Thursday, February 21, 2019

BLACK KILLER (1971)

As far as I can tell, "Black Killer" is the original title of this Italian western, even in its country of origin. That probably explains why the title creates a false impression. Based on what actor-turned-director Carlo "Lucky Moore" Croccolo shows us, the title probably should have been "Killer in Black." As the presumptive title character, Klaus Kinski is a man in black befitting his dignity as an attorney-at-law. He rides into Tombstone (pre or post-Earp?) with heavy law books dangling from his saddle. The books are his most precious possessions, and he gets antsy when anyone else tries to handle them. We see enough of one volume which flips open, apparently hollowed out, to raise our suspicions about James Webb's true line of work.


In fact, Webb has one of the dumbest gunfighter gimmicks in spaghetti westerns. The books, or some of them at least, are hollowed out and carry guns inside. That's one way to conceal your firearms, I suppose, but Webb takes the gimmick too far. Although there seems to be no advantage at all to it, the lawyer keeps his weapons between their covers at all times, even when he's using them. He's so good a gunman, I guess, that he doesn't have to worry about aiming -- and for that matter, I'm not quite sure how he fires the things unless each volume has a hidden lever somewhere. At least Croccolo doesn't force us to worry about these practical matters until late in the picture. Until then, Webb is mostly a seemingly detached observer of the tribulations of the Collins brothers at the hands of the O'Hara gang that dominates the territory by stealing land from homesteaders. Peter Collins (Jerry Ross) keeps a modest but happy home with his Indian wife Sarah (Marina Malfatti), while brother Burt (Fred Robsham) has been made sheriff, at Webb's prompting, after killing several outlaws shortly after reaching town. In revenge, the O'Hara's attack Peter's home, killing him, injuring Burt and raping Sarah.  The murdered man's widow and brother become avengers, and say what else you will about this picture, it's a rare Italian western that gives us a fighting heroine, and a Native American at that. Sarah fights with bow and arrow (hitting her targets from sometimes impossible-seeming angles) and with guns, and even gets the drop on Webb when he acts suspiciously. She also provides some of the picture's gratuitous nudity, stripping to the buff so Burt can remove a bullet from her thigh. Most of the nudity is contributed by Consuelo the saloon girl (Tiziana Dini), who is as much an object of cinematic exploitation as Sarah is an exceptional heroine.


Alas, Sarah is made to sit out the final showdown pitting Webb and Burt against the remaining O'Haras, perhaps because "Lucky" realized that the Kinski character actually should accomplish something with his gimmicked lawbooks. I suppose you can read some kind of commentary into the gimmick on the inescapable violence at the heart of the rule of law, but I doubt anyone involved in this picture thought too much about it, and in any event Webb is not entirely a lawful character. He undoes the injustice of the land thefts, but keeps the gang's ill-gotten gains for himself, until Sheriff Burt demands a cut and gets it. At first this looked like one of those pictures Kinski would sleepwalk through, but Croccolo does a decent job exploiting the man's irrepressible presence as he glides desultorily through the proceedings. Webb isn't enough of a character to imagine a series of films about, and his gimmick really is dumb as a rock, but Kinski makes him fun to watch this one time without really doing much -- only just enough.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

On the Big Screen: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)

Robert Rodriguez, once known for making exciting films on the cheap, had a ton of money thrown at him by James Cameron in order to realize a project that had been stewing in the latter's mind for about twenty years. Wikipedia reports that Cameron had been turned on to Yukito Kishiro's manga by Guillermo del Toro, but del Toro by now is too big a deal himself to be anyone else's hired gun. Rodriguez did an uncredited polish on a screenplay Cameron collaborated on, so the finished product is as much his interpretation of the story as anyone's. He deserves credit for how well it turned out, and I suspect that Alita will prove a no-lose proposition for him, since those who don't like it will most likely blame Cameron. I suspect a lot of people won't like it, and I'm not sure I can blame anyone who doesn't. It's not for everyone, even if it needs to be to break even; it lacks that jenesaisquois that makes Star Wars almost uniquely accessible to the mass audience for stuff of this kind. There's an audience guaranteed to enjoy this, but another more certainly guaranteed to resent its story's demands on their attention -- and a lot of them write film reviews.

