Thursday, July 30, 2015

DVR Diary: RED LIGHT (1949)

We often hear about "fate" or "doom" in discussions of film noir, but we hardly ever hear about "providence," and that, if nothing else, makes Roy Del Ruth's Red Light an exceptional noir. Its moral is "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord," and the screenplay by George Callahan and Charles Grayson, adapting a story by onetime cowboy star Donald "Red" Barry, goes about demonstrating the point with the dramatic logic of a golden age comic book. It starts off as menacing as you could ask for, with elite noir baddies Raymond Burr and Harry Morgan unhappily watching a newsreel from a prison projection booth. The news is that a heroic military chaplain (Arthur Franz) has just come home from the war to reunite with his doting older brother, trucking company boss Johnny Torno (George Raft). Burr's character used to work for Torno before he got caught embezzling. He feels entitled to revenge and the newsreel gives him an idea for the perfect revenge. Morgan's character is getting out shortly for good behavior (Morgan says this with as contemptuous a sneer as the words ever got). Willing to do anything for money, for Burr still has his embezzled money stashed someplace, Morgan becomes Burr's perfect weapon. Burr's blasphemous idea is to take revenge on Torno by killing his reverend brother. He doesn't anticipate that Morgan will do something stupid like telling the doomed priest that he's brought him something from Nick -- Burr's character if not Old Nick himself -- before shooting him in a hotel room.

Torno arrives in time to hear his brother's dying words: "the book." Johnny assumes that the priest means the ornate Bible he gave to his brother years ago. Hoping to find some clue to the killing, he pores through the holy book in search of accusatory marginalia and finds nothing. Some time later, it occurs to him that his brother may have meant the Gideon Bible bound to be found in any hotel room. He returns to the death room and finds that book missing, increasing his suspicion that it contains crucial information. By now several other people have occupied the room; one of them must have taken the book. If so, why? Johnny sets out to track down each of the intervening guests, while Nick, now released in his own right, lurks about recklessly, begging Johnny for another chance. The first one Torno finds is showgirl Carla North (Virginia Mayo), whom he recruits as an assistant once convinced of her innocence. Concerned that Torno may be on to something, Rocky (Morgan) stalks our hero and finally has it out with him in another hotel room. Coming out slightly the worse for wear, Rocky decides his best option is to blackmail Nick and cash out, letting him know that he spoke his name to the priest and guessing that the priest wrote it in the book. Nick responds like a Raymond Burr noir villain should and tosses Rocky from the caboose of a speeding train.

Further complications take us to the belated discovery of the genuine Gideon. As a worried Nick watches with others concerned in the case, Torno desperately thumbs through the tome until he finds a handwritten warning, his brother's last message, against seeking revenge. Assured that the priest named no names, Nick attempts an inconspicuous exit, but whom should he find at the bottom of the stairs but battered and bloody Rocky, ready for a little revenge of his own. Nick gets the better of an impromptu shootout, but Rocky, not quite the forgiving sort, lives long enough to denounce his former pal for his own death and the priest's. This sets up a classic set-piece showdown as Torno chases Nick to the roof of his building, where an electric sign advertises his business. Cinematographer Bert Glennon makes the most of the opportunity to play light against darkness as Burr darts between the big glowing letters, looking for the perfect shot at Raft, until an exposed wire becomes his undoing. Once Nick is properly fried and justice is served, the camera pulls back to make sure you see Johnny Torno's ad slogan, "24 Hour Service." This is what Torno had demanded of God in a moment of sacrilegious impatience when he'd been urged to let God do His thing in His own time. Johhny Torno is film noir's Job, driven to curse God for his affliction yet rewarded, on the assumption that he's bowed to his brother's wisdom, with instant justice. Whether he gets the girl, too, hardly matters since there's zilch chemistry between the monomaniacal (or is it just plain monotonous) Raft and the thanklessly-tasked Mayo. What makes Red Light worth seeing is the direction, the cinematography, and above all Raymond Burr, king of noir villains, in fine, foul form. It cannot be stressed enough to those who know Burr only as Perry Mason, old or young, or as that guy in those Godzilla movies, that film noir Burr is a beast who was best when he was bad. He's dependably evil here and ably assisted by Morgan, who for noir purposes was either sinister, stupid, or both. Their vital villainy and the screenplay's eccentric spirituality make Red Light idiosyncratic enough to earn a look from any noir fan.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. people were quick to argue that the attackers in no way represented the downtrodden, as if to preempt anyone thinking of saying they must have had some sincere personal grievance, grounded in poverty, in order to do what they did. Not quite two years later a wave of suicide bombings swept Casablanca, the legendary city in the Kingdom of Morocco. Adapting a novel based on those attacks, French director Nabil Ayouch tells us that these terrorists were the downtrodden, products of progressive impoverishment in the no-hope environment of a metastasizing shantytown. With every jump of time in his story he shows us dauntingly how the shantytown has grown. His protagonists are virtual dead end kids and his story is something like the original Dead End Kids of 1930s Hollywood getting recruited into the German-American Bund or the Ku Klux Klan with Pat O'Brien egging them on and no one to show them the error of their ways.

Our main focus is on a trio of shantytown kids who age from boys to men: Hamid, the bicycle-chain swinging leader of the band, his younger brother Tarek, nicknamed "Yachine" after a famous Soviet soccer goalie, and Tarek's weakling buddy Nabil. In ancient kid-gang fashion they and the rest of their team are chased back to their own neighborhood by the other team, the skins to their shirts, after a game falls apart. From the beginning Nabil and Tarek are accused of being gay for each other -- in a horrific scene a drunken Hamid actually rapes Nabil as Tarek and their other pals watch stupefied --  and a certain panic about masculinity amid a greater physical intimacy than men share in the west informs the decisions they make as young men. They work as mechanics for a boorish garage owner while Hamid, who'd become a drug dealer, stews in stir for throwing a rock through a cop's car window on a dare. Hamid returns from prison apparently reformed, but now he's too neat looking and there's something sinister about his new seeming serenity. It soon becomes apparent that he's been "radicalized," to use the current buzzword, but to Ayouch it looks more like plain old brainwashing by a cult.


