad's unnatural antics he gradually becomes one of the good guys. Tom Pelphrey gives the best performance of the series so far, except maybe for David Wenham's unpredictably devious Harold. Finn Jones has come in for a lot of criticism for a perceived lack of charisma, acting talent and martial arts skills, but those are the limitations of a generic fish-out-of-water character, not necessarily those of an actor who proves himself likable enough. More likable still is Jessica Henwick, if only because Colleen Wing brings more obvious passion to her fight scenes, and is likely to inspire more passion in the male audience. As for the fighting, it is plainly less dynamic, though often better lit, than the standard-setting scenes on Daredevil or the superhuman stunts of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. You can't help thinking that Danny will be the weakest member of The Defenders later this summer, but if Iron Fist disappoints as a martial-arts show it's mainly because the writers had a lot of story to tell and not so much time for fighting as fans would have liked. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, however, I found myself in later episodes marking time impatiently before something (violent) happened. In a way, there was both too much and not enough going on much of the time, and I also suspect that Iron Fist had the lowest budget of any of the Marvel shows so far. It's hard to dispute that it's the weakest of the four shows, but the others set a high enough standard that this one can fall short and still be at least okay. In any event, let's reserve judgment until Defenders on whether we want to see more of Danny Rand after that.

Friday, June 23, 2017

ARES (2016)

There's something almost quaintly old-fashioned about the dystopia imagined by writer-director Jean-Patrick Benes in Ares. His dark future has nothing to do with French politics or demographics, haunted by neither a Muslim underclass nor the National Front. Instead, as was widely anticipated in the late 20th century, the corporations have taken over, with more widespread poverty and the further debasement of French culture as a result -- the latter signified by the death of Le Monde, France's answer to the New York Times. The rabble, as ever, are preoccupied by circuses if not also with bread. Cage fighting has become the leading spectator sport, made available for free on big screens hung from the country's cultural monuments. Fighters are openly sponsored by pharmaceutical companies whose stock value depends on their success in the cage. The competitors are injected with each corporation's proprietary serums in the open before each bout and sometimes between rounds.


Reda Kowalski (Ola Rapace) is about a decade past his prime, ranked #266 in France as the story begins. He fights under the ring name "Ares" when he isn't working as a private-security goon pounding on street protesters, who include his own relatives. His sister is some sort of investigative reporter or hacker who ends up getting arrested in an obvious frame-up. To raise bail money for her, Reda agrees to test a dangerous new super-fighter serum in the cage. It turns out that he's one of the lucky few who can take the drug without dying almost instantly, and there's no guarantee that he'll survive the comedown from his initial high. The stuff works well enough for Ares to score a major upset in the first round of the latest European tournament, and once Reda wakes up after fainting with no ill effects, stock in the company skyrockets. Having bet the farm on himself by proxy, Reda can now spring his sister, but learns that she was killed in prison. C'est la vie.


Reda smells a set-up and soon learns the terrible truth. He knows that he is "patient zero" for the new drug, the first test subject to survive, but thanks to some hackers who were friends with his sister he discovers that the corporation had killed 30,000 people with the stuff before they found him. He takes his revenge by twisting one of the ancient tropes of the fight-game genre and throwing his next fight in the tournament, causing the corporate stock to tank. He's too valuable for them to let him walk away, so their goons take his sister's kids hostage to bring him back in line. Suspecting that he'd refused to take the drug before the last fight, they want to continue experimenting with him, but they've underestimated the cunning of Reda's new friends and how far Reda himself will go to deny them what they want....


For a dystopian film Ares ends rather optimistically with its hero the hero of a presumably successful mass uprising against the corporate regime. It's nice that Benes and his co-writers believe that the masses would be aroused by Reda's story, but it also demonstrates the limits of their dystopian imagination. That aside, Ares is a modestly entertaining cyberpunk variation on oldtime boxing movies. It's clearly limited by a budget that doesn't allow the cage fights to play out before masses of extras in an arena. I'm not sure if the sport would catch on as the filmmakers claim it did without the enthusiasm of a live crowd for TV audiences to respond to, but I suppose you could call it a live version of any fighting-tournament video game, none of which need audiences to get over. The fighting itself is nothing special, but I suppose it doesn't need to be, since Ares is more film noir than martial arts movie in the final analysis. The plot is more compelling than the action, but not compelling enough to hide the datedness of its dystopia. The same film could have been made a quarter-century ago, and while I certainly don't mean to disparage anyone's fear of corporations taking over the world, I do doubt whether that's the subject for any really ambitious dystopian film in our own, already somewhat dystopian time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Too Much TV: AMERICAN GODS (2017-?)