While Alita is undeniably a work of great craftsmanship and visual dynamism, I don't know if it's possible at this point to do enough to differentiate the film's setting from other cyberpunk dystopias. If you're not into the concept at the primal generic level Alita could well look like just another of its kind to those for whom any one is enough. The film is also indisputably repetitive, presumably covering multiple episodes of the original Japanese strip. We get multiple go-rounds on the Motorball track -- the sport of the future is basically Rollerball on cyber-roids -- and multiple fights with an evil but relatively dull cyborg who's really no more than a tertiary villain in a hierarchy where the top is mostly unseen. We can question the pacing of the film, again arguably a consequence of biting off more of the original than it could chew. The cyborg heroine (Rosa Salazar) has a boyfriend (Keean Johnson) caught in an inescapable mortal predicament resolved by Alita decapitating him but diverting some of her own bloodstream into his brain so the head can be installed on a cyborg body. This looks like the setup for a happy ending of cyborg love, but just a few minutes later the boyfriend is off on a suicide mission and this time Alita can't save him. It makes you question the point of saving him the first time around. Meanwhile, while Cameron, Rodriguez and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis may have bitten off more than they could chew of the complete manga, the film isn't actually complete. While there's no cliffhanger, it does leave things open-ended with a promise of future battles between Alita and the nebulous big-bad (Edward Norton) if she finally acts on her centuries-old directive to destroy the villain's elitist floating city. I can imagine some people groaning at the promise of a sequel that I suspect will never happen, based on the sparse crowd I saw the movie with. But as far as I'm concerned the scene of Alita, now a champion-level Motorballer, raising her sword in apparent salute to the spectators but also in an implicit threat to the floating city, makes for an awesome ending.

Beyond that, despite her initially creepily cartoonish computerized face Salazar as Alita won me over with her fairy-tale Frankensteinian (or Pinocchian) good-little-death-machine personality, while Christoph Waltz, an on-and-off character actor, was quite charming as her surrogate father, a techno-nerd variation on his benign bounty hunter from Django Unchained. Jennifer Connelly was fine in a semi-villainous role and ultimately tragic role as Waltz's ex-wife, while Mahershala Ali often seemed to sleepwalk through a literally superficial secondary-villain role that required him often to play his own puppetmaster. All this aside, the real star of the film is Robert Rodriguez, one the great genre minds of our time, who somehow manages to foreground personality amid the massive production design while staging several amazing action scenes. If the overall film feels repetitive at times, Rodriguez knows when and how to escalate the action. You can see this in the difference between the scene where Alita is only an eager spectator for Motorball and the big tryout game where she's in the middle of the action, literally the target for all the other competitors. You can also see it in the way Alita makes relatively short work of her most frequent antagonist in their final encounter; by then, there's no need for them to have another long battle. Alita is a film that feels longer than it actually is -- just over two hours -- but it's a good kind of long, the kind that immerses you in a densely detailed and constantly strange cityscape and keeps your eye constantly engaged. It's a film that gets a lot done, and it left me, at least, sort of hoping that that sequel does get me. I'm just the sort of dope that likes this stuff.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A GHOST STORY (2017)

David Lowery's film steers a middle course between the temptations of terror and romanticism and ends up being one of the saddest films I've seen in awhile. This is the film with the gimmick that its ghost (Casey Affleck) goes through the picture, after the character's death, wearing the iconic white sheet with eyeholes that western culture has identified with ghosts for who knows how long. The gimmick requires Affleck, an Oscar-winning performer, to rely on the most constrained pantomime to express anything, but it confers a degree of universality on his character's experience, and the reduction of his individuality probably has a point as well. The dead man is an aspiring musician who'd just agreed with his wife (Rooney Mara), after considerable stalling, to move out of their home. Killed in a car wreck outside the house, he "wakes up" in the hospital moments after his wife has viewed his body. Mute and invisible, he travels on foot to the house, and from that point he seems bound to the property. He watches his wife grieve by gorging herself to sickness on pie and has a brief poltergeist episode after seeing her drunkenly flirt with another man. It's clear, however, that she misses him greatly, for all the good that does either of them. Communication beyond moving objects seems impossible; our ghost is capable only of telepathic communication (rendered with subtitles) with another ghost who "lives" across the way. This other ghost's plight portends a bad fate for ours; it's waiting for someone to return, but can't remember who exactly.

