Saturday, February 28, 2015

On the Big Screen: LEVIATHAN (2014)

Nearly every review of Andrei Zvyagintsev's film comments on the picture of Vladimir Putin hanging in a crooked mayor's office as he negotiates the payment of blackmail to a Moscow lawyer who has dirt on him. But the film's real comment on Russia's prime minister comes during a drunken picnic as the guys plan some target practice. After the birthday boy spoiled the first round by taking out a row of vodka bottles with an AK-47, he brings out a series of portraits of past Soviet leaders for the next round. We see Lenin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, et al, while the collector mentions that he has a picture of Boris Yeltsin, whom he considers a small fry. As for the present generation (i.e. Putin), he says: let them ripen on the wall for a while. In other words, the jury is still out on the country's current controversial leader. Some outsiders expect every Russian cultural product to reflect on Putin in some way, since so many people abroad seem to obsess over him. In this case, Leviathan's corrupt, drunken, thuggish mayor should represent a thuggish corruption unique to Putin's Russia. If anything, however, Zyagintsev is part of a much older Russian cultural tradition that's as self-critical (if not "self hating") as any American trend. He may be a 21st century Dostoevsky, except that he seems to spurn, or at least keep a critical distance from spiritual solace. Meanwhile, Russians may not have the same tradition of anti-government thinking that we have in the U.S., and may not take one corrupt politician to represent politicians or rulers as a whole. Rather, there's a long "If the Tsar only knew" tradition that holds individual politicians rather than the central government responsible for local corruption. Zvyagintsev clearly sees something very wrong with Russia, but he most likely thinks it was wrong long before Putin came along.

Ironically, Zyagintsev, who won a screenplay award at Cannes but lost Best Foreign Film to Ida at the Oscars, claims to have been inspired by an American tragedy. If so, his Russification of the story includes a telling difference. In the American case, an aggrieved property owner attacked his municipal government with an armored bulldozer before the cops shot him down. That seems like a characteristically American climax somehow. In Leviathan, the aggrieved property owner, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), doesn't get to go so dramatically berserk. He takes out his frustrations on his straying second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), only to end up apparently framed for her murder when her suicide looks more likely to us. The drunken thuggish mayor (Roman Madyadov) wants Kolya's land and has manipulated the law to drive him off with a payment far below the property's value. Kolya's old army buddy Dima is the Moscow lawyer who appears to save the day by blackmailing the mayor. But everything falls apart as Dima starts an affair with Lillia, only to be discovered by Kolya's borderline-delinquent son Roma (Sergei Prokhodaev) at the picnic. Dima's defeat is complete when the mayor and his goons beat him up, tease his execution-style murder and leave him tied up in a ditch miles away from town. Lilya has a chance to go to Moscow with Dima but chooses to return to Kolya despite his drunken threat to kill her. He wants to reconcile but Roma has always hated his stepmother and his eavesdropping on some rough reconciliation sex in the basement sends him over the edge, and eventually does likewise for Lilya. Kolya's only recourse is drunken despair. A priest compares him to Job -- hence Leviathan as in "Can you bait Leviathan with a fishhook," though the presence of whales and whale bones in this coastal town also justify the title. Job's problem, the priest says, was that he was preoccupied with the meaning of life, the point being that only God can figure that out and that Kolya should stop sulking and stewing over his grievances and misfortunes. Faith, then, is Kolya's only hope, except that he's off to jail for fifteen years while a brand-new church rises where Kolya's home once stood.

What solace can the church offer if its foundation is built on crime? Leviathan gives us starkly different visions of the church, contrasting the priest who attempts to console Kolya, and who collects day-old bread from the store for the poor, with a more worldly prelate who acts as the mayor's spiritual advisor and gets to consecrate the new church building. The poor priest challenges Kolya's despair, answering his "where was your god?" question with: My god is doing fine; how about yours? Yet Zvyagintsev makes even this presumably well-meaning divine somewhat repellent by visually equating his distribution of bread with the slopping of hogs. I don't know if that was his intent, but the juxtaposition definitely is intentional, though the point may be that people are hogs, not that religion is slop. Leviathan certainly portrays a squalid Russia, one that seems to run on vodka, and for which there are no easy alternatives. The most a Russian might say in his country's defense is that Zvyagintsev is more misanthrope than self-hater. If so, he's a curiously reticent misanthrope, at least by American standards. His preference is to distance us from violence if he can't avoid showing it. We don't see the fight at the picnic in which Kolya beats up Lilya and Dima, for instance, while we see Dima beaten up by the mayor's goons from behind the windshield of a car with its radio playing. Spiritual brutalization rather than violence seems to be his subject, and the overall tone of the film isn't distant in the American satiric style that often seems condescending. Leviathan is too empathetic and indignant for satire. Zvyagintsev sparks our anger over Kolya's treatment and encourages us to hold on to it by denying him or us a catharsis. If the church's answers are unsatisfactory, it's up to his Russian audience to think of something themselves. It's enough for us foreigners to understand that "get rid of Putin" isn't answer enough for the problems Leviathan diagnoses. While the film is inescapably about Russia on some level, I think global audiences will appreciate this worthy film more if they recognize the universality of the human conditions it portrays instead of striving to see it as a political statement.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