The evolution (or devolution?) of Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid)

Still, while Hamid has grown a little aloof from his family -- including an alcoholic dad, a trashy mom and another brother who's a little crazy about his radio -- he and his new buddies come in handy when Tarek and Nabil need to cover up Tarek's killing of their boss for having out-of-nowhere started fondling Nabil. Tarek feels obliged to these devout dudes, who are also kind of cool for knowing karate, but he also finds their disciplined activity filling a void in his life. His promises to become a life of action rather than mere being, action becoming more important than life, even if he does still pine a little for Ghislaine, the pretty girl from the embroidery school. Suddenly he seems even more radicalized than Hamid, and Hamid notices this to his dismay. 


What elevates Horses of God above a simple expose on the making of terrorists is Hamid's wavering development. It's a surprising twist if you were expecting Tarek, the good brother and our point-of-view character, to observe and/or oppose Hamid's radicalization. As Hamid, Abdelilah Rachid undergoes multiple transformations, from thug to true believer to something more ambivalent. It's not so much that he comes to doubt jihad as that he can't stand to see Tarek traveling this path. It's as if some older-brother protectiveness overrides his radicalization. For all we know he could die readily himself, but eventually he can't bear even to think about Tarek martyring himself. At the brink of doom he tries to dissuade Tarek from carrying out a bombing of a niteclub, only to have Tarek at long last step out of older brother's shadow by shoving him to the ground. The dynamics of their whole sad family make Horses something more than a political film. Because the characters are convincingly human, the stakes seem more real for the audience, especially as we see harmless-seeming people denounced for sin and apostasy and targeted for death for no good strategic reason.

The film closes on a despairingly Bruegelian note as a consummating explosion is seen only from a tremendous distance -- from one of the soccer fields where Hamid and Tarek played as boys, where the next generation of shantytown boys watches with short-lived fascination, little suspecting what the filmmakers suspect is their own dark destiny. The subject matter alone makes Horses of God necessary viewing in our time, but fortunately there's more than necessity to justify seeing it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Susanna Clarke published her epic fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in 2004. Her first and only novel to date, it is epic in size (782 pages) and scope, amounting to a kind of allegory of early modern England. It has at last been visualized by the BBC, in an seven-part adaptation written by Toby Haynes and directed by Peter Harness, that has just wrapped up on BBC America about one month after its original British broadcast. The challenge of adapting the novel is twofold (threefold if you count special effects): its size and its voice. Clarke wrote in something like the style that prevailed in the time she wrote about: early 19th century Britain. Her mock erudition extended to extensive footnotes that by definition could not be adapted for TV unless you wanted the show to sound like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Since Haynes and Harness do without a narrator after the first scene, it's up to the actors and their writer to sound like authentic creatures of their age, not to mention the authentic creatures of Susanna Clarke. Part of the entertainment of the novel is its recreation of a golden age of English prose -- I rather like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series of novels about the Napoleonic wars fought by dragon-riding armies for the same reason. The cast of the TV Jonathan Strange succeeds in bringing that language to life while dispensing with the narration. I'd like to say I took this success for granted from a British series, but I'd watched The Musketeers too recently to make such an assumption. This time everyone involved was clearly holding each other to a higher standard and the result is a largely faithful adaptation of a great novel. The funny part is that some of the episodes and incidents of the book that I remember most vividly didn't make it onto TV. All that means is that people turning to the novel after watching the show have even more of a treat in store for them.

Though billed second in the title, Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the first of the two English magicians we see in the story. A solitary Yorkshire researcher, attended only by the vaguely menacing but ultimately benign John Childermass (Enzo Clienti), Norrell becomes a public figure by intervening dramatically in the debates of the local Friends of English Magic, who are little more than a discussion group. Norrell offers to demonstrate that he has mastered magic on the condition that the society disband and its members renounce magic. All but John Segundus (Edward Hogg) do so and feel justified by Norrell's apparent animation of a cathedral's statuary. The magician hopes to leap from local notoriety to national fame and national service. Despite his obvious discomfort, he strives to insinuate himself in English society to further his goal of rendering English magic "respectable." As the story develops, we learn that the respectability toward which Norrell aspires depends on purging magic of any dependence on the legacy of John Uskglass, the semi-legendary Raven King who flourished about 300 years earlier, or upon the power of the fairies whom Uskglass mastered. To succeed, however, Norrell becomes a hypocrite. When the wife of Sir Walter Pole, a Cabinet minister, dies suddenly, Norrell resolves to resurrect her and win Pole's support for his project. To restore her, Norrell must make a bargain with one of the fairy creatures he despises and fears, an arrogant character with thistledown hair known only as "the gentleman" (Marc Warren). The gentleman resurrects Lady Pole (Alice Englert) on the condition that he have half of her remaining years -- he knows she'll live to be 94. Rather than take a chunk of years, he takes her sleeping hours, forcing her to dance in an endless ball of Burtonesque boors in his manor at Lost Hope, leaving her virtually insane by day. He also co-opts the Poles' butler, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), at once intimidating him and tantalizing him with the prophecy that a once-nameless slave -- Stephen had been rescued from a slave ship as an infant -- will become a king.

Meanwhile, a random encounter with a mystic tramp Norrell had chased out of London inspires Jonathan Strange of Shropshire (Bertie Carvel) to try his hand at magic. Inspired by his copy of A Child's History of the Raven King, Strange is curious about realms of magic Norrell would rather see closed off. He proves such a prodigy, however, that Norrell accepts him as a student and assistant in his contributions to the war effort against Napoleon. Norrell is a grudging teacher, reluctant to let Strange see any but a few of the books in the vast library he's accumulated. It becomes apparent to the viewer (or reader) that Strange will be more powerful than Norrell, if he isn't already, but Norrell is troubled less by Strange's power than by his curiosity. Strange's desire to learn more about the Raven King and the "King's Roads" he built through the fairy realm, with mirrors serving as portals throughout England, threatens to ruin all Norrell has done to make English magic respectable. Goaded by his co-author and literary agent (John Heffernan), Norrell uses his magic to censor a rival volume by Strange, making the text disappear from every copy published. Meanwhile, Strange's wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) catches the eye of the fickle fairy gentleman, who affects contempt for Strange's magic while clearly fearing the newcomer's unsounded potential. He schemes to replace Arabella with a changeling, stealing the real woman to Lost Hope where, unlike Lady Pole, she rapidly loses her memory. The changeling proving short-lived, Strange appeals to Norrell to teach him how to resurrect her. Norrell's refusal causes a definitive break between the two magicians, driving Strange to Italy, where he experiments in madness in hopes of gaining access to the fairy realm and the knowledge he expects to find there. He succeeds mainly in destroying the barriers Norrell had merely cracked open but forces the gentleman to use nearly all his power to expel him from Lost Hope and place him under a curse that surrounds him with a funnel cloud of darkness.