Finally the widow moves out, but feels moved first to leave a note in a crack in a freshly-painted wall. Painting it over, she drives away behind the moving van and it's clear that our poor ghost will never see her again. There's no following her and witnessing the rest of her life; instead, he remains in the house as it changes hands a few times, mostly torpid but sometimes hauntingly angry, until it is finally demolished. Whether Lowery intended it or not, the wife's departure is an ingenious role reversal. Since we'll never see her again or hear of what became of her, the ghost may as well be the widowed and bereaved one, permanently cut off from the beloved as far as we can tell. There is something beyond, as we saw when a sort of doorway into "the light" opened for him in the hospital, but for any number of reasons he turned it down. Now, however, he wants to get at that note, not knowing whether it was addressed to him, the house, the future or whatever. And in a brilliant bit of timing, the moment he manages to scratch his way to it a wrecking ball hits the building and soon the house is gone.

The film grows more expansively fantastic from here. Our ghost remains on the property as it becomes the site of an office building while a great city encroaches on the once-rural community. The neighbor ghost finally gave up the ghost, so to speak, shortly after the demolition, but ours holds on for what must be decades more, wandering through the corridors until it ends up on the roof. The cityscape he sees is our signal of a great passage of time. In response, he jumps, and to be honest I'm not sure what he's trying to accomplish. Is he trying to destroy himself, or simply trying to escape his prison? In any event, he doesn't hit the sidewalk but plunges through history, landing nearly two centuries in the past as a pioneer family makes camp on the property. The daughter hums a tune resembling something the ghost wrote in life; did she inspire him from a distance, or is he possibly her reincarnation? In any event, she and her family are killed by Indians and from there history proceeds rapidly until the ghost sees himself and his wife moving into the house. We now see that he had haunted himself, having made the noises we'd heard wake the living man early in the picture. He reviews the post-mortem events, now a ghost of a ghost watching his sheeted self watch his wife until she once again departs. He knows now to get after that note promptly and finding it, he finds the closure that can end his earthly existence once and for all.

On the DVD, Lowery claims that he never knew what was in the note, having told Rooney Mara to write whatever she pleased, presumably in character. This suggests that the fact of the note rather than the content is what allows the ghost finally to let go of the property and break the time loop he seemed trapped in. Knowing this, each viewer can imagine the wife's message to your own satisfaction. It could be an ultimate disappointment like the feeling that led the other ghost to quit this sphere; it could be the ultimate farewell that he didn't get at the hospital; or it could simply have been an ultimate reaffirmation of his identity as something separate from the property that can freely depart from it. That's a good kind of ambiguity and appropriate to a movie addressing the mysteries of life's end. A Ghost Story's less-is-more approach proves very effective and helps it succeed on an empathetic level that transcends genre formulae. Some may find the sight of Affleck in a sheet hopelessly absurd or may be frustrated by the near-complete refusal of obvious acting -- Lowery actually could have kept a deleted scene of Affleck making coffee, as it establishes the stillness that characterizes the ghost -- but more, I hope, will see the film as testimony to the storytelling potential of the simplest image.

Monday, February 4, 2019

BLACK DEATH (2010)

Christopher Smith's film is a horror movie set during the mid-14th century plague that devastated Europe. It's a horror film by virtue of its treatment of paganism. Were it not a horror film, the village against which the knight Ulric (Sean Bean) launches a mini-crusade probably would be portrayed consistently as a utopian island of tolerance for many ways of knowing in a polluted sea of Christian intolerance. But because it is a horror film, the village's female ruler, Langiva (Carice von Houten) can be portrayed as just as vicious as Ulric's little band of secular inquisitors. They've heard rumors of a village that somehow has held the plague at bay, but allegedly at the cost of human sacrifice. They're guided to the place by Osmund (pre-stardom Eddie Redmayne), a monk recently freed from quarantine with an apparent clean bill of health. He's had enough of monastic life, however, and wants to run off with a local girl, Averill (Kimberly Nixon). Guiding Ulric to the mystery village will let Osmund keep a rendezvous with her, but it looks as if Averill is taken by local brigands whom Ulric's men barely fight off. Langiva's village looks like a welcome respite, even if it looks too clean and neat to be true to the experienced moviegoer's eye.