George Bancroft broke into unlikely stardom in his mid-forties, at the end of the silent era. He was the big burly type who personified manliness for some audiences, a sort of sexier Wallace Beery. Bancroft had the benefit of working with up-and-coming director Josef von Sternberg in two silent classics, Underworld and The Docks of New York, and in his second talkie, Thunderbolt. John Cromwell directed The Mighty, Bancroft's third talkie and third starring role in 1929. Bancroft plays a gangster transformed by war. Blake Greeson gets his draft notice in 1917 but ignores it while planning a bank robbery to impress gang leader Shiv Sterky (Warner "Charlie Chan" Oland). Blake may not be interested in war, but war is interested in him. To be precise, a small squad of soldiers catches up with him at a local dive and effectively presses him into service, though not without a barroom brawl.

Greeson actually takes well to war, and so does the movie. World War I may have been a plague on mankind, but it was a godsend to film directors. The Mighty is no All Quiet on the Western Front, but Cromwell shoots some impressive overhead tracking shots of soldiers crossing No Man's Land. The war is a proving ground for both Greeson and Jerry Patterson, a gung-ho but "nervous" young lieutenant who envies Greeson's strength and courage but despises his attitude. Greeson gets promoted ahead of Patterson, which seems to prove to both men that you have to think the way Greeson thinks -- like a thug -- in order to do what he can do. But Greeson rethinks his assumptions when Patterson overcomes his nervousness and several wounds to take out a German machine-gun nest, at the cost of his own life.

The Mighty seems poised to be a more ambitious film than it actually ends up being. After the Armistice Greeson returns to America and goes to Patterson's home town. One of his old cronies, Dogey Franks (Raymond Hatton), is on board the train and is stunned to see his pal treated as a war hero. Blake is just about as stunned by the impromptu ceremony at the train station, during which he's given the proverbial key to the city. Dogey playfully heckles Greeson during the march through the station, but he also takes the key-to-the-city concept a little too literally, believing that Blake now has an in to all the town's riches. Blake himself is clearly troubled by the honors heaped upon him. Cromwell films the walk through the station with a tracking shot similar to the war scenes, then cuts to a point-of-view shot as Greeson discovers Patterson's sister (Esther Ralston) sitting in a car waiting to convey him to the family home. The director effectively conveys that this is a moment of dread for Greeson without requiring Bancroft to explain it to the audience by emoting.

At this point the film gives in to melodrama. The city fathers convince Greeson to become their chief of police, believing him eminently qualified by virtue of killing Germans to clean up their town. Blake continues to wear his army uniform on his new job, both as a reminder of the real source of his authority and a sign of his ambivalence toward his position. Dogey has drawn Shiv Starkey and the rest of the gang to town in the expectation that Blake will throw it wide open to them. That's Blake's idea also, after first cleaning up the native criminal element to establish his bona fides. But as Blake falls in love with Louise Patterson, he feels more compelled to live up to the image her brother created in his letters to her. It sounds like Jerry built him up as a total hero, though the cynical attitude toward war Blake expresses to her might bely that. The war was just a big gang fight to Greeson, but Louise shares what we assume was Jerry's belief that something more was at stake. Right or wrong, won't someone always fight for his gang? Aren't you a traitor if you go against the gang? Louise answers by citing not Benedict Arnold but George Washington. He was a traitor to Great Britain, but for the right cause. The gears in Blake's head have already been turning but this conversation accelerates them.

In the end it's not so different from the western archetype of the fugitive outlaw who becomes sheriff in a town where the people don't know him and ends up driving off or shooting down his erstwhile outlaw buddies. Subtler points about Blake Greeson's readjustment are lost amid the cliches, while the dialogue gets corny in a way that weighs down the actors. Bancroft is loose and natural in the early scenes, but turns stiff and ponderous in heroic mode, while seeing Warner Oland as a gangster makes it a good thing he found work on the other side of the law. The Mighty starts strong but sputters to its finish. It may have been an omen for Bancroft's career as a leading man, which hadn't long to go.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Too Much TV: ARROW (2012-present)

On the big screen, it is a notorious fact that DC Comics and its corporate parent Warner Bros. have fallen far behind Marvel Comics and its corporate parent Disney in exploiting the full potential of its comic book universe. Despite the massive success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, by the time Nolan was done Marvel had surged past DC and Warners, with The Avengers outgrossing The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Worse, Nolan left DC no hooks on which to hang a universe, and so Warners had to start from scratch, with Nolan's help, with 2013's Man of Steel, and now has to wait until 2016 for a full-scale universe rollout with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Part of the problem for DC was that their first effort to launch another movie franchise following the historic phenomenon of The Dark Knight was Martin Campbell's Green Lantern, a debacle on nearly every level made more embarrassing by Marvel's increasing success introducing relatively unfamiliar characters. As a writer and producer of Green Lantern, Greg Berlanti has a share of the blame for handicapping the DC cinematic universe. That makes it somewhat ironic that Berlanti deserves nearly all the credit for DC's dominance over Marvel on television. As of this fall he'll be personally responsible for three DC shows, out of a larger number on the air or in development, while Marvel struggles along with Agents of SHIELD. As DC continues to proliferate, Arrow's debut in Fall 2012 appears to mark a new era in genre television. A number of factors account for DC's TV success, and to date it's unclear how much Berlanti's production team really has to do with it.