If the TV series drops the ball at any point, it's in the final episode which drastically understates the crisis into which Strange has plunged all of England. The final part of Clarke's book is in part an allegory for the post-Napoleonic period of reaction that climaxed in the Peterloo Massacre, just as Norrell all along has represented a reactionary form of Enlightenment obsessed with control rather than freedom, while Strange embodies Romanticism (inclusive of the Gothic), the reckless genius to Norrell's cautious scholar. The TV series has jettisoned or truncated a military figure who becomes a major antagonist late in the book, and while the abandonment of historical context may have been a necessity of time constraints, the fates of Strange, Norrell and their circle are more than enough to keep everyone interested, especially those who don't know what they're missing. Whether the BBC America audience fully appreciates the meta-English context  is open to debate. If they've stuck with the show, it's because of the action and the acting. Eddie Marsan (who was Inspector Lestrade in the Ritchie-Downey Sherlock Holmes movies) takes top honors by conveying the at-once ambitious and cowardly, arrogant and insecure and ultimately well-meaning Norrell, tough Marc Warren, who may be remembered as the Dracula in a very bad recent TV production, nearly steals the show with one of the strongest TV villain performances I've seen in quite a while. If he'd put more of that into his Dracula we might have had something there. Also deserving of special mention out of an overall superior cast are Alice Englert as Lady Pole, whose righteous indignation is only compounded by the spell that cripples her ability to articulate it, and Vincent Franklin as Drawlight, a toady who takes credit for introducing Norrell to society and deteriorates during the series from Augustan pomposity to Dickensian wretchedness. I could be at the keyboard all night praising everyone who deserves it for this series, but to leave just the tip of an iceberg showing seems appropriate for a program that has the same relationship to its source material. I don't mention that again to diminish the miniseries. In fact, when I see an adaptation of something I've read that leaves out so much or changes so much and can still recommend it (in cinema Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans comes to mind), it's really one of the highest recommendations I can give.

Friday, July 24, 2015

DVR Diary: ZANDY'S BRIDE (1974)

Jan Troell made two Swedish westerns, sagas of the Swedish immigrant experience in America, that won critical if not popular acclaim in the U.S. It was probably inevitable that Warner Bros., the studio that released The Emigrants and The New Land here, would bring Troell to Hollywood to make an American western. There's some thematic continuity between those films and Zandy's Bride insofar as the title character is a Swedish immigrant, and perhaps more importantly, there was continuity in personnel in that the bride is played by Liv Ullmann, the leading lady of Troell's earlier films and an international star before that by virtue of her work with Ingmar Bergman. She's teamed here with Gene Hackman, hot off his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection and his blockbuster showcase in The Poseidon Adventure. As Zandy, he's an Old West version of the impulsive, boorish, sometimes brutish character he won the Oscar for. It's a type we've grown familiar with by now and just what we'd expect from a sort of revisionist western. Zandy's trying to build up a ranch to get out from under the shadow of his parents, and he wants a woman. Slavery may be illegal by this point in American history, but Zandy acquires a wife through a newspaper advertisement. This is Hannah (Ullmann), who has exaggerated her youth and "American stock" somewhat. Zandy takes her anyway, in more ways than one. Their first night together is marked by marital rape, with Hannah seemingly shocked that Zandy would claim "the right" and Zandy enraged by her initial refusal of it. He quickly establishes himself as a domestic tyrant, demanding sex, housework and sons, and we see his model when the new family visits Zandy's folks. If anything, the old man is more surly than his son, threatening to throw unsatisfactory food in his long-suffering wife's face. Subtly, Troell lets us see, or at least think we see, a certain discomfort on Zandy's part with this scene and a certain deference toward his ma in later scenes. Zandy's problem is that he doesn't know how to be any different, and the film's premise is that he can't learn until he's learned to really live with someone.

The closest the film has to a plot is Zandy's desultory refinement under Hannah's influence and, more importantly, in response to Hannah's resistance. She never meekly submits but rebukes him regularly, all the while accepting her obligations under their transaction while insisting on the rights that should go with it. Zandy may never fully comprehend what she wants but he comes to recognize her virtues relative to the other options in the rough coastal country. If Hannah has a rival for his attentions -- affections would be an exaggeration -- it's Maria, played in characteristic slurred, "earthy" fashion by Susan Tyrell. Ullmann and Tyrell in the same movie is some sort of Seventies summation, and seeing them together you can see why Zandy would stick with Hannah. It helps that she delivers the son Zandy's always wanted -- along with a twin sister -- but Zandy also makes the simple calculation -- he can't get more romantic than this -- that he's better off with her. After enacting their own micro-version of the classic rancher-nester conflict -- she grows a garden that he tramples with his cattle, telling her she's ruined his property -- the wild westerner is finally civilized, or as civilized as he can get, which is still an advance on how he started.

Choosing an atypical coastal location, Troell gives us a look at the West through fresh eyes to an extent, but the film's picturesque virtues can't entirely compensate for a certain monotony to Zandy and Hannah's battles. Filming Marc Norman's screenplay, he catches the subtle evolution of the marriage even as the protagonists remain essentially their same abrasive selves. A naturalist rather than a romanticist, Troell offers no promise that things will be happy ever after for his couple, but his honesty probably went unappreciated even by sophisticated (or cynical) Seventies audiences. They may have asked what there was here to care about, apart from seeing two master thespians take each other's measure? Ullmann is impressive in English -- she'd dubbed her own dialogue in the earlier Troell films -- while Hackman has the more challenging task of making Zandy something other than hateful between his tantrums. How successful he was depends on the attentiveness and sensibility of each viewer, but I suspect that Zandy's Bride tried people's patience. It may have been more trying originally. The movie I saw on Turner Classic Movies was 97 minutes long, but some sources report a 116 minute running time. Did the film lose 20 minutes at some point? If so, was the original even more monotonous in its bitterness or yet more subtle or plausible about the marriage's evolution? The idea of an extended director's cut is a little tantalizing, but I doubt that even its admirers really want it any longer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


We see the action through the window of a car as the vehicle pulls up to nab an illegal immigrant. We remain in the car as the suspect breaks loose; the camera pans inside the car so we can look out the back window as he runs into the street and is hit -- in our plain view -- by a car. This is a Joseph H. Lewis film, his first after his sleeper hit and noir classic Gun Crazy, in which he had filmed a bank robbery and getaway from inside the crooks' car. Now he was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and while the budget may have been small by that studio's standards Lewis must have felt like he was in the big leagues, with all the toys that come with that. He's clearly more interested in the technical and atmospheric effects he can pull off than in the noir-exotic melodrama. Judged by its set-pieces, Lady Without Passport stands comparison with the twin peaks of Lewis's career, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. But without as potent a story to hold them together, the set-pieces mostly have more technical than dramatic interest.

