Friday, January 29, 2016

Too Much TV: ASH VS. EVIL DEAD (2015-?)

Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert are the last believers in the half-hour drama format. Back in 2000, after the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys series wrapped, the brains behind Renaissance Studios filled Herc's time slot with two shows: the sci-fi action series Cleopatra 2025 and the Bruce Campbell vehicle Jack of All Trades. Neither lasted long but it was an interesting experiment. Raimi, Tapert, Campbell et al are back with a much-belated follow-up to their most beloved property, the Evil Dead movie franchise. Campbell, of course, is Ash Williams, at once hero and zero and little changed, except in girth, from when we last saw him -- though for this show's purposes, and for legal reasons, that last time was Evil Dead 2 rather than Army of Darkness. It makes no difference, though. Ash is still a loser who sometimes rises to a crisis, especially when the Evil Dead are involved. Of course, the Evil Dead are involved again because Ash, in a stoned attempt to impress some girl, reads "poetry" from the accursed Necronomicon. Realizing his error, Ash embarks on a quest to end the horror by finally destroying the hated book. Since this is modern television, he can't be alone on his journey. Along for the ride in his trailer are two fellow employees of the ValueShop store: Pablo (Ray Santiago), an earnest, eraserheaded young man who inexplicably idolizes Ash, and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), a more hard-boiled young woman whose family gets wiped out by the Deadites early. On their trail are a policewoman (Jill Marie Jones) who has survived an Evil Dead attack and suspects Ash of committing serial atrocities, and the mysterious Ruby (Lucy "Mrs. Rob Tapert" Lawless), who owns some alarming relics, including Ash's amputated, possessed hand, and is willing and able to torture Deadites for the info she needs. We meet many other characters along the way, most of whom suffer grisly deaths before becoming Deadite tormentors of Ash and his allies, until the chase leads back to the cabin where all Ash's troubles began so long ago.

At more than five hours long, including Sam Raimi's extra-length premiere episode, the show is the ultimate test of Ash's staying power as a character. In any given episode, Campbell has to hit a range of notes: arrogance, ignorance, horniness, and a capacity for self-sacrifice. Ash careens from irresponsibility to responsibility, anchored, burdened and emboldened by an awareness that fighting the Evil Dead is the only thing he really does well. Santiago and DeLorenzo make good foils for Campbell. Pablo is a well-meaning weakling while Kelly becomes something more like a genre-tv badass female, but the contrast works to both actors' advantage. Jones's policewoman becomes a sort of straight man for the main trio and for Lawless, whose character and role seem to have evolved as the cameras rolled, given the difference between how Ruby was described in preview interviews and who she turns out to be by the season finale. I'd bet that the early assurance of a second season gave everyone more ambitious ideas of what to do with Lawless, who by virtue of her work on Xena:Warrior Princess, Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus is more or less the dowager empress of genre TV.

But the main attaction of Ash vs. Evil Dead is the gore. Airing on Starz, the home of Spartacus and Black Sails, the show is constrained only by budget, but when have low budgets stopped the Evil Dead franchise? The show is predictably, exuberantly, hilariously violent. So far it has not run out of interesting ways to destroy Deadites, my favorite being to feed one face first into a deli meat-slicer. The blood flows and flies in such volume hear that The Hateful Eight's vaunted gore hardly made an impression on me. The Deadites, too, are their old charming selves, taunting and cursing and kvetching in fine counterpoint to Ash's laconic-badass mode. When you take that element away, you get the generic blandness of the Evil Dead remake movie, but for the Renaissance crew it's second nature. You wouldn't really want anyone else to mess with Ash and his world. The remakers just tried to make a horror movie, but Ash vs. Evil Dead, with all its over-the-top mayhem and accompanying attitude is one of the funniest shows on TV right now. If it actually scares anybody, that's a bonus.