It surprises me sometimes, when I read what other people think of TV shows I like, to see them say, "It starts out slow, but then it gets good." I've seen that said about shows that had me after the first hour. What was "slow" about them? I've been tempted to say that good shows start "slow" only for impatient viewers who don't get what a show is trying to do -- or in the case of The 100, viewers who need time to let the show overcome prejudice against the network the program airs on. But it probably won't surprise you now to see me say that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel starts out slow, but then gets good. What was "slow" about it? First, the first two episodes were deliberately confusing and alienating, probably as a matter of necessity, as the ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky "Lincoln from The 100" Whittle) is abruptly immersed in an unfathomable underworld of conflicting cosmic forces. Second, Whittle's own performance took a while coming to life. The Wikipedia page for the novel (which I haven't read) describes Shadow as "taciturn," and on top of that he starts the series benumbed by the sudden death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning) in a car accident, not to mention the revelation that she was having an affair while he was in jail with his best friend, and was engaged in, er, a lewd act with him when the accident happened. A show like this needs more of a "WTF" sort of point-of-view character than Whittle's Shadow is at first, but he came around eventually. Third, as if Shadow's disorienting adventures and visions aren't enough, the first few episodes include tangental flashbacks to the arrival in America of various old gods, or their worshipers, as well as the alarming exploits of Bilquis (Yeltide Badaki), a wandering love goddess who sucks people in (not that way!!) so they don't come back. In short, for the first couple of hours, American Gods looked like a random collection of crazy shit happening without many clues to what it all meant, or why we should care. But then it got good.

After a violent encounter with what may be the world's tallest leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber), Shadow hires out as the "man" of the amiable grifter Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane in Peter Falk mode). It probably doesn't help the show that anyone who knows folklore can guess who Wednesday really is while Shadow remains clueless until the season finale, but it becomes clear enough to our hero that Wednesday is more influential than he looks. He definitely has a lot of odd friends, and some very dangerous enemies. Shadow drives him around the country as he recruits some of those friends for some sort of showdown he wants to stage in Wisconsin. Being Wednesday's man gets Shadow in trouble not just with the law but with characters who are supposed to be the new gods of the U.S.A. One, a malevolent nerd (Bruce Langley) represents computers or technology in general. Another (Gillian Anderson) represents the media and incarnates as various 20th century female celebrities. Still another, Mr. World (Crispin Glover) possibly represents the impending singularity in his desire to incorporate the old gods into a new global pantheon. Wednesday, at least, isn't having it. He and his allies intend to make a stand for their essential individuality, hoping against the odds to regain worshipers so they can exist on their own terms. Meanwhile, some old gods side with the new -- the Roman Vulcan becomes a god of firearms with a factory town full of crypto-fascist worshipers -- while others like Bilquis are co-opted into serving the modern agenda. How or why exactly entities like "technology" or "the media" incarnate as self-conscious gods is something I hope we'll learn in subsequent seasons, if I don't just read the book first, but even if the assault of the new gods doesn't fully make sense to me, the characters, particularly McShane's Wednesday, have me interested in the impending conflict.

It also helps that we've been given a strong subplot that illustrates both the fantastic potential of the gods and the collateral damage their struggle inflicts. While Shadow and Wednesday wend their way toward Wisconsin, Shadow's wife Laura is on their trail, attended by Mad Sweeney, the big leprechaun. "Dead Wife," as the leprechaun calls her, was reanimated when Shadow placed one of Sweeney's gold coins on her grave. Sweeney can drop coins like Harpo Marx could drop stolen silverware, but this was a special coin, the one that gave the leprechaun his legendary luck. It can restore Laura's consciousness and mobility, and endows her with superhuman strength, she remains a conspicuously rotting corpse, despite a touch-up from a mortician who is also the god Anubis (Chris Obi), though not in any way that really mars her beauty. She's drawn to Shadow because power radiates from him in some unique way, while Wednesday, we learn, is determined to keep Shadow away from her, having gone to the trouble of  having Sweeney use his bad-luck power to kill her in that car accident so that Shadow would leave prison unattached. Her interplay with Sweeney, who despises her despite her guilt-inducing resemblance to a long-lost love of his, and with a Muslim cab driver (Omid Abtahi) on his own quest to find a jinn with whom he'd had a one-night stand, grounds the show in more conventional and sympathetic experiences while Shadow continues to struggle with all his discoveries.

