A large bloc of "Movie To Be Announced" on the cable guide for TCM reminded me that the time had come for 25 more films of reputed historical value to be added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, and for some of them to play on the movie channel later today. As usual, we have an eclectic lot chosen according to criteria of generic and demographic diversity rather than by the sort of chronological priority that arguably should prevail when films are designated for preservation. I have no problem with any of this year's "diversity" choices (the headliner in that category is Brokeback Mountain), but as far as mainstream Hollywood is concerned this may be the most "meh" selection ever, ranging from a seemingly random Viola Dana picture from 1917 (The Girl Without a Soul -- not a horror film) to the stolid George Cukor musical My Fair Lady (which I suppose qualifies on the strength of its best picture Oscar) to the bland Broadcast News. The Registry has dutifully added another Keaton, another Welles, another Hitchcock and another Kubrick, but nothing seems historic about it. The two films that strike me as most deserving of the bunch are the documentary features Monterey Pop and Hearts and Minds, though I can't argue either with the 1908 actuality footage of an expedition to the Crow Nation or the supposed first-ever footage, from 1898, of a black couple kissing. More than ever, with the exceptions mentioned, the Registry announcement seems merely like a list of "great" movies, though the greatness of some (One-Eyed Jacks?) will remain subject to debate. Another look at the Registry website's list of "Some Films Not Yet Named to the Registry" reminds me that the annual selection could be far more exciting from a historical standpoint, though also probably far less compelling for the casual movie fan whose attention the curators crave. Of the 50 I selected from that list in 2015, only one -- Steamboat Bill Jr. -- has been added to the Registry. I realize my error, of course. I started from the beginning and made it to fifty films by 1943. That was very elitist of me, I guess.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
Sunday, December 9, 2018
Her problems are not solved. Working independently of Father Blackwood and the witch establishment to push Sabrina toward the dark side is a demoness who takes the form of Mrs. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), a feminist high school teacher who becomes Sabrina's mentor. There's some deep ambiguity if not hypocrisy at work with this character. She does much to advance the show's feminist subtext, insinuating that the male-dominated with establishment fears female power, yet her ultimate goal seems to be to render Sabrina subservient to the very male Dark Lord. This becomes only slightly less murky when Wardwell reveals herself as the Lilith of Jewish/feminist myth, aspiring to equal standing to Satan, if not still more. Her special interest in Sabrina on the Dark Lord's behalf raises questions about Sabrina's own identity and destiny that remain to be answered and provide a hook for the second season that has already been filmed.
Sabrina is one of Greg Berlanti's productions but goes relatively light on the "lies are bad" hobbyhorse that powers many of his other shows. The writers, led by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who writes a Sabrina comic book, are too busy world-building to indulge too much in teen genre-soap cliche. I think that makes the show's deeper dives into soapy sturm und drang all the more effective, more heartfelt because you're not seeing the characters going through the same contortions every single week. The writers are especially good on the family drama of the Spellman household, from the literal Cain-and-Abel dynamic of Zelda and Hilda (which borrows an idea from Alan Moore) to the sexually-frustrated Ambrose's (the show's token homosexual so far) embroilment in a slow-burning murder mystery. The best thing about the Spellman family is that their dynamics aren't set in stone; Zelda in particular proves to have more conscience and compassion than you would have guessed at first. As a whole, because the show has no monolithic vision of evil, all the characters seem more well-rounded than is usual in genre shows. Combined with Black Lightning on The CW -- I can't speak for Riverdale but Sabrina makes me more willing to give that show a chance -- this program shows that the Berlanti team is enjoying a strong second wind as its empire expands ... and I may have more evidence of that to report shortly....
Sunday, December 2, 2018
'Misanthrope?' I don't hate my fellow man, even when he's tiresome and sulky and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that's just a human material, and him that finds it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.