Monday, January 25, 2016

In the name of diversity, a purge

The current regime at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, embarrassed over the #oscarssowhite controversy, apparently has come to the conclusion that the Academy's problem is that too many members are old. Accordingly, the Academy has abolished automatic lifetime membership except for those members who have received Oscar nominations. Everyone else will have their membership reviewed every ten years, the main criterion for renewal being whether you've remained active in the industry over that period. So it looks like no more screeners for some people, and others will say those people have it coming, the assumption being that those people have not taken proper advantage of those screeners to sample a wider range of movies. The Academy's hunch is that age, rather than race, determines whether people are willing to give certain movies a chance. This notion makes sense if you see Straight Outta Compton as the #oscarssowhite poster child. The N.W.A. biopic has an 88% score at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than current front-runner The Revenant and equal to Best Picture nominee The Big Short. Given that stat, and presumably others, there may be reason for protesters to suspect that Compton was denied a more just share of nominations because many Academy members simply were uninterested in a film about rappers and didn't bother to look at it. This is the crux of the issue, regardless of the backlash opinion that black talent just wasn't good enough last year. It's one thing for call-in cranks to say so, having almost certainly not seen it -- nor have I, for that matter -- and another for the Academy to send the same implicit message if members never actually gave Compton a chance. The logic of youthening the pool of nominators through attrition is that younger people of all races are probably more interested in hip-hop and less likely simply to ignore Compton than their elders. More damning yet to some protesters is the fact that Creed wasn't nominated for Best Picture, Best Writer or Director, or Best Actor, but only for sentimental-favorite Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone, despite a gaudy 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes. I haven't seen that one either, but it's pretty clear from what I've read about it that it's something more than yet another Rocky movie, yet the Academy treats it, in effect, as nothing but that. Some have speculated that the Academy is biased against sports movies in general, the subject matter being almost the opposite of Oscar-bait, but who can say. You could at least argue that younger Academy members might pay more attention to Michael B. Jordan compared to Stallone, but that line of thinking may lead us to protests against ageism down the line.

I'm not as passionate pro or contra on this whole subject as some are because I don't recognize the Oscars as either a meritocracy or a mirror of the audience. Second-guessing the Oscars of the past is practically a hobby for some people, and for every critic who chides the Academy for picking an inferior picture to some year's masterpiece there may be another who sees the Awarding of the very same picture as elitist snobbery. There is an argument to be made for making the nominees, at least, as representative a sample as possible of quality moviemaking, even if I'm not entirely in agreement with it. Unfortunately, the #oscarssowhite debate comes at a toxic moment in racial or identity politics, and the protesters and boycotters fit the profile, in many eyes, of entitled whiners who throw tantrums (or hold riots) if they don't get their way. I'm giving the protesters what I think to be a generous benefit of the doubt when I assume that they don't want everyone to automatically praise pictures like Compton or Creed as great but simply want people to give them a chance or take them seriously when many probably aren't. The problem is that whether the Oscars are a meritocracy or not, they are a competition, and conservative people are inclined to see the results of any competition, including a preliminary round like a nomination process, as just and fair, and anyone who questions the results or the process that produced them as sore losers. The news that some people are going to lose some privileges in an attempt to get different results in the future will only enrage such conservatives further. Looking at the larger picture, beyond the trivial realm of entertainment, this election year probably wasn't an ideal time for an #oscarssowhite controversy to happen. One can only hope that consequences don't ripple too far beyond the land of fantasy into everyone's reality.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


The thinking at Warner Bros. seemed to go like this: Shirley Temple went over big in Little Miss Marker, which is sort of a gangster film; Warner Bros. does gangster films better than anyone else; so all we need is to find our own Shirley Temple, make our own Little Miss Marker and laugh all the way to the bank. The find was Sybil Jason, a 7 year old (billed as 5) out of South Africa. The result is a transitional picture from the first full year of Code Enforcement, with some of the old violence but also a distinct softening if not neutering of Warners assets as the studio scrambles to imitate successful trends elsewhere.