The story is that INS agent Pete Karczag (John Hodiak) must go undercover in Cuba to investigate a people-smuggling ring, led by a hairdyed George Macready, who'd brought that hapless fugitive from the first scene to America. On location, Pete falls for one of Macready's clients, Holocaust survivor Marianne (Hedy Lamarr, whose recent role in the blockbuster Samson and Delilah was this film's main selling point). That's our triangle, which Pete hopes to break up by convincing Marianne to stay in Cuba rather than pay Macready in the only coin she can afford. Pete's willing to give up his career to keep her in Cuba and stay with her, but our villain figures out Pete's real business and blabs to Marianne to alienate her from him. Now Pete and his INS buddies have to try to catch Marianne and the other illegals as Macready flies them into the U.S. This sets the stage for a setpiece that's at once spectacular and anticlimactic as the smugglers crash-land their plane in the Everglades, after which Macready, his pilot and Marianne hit the water in the only life-raft, after Macready drives away the other illegals with his gun. Lewis films all of this from far above, from the perspective of a government plane. I wasn't sure whether the plane crash was done for real or with models, and I suppose that's a credit to the M-G-M effects department either way. The breakout immediately afterward has newsreel-like immediacy and verisimilitude, since there's no way the actors can play to the camera so far above, but Lewis's staging also leeches the drama (or at least the melodrama) out of one of the big moments of the story. The real dramatic climax comes after Macready has ditched his snake-bit pilot and, with Marianne still in tow, confronts Pete, who has caught up with him finally. The moment is tense and literally atmospheric with expressionistic swamp mist, but it's again kind of anticlimactic, since Macready simply pulls a gun on Hodiak and commandeers his boat, giving up Marianne in the bargain. The punch line is that our hero emptied most of the fuel tank so that the villain will be dead in the water and easily caught, but we don't get to see that. Lewis (or the studio) seems to think the real story is the romance, but John Hodiak simply isn't much of a romantic hero. That leaves Lady Without Passport lacking the heart it wants and the heart of darkness that keeps Lewis's best noirs alive, but it's still a treat to look at just to see a clever, confident director showing off.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

DVR Diary: KANAL (1957)

Andrzej Wajda's epic of the Warsaw uprising -- the gentile one, as opposed to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising -- immediately struck me as one of the great World War II films, but it's a strange one considering the time and place. For Poles, I'd assume, the 1944 uprising against the Nazi occupiers must be something like the Alamo for Americans, a noble to-the-last-man defeat on the way to ultimate liberation. For us, the Alamo is a tale of heroic sacrifice with strategic value. For Wajda, arguably Poland's greatest filmmaker and still active as of three years ago, the Warsaw uprising is a defeat of crushing completeness, a mental as well as physical defeat. The way he saw it seemed to be okay with the Communist government of Poland at the time, who might have been expected to expect a more patriotic, more Alamo-like affair. I wonder if the attitude of director and government alike -- Wajda would flee the country in the early Eighties during the crackdown on the Solidarity movement and return after the fall of Communism -- has something to do with the subject being a non-Communist uprising, one during which Soviet forces were supposedly in a position to lend aid but purportedly stood by to let likely future opponents of Russian dominance get slaughtered. Maybe Poles in 1956 saw the uprising leaders, or were ordered to see them, as presumably noble and definitely tragic but also a historic dead end that had to pass from the scene before a postwar revolution could take place. I can only guess because I see no obvious ideological context in Kanal and I don't recall the Russians being mentioned. Yet the film literally follows uprising fighters into numerous dead ends, both physical and mental, as if to say there was never any hope for this revolt. Maybe Wajda was just making an anti-war film, since there's little inspiring or worthy of emulation here. Outside of Japanese cinema I've hardly seen military defeat portrayed so definitively.

Kanal opens on an epic scale, showing itself a technical tour-de-force of tracking shots and composition in depth as we meet the unit we'll follow to the bitter end as they hustle carefully from one position to another. Wajda's directorial proficiency compares favorably with Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but Wajda gets to top Kurbick, at least on the technical level, with dangerous looking scenes of urban destruction as our heroes bug out under fire.  The plan ultimately is to race through the sewers (hence the Polish title) and break out and disperse in a safer part of the city. Our group is broken up into smaller units, each with its own storyline. Each story features some sort of physical or mental breakdown or breakdown of solidarity. A musician (Vladek Sheybal, who went on to an extensive English-language career) wants to contribute and also seeks creative inspiration; he gets the latter at the apparent cost of his sanity. An officer has been having an affair with a young female messenger; in a moment of stress he drives her to suicide by panicking and begging to live for his wife's sake. A commander is one of the very few to make it out, with one loyal soldier, after one more has cleared their way by being blown up; when his last follower reveals that there are no others left, and that he'd hidden that fact to keep up the officer's morale, the officer shoots him and jumps back into the sewer. Another man appears to make it, but finds the surface surrounded by Germans and prisoners in a scene shot with the brutal narrative clarity of a cartoon. The most heroic and competent character is a civilian female, Daisy, an almost too-good-to-be-true sewer-rat amazon (Teresa Izewska, who to my surprise, according to IMDB made only ten films before dying at 49), who just about literally carries a feverish, delirious man through the muck, only to run up against possibly the cruelest reality. She's found a way to the Vistula river, the most likely way to safety, yet the exit is barred by a metal grate. It's too big to be kicked away, and Wajda makes it sadly clear that Daisy can't squeeze her head through the bars. If Kanal is one part Alamo, it's also inescapably one part Third Man, and the so-close-and-yet-so-far hopelessness that comes with that comes through most eloquently when Daisy reaches the end of her trail. Was all of this worth it? Maybe if you're a Pole that's a question you just don't ask, and if the alternative is submission to the Nazis I suppose any question is moot. But once you watch Kanal you can't help wondering for the characters' sake. That might not make it an anti-war film, but it's certainly one of the most intimately humane war films I've ever seen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: NOW AND FOREVER (1934)