By the time the eight-episode season hit the homestretch, the vignettes that seemed merely whimsical earlier all worked to enhance our understanding of Wednesday's world. The writers could even get away with making most of the penultimate episode a flashback to Sweeney's past. Once American Gods really gets rolling it gives you the sense of a universe constantly opening out, a feeling comparable to what The Magicians gives you of a world where anything can happen and probably will. The show's most underrated element may be its music, credited to Brian Reitzell. It has a uniquely jazzy score, appropriately matching America's music to a new American (or Anglo-American) myth, that works even when it plays over flashbacks to 18th century Ireland. The acting has been pretty good overall, once Whittle found his footing, though Gillian Anderson is decidedly hit-or-miss when impersonating Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and (almost unrecognizably) Judy Garland. I'm still not convinced that the show really makes sense, even on a metamythological level, but after an all-too-short first year that leaves the characters in Kentucky for a comparatively understated cliffhanger, I'm willing to give the producers another chance to convince me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: GIRL OF THE PORT (1930)

There have been lots of great World War I battle scenes in movies from Wings to Wonder Woman, but most of them are missing a little extra something: flamethrowers! They're just about all the battle scene from Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port has going for it, but Glennon makes a lot of a little. He's concerned with the psychological terror of the war while he's there, and the post-traumatic consequences beyond. Jim (Reginald Sharland) is introduced in close-up, anxiously waiting for the battle to start, but he doesn't expect how it does start, with a wave of German troops dispensing "liquid fire." We see a few of them coming, and we see them get Jim's buddy in a trench, and that's all we and Jim need to see. The horror of it reduces him to screaming terror, and leaves him a broken man after the war. Like many broken men of the time, he winds up in the South Pacific, specifically in Suva, Fiji, as a barfly at McDougal's. At this same dive arrives Josie (Sally O'Neil), who must have responded to a want-ad in the Pre-Code version of Craigslist. Josie is here to tend bar and crack wise, telling the regulars that as the daughter of a bouncer and a lady lion tamer, she was "raised on raw meat and red pepper." She befriends a native menial, Kalita, aka "The Corporal" (legendary Olympic swimmer and surfing hero Duke Kahanamoku), a war veteran who's smarter than he sounds and bristles at the insults regularly sent his way by the bar's resident racist, McEwen (Mitchell Lewis). McEwen's bigotry earns him the contempt of English tourists, and for a moment it looks like Girl of the Port is going to make a precocious anti-racist statement for its era. Actually, it does and it doesn't, revealing quickly that McEwen protests too much because he's what they used to call a "half-caste" and asserting that those "touched with the tar brush" tend to be more bigoted than anyone else. McEwen is a bully as well as a bigot, lording it over the wretched Jim, who has to sing "Whiskey Johnny" for drinks. Jim still has some backbone, though, standing up for Josie when she stands up for him. When McEwen calls her a "tabby," Jim can't let the insult stand. He provokes McEwen by calling him a half-caste and lays him out in short order, despite his condition. But when a fire breaks out during the general melee, he has a panic attack, and we learn that he's become a rummy because only booze can calm his terror.  Josie decides to cure him, and a title card notes the irony of her working as a bartender while keeping Jim, whom she tenderly dubs "Bozo," bone dry.

Josie keeps "Bozo" locked up in her cabin despite Kalita's warning that it's "Bad for Missy to take white man in cabin. People say Missy not nice." Jim -- he initially introduces himself to Josie as Jameson, only for her to answer, "I've seen that name on bottles" -- is under lockdown to protect him not only from Demon Rum but from the wrath of McEwen, who warns the couple that half-castes "don't run out like nasty, dirty white trash." Instead, he vows to ruin Jim until he's "lower than any bug-eating bushman." Jim explains his fear of fire in vivid terms. "Whatever it touched it burned," he says of the liquid fire, "Flesh and bone -- and brains." Life coach Josie admonishes him, "You've got to take it on the chin and like it," and urges him to "Cut out the bar varnish for keeps."