Our heroes are two sidewalk peddlers: Robert Armstrong sells cheap watches whenever the coast is clear from cops, while Edward Everett Horton is his shill, putting on as many disguises as time allows to talk up the product. They're having trouble making the rent at their quite-comfortable looking room, but they can depend on conning desk clerk Edgar Kennedy by appealing to his sporting blood and getting him to make sucker bets. That lets them keep their room but they still have to resort to stealing milk bottles from their neighbor (Glenda Farrell) for breakfast. A random encounter with a prosperous-looking old acquaintance (Addison Richards) makes them confident that they can touch him up for a "business loan" and dinner at a swank hotel. The man has his daughter Gloria with him (Jason), whom he's recently brought home from schooling abroad -- hence her British accent. Naturally to butter up the mark Armstrong talks about how much he loves kids and wishes he had one of his own to spoil. The mark believes every word of it. He wants to believe because, as he admits at the last minute, before he's gunned down on the sidewalk by J. Carroll Naish, he's actually penniless and wants Armstrong and Horton to take care of Gloria. Our heroes witness the shooting -- Gloria stayed inside the restaurant -- but Naish intimidates them into keeping quiet. Not wanting to get mixed up in things any further, they head back home, leaving the body and its daughter behind.

Little did they realize that another tenant of their building is a waiter at the hotel who promptly delivers them the bill and Gloria. Naturally, they want to dump her in an orphanage as soon as possible, but she's grown attached to Armstrong and, inevitably, he can't bring himself to abandon her. Farrell takes a motherly interest in the girl that promises dividends for Armstrong, but more importantly Gloria proves her own money-making potential by spontaneously joining some black street entertainers for a song and dance. Our heroes rent space in a penny arcade owned by Jack LaRue for Gloria to perform in while they sell their watches, but LaRue is under pressure from the same gangsters (also including Ward Bond) who killed Gloria's dad and now kick Gloria's dog to death for interfering in a high-stakes pinball game. When LaRue welshes on a dice game intended as a practical joke that backfires on him, Armstrong threatens to kill him. When the rival gangsters do kill LaRue, Armstrong practically frames himself. Add the inevitable kidnapping of Gloria and you can probably write the end of this picture yourself -- but remember that this is the Code Enforcement era, so a happy ending is mandatory.

First of all, Little Big Shot turns Glenda Farrell, perhaps Warners' apex-predator gold-digger, into a goody-good constantly nagging Armstrong to find a real job and settle down. Both Armstrong and Horton turn into soda-jerks under her prodding, and in the happy ending they all run a roadside diner together. Farrell as a goody-good is all wrong; it's like keeping hellfire under a bushel. But the real problem with the picture is Sybil Jason. I hate to sound like a xenophobe, but her accent is immediately off-putting. However unfairly, it makes her seem artificial. Worse, her singing and dancing is feeble compared to Shirley Temple, whose talent and charisma at a like age were simply freakish. Jason tries to prove herself multi-talented by doing impersonations, including an obvious Garbo and what I guess was a Mae West, though I'm not 100% sure. Worst of all is her acting, though part of the problem is how often the story forces her to burst into tears that inspire horror rather than compassion. One dreads imagining what director Michael Curtiz, who does all in his considerable power to energize the picture, did to draw those tears from the poor girl. There's no hint of spontaneity in Jason, just as there's really no hint of originality in the picture. It was one thing to declare Jason Temple's rival, another to invite damning comparisons by imitating a Temple vehicle. Whatever her true potential, Jason paid the price for this miscalculation. Warners only starred her in one more feature, two years later, and otherwise put her in supporting roles before letting her go to finish her career as a supporting player to Shirley Temple herself. Maybe this was a waste of talent, but after seeing Little Big Shot I doubt it was that much of a waste.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