Perhaps feeling less capable of telling a feature-length story lately, the Coens reportedly contemplated embarking on series television. It was announced that they were creating a western anthology series for Netflix, but instead, apparently quitting while they were ahead, they delivered a feature-length collection of six stories: five of their own and an adaptation of Jack London's "All Gold Canyon." There's a variety of tone to the anthology that belies any stereotype of the Coens' character or philosophy and makes it truly reminiscent of the Twilight Zone of western anthology TV, Zane Grey Theater. It opens with a trolling provocation featuring Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a seemingly invincible and suprisingly lethal singing cowboy who ultimately yields, in the most cartoonish fashion, to a harmonica-playing stranger presumably representing a later era of westerns. It's a combination of what some may enjoy most and what others despise in the Coens' work, but as the film moves from episode to episode it grows less predictable, veering from the fateful absurdity of "Near Algodones," in which James Franco's hapless bank robber escapes one hanging only to be doomed to another, to the utter nihilism of "Meal Ticket," in which Liam Neeson exploits a limbless savant who performs recitations and murders him when he fails to draw crowds anymore, before following London in a more hopeful direction.
The longest episode -- or so it seemed, though not in a bad way -- is both the most romantic and the most tragic. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is a wagon-train story of the deliberate courtship of a suddenly penniless pioneer woman (Zoe Kazan -- a veteran of Meek's Cutoff, by the way) and a wagonmaster's lieutenant (Bill Heck), as much motivated by monetary concerns as by feelings of ardor. There are elements in the story -- a dog with a maddening bark, a bankroll left in a corpse's clothes -- that lead you to suspect an absurdly happy ending until the story takes a twist out of nowhere when the girl and the wagonmaster (Grainger Hines) are caught alone by an Indian attack. The Coens have set up an archetypal frontier scenario of the sort that might get them scolded for their portrayal of Native Americans, down to the wagonmaster giving the girl a gun so she can kill herself if the Indians get him, in order to spare herself the fate worse than death, which here gets described in some detail. In a brilliantly swervy climax, it looks like he's driven the war band back only to get tricked by a seemingly riderless horse. The Coens keep our eyes on this scene, as the Indian moves in to take a scalp, only to get killed by the possum-playing wagonmaster. Hooray! -- except that the girl was just as fooled as the Indian was, and the finish could be considered an indictment of the mortal terror of Indians the old tales induced. This is a great piece of filmmaking on its own, but it could only happen in an anthology format, since it's too short to be a feature and a standalone story won't go on series TV nowadays.
The film ends on an eerie note with a story that's part Stagecoach, part Samuel Beckett, with a typical Coen cast of eccentrics and grotesques sharing a ride with two men who may be bounty hunters or may be far more sinister than that. On paper it's little more than an opportunity for a lot of newcomers to the Coens' world to tuck into their meaty flights of rhetoric, especially Chelcie Ross as an interminible trapper. One thing you can depend on, no matter what the content or tone of the tale, is that these westerners won't sound just like the people next door today; it's of a piece with their True Grit in many ways, and maybe meant to show that they weren't just mimicking Charles Portis's prose. While they portray The Ballad of Buster Scruggs onscreen as an old hardcover book with color illustrations, it reminded me more of the western pulp magazines I've come to enjoy reading in its simultaneous variety and consistency. The finished product may or may not count as a salvage job, but it still plays to the Coens' strengths while minimizing their weaknesses in a way that makes it a vast improvement over the tedious Hail Ceasar! The brothers may well have found the right medium in Netflix for this point in their career. Had it been packaged as a series, that would only have made it more clear, as it was clear a century ago, that great filmmaking isn't restricted to feature-length storytelling.