Henry Hathaway's film for Paramount opened across the country over the late summer and early fall of 1934. It was the end of the Pre-Code era and the beginning of the Code Enforcement or "Classic Hollywood" period. Its title is appropriately vague for this liminal moment. The picture was going to be called "Honor Bright," as I guessed after stars Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple had said the phrase about a dozen times over. Maybe that was still too corny for 1934, but in any event the vagueness of the final title is also appropriate for three stars -- the other is Carole Lombard -- who still weren't quite fully formed by this transitional year. You might think of Shirley Temple as a nemesis of Pre-Code, but she wasn't born that way. She was actually a creature of Pre-Code, the star of the bizarre Baby Burlesks series of short subjects, in which she often played miniature vamp types, before she hit the big time. Her transformation was under way -- Stand Up and Cheer and Little Miss Marker had come out earlier in 1934 -- but if she is virtually the Shirley Temple we know, Now and Forever is not yet a Shirley Temple picture. She got the most publicity, but Gary Cooper is the star on the title card and Lombard is billed ahead of Temple, and Hathaway dares to cut away from a Temple song and dance bit -- she performs "The World Owes Me a Living" -- to follow Cooper's more interesting activities. More importantly, the particular Shirley magic that prevails in her own star vehicles doesn't work here. Now and Forever is a last-gasp Pre-Code film not because of anything outrageous but because it resists her power to inspire (or compel) happy endings. Her spunk and cuteness does not bring a family together.

In the Pre-Code era Gary Cooper had not yet been cast as a cowboy or cowboy in modern dress. Here he is an international con man, Jerry Day, who we meet trying to con his way out of heavy hotel bill in Shanghai. Having been warned that an auditor is expected who will deal with delinquent guests, Jerry goes out to a print shop, has a business card made, and introduces himself to unfamiliar hotel staff as the auditor. They give him their ledger to inspect, and he uses it to intimidate other deadbeat guests into making settlement payments to him personally. After paying his own bill he and his girlfriend Toni (Lombard) quit town as Jerry seeks his next score. He's expecting a big payday that'll let them settle down for a while. He had a daughter by a first wife (he's a widower) now being raised by her relatives. Jerry thinks the in-laws will be glad to be rid of him for $75,000, but when he arrives at the family compound to cut the deal, he finds himself captivated by little Penelope (Temple) and decides to keep her. At first glance it's a triumph of family values but it's also further proof of Jerry's recklessly impulsive nature. That ambiguity persists as Jerry and Toni -- initially skittish but soon won over, wanting to settle down herself -- struggle to raise Penny as a good little girl. "Honor bright" is their code for truth-telling as Jerry and Penny test each other constantly.

Now and Forever dares raise the possibility that Shirley Temple can be corrupted. It's a mild corruption, admittedly, but when Jerry sees Penny conning another kid out of a pair of roller skates it's our first inkling that things aren't going to work out for this would-be family. He honor-brights her into giving the skates back, but then it's his turn to go bad again as he falls under the influence of an unsavory character who recruits him to steal a prestigious necklace from a prominent society woman. That's what he's up to while Penny sings the story of the grasshopper and the ants. Finding Penny's teddy bear in the same room as his prize, he stuffs the necklace inside the bear, assuming that it and Penny won't be searched. Getting the bear back, Penny suspects something funny but with an "honor bright" Jerry denies doing anything to her toy. When the bear falls out of her bed and the necklace pops out of its poorly sewn pocket Penny is devastated; her dad is a liar. Now Toni steps in; unable to stand the thought of Penny hating her father, she takes the blame for the robbery, but this only starts a race of renunciation that the studio originally meant to end by literally sending Jerry over a cliff. Jerry now realizes that he's not right for Penny and he arranges for her to be more or less adopted by the same society lady he'd robbed, but not before having a gunfight with the man who set him up. The film climaxes on a note of pathos as Jerry and Toni see Penny off, telling the girl that they're going very far away and won't be able to contact her for a very long time, Jerry all the while struggling to hide any evidence of the grave wound he suffered in the gunfight. Penny goes off none the wiser and oddly untraumatized by this impending long separation, and Jerry collapses in Toni's arms. Jerry's death reportedly was filmed but rejected by appalled preview audiences. Instead, the film ends with Jerry apparently recovering and assured of at least Toni's company in years to come, while Penny presumably finds her own destiny on another path.

If Cooper and Temple became avatars of goodness of different sorts soon after this, a coincidence of movie history saw Carole Lombard unleashed to go wild at the very moment of Code Enforcement thanks to the advent of her defining genre of screwball comedy. Now and Forever catches her before that happened, leaving her the least interesting of the star trio. Cooper doesn't seem like the con-man type, but if you think about it, why should con men conform to a type? In any event, his main role here is the self-aware irresponsible dad who realizes at last that he's not going to get everything he wants in life, and he plays that pretty well. Shirley Temple was simply a freak, more than holding her own against proven charismatic stars at the age of six. In its resistance to her momentum this film is like a rock against the tides, submerged repeatedly but always reappearing. Ultimately it's a movie of more historical than aesthetic interest, but its capture of a transitional moment for its stars and American cinema as a whole makes it kind of compelling to watch all the same.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

DVR Diary: THE EMIGRANTS (Utvandrarna, 1971-2)

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Jan Troell's Utvandrarna was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film of 1971, but lost to Vittorio De Sica's Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. saw something marketable in Troell's tale, adapted from the first in a series of Swedish novels by Vilhelm Moberg, of immigrants struggling for a better life in America than they'd endured in the old country. Warners lopped something like 40 minutes off the original running time, leaving it approximately 150 minutes long, and re-released it both with English subtitles and in a full English dub to which stars Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann contributed their own voices. As The Emigrants Utvandrarna became one of the few movies nominated for Oscars in multiple years, with Troell nominated for direction and his contribution to the adapted screenplay -- he also did the cinematography and editing -- and Ullmann nominated for Best Actress. There was a nomination in the main Best Picture category as well this time, but awards night was a wipeout, as 1972 was the year of The Godfather and Cabaret. Still, Warners felt they had found something in Troell, who already had a sequel ready to roll and would finally report to Hollywood to make a real western, Zandy's Bride, with Ullmann, for the studio. Well, it was the Seventies and the public was in the mood, so it was resumed, for revisionist views of the American experience. Troell was the man for the job, for if anything his portrait of his homeland, presumably reflecting the viewpoint of an author who would commit suicide at arguably the moment of his greatest global fame, in 1973, is far less flattering than what little we get of America in the final act of The Emigrants.