"One flash of that pan and she'll yell for Allah!"
"I've had more broads yell for me than you and this Allah guy put together." 
Q. What World War I movie starring Louis Wolheim won director Lewis Milestone his first Oscar? It wasn't All Quiet on the Western Front. It was this film, long thought lost, that won Milestone the first and only Academy Award for Comedy Direction. It may dismay viewers today that none of the era's slapstick masters, or their directorial collaborators, took this prize -- and that may indeed have been a factor in the category's quick abolition -- but Two Arabian Knights proves to be a fairly funny film. That's mainly because Wolheim and William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd have a blast playing unrepentant Ugly Americans -- and Wolheim is literally ugly! -- running amok in wartime Europe and the Middle East. Cynicism about "the war to end all wars" had quickly taken hold around the world, but while All Quiet finds Milestone in despairing mode over the slaughter, Two Arabian Knights rejects all pity or piety. Irreverence reigns right from the start as Boyd and Wolheim, as private and sergeant respectively, face death in a crater in the middle of No Man's Land. If they're going to die, Boyd decides, then by God, he's going to pay the sergeant back for all the time he pushed me around! Before long, German soldiers ring the rim of the crater, like spectators at a pit fight, as our heroes try to beat each other's brains out. Thus begins a picaresque tail that next delivers our warriors to a POW camp. Also imprisoned here are Arab soldiers who fought for the Allies, presumably from one of France's imperial possessions. Apparently these Arabs fought in their traditional white robes, which make great camouflage when you're going to escape into a snowy wilderness -- except it's our imaginative Americans who do the escaping, after first clobbering two fellow prisoners. They barely make it under some electrified wire -- it's actually a clever piece of direction that we can clearly see the tiny twig propping up the wire tottering as the boys squirm across -- before they blunder into another group of Arab prisoners and German guards. Great job!

The German policy apparently was to put Arab prisoners in the hands of their Turkish allies. Thus our heroes end up on a train to Constantinople, where they manage to dodge their captors and stow away aboard a civilian ship (with a Russian crew) bound for the Ottomans' Arab territories. Boris Karloff is the purser on this vessel but doesn't get much to do. Of more interest to the boys is a genuine Arab princess (Mary Astor) returning home from her studies in the imperial capital. She's sort of traditionally dressed -- it's Hollywood's (or producer Howard Hughes's) idea of such dress -- but she has a modern education. Repeatedly, Boyd and Wolheim underestimate Arab learning, making cracks about their plans for the girl -- these include the exchange quoted above -- until they realize that, despite her early dumb show, Mirza knows English all along. The gag is repeated to greater effect when the soldiers have an audience with Mirza's father and his vizier. Wolheim makes an idiot of himself in a parody of the pantomime that was a staple of silent comedy, only to have the vizier ask, again in perfect English, "And exactly what is your business here today?" The Arab characters are still largely stereotypes, but so are the Americans, and in a world of universal caricature there's no reason for anyone to take offense. Eventually the boys will take Mirza away with them, of her own will, to a life in America in a time when no one thought twice about Muslims in the country. But if it is a sort of fantasy of liberating Americanism, it's also a learning experience for our American heroes -- or at least Wolheim learns the meaning of the word eunuch. There's an interesting lesson here in how intertitles could illustrate relative intelligence. Boyd knows what a eunuch is and identifies one to Wolheim, the title card spelling the word correctly. Wolheim is innocent of such things and asks what a "yunick" is. In this film's quaintly ribald way, Boyd whispers the answer to Wolheim -- no intertitle this time -- and Wolheim's face acquires an expression of queasy horror. As they pass the eunuch on their way out of town, on their way to freedom, the film closes with a reprise of Wolheim's sick gaze, as if he's lucky to leave the story intact. It's an odd way to end the show but overall Two Arabian Knights is a welcome reminder that silent cinema didn't depend entirely on pratfalls and special effects to be funny.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Q. Are Oscar nominations given on a merit system or a quota system?