One of DC's biggest advantages is actually Marvel's self-imposed handicap. Agents of SHIELD is a spinoff of Marvel's movie universe, and that automatically makes the show a kind of minor-league operation, occasionally blessed by the appearance of movie characters but limited by a presumed reluctance to "waste" Marvel's more interesting characters and concepts on television when they might make millions if not billions in movies. For DC, however, movies and television are separate universes that do not cross over. The movie Flash, for instance, will be played by someone other than Grant Gustin, who plays Flash on TV. While this disappoints some of Gustin's new fans who'd like to see him on the big screen, the benefit of separate universes is that nearly everything in DC's repertoire is available for use in both TV and movies. On Arrow, for instance, Ra's al-Ghul has emerged as a major antagonist despite being a Batman villain who figured prominently in Nolan's films, and a version of the Suicide Squad will exist parallel to the movie franchise scheduled to launch late next year. With the possible exception of Superman and Batman themselves (not counting Bruce Wayne as a child, as seen of the non-Berlanti Gotham show), everything is up for grabs in DC's TV universe. As a result, the TV universe doesn't automatically seem second rate the way Agents of SHIELD does as an appendage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can't say too much about SHIELD since I quit watching after the first four episodes. I'm told it's gotten much better since then, but the initial decision to base the show around original and initially uninteresting characters alienated me from the project. I couldn't help thinking that Joss Whedon & co. made up these new characters because more established characters were off-limits, while Greg Berlanti had far fewer constraints.

But if Berlanti had fewer restraints, Arrow's presence on the CW network imposed certain obligations. The CW was the home of the most successful superhero series ever, the Superman-prequel Smallville, but it's better known as a network with virtually a house genre tailored to a predominantly female audience. As with Smallville, there are more "soap opera" elements to Arrow than many male fans are comfortable with, just as there's arguably a greater preoccupation with beefcake than with cheesecake. It must have been disturbing to the still mainly male readership of DC Comics to see ads for Arrow highlighting its shirtless male stars during the show's second season. Less superficially, Arrow sets the tone for modern superhero shows by emphasizing the emotional complications and consequences of living with a secret identity, or with secrets of any sort. The necessity of a double life and its benefits for hero and loved ones alike are no longer taken for granted. Hardly an hour of Arrow goes by without characters freaking out over secrets that had been kept from them, secrets being equivalent to lies. Trust is always at stake. I'm assured that these issues really matter to female viewers, but I admit that the repetition of these themes sometimes leaves me longing for Hawksian professionalism as practiced by more grown-up characters. Ours is a less self-assured, less stoic culture, however, and in Nolan's term Arrow is arguably the hero or the show we deserve.

Arrow, of course, is based on Green Arrow, one of DC's oldest and longest-lasting characters. Created in 1941, GA was one of the few DC superheroes to be published uninterruptedly through the entire "Golden Age" of comics and into the "Silver Age" that began in the mid-1950s. The definitive form of the character didn't appear until 1969, when artist Neal Adams and writer Denny O'Neil turned Oliver Queen into a bearded radical, in attitude if not in conduct more like his ancient Robin Hood model. Berlanti's Oliver Queen bears little resemblance to that Green Arrow, but the show retains the traditional origin story in which Ollie (Stephen Amell) acquires his skills while stuck on a desert island. Since TV abhors a lone hero, however, Ollie has a number of teachers during his years on the island, most prominently Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett, playing a character borrowed from Teen Titans comics), an Australian special forces officer on a secret mission destined to become Arrow's nemesis in the second season. Arrow developed along Kung Fu lines, cross-cutting between Ollie's present-day vigilante adventures in Starling City and his younger self's struggles on the island. While the flashbacks are often thematically relevant, they also have a dramatic continuity of their own independent of Ollie's reminiscences. Since TV really abhors a lone hero, Ollie -- known initially as "the Hood" or "the Starling City Vigilante" before he settled on the show title in the second season -- gradually accumulated a little support network on top of a more extensive family than Queen had in the comics. He didn't get his traditional sidekick, Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) until late in the first season, but by that time he already had a competent wingman in erstwhile government agent and bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey) and a too-beautiful-to-be-true computer genius in Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). These helpers often give Ollie moral guidance, steering him away from his early execution-style vendetta against the city's corrupt elite ("You have failed this city!" was his catchphrase) toward less ambiguous heroism dedicated to protecting rather than punishing people.