Saturday, November 24, 2018
The boys get the idea into their heads that the man needs someone to care for and set out to adopt a child for him. At the orphanage, Margaret Dumont seems glad to be rid of Spanky (McFarland,natch), an infant psychopath with a compulsion to break glass. Soon to be the leader of Our Gang, Spanky is almost the antithesis of Shirley Temple; nearly as cute, yes, but a creature of pure mischief. Apparently Kalmar and Ruby thought the preceding the best way to get him on the screen with Wheeler and Woolsey, and at this point the despondent man disappears from the narrative, having reconciled and eloped with his girl. That's okay, though, since it means W&W will have to chaperone the tyke down south when it's revealed that he's the heir to a backwoods fortune. Unfortunately and inevitably, Spanky has inherited a household embroiled in one of the region's characteristic feuds. He's also inherited Willie Best (here billed only as "Sleep 'n Eat") as the family retainer, making this quite the household. Best is always a problematic presence, with his work alongside Bob Hope in "The Cat and the Canary" and "The Ghost Breakers" probably his most acceptable performances. Here, he's largely a poor man's Stepin Fetchit.
Inevitably and unfortunately, Wheeler -- the younger, more effeminate member of the pair -- falls for a girl from the enemy family (played by the late Mary Carlisle, who departed this earth last summer at age 104). This sparks a reconciliation of the families, helped along by the big song of the picture, presented in what had become the cartoonish RKO musical comedy style. Wheeler and Carlisle get the first verses, and then we cut to the patriarch and matriarch of the rival broods, allowing Noah Beery to show off the singing voice that got him cast in the infamous Golden Dawn of a few years before. Then we cut to a random collection of blacks for a more swinging rendition of the tune. Then Spanky sings it to a dog, and then Woolsey sings it to a mule. It's very much like the changes run on "Everyone Says I Love You" in Horse Feathers, only done all at once, and then, except for a little bit of recitative at the banquet table, the musical portion of the picture is over.
The feud resumes when Spanky pops a champagne cork and all the erstwhile feudists mistake that for gunfire. They recommence to shooting, all apparently missing each other at point blank range. All efforts at reconciliation fail, until our heroes, Spanky and Sleep 'n Eat are besieged at the ancestral manse. There's no way Kalmar and Ruby can top the siege sequence in Duck Soup, though there's an absurdly inventive bit of business involving a meat grinder, a blow torch, a string of light bulbs and some raspberries enabling the besieged heroes to fake a machine-gun attack on the besiegers. There are also painful bits when Spanky appears to invite gunfire by mounting hats on fragile objects on top of a crate inside of which Best cowers to no particularly comic effect. All ends peacefully, however, when the good guys produce a telegram showing that Spanky had been identified as heir to the estate by mistake, making it unnecessary to murder him or any of his household. It's the final bit of randomness in this most arbitrary of stories, but after all, it's the journey, not the reason, that matters.
This is Wheeler & Woolsey's first Code Enforcement picture and thus quite unsalacious if no less nutty than previous vehicles, presumably including the Kalmar-Ruby script for Hips, Hips, Hooray! Despite what I said about Stevens's contribution, there are a couple of nice gags with protracted payoffs that show the lessons he learned from Hal Roach. Early, Spanky sat on the accelerator of W&W's car, causing them to get in trouble with a traffic cop. Woolsey decides to impress the cop with his magic, appearing to tear the ticket to shreds, only to produce it intact before the flatfoot can get mad. The cop is impressed and asks how the trick is done, so Woolsey gives him instructions, and of course the gendarme irreversibly rips the ticket apart. He's a good sport, though and sends the boys on their way. Back home, they get the news about the man's elopement, along with a $1,000 check to cover taking care of Spanky for another month. Also impressed by the earlier magic, Spanky snatches the check and tears it to shreds. Down south, Spanky's new estate sports a prominent greenhouse, and the tot has to be steered constantly away from temptation until, at the very end of the film, as Woolsey, Wheeler and his girl are driving off, Woolsey and Spanky exchange glances in the front seat. Echoing the child's characteristic "Okey-doke!" Woolsey cathartically plows the car through the greenhouse. It's a characteristic closing gesture for a style of comedy itself on the way out at the end of 1934.
Saturday, November 17, 2018
To this point, everyone has underestimated the heroine. She survived a near-drowning in infancy when her mother jumped off a bridge, but bears a scar as a constant reminder of this primal injustice. She grows up to be a high-wire artist but has grown sick of all the wolf whistles by the time the story proper starts. Shin's scheme looks like the easy path to a new and better life, but after the great betrayal the only path left to her is the path of revenge.