The early acts, set in some rural backwater, are reminiscent of the more sordid revisionist westerns made by Americans. Equally far from the Swinging Sweden of the X-rated imagination or the austere Symbolist landscape of Ingmar Bergman, the Sweden of Utvandrarna is a filthy place from which anyone in his right mind would want to escape. Farmer Karl-Oskar (Von Sydow) can't support his wife Kristina (Ullmann) and their growing brood of kids -- they argue frequently over who's to blame for the expansion -- on his rocky soil. The couple ends up leading a little band of losers and outcasts -- two brothers, one of whom is cruelly accused of making love to his heifer, as well as dissident members of a local church congregation -- across the Atlantic in a wretched, life-threatening passage. In America, they struggle to make their way to the open, fertile country, depending on one man reading phrasebook sentences to strangers in the hope of getting directions. It's here that the absurdity of an English dub becomes apparent. In this format, we get the emigrants asking their English expert, in English, to ask for directions; he asks and is answered, and the emigrants ask, in English, what the American, in English, had said. That aside, I can see why Warners went for it, especially since Von Sydow and Ullmann were by then fluent in English, though it also means that the dubbed film suffers a little from the sense that the words are spoken in a vacuum, while the obvious presence of omnipresent voiceover actor Paul Frees among the voice artists undercuts the naturalist authenticity Troell was aiming for.

Around the world, it seems, the Seventies were a golden age of cinematic naturalism, providing aesthetic justification for the pervasive mud and dysfunctional personalities of revisionist westerns and genre revisionism in general. Audiences seemed to want to see the world and its people warts and all, scrubbed clean (ironically speaking) of the romanticism of generations of genre. Before the decade was out, the rigors of such films as Utvandrarna left audiences ready for romance again, but if the squalor of Sweden wasn't alienating enough, Troell filmed the story in an anecdotal rather than dramatic narrative manner, without character arcs or film-length conflicts or courtships to tighten its focus. Perhaps appropriately, that narrative style may have made the film authentically foreign for Americans, whether they saw it subtitled or dubbed. In any event, audiences were more adventurous then, or so we think when idealizing the Seventies, and Troell's grim chronicle is convincing and compelling enough to make me eager to see The New Land, the sequel, at some point. More immediate on my agenda, however, is a TCM showing later this month of Zandy's Bride, which should make for interesting comparisons if nothing else. Watch for a DVR Diary review, coming soon to this blog.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Omar Sharif (1932-2015)

Sharif had the sort of career that may be impossible today. In the 1960s the Egyptian became the all-purpose ethnic type par excellence. His like hadn't been seen since silent movies. From then to his time there had been plenty of all-purpose ethnics, but most of them were character actors. Eli Wallach was a late example of this sort. Sharif was an all-purpose ethnic leading man, as he had been a leading man in Egyptian cinema (as in Man in Our House, above) before David Lean called him to glory. Lean did the obvious thing and cast Sharif as an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia, and then did a more daring thing and made Sharif the lead in Doctor Zhivago. He was a Russian in a film where the other principal Russians were played by English or American actors. From that point he was all over the place. In the same year as Zhivago he played Genghis Khan. During the remainder of the decade he played a German officer (in an American film), a Spaniard (in an Italian film), a Jewish-American, an Austrian prince, a Mexican bandit, an Italian lawyer, and Che Guevara. Any part other than a black man or an outright WASP seemed open to him. At his peak, Sharif was an embodiment of the globalization of cinema, but that may have undermined his credibility over time. He may have seemed deracinated, a kind of artificial person, the more he became an exemplary citizen of cinema. In later life he was reduced to "authentic" Arab roles, for Americans most prominently a decade ago in Hidalgo. Would his sort of chameleonic versatility be permissible today? Most likely not on his scale. We're inconsistent in our desire for authenticity. The more fantastic we get the more permissive and "inclusive" we become. Certain ethnicities probably would have been off-limits to him, either on aesthetic principles or because he would otherwise be depriving a more appropriate actor of a paying job. He might have been allowed to play a Norse god or do Shakespearean roles, but if he did Mackenna's Gold or Che! today he'd probably be picketed. It's disheartening to imagine a young Sharif today typecast as a Muslim terrorist (he was born Christian), yet that most likely would have been his fate without the daring of a Lean who could see him, as most directors see Englishmen, as more than his ethnicity. In his peak years Sharif's versatility and success surely seemed progressive. His passing leaves us wondering whether we've progressed much further since then.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

DVR Diary: THE TOLL OF THE SEA (1922-85)

Chester M. Franklin's film was neither the first color feature nor Anna Mae Wong's film debut, but its place in history depends on its early use of both Technicolor and Wong. It's not just a technological milestone but a document on race relations spotlighting a pioneer Asian-American actress. Wong was only 17 when Toll of the Sea came out, making male lead Kenneth Harlan a transgressor by modern standards as well as one, for different reasons, by the standards of his time. The story, by future Oscar winner Frances Marion, is kin to stuff like D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms in its presentation of a sympathetic Oriental as an object of pathos. It's more obviously kin to Madame Butterfly in its portrayal of an American who loves and leaves an Asian woman. The redundantly named Lotus Flower (Wong) gets Harlan virtually dumped in her lap when he washes ashore without explanation in her coastal village. He's handsome, she's pretty, and in 1922 Hollywood lets nature take its course. Inevitably the white man's idyll must end and he must take up responsibilities, including marriage, back home. He must leave Lotus Flower, and their son (who takes after the father) behind with a blithe promise of his eventual return. Lotus Flower's faith in that promise, and her hope that he'll take her to America with him eventually, makes her something of a laughingstock in her village, where one woman boasts sardonically that she's been forgotten by four American husbands already. LF doesn't help her situation by writing fake letters to herself to read to her boy, in which "hubby" boasts of his success and promises anew to return. Who's laughing now, however, when Harlan does return? Unfortunately, he's brought his wife along with the thought of making a clean breast of everything to both the women he's loved. Naturally, LF is crushed, but selflessly she seeks to avoid further embarrassment for Harlan by denying that the little white kid who clings to her is her (and thus his) son. He's the kid of the neighborhood missionaries, she says -- but Mrs. Harlan (Beatrice Bentley) isn't buying that. Fortunately, she's a good sport, and the film, to its credit, emphasizes that both women are good women whose natural empathy allows the American to understand the truth without rancor. The right thing to do seems to be for LF to turn the boy over to the Harlans, her noble lie now being that she was only ever his nurse. That done, we come up against the title of the film. The white man had been the sea's gift to Lotus Flower, and now she must pay the sea's toll with her life. In the new footage shot in 1985 (with 1922 tech) to replace a missing final reel, we have tasteful shots of the ocean waves and a title card explaining what LF is going to do. I don't know whether the original ending was as tasteful, and in any event this resolution can't help but be distasteful by modern standards.