Eight weeks later Jim is virtually clean and sober and Josie is oddly trying to distance herself from him. She flinches at his praise, warning him not to "get all Jolson about it," and explains that she doesn't want to be thought of as a gold-digger. This is all very sentimental but there'd be no story left if Bozo stayed on the wagon. All this while, McEwen has been waiting for his chance, and he finally takes it, kidnapping Jim to his private island and getting him freshly drunk. Like a classic melodrama villain, he offers Josie the choice worse than death: he'll release Jim if she'll submit to him and be his "tidy little housekeeper" to make his home more presentable to the tourists. Josie agrees, but takes no chances. She makes McEwen swear on the fetish he wears around his neck. "Swear on this Hindu hocus pocus," she demands, "That'll hold a Malay."

Kalita, who by right would be the head man on the island if not for McEwen, lets Jim know what's gone down and chews him out as eloquently as his pidgin English will allow: "God no want you, man no want you ... fire no want you. Dirt. Coward."  As it happens, the islanders have a firewalking ritual that they perform for the tourists. McEwen actually speaks admiringly of their "spunk," though he's still careful to differentiate himself from the savage natives. No white man, he tells the English, is capable of such a feat, but I say! Isn't that a white man marching through the flames and hot coals right there? And isn't that Sir James, the fellow we're looking for who disappeared six months ago? It certainly is. To prove his manhood to Kalita, Josie and everyone else, Jim walks through the fire to "burn out dirt" and proceeds to give McEwen the flogging he's long deserved before taking Josie away with him to English luxury, having proved himself "the whitest man of you all."

Girl of the Port is an embarrassment of Pre-Code riches or, if you prefer, richly embarrassing to watch. It may still be racist by today's anti-racist standards, but Duke Kahanamoku's authoritative performance belies a lot of the race rhetoric. As Josie, Sally O'Neil takes some getting used to, coming across initially somewhat like Betty Boop playing Sadie Thompson, and then like oldschool Harley Quinn as an AA counselor, but her irreverent earnestness definitely adds to the entertainment value and makes the film almost endlessly quotable. She almost singlehandedly drags the picture across the line dividing the politically incorrect from harmless, hilarious camp. As Jim, Sharland doesn't have much to do but yell "Don't let the fire get me!" every so often, but in the end it's O'Neil's picture, not his. It's the sort of picture that has to be a guilty pleasure, but if you don't feel too guilty about it, it definitely can be a pleasure of some sort.

Friday, June 16, 2017

THREE (2016)

The Chinese director Johnnie To is one of today's best crafters of crime thrillers, but his latest genre exercise sacrifices his talent to technology. Three starts strong enough but goes badly off the rails in an overindulgent final act. The title presumably refers to the lowest score possible on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep if not irreversible unconsciousness, as explained by the neurosurgeons in whose hospital ward most of the action takes place. Like an old all-star-cast medical melodrama, Three introduces us to several patients in the ward, including a childish old man who serves as comedy relief and a patient who angrily discovers that he's partially paralyzed after emergency surgery. His anger is aimed at Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), who has several crises of confidence and conscience as the film goes on. Her newest patient is Shun (Wallace Chung), a gangster who was shot in the head by a cop during an interrogation. Detectives led by Ken (Louis Koo) hover over him at all times, waiting to whisk him to jail once he recovers from surgery. But there's the rub. Shun has suffered a lucky hit that leaves him fully conscious and alert even though the bullet remains lodged dangerously in his brain. Erudite and philosophical in classic movie-villain fashion, he refuses surgery, against Tong's advice, on the assumption that so long as he remains a patient in critical condition, he can't be taken to jail. He's gambling that his gang can work up a plan to break him out of the hospital, while Ken, taking such a plan for granted, prepares his defense. For Tong, their chess match is a frustrating if not terrifying experience, understanding as she does the risk Shun is taking and the dread consequences of any medical error.



So far, so okay, even if Wallace Chung lays the taunting-genius-villain act on a bit thick. Working with admirable economy -- the film is under 90 minutes long -- To deftly sets us the inevitable showdown only to botch it completely. My opinion may just be a matter of taste, however. I happen to think that a good aesthetic principle for thrillers is "less is more." Pacing, achieved through editing, matters more here than in any other genre. But for Three's climax To decides to do without editing entirely. For some inscrutable reason he chooses to shoot most of the attack by Shun's gang on the neurological ward in a single CGI-enhanced take, dialing the speed of the action up and down and making the scene look more like a Zack Snyder ripoff or a scene with that speedy kid from one of the recent X-Men movies, or a video game, than anything dramatic or suspenseful. Of course, it's all set to some sappy pop tune.