Sure enough, Langiva has drugged the wine she offers to Ulric's men and soon has them penned up for sacrifice -- unless they recant their Christian faith. She's not only as intolerant as her antagonists, but she has, if anything, less honor. When one of Ulric's men cracks and recants, she has her henchmen escort him away, only to execute him at a discreet distance from the village. What was the point of that but pure malevolence? Yet at the same time, there's a hint that Langiva has real power. She reveals to Osmund that she's recovered Averill's body, and later shows that she can resurrect the dead. And yet, unsurprisingly, something's not right about the revived girl. She can't talk and seems to have lost her mind. Convinced that she's suffering a fate worse than death, Osmund heartbrokenly restores her to the grave -- only for Langiva to torment him with the cruel truth. Of course she was a fraud all along and had simply pulled a Serpent and the Rainbow type stunt on Averill to impress her followers and Osmund. Averill had never actually died until her beloved killed her.

Needless to say, Osmund is a ready collaborator when Ulric finally makes his move, which proves surprising, plausible and cruelly vindictive. Earlier in the picture, he'd had to put down one of his own men who'd come down with the plague. Now, before Langiva has him quartered, the aspiring martyr reveals that he, too, has the plague -- and, presumably, so will much of the once-pristine village.  Of course, this means that a lot of arguably innocent people are going to suffer, while Langiva herself manages to slink away to an unclear fate.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here about the consequences of mutual intolerance, but because Black Death is a horror film it has the courage not to let anyone learn the lesson. Instead, the denouement shows Osmund as a remorseless, delusional witch hunter, torturing innumerable women, guilty or not, in pursuit of the elusive Langiva. I dig a bleak worldview like that, and the action and acting here weren't bad, either. It's no masterpiece by any stretch, but Smith's horror approach gives us probably the best possible Black Death that we could expect.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Too Much TV: TITANS (2018 - ?)

In response to DC Comics' dominance of broadcast television, Marvel Comics formed an alliance with Netflix and quickly earned a reputation for edgier superhero shows. That alliance is winding down as Disney, Marvel's corporate parent, prepares its own streaming service for Marvel, Star Wars and other properties. DC and Warner Bros. beat them to the punch by starting the DC Universe streaming service last fall. It features many DC-based movies, cartoons and TV shows, a library of DC comics for your e-reader, a weekday program of news and promos, and original shows, starting with Titans. If Marvel's Netflix shows had more edge than DC's shows on The CW and elsewhere, DC Universe promised to be edgier still with an instantly notorious trailer in which Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Boy Wonder, sneers, "Fuck Batman!" at a bunch of criminal victims. That set the tone for Titans, the latest iteration of DC's old Teen Titans formula teaming up the kid proteges of the company's long-established heroes. It pulls as well from the most popular version of the concept, the New Teen Titans comics of the 1980s, using two characters created for those books alongside Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) and Gar "Beast Boy" Logan (Ryan Potter), originally the kid mascot for the Doom Patrol, who'll get their own show later this year after a preview appearance here.

 Grayson has quit his job as Batman's sidekick and has become a midwestern policeman, hoping to overcome a violent streak acquired under Bruce Wayne's tutelage by keeping his distance from Gotham City. He gets involved in the case of Rachel (Teagan Croft), a girl whose foster mother is murdered, who then kills the murderer with a mysterious display of power. In a masterstroke of disorientation, the story abruptly shifts to Germany, where Kory Anders (Anna Diop) seems to be either a whore or a hitwoman -- despite her trampy blaxploitation outfit she's unsure herself. She, too, has mysterious powers that she uses to incinerate some local gangsters.The one thing she seems sure of is that she has to find the girl we know as Rachel and comics fans know as Raven -- just as they know Kory as Starfire, aka Princess Koriand'r of the planet Tamaran. Much of the suspense of the show comes from the delayed, and by season's end still not quite complete reveals of these characters' true selves. While fans may feel they know who all these people are, the show's clear creative license keeps things mysterious and keeps us wondering about the degree of Grayson's alienation from Batman and his style of crimefighting. We get the impression that being a kid sidekick is a rough life that may are glad to be out of, not just from Grayson but from Donna Troy (Conor Leslie), formerly known as Wonder Girl but now some sort of federal agent who retains the superhuman strength and magic lasso of your typical Amazon. Those who still enjoy the life, whether grass-roots crimefighter Hank Hall or Batman's punk of a new sidekick, Jason Todd, seem dangerously self-destructive, or simply dangerous.