On the island, Ohyaku becomes the plaything of a privileged convict and his wife, a tattoo artist (Yuriko Mishima) who grows obsessed with the heroine's smooth skin. She aches to tattoo and otherwise make Ohyaku her own. Ohyaku appears to give in, and rather likes the idea of a big nasty demon tattoo on her back, but for her the non-poisonous seductress is just one of many people she manipulates and leaves in the dust on the way back to the mainland. There, her ultimate revenge will be twofold. With some gangster friends she'll rob not merely a gold shipment, but the mint itself -- and then she'll kill the bureaucratic bastard who ruined her life the same way he had Shin killed.
Female Demon Ohyaku has an oldschool attitude toward revenge from which modern American pop culture has grown alienated. We've long understood that revenge can make a monster of you, the end justifying all means and all manner of mistreatment of not just the guilty but the innocent. Nowadays, we like to catch someone on the brink of taking revenge and tell them, "This is not you" or "You're better than this." I don't know if Japanese attitudes have changed in a similar way over the last 50 years, but in this picture, set sometime during the 19th century, when Ohyaku tells her friends what she's going to do to her past tormentors, their response basically is, "You go, girl!" Some modern viewers may expect her to stop short, to decide that the bad guy isn't worth what Ohyaku presumably is doing to her own soul or karma, but let me assure you that she does not stop short. There's something both awful and awesome about that that may be lost on those whose moral hedonism is so absolute that they can't even imagine anyone actually deserving to be killed. Movies like Ohyaku allow a vicarious release from the passivity such absolutism may encourage, without necessarily convincing anyone to turn killer. Ohyaku's revenge may seem self-indulgent to some viewers, but it also lends the film a kind of gravitas lacking in today's more common appeals to "hope," regardless of whether you think the heroine right or wrong. One can assume that identifying her as a "demon" makes Yoshihiro Ishikawa's film something other than an unambiguous endorsement of Ohyaku's revenge, but the fact that she is a heroine probably tells you as much about the world she lives in, or the world as Ishikawa saw it, as it tells you about Ohyaku herself.
Monday, November 12, 2018
Historians and older comics fans continue to debate Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel Comics universe. The debates were initially fueled by the perception that Lee, who died today at age 95, tended for a long time to downplay if not minimize the contributions of artists Steve Ditko, who died earlier this year, and especially Jack Kirby. If the question is who created characters or came up with specific concepts, then the credit often and rightly goes to Ditko, who created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and Kirby, who created nearly everything else until 1970. Lee's distinctive and crucial contribution was twofold, one part of it becoming only more obvious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe conquered multiplexes in the Stan the Man's last decade.
What was more obvious early on was that Lee gave all the comics, whether drawn by Kirby, Ditko or others, a specific authorial voice that helped set Marvel Comics apart from DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That voice took the idea of a narrator character from earlier crime and horror comics and applied it to superheroes. Lee wasn't an "onscreen" narrator like Mr. Crime or the Crypt Keeper, but established his authorial, brand through his constant explanatory footnoting and a narrative tone that could be several things at once: bombastic and bufoonish, bardic yet self-mocking. It gave a wide range of readers leeway to take Marvel as seriously as each one chose, or to appreciate it at multiple levels simultaneously, and it allowed Lee to be campy and sincere at the same time. His narration probably strikes most people as corny today -- it's even worse when he speaks it aloud on bad cartoons of the 70s and 80s -- but in those formative years it didn't keep readers from feeling genuine emotions about the Marvel heroes.