Once To finally tears himself away from this spectacle, things don't really get any better. As Shun and Ken dangle unconvincingly from a hospital window, chaos spills into the hospital as a whole while the angry paralyzed guy wheels himself toward a grand stairway in an apparent suicide bid. So out of touch has Johnnie To suddenly become with the basics of thriller filmmaking that he wastes a perfectly good "Odessa steps" situation in a way that should make Brian De Palma want to smack him. More in keeping with medical-melodrama tradition, this poor idiot goes tumbling wheels over head all the way down the stairs only to pick himself up and announce that he is cured and can walk again. Will someone please tell me that Three was a tongue-in-cheek exercise in camp? Whether it was meant that way or not, tongue-in-cheek may be the only way to appreciate this trainwreck of a thriller.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WAR MACHINE (2017)

David Michod's film for Netflix is a fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings' The Operators, itself an expansion of the Rolling Stone magazine expose that led to the fall of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in 2010. In real life McChrystal was ruined by Hastings' revelations of hard drinking by his staff, including the now-more-disgraced Gen. Michael Flynn, and open contempt for the Obama administration. All of this plays out, with the names changed, in War Machine, but the film fails to answer the main question it raises on its own: what has all of this to do with the film's main character, or, more pointedly, what does he have to do with the scandal or the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan.


The fictionalized McChrystal, Gen. Glen McMahon, is played by Brad Pitt, a producer of the film. Pitt is in character-actor mode here, less interested in being a leading man than in making a character, or at least a performance, out of odd postures and a funny voice. McMahon's right hands is often contorted into a kind of claw, while he jogs with a lumbering stride, with his arms hanging almost limp. Michod and Pitt clearly consider the physicality of the actor's portrayal important to the story, showing McMahon shamble through army bases and European cities, but it's hard to figure out what exactly this illustrates apart from Pitt's commitment to the role. Likewise, McMahon's burly burr of a voice sticks out among the generally more naturalistic performances, but not in a good way. It makes McMahon sound like a cartoon character -- at times I thought it might be Pitt's impersonation of George Clooney playing a general in a Coen Bros. film -- when no one else does, except arguably for Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's apoplectic right-hand man, the Gen. Flynn analogue. I don't know whether Pitt arrived at this performance from studying Stanley McChrystal, following Michod's direction or by making it up himself, but it's a huge distraction, and something is terribly wrong with a movie if you start to think of its star performance as a distraction.


It seems like a distraction because Michod appears to be trying to explain both the fall of the real general and the American failure to secure Afghanistan, but nothing in Pitt's performance really helps explain these things. In part that's a major failing on Michod's own part as the screenwriter, since despite the advantage of dramatic license the script fails to make his fictional general either exceptional (except for Pitt's eccentricities) or explanatory. McMahon himself doesn't really seem like a bad guy. He doesn't share in the excesses of his staff and he makes conscientious efforts both to understand the war from the grunt point of view and to be courteous toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president (Ben Kingsley). His main problem seems to be that he sees the war through a haze of organizational jargon and management theory that convinces him that there must be a way to win the war, when others recognize that Afghans will never acquiesce to foreign occupation, no matter what theory you apply to it. In short, for all his apparent virtues McMahon is clueless, but so what? It's not as if he started the war, and it's not as if he was in command long enough to make a difference one way or another, and because of Pitt's mannered performance it's hard to say whether he's a representative U.S. military man. For all I know, Pitt may have made his performance more eccentric than it needed to be because he realized that if he didn't do something to stick out the character of the general would be exposed as a void on screen.