In its own time I suppose the film was progressive in its solicitation of sympathy for a Chinese girl, though it is also inescapably condescending toward her naivete, which extends to her antiquated notion of American fashion. But insofar as Toll of the Sea is a tearjerker and a textbook example of silent-era pathos, it exposes the complacency behind pathos. Whether it's the hopeless dream of a Chinese girl or the hopeless dream of a tramp, the point of pathos seems to be: you don't have a chance; you never can; you never will. Pathos stands quietly weeping at the insurmountable social barrier separating otherwise deserving heroes and heroines from their due. There may have been something realistic about it, but it's the sort of realism that often takes too much for granted. It's one thing to pity Lotus Flower, as 1922 audiences certainly did, and another, most likely, to think she deserved better and should have demanded it. It's the difference between watching this and thinking it's sad and watching it and thinking it's wrong. That Marion and Franklin didn't necessarily intend the latter response doesn't make Toll a bad film --especially given Wong's precocious star quality and the spectacle of its blazingly restored (or enhanced) Technicolor -- but it does mean they could have made a better one, morally if not aesthetically. But if you concede that they could do no better back then, I suppose that only adds to the pathos of the thing.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Walt Disney was a notorious political reactionary, but at least he knew which side was the right side in the Civil War. By comparison, Buster Keaton, who made arguably the greatest film set in the Civil War, once said it was hard to make the Union the good guys in that setting. His thinking seems to have been that the Confederacy was the archetypal underdog battling gallantly against overwhelming force, and that no one wants to root for the overwhelming force. In Keaton's defense, The General is no brief for the Confederacy; you root for Buster as the Reb hero because he's one guy against overwhelming odds, not out of any belief in states' rights or the goodness of slavery. Disney's Great Locomotive Chase, directed by Oscar-winning editor Francis D. Lyon and a product of an era when "Disney live-action film" meant "cool adventure movie" rather than "tasteless pabulum for the whole family," is a mirror-universe version of The General, based on the same historical events but choosing the Union men who stole the train known as The General as its heroes. While Walt's heart was in the right place, it's still a strange decision because Lyon ended up making a film about failure. This time we see that the Union team led by James J. Andrews (Fess Parker) went up against overwhelming odds themselves, and lost.

It must have been a worrisome film for Parker, Disney's Davy Crockett, to make so soon after seeming to become a superstar, because it must have seemed as if Disney was typecasting him as a doomed hero. More worrisome still may have been the way Jeffery Hunter, in effect playing the Keaton role, not only steals the train back but quite nearly steals the film from Parker, as if to prove that Keaton's choice of hero was more dramatically correct if not politically correct. Using the character's real name, William Fuller, rather than Keaton's Johnnie Gray, Hunter plays it straight and more realistic, yet with some of Keaton's indomitable determination. Keaton was making a comedy that is also arguably the first action movie as we understand the concept today, and it was important in both respects that he retake his train alone. As Fuller, Hunter has help every step of the way, but is the indisputable leader and motivator of his little band. He's at his most Keatonesque early on in the chase, when he initially, madly goes after the General on foot until he and the men trailing behind him find a handcar. The film as a whole is often Keatonesque in its commitment to authenticity -- Disney sent Lyon down to the actual historic locations in Georgia -- and an aversion to fakery for the most part. The history simply lends itself to a certain epic manner of filmmaking, but while Keaton made it into a comic epic Disney, Lyon and screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin made a thriller undermined by that same history, lurching from suspense to suspense as the Union team is nearly exposed or fails yet again to thwart Fuller's pursuit, until it succumbs to cumulative anticlimax, while Keaton used the actual events as a springboard for advanced slapstick.

Shackling themselves to history, the Disney team must give up the locomotive chase with something like a half-hour left in the picture. We're set up to expect a desperate escape back to Union lines, but Parker's whole gang is promptly captured -- most of them, including Parker himself, offscreen. The film then builds toward a mass prison break that serves only to resolve the character arc of a supporting player -- Jeff York apparently was cast in this role because he'd been Mike Fink to Parker's Crockett -- and while the idea is for Andrews and the other guy to give the others time to flee, most of them -- though not the relatively dull fellow who narrates the story and receives one of the first Medals of Honor -- are rounded up offscreen and herded back to prison to be hanged. It was all worthwhile, we're told at the end, because it diverted Confederate troops to railroad guard duty, but the film leaves you with not so much an appreciation of heroic sacrifice as pity for Andrews and the other losers. The film's self-defeating quality, its many pictorial virtues notwithstanding, leave you wondering whether Disney, eager as a train enthusiast to make a film about the chase, felt he couldn't make Fuller the hero because he thought Keaton might have been able to sue. In the end, historical accuracy is the only advantage Great Locomotive Chase has over The General. The later film can't help but look like a rough draft of the former, despite Technicolor and Cinemascope, in part because Keaton was so far ahead of his time as an action filmmaker but also because, thirty years before Disney, he had already remade tragedy as farce.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Too Much TV: iZOMBIE (2015-?)