In the long run, Lee really laid the groundwork for the 21st century success of Marvel movies by giving Marvel Comics a "universal" vision that neither Kirby nor Ditko might have given them on their own. In his later career especially, Kirby preferred to isolate his creations from the rest of his employers' product, balking at crossovers when they were suggested, while Ditko arguably never got along with others that well. Of course, the heroes of any given comics company had been joining forces since DC's Justice Society of America in the early 1940s, but outside the designated team books they rarely if ever interacted with each other. At Marvel the constant crossing over of characters was an essential part of Lee's world-building, and for all that Marvel heroes tended to fight each other on their first meetings, they were inherently more compatible as components of a shared universe, once someone actually tried to do that in movies, than DC's iconic characters have proven to be so far. One could argue that Kirby and Ditko could have come up with all their great creations with no input from Lee, yet could not have come up with the Marvel Universe as either comics or movie fans understand it today without Stan Lee's vision, however self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing it seems to his critics. This note certainly won't end the Marvel debates, but it should make it more clear that however clownish or crass he was at times, Lee was one of the great pop-culture geniuses of the 20th century, with a legacy sure to last well beyond his lifetime.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
The first time I ever heard of Robert the Bruce was in a school reading textbook that had the legend of his encounter with a spider. Outlaw King (or Outlaw/King as it appears onscreen) invokes that legend by making Robert the spider at the center of a marshy web in the climactic battle of Loudon Hill. One must assume that the English learned their lesson from this catastrophe, presuming that it played out in history as it plays here, as they subsequently dealt with the French more or less the same way during the Hundred Years War. This film's big battle scene inevitably must be compared with the Stirling battle in Braveheart, but each aims for a different effect. Gibson expresses furious exhilaration -- I still remember a woman behind me starting to laugh like a madwoman at the peak of the action when I first saw it -- while Mackenzie adds a note of horror to whatever satisfaction audiences may feel on seeing the English get their comeuppance. At first glance, Outlaw King strikes me as a more gory film than the massively violent Braveheart because of the more overtly horrific presentation. Mackenzie doesn't show it in a particularly lurid way, but in a matter-of-fact fashion that makes such moments as the casual disembowling of a man all the more horrifying. While Braveheart could be accused of glorifying war, Outlaw King is less vulnerable to that charge, though it goes too far to equate it to the alleged antiwar aesthetics of the superficially similar marshy combat in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, to which Mackenzie's battle scene has been compared. There's no denying, after all, that in the context of this film that fight was necessary.
I wonder how self-consciously Mackenzie and his co-writers strove to make their film "Not Braveheart." Not having William Wallace as a character is probably the most obvious way to make clear that this is going to be a different kind of story. More interesting is their attempt to make the Prince of Wales, later Edward II (Billy Howle) as the main antagonist, with his dad remaining in the background until he dies, ahistorically, en route to Loudon Hill. Outlaw King reimagines Edward II as a Messala-type character who once was Robert's buddy but becomes his most dogged enemy for reasons of state. Ironically, in light of what Gore Vidal often said about his conception of the Messala character in Ben-Hur, the new film goes out of its way to avoid anything that could be interpreted as homophobic (as in Braveheart) in its presentation of Edward II, to the point that the casual viewer would have no idea that he was reputedly homosexual. On the other hand, Edward's sexuality has nothing to do with his or his father's policy toward Scotland, so there really isn't any need to address it here, and it's arguably a fair hit on Braveheart that it's treatment of the character was gratuitous. Both films take huge liberties with history, including Outlaw King's placement of Edward II, king before his actual time, in command of the English troops at Loudon Hill and engaged in single combat with Robert at its close. That scene really hurts the film, since the writers take too many and not enough liberties at the same time. If you're going to have the English king fight the Scots king on the field of battle, and have Robert disarm and decisively defeat Edward -- which obviously didn't happen -- why not go all the way and have Robert take Edward prisoner and force the liberation of Scotland ahead of schedule. It looks stupid to just let him go, especially if the writers' excuse is "well, he wasn't captured historically." That aside, Outlaw King is a decent historical drama, though lacking much of Braveheart's primal passion, especially in Pine's relatively dispassionate but conventionally stalwart performance. I'll give him and the film credit for one thing, though. The standard before-the-battle speech is quite nicely done here because it boils down to: I don't care why you're fighting with me as long as we win. Whether you find it better or worse than Braveheart, or don't believe in comparisons, at least it's a legitimate change of pace.