We actually meet quite a few costumed crimefighters and weirdos in this eleven-episode opening outing, and for the most part Titans maintains a nice balance between its several digressions and its main story, which has some nebulous corporate-seeming entity pursuing Rachel with a murderous family of androids and other resources, seeing the troubled girl as some sort of savior or harbinger of a new world. Rachel herself is determined to track down her birth mother, who's been locked up in an asylum, even as she dreads each fresh manifestation of her powers. Titans presumably takes place on a different one of DC's multiple earths from those we see on The CW or in the movies, and the characters' confusion and backstory bitterness should make the viewer highly curious to know what's different about this world, while meeting denizens of it (e.g. Hawk and Dove) who so far seem exclusive to the DC Universe universe. Some folks may like superhero shows to feel familiar and treat any creative deviance from established texts as error, but the extreme difference in tone from other shows -- even though TV mogul Greg Berlanti made this as well as most of the others -- makes this more exciting than its story alone would necessarily make it. For better or worse, there's a sense that now there are no constraints imposed by TV networks or advertisers and that DC is its own master in a way that Marvel. great as it often is, never really can be. Whether subsequent DC Universe shows can maintain and justify this feeling will be one of the intriguing pop-culture stories of 2019.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

DVR Diary: REVOLT OF THE SLAVES (La rivolta degli schiavi, 1960)

The Emperor Maximian never ruled the Roman Empire on his own. Made a partner in rule by Diocletian in the late 3rd century, he later formed part of a tetrarchy. At Diocletian's urging he retired with him to establish an orderly procedure for procession, but soon reclaimed a share of the throne, only to be forced out by Constantine. But from the evidence of Nunzio Malasomma's film Maximian (Dario Moreno) is sole and absolute ruler of Rome. Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians; in this picture that's Maximian's work. It's a tough job, since a good chunk of Rome's ruling class are clandestine Christians, to the dismay of headstrong, chariot-driving Claudia (Rhonda Fleming). Revolt of the Slaves is the story of Claudia's discovery of Christian love, and her romance with a rebellious Dalmatian slave, Vibio (Lang Jeffries, early in his short stint as Fleming's husband). The title may create expectations of a Spartacus-style adventure, but there's really only a late uprising of militant Christians determined to free their brothers and sisters from the arena. We get a bit of gladiator action as well, including a whip fight over a burning pyre, but the martyrdom is actually pretty dull stuff. Each Christian is made to run for their lives, only to get a spear through his or her back. You'd think Romans would be jaded by such stuff but the crowd cheers every kill until Agnes gets them on her side by refusing to run. Instead, she gracefully walks over to pay homage to her spiritual teacher, who's being crucified and slow roasted at the same time. So impressive is her performance that when Vibio and his gang burst into the arena, they promptly decide to drop their weapons and die. Claudia decides to die as well, and it looks like we'll get the Sign of the Cross finish until the mob in the stands demands that Maximian spare the Christians. He's about to have his African personal guard massacre the Nazarenes but the Praetorian Guard, usually the bad guys in Roman stories, shows up to cancel the African threat and force the Emperor to declare a happy ending. This African element may have been the most provocative part of the film for American audiences. History says that the Praetorians lost their traditional standing as the emperors' personal guard during the Tetrarchy, but it doesn't appear that Maximian or his partners relied on Africans instead. In the film, the African commander Iface (Van Aikens) is an unprincipled schemer -- his troops are often made to look incompetent when fighting Vibio and friends -- who's willing to take a huge bribe from Claudia to let some Christians go, only to spurn her when he gets a chance to become the emperor's chief of security. He taunts and threatens Claudia (and even lays hands on her) to the point that it surprised me that he didn't suffer any real comeuppance. I wonder if those scenes were cut out in some parts of the U.S. In any event, Revolt is a well-staged, well-budgeted but indifferently performed Italian epic, worth seeing mainly for its production design and cinematography. I was glad to see TCM run it letterboxed, since it's still relatively rare to see peplum pictures that way on American TV. This particular picture might not deserve too much respect, but the genre as a whole, from Hercules knockoffs to more ambitious stuff like this, might not be so despised if more people could see them the way they were meant to be seen.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: THE FALL GUY (1930)