DC Comics' conquest of broadcast television has been a multipronged assault. After establishing a beachhead for mainstream superheroes with Arrow, and while The Flash and Gotham consolidated that front, the comics empire tageted the supernatural audience with characters identified with its more adult Vertigo imprint. First came the unjustly neglected and canceled Constantine, featuring a character who's bounced between Vertigo and DC proper since Alan Moore created him. Infinitely better than the Keanu Reeves movie by virtue of Reeves' absence, the TV Constantine suffered from its placement in the genre death zone of Friday night; NBC had tried a Dracula show in the same slot the year before and failed. The CW was more careful with its Vertigo show, debuting it in the spring with the already-established Flash as its lead-in on Tuesday night. In another respect CW was more reckless. iZombie can at most claim to be inspired by the comics series written by Chris Roberson and drawn by Michael Allred. The inspiration extends this far: like the comics, the show features an attractive, sentient zombie who acquires the memories of the people whose brains she eats. I've only browsed at the comics, and I'm glad for that because I had no cause for prejudice when TV creator Rob Thomas (of Veronica Mars fame) departed so nearly completely from the comics concepts. The iZombie comics take place in a full-scale supernatural demimonde, in which the heroine shares an apartment Being Human style with a ghost and a friendly lycanthrope -- or canithrope, I guess, since he's called a were-terrier. Right there I think the comics were getting a little whimsical for my taste. By stark contrast, Liv Moore (former Power Ranger Rose McIver) -- that isn't even the comics character's name, though it should have been! -- and the fellow zombies she eventually encounters are, so far as we know by the end of the first season, the only monster phenomena in their city of Seattle. That seems appropriate; the modern-day flesh or brain-eating zombie is usually a phenomenon unto itself rather than part of any paranormal fantasyland, the better for the zombie horde to serve as metaphor for societal breakdown or something likewise relevant to the world we live in. Early ads offered Liv as "the face of the zombie apocalypse," and the show presents Seattle as Ground Zero, or more accurately a Ground Zero waiting to happen. The show's masterstroke is this slow-burn approach to its metaplot. Things seem anything but apocalyptic, but as the show marches on the feeling grows that one false move could change things drastically. The sting to it is that that false move could well be the thing we've wanted to see happen: the villain's comeuppance.

iZombie is a traditional genre show of the sort that Daredevil and like programs threaten to render obsolete. It's very much an "of the week" program, giving us a problem to solve that is solved in every episode while building the metaplot gradually. While the comics protagonist gets her brains because she works in a cemetery, on TV Liv, once an aspiring doctor, becomes an assistant coroner for the police department, almost immediately revealing her condition to her supervisor, the sympathetic Ravi (Rahul Kohli), who goes to work seeking a cure. Because she ends up eating the brains of murder victims, Liv finds that their memories are useful to solving their murders. She becomes an informal adviser to Detective Clive Babinaeux (Malcolm Goodwell), who accepts her account of psychic powers since it seems to work. Liv helps Clive solve a mystery each week, and each episode is made more distinctive by her acquiring personality traits of the murder victims, which may be another idea original to the show. This gives McIver plenty of comic opportunities to do broad character types, though not in a overboard sitcom way. Liv has become a gun nut, an alcoholic, a stoner, reverted to teenage, and so on. All of this complicates her personal life, already problematic because of her initial alienation following her infection and "death." She distanced herself from her lawyer roommate Peyton (Aly Michalka) and broke off her engagement to Major (Robert Buckley), an affable but increasingly hapless lunkhead of a social worker. Having found purpose in her police work, she becomes more outgoing again, but this only puts the people she cares for most in danger.

There's a murderer every week, but the villain of the series and its most ingeniously conceived character is Blaine (David Anders), who may or may not be the Patient Zero of the coming zombie plague. He starts out as a drug dealer pushing the show's mystery drug, Utopium, which may or may not be a factor in his becoming a zombie. He infects Liv by scratching her at a boat party, and at first he's the only other zombie she knows of. In time, we learn that he has become a zombie master, refreshingly on a gangster model. He's less interested in eating brains, which he must just the same, than in infecting people and making them dependent on him for their new necessities. He's turned a diverse group of people, from the predictably wealthy to a police lieutenant for protection purposes to a rock musician who becomes Liv's lover. He gets his brains from street kids, mostly -- which eventually puts Major on his trail -- though as more people discover the effects of brain-eating he begins to take requests. Immediately you can see the precariousness of his situation. What stops anyone from getting brains on their own? The simple answer is Blaine and his enforcers, whom we see eliminate both minions who try to go freelance and an impatient client who kills one of his couriers. But as Liv begins to realize the truth about Blaine and gains extra motivation to take him down, as his more powerful customers grow more demanding, and as Major pieces together the evidence, at the risk of his sanity, and tries to become a monster hunter, we begin to worry about the implications of Blaine's removal, which he's glad to explain to save his neck. And of course the season ends by bringing us to the crumbling edge of that cliff, though not in the way we necessarily expected.

iZombie still hasn't shown its full hand yet. The next season, starting this fall, is sure to take up the unfinished business of the dangerous energy drink Max Rager, its sociopathic entrepreneur (Steven Weber) and its possible role in the zombie outbreak. Its initial short season was nearly perfectly paced to get us waiting for more while wrapping up its initial storyline in a way that managed to be both satisfying and worrisome. On a week-to-week level, the show mostly succeeded in balancing its comic, procedural and fantasy elements, while retaining an ability to surprise if not shock us. The summer break leaves us asking mostly the right questions, the ones the writers want us to ask. If there's any serious flaw in their conception, it's the way Liv and other zombies can go into "full zombie mode," and out, seemingly at will. At moments of stress, Liv goes red-eyed and seems to Hulk out, gaining superhuman strength and agility and acting on almost mindless instinct. The first few times we saw this, they teased that Liv was on the brink of losing control and attacking innocent people, but increasingly it seemed that she could simply turn it off, or else it turned itself off, as if an adrenalin rush burned off the zombie rage in her. This seems a little too convenient, unless the writers have an answer up their sleeve tied in to the actual source of this show's zombieism. But this is a show that encourages you to trust the writers to come up with something. It's been a great showcase for Rose McIver and a redemption, as far as I'm concerned, for David Anders, whose storyline in the second season of Heroes was the beginning of that show's steep decline. As Major, Robert Buckley really came into his own as his storyline became more intense and he became the one character who saw things in their true horrible dimensions and tried, at first almost pathetically but later with something like Travis Bickle's zeal, to do something about it. For me, this was the best new genre show of the spring, and the best thing about is that after thirteen episodes it feels like it's just getting started.