During its first two season Arrow felt like a show that was evolving in ways its creators hadn't intended, but to their joy. The most likely departure from script was the mass shipping of Ollie and Felicity -- "Ollicity" in the obnoxious jargon of shipping -- at the expense of Ollie's original love interest, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy). The Lance name signaled that Laura was destined to become the Black Canary, Green Arrow's partner in crimefighting and romance, but only in the third season has Laurel donned that costume, inheriting it from a sister whose return from the seeming dead in the second season seemed like a delaying action until Cassidy was ready for the requirements of a heroic role. For the first two years of the show Laurel was probably its most hated character because she existed almost exclusively on a soap-opera level, and Ollicity filled the void as Rickards rose from occasional comic bit player to virtual co-star of the show. There seems to be an effort this year to undermine Ollicity now that Laurel is ready to play her destined role, but I don't care to predict how things will evolve on this front.

In any event, as an old comic book fan I watched the show for the action, which worked on a level unprecedented for TV superhero shows. The show's peak so far is the second half of the second season, when Slade Wilson (aka Deathstroke) emerged as a master villain and madman fuelled by a strength-enhancing drug and an obsession with punishing Ollie for the death of a woman Slade loved. Using a religious cult as a front, Slade built an army of superhuman killers, forcing Ollie and friends to get help from the as yet-unseen Ra's al-Ghul's League of Assassins to save Starling City from destruction from within and without as a frantic U.S. government considered extreme measures to contain Slade's army. The show has lost steam since then, and the return to prominence of the first season's Big Bad, Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman), is a troubling sign. Malcolm was the father of Ollie's best friend Tommy, who died in a Merlyn-engineered earthquake at the end of Season One, but in Season Two it was revealed during one of his brief appearances that he's also the father of Ollie's sister Thea (Willa Holland), an oft-troubled and sometimes addicted girl (whose nickname, "Speedy," was Roy Harper's in the early comics) whom Malcolm has trained to be a warrior if not a killer in his own image. Since family is very important on TV, I worry that Malcolm will be treated like family and thus become a permanent part of the show after already wearing out his welcome, despite the show's tease of a redemption arc for this mass murderer.With too much emphasis on Malcolm and Thea, Arrow could go the way of Heroes, the onetime phenomenon (now scheduled for a comeback) that grew tiresome for its refusal to move beyond its original villains and family dynamics. Arrow has never been a great show, but it has often been fun, yet it may be less fun the longer Malcolm hangs around and discourages the writers from trying new things.  There are troubling signs that they may not have had any real idea of what to do beyond the first two seasons. They're already assured of a fourth season, but they'll need to work harder than ever to deserve a fifth. That being said, Arrow's place in TV history is already assured, even if its progeny eventually surpass it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


William Wellman's red-scare drama for Twentieth Century-Fox has one of the most interesting soundtracks of the 1940s. Alfred Newman conducted and presumably curated a selection of themes duly credited to contemporary Soviet composers: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc. The idea seems to have been to craft a background musical portrait of Soviet communism. The music in the picture is both diegetic and non-diegetic. For laymen, that means some of the Soviet music is simply soundtrack (non-diegetic) and some is heard by the characters in the story. For instance, in the cipher office where Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews) works, music blares at all times for security reasons, so that people can't hear anything in adjoining offices. Later, another character hears a snatch of Shostakovich and identifies it as the first stirring of proletarian culture. For a non-diegetic example, during a moment of moral crisis Gouzenko hears voices from earlier scenes in the picture while we hear a particularly hellish bit from Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Throughout, the Soviet music is strident, turbulent, frenetic. The Iron Curtain soundtrack is a Fantasia of totalitarian themes and terror. Depending on your taste in classical music, it may be a more effective argument against Stalinism than the film itself.

The historic Iron Curtain was located by Winston Churchill in eastern Europe, but the Gouzenko story and the Iron Curtain movie take place in Canada. Gouzenko is assigned to the Soviet embassy in Ottowa as a cipher clerk while World War II is still in progress and the USSR is Canada's ally against Nazi Germany. The film shows the Soviets already looking ahead to a resumption of the irrepressible class struggle. Embassy workers and Canadian communists are shown recruiting people (including a member of parliament) to spy on their government and military, and later on the atomic bomb program under way in the U.S. Gouzenko is a loyal communist initially, despite an early mis-step when he recites to his new boss his actual personal background instead of the fake details that have been prepared for him. Gouzenko is warned not to make friends with Canadians, but that's no problem until his wife (Gene Tierney) is sent over to live with him. She can't help trying to make friends with neighbors, especially after their son is born. Occasionally they take walks through the city, once stopping awkwardly outside a church as hymns play inside. It's hard to tell what we're supposed to make of their apparent distress. Does the churchiness of it all disturb them in some way, or do they recognize this as something inviting yet forbidden to them? Later in the picture, an older Soviet observes that he's old enough to know what truth is, or was, while Gouzenko's generation isn't so lucky. That seems to be the screenplay's dig at Soviet atheism, but what's really subversive for the Gouzenkos is the sheer fact of family life. It makes them start to think of having lives of their own, which isn't part, apparently, of the Soviet program.