The Depression already seems to loom over this June 1930 release from Radio Pictures, but when you realize that The Fall Guy began life as a play in 1925 you're reminded, as some films from the Depression strove to remind people, that lots of people had it tough long before the stock market crashed. Tim Whelan's adaptation of the play by George Abbott and future character actor James Gleason, directed by Leslie Pearce, doesn't do much to open up a play that presumably had a single set, the Quinn family apartment. Four adults live here: recently-fired Johnny (Jack Mulhall), his wife Bertha (Mae Clarke), his sister Lottie (Wynne Gibson) and Bertha's brother Dan (Ned Sparks). Johnny's unemployment puts the household in jeopardy; its small savings run out fast and the repo man keeps coming back after Dan's saxophone. Johnny wants to work (unlike Dan) but is picky about the job he takes and gets especially prickly when "Bert" tries to find one for him. He falls into the orbit of Nifty Herman (Thomas E. Jackson), a shifty character with connections to the mysterious drug store magnate known only as Kilpapa. Nifty promises to help Johnny land a managerial position in the Kilpapa chain if he proves his reliability in a variety of odd jobs, including the stewardship of a humble-looking suitcase. Bertha doesn't trust Nifty and doesn't want Johnny associating with him, but he tires of her nagging and takes the suitcase, determined to reaffirm his manhood as head of the household. Finding out about it, Bertha says it's me or the suitcase, and Johnny meekly tries to return it to Nifty. Failing at that, he tries to hide it back at the house, only for Sis to trip over it while the family is entertaining her boyfriend, who proves to be a federal agent on Nifty's trail. Johnny is horrified to find that the suitcase contains heroin instead of the high-class hooch he assumed was inside, and with genuine remorse, and to save his skin, he convinces the cops to let him try to smooth-talk Nifty into spilling the beans on Kilpapa, their real target....

Fall Guy has an unlikely finish -- to spoil things, Nifty confides in Johnny, with the rest of the cast listening in the next room, that Kilpapa is only an alias of his -- but it's a modestly entertaining slice of life at the brink of the Depression, strongly conscious of the pressures of poverty from the threat of dispossession to the hell of incompatible people living together. To prove the last point, the highlight of the picture is the improbable comedy relief turn by dyspeptic character actor Ned Sparks as Johnny's no-account brother-in-law. Dan is the sort of character we imagine today living in his parents' basement. While his spiritual descendants might play the guitar or practice rapping today, Dan has been learning the saxophone on the installment plan for a year to little audible effect. He boasts of becoming the breadwinner once he lands a gig with a jazz band, but until then he's the household moocher, never venturing out except to hit the pool hall. He looks forward to having guests over, he tells one, because Bertha always serves bigger portions then, especially of his favorite food, mashed potatoes. He is defiantly deadbeat, almost joyously so, the sort of ingrate who gripes when Bertha can't afford sperm oil for his sax, then says, "I guess I'll just spit on it." Wikipedia tells us that years later Sparks, by then typed as a sourpuss, once defied people to find a picture of him smiling. He smiles a lot here, sporting a giant, Stan Laurel-like, smugly idiotic grin as he congratulates himself for seemingly putting something over on somebody. Sparks was nearly 50 here, yet he nails the character's arrested development so convincingly that you can almost imagine him being a generation younger. It's only appropriate that he's the butt of the film's final gag, after all the domestic sturm und drang are done, when the long-suffering repo man finally manages to snatch away that evil saxophone, no doubt to the audience's applause.