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 The story, adapted by Richard English and Gene Levitt from an apparently unpublished story, is pure pulp.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.