Gouzenko is increasingly uncomfortable with the embassy's involvement in atomic spying. To him and his wife it all seems to promise a new war so soon after the victory over Germany. Igor (many actors pronounce it "Eager") is also troubled by the breakdown of a colleague grown guilty over his role in state terror. That unfortunate is duly shipped back to Moscow -- it's a damning fact that no one looks forward to being recalled to the old country -- and when Igor learns that his family is to return home after he trains a replacement, the Gouzenkos make a personal decision to defect and a moral decision to expose the atomic spy network. What follows apparently follows fairly closely the events of their actual defection, which fortunately fits the framework of a "they won't believe me" thriller. The Gouzenkos are spurned by government, law enforcement and media, none of the above taking them seriously. In a historically accurate yet thematically significant detail, only when the embassy staff invades the sanctity of the Gouzenko home, having discovered his theft of damning documents, do the police take action to protect the defectors. Governments and other institutions may not be reliable, but at least our society -- Canada for this purpose being effectively an extension of the U.S. -- respects property and family when totalitarianism doesn't.

Like other anti-communist films, Iron Curtain isn't really ideological if that word leads you to expect a defense of capitalism against communism. Communism is primarily a political threat, the tyranny over humanity of a conspiratorial, paranoid party. Curtain is less a polemical or patriotic film than a kind of film noir, and while cinematographer Charles G. Clarke didn't work much in that genre he makes an effectively noirish impression here. Unfortunately, Gouzenko's story doesn't give Andrews much to work with, and Tierney gets even less, and the postwar Fox gimmick of portentous pseudo-documentary narration distances the audience further from the characters. Wellman directs anonymously; it really could have been anyone behind the camera and for all I know the job was a loyalty test like I Married A Communist was at RKO. The music really is the most interesting thing about the picture; it so overwhelms the mostly uninspired proceedings that audiences might have wondered who really had the more interesting culture. More likely they just found the music too loud.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

I watch too much TV

My blog productivity took a big dip last year. Part of that had to do with personal issues that no longer apply, but so far in 2015 I haven't gotten back up to speed. While my postings for 2012 and 2013 are inflated because many of those years' posts are based on newspaper clippings, I still feel that I'm not writing as much as I should. One enduring reason for this is that I've been reading more over the past year, though my reading in the pulps did result in several posts in 2014 and may still bear fruit in a new blog this year. The main stumbling block now is that I spend too much time watching TV, by which I mean TV shows rather than movies. Until about two years ago I was just about totally cut off from modern TV trends. I never watched The Sopranos or Breaking Bad; I've never seen an hour of Mad Men or The Wire. I caught a random hour of the first season of Game of Thrones, but instead of watching further I worked my way through the first of the novels last year and plan to start the second soon. I watched practically no series television from the time I started blogging until the fall of 2012, and then the balance started to tip the other way. TV gradually became more interesting if not better than it was before, until I found myself with less time to take screencaps or write reviews at the length and frequency I had taken for granted before. Something had to give -- and now I propose to give more space here to the shows I'm watching, to account for my interest in them. Don't come looking for the best shows on television, but I'll stick up for at least a couple of them as indisputably good if not great programs. Others may count as guilty pleasures, not just of the present but of the past as well. Much of what I'll review here is based on comic books, and I'll touch on the ways in which superhero stories are reshaped for TV formats and TV audiences, and the ways in which compulsive retellings reshape our modern folklore. Overall, my choice of subjects may disappoint many of the more committed connoisseurs of television, but I think they'll live up to our continuing mandate to explore a wild world of cinema. And of course, I'll continue to review movies, including newer theatrical releases once winter lets up around here and I feel like traveling more on weekends again. By the time I get all of this out of my system the main TV season will be over, and all other things being equal this blog should get back to normal, at least for the summer. For now, stay tuned.

Monday, February 16, 2015

DVR Diary: THE WEIRD MAN (1983)

The English title pretty accurately describes what you'll see in Chang Cheh's film, the last the legendary martial-arts director made for the Shaw Bros. studio, but I had a feeling the original Chinese title wouldn't be so tantalizingly prosaic. I ran the original through a couple of online translation programs and discovered that Shaw Bros. intended some sort of play on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Google produced "Theurgy and the Sundance Kid" while Bing offered "Avatar vs. Cassidy." Since The Weird Man is not a buddy movie, the studio may have hoped to convey the dual nature of its protagonist, but that's just my desperate guess. After some perfunctory court intrigue, featuring bad acting by the dubbing artists I heard on the El Rey broadcast, we're introduced to Yu Ji, a Taoist priest with the power to heal. The picture sets him up as a Christlike figure, or else people from the Christian world are likely to see him that way. The powers that be scheme to destroy him, while he tells his five disciples that he's destined to die so he can be reborn. He is challenged to produce rain for a drought-stricken city or die on a pyre. He refuses to perform on demand, but the skies open up just as his pyre is lit. The people demand that Yu Ji be spared, but he's decapitated instead, smoke billowing from his neck. This, apparently, is just what he planned.