While War Machine has a hollow center it's not a total debacle. When we finally get to see some war, Michod wisely takes the focus off Pitt and gives us a tense battle from the grunt's perspective, climaxing in a soldier's anguished realization that he called a strike on the wrong target. Even Pitt isn't a total loss. After two scenes I decided I'd rather see a two-hander consisting only of Pitt's general and Kingsley's Karzai interacting with each other. In late life Kingsley has become a king of character actors, -- dare I say a mandarin? -- and Pitt raises his game with that kind of partner, as he does during a press-conference showdown with Tilda Swinton as a persistent German critic. Those good scenes, however, expose War Machine as a fragmented collection of vignettes that never really coheres into a compelling story or a distinctive statement on America's Afghan war.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Too Much TV: A note on Adam West

You may have seen a news story the other day reporting that Batman had asked Catwoman to marry him in the latest issue of his comic book. Like a lot of things having to do with comic book heroes -- or, arguably, everything in non-print popular culture having to do with comic book heroes -- that probably doesn't happen without the Batman TV show starring Adam West, who died this weekend at the age of 88. You probably wouldn't be hearing or talking about all these comic-book movies being made today without that show, so credit it or blame it as you please. Batman, itself inspired by some sincere but incompetent movie serials from the 1940s, provoked an ongoing dialectic in which superhero media, with the defiant exception of The Lego Batman Movie, defines itself as the antithesis of the 1966-8 series. For all that the Marvel movies in particular promise the sort of "fun" their DC competition has struggled or refused to provide, it's all "laugh with" fun rather than the "laugh at" fun that made Batman contemptible for generations of comic-book fans. But is that distinction justified? A few days ago I saw a documentary about superheroes in which some talking head testified that, as a child, he took Batman in deadly earnest, impatient between episodes to know how the hero would escape the latest death trap. If comics fans resented reminders of the old show as time went on, it was more because superhero comics had grown more ambitious (or pretentious), and the fans had become proportionately less tolerant of disrespect, than because Batman itself was a mockery of the superhero genre as it was in 1966, when Stan Lee's written narration on the pages of the supposedly more progressive Marvel Comics was not so different in its self-conscious pomposity from William Dozier's spoken narration on the TV show.

West's career probably suffered from the resentment of comics readers who grew up to become filmmakers, while the wider culture, perhaps never sure whether the show was the way it was on purpose or not, judged West a bad actor. Having seen a fair share of his other work, from early TV appearances on westerns to his acclaimed supporting role in Michael Tolkin's The New Age (1994), I can't say that West was a great actor, but Batman transformed his limitations into strengths, while his interaction with Julie Newmar as Catwoman in particular revealed a gift for comic timing that any unprejudiced observer will acknowledge, while sparking what had always been potential between the two characters since their first encounter in 1940 into a lit fuse that has burned intermittently for half a century. In Batman West achieved something genuinely great that he either couldn't do or wasn't allowed to do again. His most obvious limitation was an inability to reinvent himself the way William Shatner, on the opposite side of the same coin, has done. Shatner transformed himself into an almost folkloric figure by taking on the persona of a mountebank ham actor, so that the limitations of his performances as Captain Kirk became extensions of the barnstorming Shatner personality, an entertainment in its own right. But Adam West's futile lobbying for inclusion in Batman movies only made him look pathetic, and he never really became more than a nostalgia act, though some saw his final return to his one great role to voice a cartoon movie last year as a vindication. For in fact, while some comics-shop denizens no doubt still resent the old show, a recent backlash against the "grimdark" tendencies expressed most obnoxiously, to many observers,  in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, points toward a fresh appreciation of West's achievement. Nostalgia, no doubt, will work wonders also. Someday a new generation may watch Adam West as Batman without resentment or contempt, and then history will decide how good he really was.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Too Much TV: THE WHITE PRINCESS (2017)