Yu Ji's disciples are under strict instructions on how to treat his body. They manage to snatch the head and body and reunite them in a mystic pool, the corpse floating toward the head until it reattaches. The hirsute priest is restored and assumes a meditative pose as his new body literally springs to life: a younger, clean-shaven figure in a loincloth. If anyone in the picture is a Weird Man, it's this guy. Yu Ji has gone to all this trouble in order to become an omnipotent mischief maker. He can possess other people's bodies -- actor Ricky Cheng Tien Chi dons drag when he takes over women -- and use them to fight the bad guys. Try to slice him and he strikes back with silk scarves, soap bubbles, balloons, etc. His only vulnerability is that he must touch base with his old body once each day, once a disciple has tapped old Yu Ji's forehead three times. That done, he can promptly return to wherever he was making mischief before. If it is not done, is that the end of the Weird Man? Unfortunately, we never really find out. Chang Cheh apparently expects us to find the title character's cavorting hilarious or else, at the end of the line with Shaw Bros., he doesn't give a damn anymore. I found it all too reminiscent of bad sci-fi comedies where aliens have all sorts of wacky powers, usually including telekinesis so they can levitate people, just because ... you know .. they're advanced! In the title role, Ricky Cheng Tien Chi and his perpetual smirk are pretty insufferable, but I must admit that the film as a whole has the same sort of allure that a trainwreck has. It was terrible, but I couldn't look away. That may be a recommendation for some people, and it's definitely as close to one as you're going to see here.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

THE HORDE (Orda, 2012)

The era of the "Tatar Yoke" in the Middle Ages was Russia's Holocaust. So you might think after watching Andrei Proshkin's historical epic, in which more than once we see scenes very similar to the selections at the gates of Auschwitz. Tatars -- superficially Islamized Mongols -- bring captive Russians to their city. The captives are asked if they have any skills. Those who do are taken away to slavery. Those too honest or too stupid to answer are summarily killed for their captors' amusement. Perhaps a better comparison would be with the era of Hebrew bondage in Egypt. The Horde tells of a sort of prophet who must work miracles to save his people from the caprices of a despot. Proshkin's film is an aspiring national epic of suffering redeemed by divine favor, or of a people's suffering redeemed by an individual's suffering.

Yury Arabov's screenplay is based on a quasi-historical event. After becoming ruler of the Golden Horde (or "tsar of tsars" in the English subtitles) by killing his older brother, Khan Janibek (Innokenty Dakayarov) desperately seeks the approval of his imperious mother Taidula (Roza Hairullina), who literally shares his throne. He grows more desperate when his mom suddenly goes blind. He calls on healers from all his domains, and beyond, to restore her sight, and he's quite unforgiving when they fail. We've already seen that Janibek is fascinated by the magic, or the idea of magic, but he's disgusted when the tricks behind illusions are revealed, kicking the crap out of one too obvous charlatan.


Where shamans, fakirs, etc. have failed, what about the Christian God? Catholic friars were in the throne room on the night Janibek took power (and apparently thwarted an invasion of France), but he looks closer to home, to Orthodox Muscovy, where it is said that the Metropolitan Alexei (Maxim Sukhanov) has the power to heal. The khan summons the priest to his capital with a simple deal: heal Taidula or Moscow will be razed to the ground. With one companion and a two-Tatar escort, Alexei -- who like many miraculous healers fears the sin of pride if not the very power within him -- reluctantly crosses the steppes to Janibek's court. Things start well when he crosses a gauntlet of fire without batting an eye, but he has no more success with Taidula (with whom he has a tantalizingly vague history) than the others. Something about Alexei's humility impresses Janibek just the same -- but not too much. He orders the metropolitan spared so he can return, on foot and in rags, to Moscow, in order to see it burn. He assigns a seemingly faithful retainer, Timehr (Fedot Lvov), to make sure no harm comes to the old man until the day of doom.


Alexei's failure has destroyed his self-esteem if not his faith. He can't bear to return to Moscow, instead joining a slave caravan back to the khan's city, where he survives the selection process only through official intervention. The metropolitan is put to work tending a fiery brick furnace while Janibek waits for him to break. To speed the process, he sets a quota of his co-workers to be chosen at random and killed each day. Alexei offers his life in someone else's place, and when his offer is rebuffed the full horror of the situation sinks in. He allows his clothes to catch fire, but his fellows beat the flames down and put him out in the rain in an impressive POV tracking shot. Left to die or live, Alexei raves in agony, still begging God to take his life instead of anyone else's.

What follows is anticlimactic only because The Horde has seemed to be a religious epic, yet ultimately denies us the presumed epiphany of a payoff. Alexei survives the night and wakes to find Janibek prostrating himself before him. Taidula has regained her sight and the khan has given Alexei the credit. The epiphanic payoff I was expecting was our view of the moment when Taidula is truly healed, but Proshkin and Arabov may have withheld it deliberately. Because the moment of recovery isn't shown to us in miraculous trappings, but is only reported to us (as it would have been in Greek tragedy) we can speculate that Taidula's trouble cleared up naturally, and that Alexei had nothing to do with it, whatever Janibek believes. In effect, the moment is a triumph of Janibek's faith in Alexei, but the tragic irony, from a Christian perspective, is that the healing saves Taidula and saves Moscow, but it doesn't save Janibek. He allows that Alexei has worked a wonder, or a miracle if you will, but that doesn't lead him to God/Jesus as a Christian would hope. Instead, in his last moments on screen he's still childishly fascinated by any purported wonder, enthusing over an Indian Rope Trick and playing with a new toy while his fate is being settled. You don't have to be religious to get the point and appreciate it as you would the premises of any fantasy film.