After the BBC decided against filming novelist Philippa Gregory's sequel to The White Queen, the Starz channel, which broadcast Queen in the U.S., decided to do it themselves, with the help of Queen's main writer, Emma Frost. Though the title might sound like a prequel The White Princess follows immediately after the end of the White Queen series, which means that Richard III is dead and Henry Tudor has become Henry VII, the founder of a new dynasty. All but one of the actors whose characters survived Queen have been replaced, mainly so the characters will look more like their ages at the opening of Princess than the original actors did, the one actor retained already being elderly. The title princess is known to history as Elizabeth of York, and to the show as Lizzie (Jodie Comer). Daughter of "White Queen" Elizabeth Woodville (Essie Davis) and the late Edward IV, Lizzie had a scandalous fling with her uncle, the late Richard, before the king's overthrow. She is now to be married to Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy) to give the new dynasty an extra degree of legitimacy. Lizzie's mother gradually becomes her enemy, since Elizabeth would rather see her own son on the throne now than a grandson later. According to history and legend, Elizabeth's two sons are dead already, killed in the Tower of London by Richard or someone else. According to the show, and apparently according to Philippa Gregory's own belief, Elizabeth managed to have one of her boys smuggled out of the Tower and replaced with a "changeling" who died with the other son. The boy who lived grows up to be Perkin Warbeck (Patrick Gregory), the leader or figurehead of the major challenge to Henry VII's reign and an impostor according to most historians. Perkin is sponsored by his theoretical aunt, and Richard III's vengeful sister, the Grand Duchess of Burgundy, and by an opportunistic king of Scotland who arranges a marriage for Perkin with a girl from the local aristocracy. Regarded as a usurper, Henry finds it difficult to get foreign support for his cause. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain will not consent to a marriage between their daughter and Henry and Lizzie's firstborn son Arthur until the English have eliminated all pretenders. That means not just Warbeck but the potential pretender Edward Plantagenet, aka "Teddy" or "King Warwick," Lizzie's dimwit cousin and the son of mad Prince George from White Queen. Teddy is kept in the Tower while his sister Maggie (Rebecca Benson) becomes part of Lizzie's household and the White Princess's earnest, anxious little conscience.

Perkin Warbeck's invasion of England is the central event of the series, which exploits the pretender for all he's worth and then some, making him a threat to Henry even while imprisoned and reduced to servitude after his humiliating flight from the battlefield. Warbeck is inflated as a threat because Princess probably wouldn't have enough drama even for its modest eight episodes otherwise. His presence underscores Henry's almost paranoid insecurity while forcing Lizzie onto the path she abhorred when her own mother took it and despised when Henry's mother did likewise. Queens (or virtual queens in the case of Henry's mom) often find themselves having to choose between their sons and other relations, not to mention all conventional morals and ethics. Elizabeth would happily ruin Lizzie's life by destroying her husband and sons to put her own boy on the throne, while the fearsome Margaret Beaufort/Tudor (Michelle Fairley) consented to child murder -- the killing of Elizabeth's other son and the changeling -- to clear Henry's path to the throne. The whole point, dramatically, of making Perkin Warbeck exactly what he claims to be is to force on Lizzie a similar choice between her sons -- the younger one will become Henry VIII -- and her brother. In other words, Princess shares Queen's bleak view of power and family, a view common enough to historical fiction, if perhaps more bleak this time than history itself, to make the genre George R. R. Martin's inspiration for his particularly bleak fantasy novels.

While nearly four years passed between the initial broadcast of White Queen and the debut of White Princess, I'd only finished watching Queen a week before Princess began. That made it jarring to see so many familiar characters suddenly look so different, with the producers sometimes making no effort at continuity. The Earl of Stanley, Margaret Beaufort's equally cunning husband, was fully bearded when last seen in Queen, for instance, but in Princess Richard Dillaine plays him clean-shaven. The most jarring transformation, however, was the switch from Amanda Hale to Michelle Fairley as Margaret Tudor. Not only is Fairley considerably older than Hale, but their interpretations of the character are dramatically different. Hale's Margaret is cunning but hysterically fanatical,  with a constant air of flop sweat around her and a habit of breaking into anachronistic cries like, "Whoa whoa whoa!" when things go wrong. Fairley's is more like an archetypal wicked stepmother -- or mother-in-law, in this case -- cold, arrogant and imperious in her new position as The King's Mother until her murderous past threatens to catch up with her, forcing her to fresh murder to keep her once-beloved Jasper Tudor from exposing her past crimes. She gets found out anyway, because White Princess is very much a "nobody wins" sort of show. Henry and Lizzie may be secure on the throne at the end, but they hardly seem happy, and they have a curse to worry about, placed by Elizabeth on the killers of her sons. There's not really much drama left in the life of Elizabeth of York after this point, but the fact that Princess didn't end with a title card telling us when she died, I suspect that Starz or the show's producers may still hope to go back to the Tudor well. I suspect that the show already has drawn from Gregory's next novel, in which Maggie Plantagenet/Pole is the central character, and the story could be carried forward all the way to Gregory's already-filmed The Other Boleyn Girl. While I felt that Princess went a little far bending history to its dramatic purposes, I liked the drama enough on its own terms that I wouldn't mind seeing more of English history through Gregory's or Emma Frost's eyes.