The Horde is an ambitious picture with impressive production values, and it justifies your time even if it seems to skid to an end fairly abruptly. The acting is solid, with Sukhanov and Dakayarov sharing top honors as a more complex variation on the Moses-Rameses act. A prize winner at the Moscow Film Festival, it's a fascinating window into Russia's self-image as an often-martyred yet divinely favored nation.

Monday, February 9, 2015

DVR Diary: ONE FOOT IN HELL (1960)

Shane should have turned Alan Ladd's career around,but while it's now his best known role, it didn't reverse his long-term decline. Immediately afterward he was still making self-evident A pictures like Delmer Daves's Drum Beat. But by the end of the Fifties his pictures were little better than Bs, and the man himself was in clear physical decline. In 1960 his face looks bloated and uncomfortable, and in this particular picture a certain bitterness comes through because his part requires it. In a script co-written by future TV mogul Aaron Spelling, Ladd plays a wronged man who turns stone cold evil -- who becomes an anti-Shane. It's the "one bad day" theory of character development; Mitch Garrett (Ladd) comes to town with a sick wife going into labor. There is room at the inn, but Mitch has to use his last ready cash to pay in advance. He finds a doctor who prescribes some crucial medicine, but the druggist demands $1.87 up front. A desperate Mitch pulls a gun, grabs the stuff and runs for the hotel, but the druggist cries thief and gets the sheriff to intercept our man. Mitch convinces them to let the doctor straighten things out, but by the time they return to the hotel Mrs. Mitch has died. The conscience-stricken townspeople think the best thing to do for Mitch is give him a job. The sheriff goes so far as to make him a deputy, and within a few years Mitch is a solid citizen. We learn soon enough that Mitch is nursing a long-term grudge. He means to ruin the town by robbing the main bank at the time the cattle drive comes to town. Gradually he recruits a team, redeeming a drunken cartoonist and fellow ex-Confederate, Dan Keats (Don Murray), while drawing more sinister men into his orbit. They are all expendable men; Mitch expects to lead a posse and exterminate his partners before taking the money and running, but he doesn't expect Dan to grow a conscience or fall in love with a saloon girl (Dolores Michaels) who's also part of the master plan....

Ladd is the whole show here, and the drama of watching One Foot in Hell is waiting for him to crack. Its small triumph is that he doesn't. He never seeks to vindicate himself beyond muttering grimly about that $1.87. There's no soul-baring speech, no displays of obsessive grief after his first despair over the wife's death. Frankly, after seeing Ladd emote then you'll be glad he doesn't bother later. But his cold performance is the right approach to a character who, arguably like the actor about his career, doesn't give a damn about anything anymore. It brings Ladd almost back full-circle to his star-making mostly emotionless performance in This Gun For Hire, and it's one of his most badass performances precisely because he's so cold, or numb. It still isn't a very good film, but at the tail end of a great era for "adult" westerns James B. Clark's film is one of the darkest. Clark is competent enough, but the film's most spectacular or alarming moment is most likely a second-unit achievement: a storefront explodes just as a herd of cattle is moving up the street. Animals clearly were harmed during this production, but deplorable as that is, it highlight's the picture's take-no-prisoners approach. One Foot was Ladd's penultimate starring role in Hollywood, and if his public was abandoning him, this was him abandoning them, and there's something almost tragically heroic about it.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (1931)

This was Buster Keaton's fourth talking feature and his sixth film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. According to Wikipedia, it was the most popular film of his career, which could only convince M-G-M that they had done something right taking creative control of his work away from Keaton, though you wonder why, on the heels of such success, the studio decided that they needed to hang the albatross Jimmy Durante around Buster's neck for his next (and last) three Metro features. Sidewalks is a rare feature-length effort from director Jules White, and in fact he only co-directed it. White is most identified with the Three Stooges, but that didn't prepare me to see Keaton do the oath-taking courtroom bit ("Take off your hat!...Raise your right hand," etc.) immortalized by Curly Howard five years later in the White-produced Disorder in the Court. The sad part is that Curly did it better, and the bit was more appropriate for him. Keaton was playing the sort of clueless millionaire character he played often in silents (e.g. The Navigator) and while such a character may be unworldly he shouldn't be the sort of moron the swearing-in routine requires. In Sidewalks Keaton's character discovers that he is a slumlord when he investigates his minion's (Cliff Edwards) failure to collect rent. The local urchins have chased Edwards off the block and are in the midst of a baseball riot when Edwards returns with Keaton. Buster meets cute with leading lady Anita Page when she decks him with an authoritative looking haymaker for allegedly roughing up her little brother. Whenever I see The Broadway Melody I think Page looks like a lummox next to petite Bessie Love, even though Page is the glamour-girl of that film's sister act. Alongside Keaton she looks more ladylike yet it still seems plausible that she could beat him up. That Buster has a girlfriend who could fight his battles for him is an idea that has potential, but Page steps back to become a more conventional romantic lead as the plot proper kicks in. As with the Marx Bros. later, the brains at Metro felt that Keaton would be more lovable if he were shown helping other people. His mission here is to reform the neighborhood in general and Page's brother in particular by opening a gym where the boys can learn athletics and stay off the street. The boy has fallen in with gangsters and we must endure scenes starring the kid with Keaton nowhere in sight to keep the plot going. To impress the neighborhood Keaton must prove himself physically, but Page's KO isn't encouraging. Buster proves himself inept at combat sports and is humiliated by a Japanese kid who jiu-jitsus him all over the place. He's always learning, however, and in the climactic melee he uses the same moves on the lead gangster to help save the day. There's plenty of physical comedy for Keaton, but it's mostly pratfalls and brawling instead of the expansive chase scenes he's remembered for. There's also a botched amateur play, since Keaton on stage presumably had worked back in Spite Marriage, his final silent film. It's actually absurd enough to be amusing, particularly when a loaded gun is on stage with a bullet meant for Buster. Playing in drag, and obliged to die in the play, Buster is a fanatic trouper, determined to get in the line of fire no matter what efforts are made to divert the lethal shot. The scene doesn't really make sense -- why not fire the gun into the air and end the suspense? -- but it has a necessary ludicrousness that the rest of the picture lacks painfully. Keaton can't do much to redeem the material. He tries for a while to affect a more refined delivery for his posh character but his coarse speaking voice makes his once-effortless imposture unconvincing. Beyond that, he can do little but go through the limited motions Metro allowed him. The best that can be said about Sidewalks, sadly, is that far worse was yet to come.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

DVR Diary: VIRIDIANA (1961)

Once upon a time, a novice nun was sent to visit her closest-living relative before she took her vows. The relative proved a dissolute, unhappy person; memories of a lost loved one resulted in suicide. Where have we heard this one before? If I had done my cinematic duty earlier and watched Luis Bunuel's film sooner, I'd have asked that question when I saw Ida on the big screen last fall. I'm happy to see, after a Google search, that I'm not the only person to notice the resemblances between the two movies. Coincidence? Hard to say, since it's hard to see how Ida is a commentary on Viridiana. Admittedly, we can take the parallels further to see how, just as Ida spends a night as a worldly woman in sympathetic emulation of her aunt, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) tries to take on the role of her uncle (Fernando Rey) as a benevolent landowner. Both films arguably are concerned with failed utopias: the drab communism of 1960s Poland in Ida (that film is set approximately at the time of Viridiana's release) and Viridiana's own utopia of charity to the poor. Both novices are repelled or, in Viridiana's case, thwarted by the vulgarity of the world, and while Ida appears to flee back to the convent her Spanish precursor seems to crumple passively in defeat, a kind of prisoner of her own inheritance.

Viridiana was a scandal when it first appeared at Cannes and was banned in Spain for many years afterward. This was the reaction of a conservative (if not fascist) regime to perceived sacrilege, but I wonder whether viewers unfamiliar with the history of Spain or Bunuel's anticlerical views might see Viridiana as a conservative film. The film's second act deals with Viridiana's mission to the local poor, who reward her generosity much as the Three Stooges might. These twelve (or so) stooges are stupid, crass and irrepressible; neither their various afflictions nor their poverty redeem them. Viridiana's error is either to think of them as innocents or to think them capable of spiritual uplift. I admit that I don't know how these bums fit in Bunuel's worldview, but I'm pretty sure the director isn't inviting us to sympathize with them or take pleasure in their violation of the family heirlooms. We've identified too much with poor Viridiana for that. She's been abused by her uncle, who had the hots for her because she resembled his wife who died on their wedding night. There's a certain pathos, or else its opposite, in the trajectory of the wedding dress, which the uncle had treasured and later intended for Viridiana to wear, but ends up draping a drunken bum during Bunuel's slapstick parody of Leonardo's Last Supper. Perhaps Bunuel thinks that the proper final destination for a decadent aristocrat's fetish object. For what it's worth, here's another parallel with Ida: in the later film, Ida tries on her aunt's shoes, teetering on the unfamiliar heels; in Viridiana it's not the title character but her uncle who tries on a woman's shoe, his wife's. Make of that what you will.

The big difference between Viridiana and Ida is that Bunuel is a satirist, while there's little evidence of satire or humor of any sort in the Polish film. Viridiana is a sort of Candide figure, continually clobbered by reality, though not as violently as her Voltairean forebear is, until she's hopefully cured of her idealism. This sort of satire knows neither left nor right; it doesn't satirize one thing to promote another, but sees everything as folly in the face of human nature. Its contempt for idealism guaranteed the antagonism of both the established church and an authoritarian regime, but that doesn't make Bunuel the opposite of either. There is less compassion for Viridiana than the admittedly frosty Ida has for its protagonist. Does this difference make one film better than the other? My snap judgment is that Ida is the more novelistic and humane film, but that's not the only basis for judgment. Will Ida stand the test of fifty years as Viridiana has? Let's compare notes in 2065 -- I'll probably have to trust you to remember what I wrote -- for by then we may have a better idea of what these parables of midcentury disillusion mean in the long term.