A. The correct answer is neither, and it's probably because it isn't done the first way that people are agitating now, for all intents and purposes, for it to be done the second way. I refer to the #oscarsowhite controversy and the indignation felt over the failure or refusal of Academy members for the second year in a row to nominate any people of color for acting awards. Outrage is expressed on behalf of Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, the star and director of Creed; on behalf of Idris Elba, who was once considered a front-runner for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his turn as the warlord in Beasts of No Nation; on behalf of the cast and director of Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic. Some of the outraged arguments implicitly dismiss any argument for merit; Creed and Compton ought to have been recognized more than they were, it is said, because they were popular films. By that standard expect similar anger a year from now when Ride Along 2, this weekend's box-office champion, is denied its rightful share of nominations. If popularity were the decisive criterion, of course, we should have also seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World among the Best Picture nominees. But the fact that we don't see them doesn't mean that either film failed an objective merit test. We know that Academy members are subject to very aggressive salesmanship that unlevels the playing field for all a year's films or performers. We know, or at least suspect, that personal factors figure in the granting or denial of nominations by category peers, and in backlash voting by the Academy at large. Argo is the classic case, that modestly entertaining picture winning over some superior opposition to avenge a perceived slight of director Ben Affleck. Something similar might happen this year to allow Ridley Scott to claim an Oscar as a producer of The Martian that he has never received as a director of anything. No democratic system of voting can be truly meritocratic so long as voters aren't obliged to grade according to mandatory criteria. For that reason, there's no point in criticizing the #oscarsowhite agitators for contemplating some crime against artistic merit. They'd actually offend me more if they actually believed themselves to be establishing a meritocracy. They whine about not getting one out of 20 nominations as if the Academy had ruled that no person of color had given any of the 20 best performances in English-language film this year. No such ruling has been made. What was implied was that no person of color had given any of the top five performances in any of the four categories. That may still offend people, but it's not as offensive as the overall complaint suggests. Who really was omitted unfairly? I might say Idris Elba, who was the best thing about Beasts of No Nation, but  I could probably name some white actors, given time, whom I might also deem unfairly excluded. Samuel L. Jackson was as fine in The Hateful Eight as he usually is for Quentin Tarantino but the actor-director team didn't really break new ground this time, and Jackson may actually be the one element in Eight that is inferior to Django Unchained. I have not seen Creed, though given all the strong reviews I may yet on second-run, and I have absolutely no interest in Straight Outta Compton. Does that make me a racist? Does it make someone a racist if they find a lily-white nominations list unacceptable? Where's their sense of common humanity? Why are they so repelled by whiteness? See, everyone can play that game in a democracy. But I think it is racist, albeit not in a truly bigoted or hateful way, to demand representation on such blatant terms, even if no one to my knowledge is asking for a literal quota of nominations. The agitators, of course, hope to deflect such charges by blaming whites for some failure of imagination or fellow-feeling that seems to exclude minority experiences from the realm of concern from which "quality" films are made or that defines "quality" itself. I'll meet them part-way on this. If there is a conceptual handicap in the movie business that may exclude people of color or other minorities from the realm of prestige -- as opposed to an increasingly diverse TV business -- it is Hollywood's current obsession with history and biography. The further back moviemakers look, the less integrated a world they'll see and a less integrated cast of characters they'll employ, unless they want to do something like Hamilton, the acclaimed and audacious hip-hop musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury, in a medium less tolerant of such self-conscious artifice than the Broadway stage. The Academy's preoccupation with the impersonation of real people has been unfair to actors of all races, unless you think Eddie Redmayne's impersonation of Stephen Hawking really was superior to Michael Keaton's embodiment of an original character in Birdman last year. But overcoming this preoccupation may benefit minorities more obviously than their white counterparts, simply because people who look at the present (or the future) creatively are likely to imagine a more integrated world with more opportunities for people of all races to shine. The #oscarsowhite agitators may agree with me that Academy members live too much in the past, but I'm afraid we probably mean two different things. But if I get my way, they may well get theirs -- not that I expect to be thanked for it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


Byomkesh Bakshi is a contemporary of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He was born in 1932 in the mind of Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Like many successful character creators, Bandyopadhyay tired of his creation relatively early but eventually resumed writing about his private detective or "seeker after truth." He was working on another Bakshi story when he died in 1970. The detective came to cinematic life in 1967, with no less a figure than Satyajit Ray, India's most acclaimed director worldwide, helming his inaugural appearance. In the last decade Bakshi has become a Bengali cinematic and TV mainstay. Less common are Hindi-language Bakshi films. Dibakar Bannerjee's film -- he changed the English spelling of the detective's last name because he felt "y" was a more dynamic looking letter than "i" -- is the first Hindi-language feature film about the detective to my knowledge, though he had appeared on Hindi TV in the 1990s. If my association of Bakshi/Bakshy with Spade and Marlowe is an attempt to place the Bengali sleuth in the pulp tradition, Bannerjee's movie is even more of an attempt, down to the gratuitous exclamation point. While several of Bandyopadhyay's novels have been translated into English, I'm just discovering Bakshy with this movie so I haven't had a chance to compare the film with the books, though the movie makes me very interested in trying the originals. I could believe that Bannerjee, who freely adapted the first novel, filtered it through his experience of Inglourious Basterds or Captain America: The First Avenger or some nostalgia for 1940s India that the 46 year old auteur never knew personally. I don't know yet whether Bandyopadhyay should be considered a pulp writer, but Bannerjee definitely made a pulp movie that is great fun to watch.

 Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! convincingly recreates 1940s Calcutta, often using authentic locations

Bannerjee has moved Bakshy's first big case forward to 1943, at a time when Japan was bombing Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the story is set, and where nationalists, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders, were agitating for independence from the British Empire. The story starts in indisputably pulpy fashion when hooded killers interrupt a drug deal. Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput) takes on an apparently unrelated case: Ajit Bannerjee (Anand Tiwari) wants to know where his father, a chemist, has disappeared to -- and he doesn't want to hear any theories about his dad being a criminal. When we first see Ajit, he says that Byomkesh looks like someone you'd like to punch in the face, and before the scene is over he's done just that. Like any private eye worth his salt, Bakshy takes a beating over the course of the convoluted story. Despite Ajit's feelings, Byomkesh learns from fellow tenants at the father's boarding house that the chemist apparently was blackmailing his boss, a factory owner involved with a Bengali nationalist party who faces a schism led by his own son. When Bakshi and his new friend Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi), the man who runs the boarding house, find the chemist's body, the factory owner becomes the prime suspect in an apparent murder. But when he drops dead, apparently poisoned, in Byomkesh's presence, after gasping out the last words "young gang," or something like that, all bets are off.

Above, Bakshy makes a disgusting discovery.
Below, Byomkesh turns to mysteriously enhanced betel leaves in an attempt to visualize the mystery.

Byomkesh soon learns that he's been manipulated with false leads by Dr. Guha himself, but it may be for a higher good. Guha shares the nationalist aspirations of most Bengalis, and is willing to collaborate with the Japanese to win independence from Britain. Seeing Byomkesh as a potential protege -- he impressed Bakshy earlier with a Holmsean dismantling of a cover story the young detective tried on him -- the doctor invites Byomkesh to collaborate, but our hero can see only carnage and mass destruction resulting from Guha's scheme. Instead, he tries to thwart the impending Japanese attack, though he learns eventually that something more sinister than an invasion is actually planed.

Say what you will about her acting; you will remember Swastika Mukherjee's name.

Throw in a traditional femme fatale -- the singing movie star Anguri Devi (the insensitively named Swastika Mukherjee) -- as well as a good girl, the factory owner's daughter ( Divya Menon) and the killer gang from the prologue and you have a combustible pulp mix that's sure to explode in exuberant fashion. I'll spare you too many spoiler details in the hope that people will give Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! a try on Netflix. Bannerjee has put together a nifty period piece (albeit with some stridently anachronistic hip-hop music on the soundtrack) that should appeal to fans worldwide of pulp or hard-boiled fiction. For those not initiated into the mysteries of genre the film is made worthwhile by the terrifically charismatic performances of Sushant Singh Rajput and Neeraj Kabi as hero and villain. Netflix exaggerates slightly in saying that Dr. Guha has a plan for world domination, but you could believe this man has something like that in him. Bakshy may not quite by Calcutta's Sherlock Holmes, but Guha is a full-on Moriarty, and Neeraj Kabi makes the most of such a mighty role. Someone hire that man as a Bond villain! Meanwhile Sushant Singh Rajput succeeds in making Bakshy ingenious yet fallible, a novice with obvious great potential bolstered with courage and conscience. The climactic showdown in which Bakshy tries to make Guha believe an awesome bluff is thrilling tense despite an initial absence of action -- the scene soon deteriorates into Tarantinian mayhem, albeit carried out with demonic brio by Neeraj Kabi -- thanks entirely to the two actors' charisma and commitment to their roles.  

 Neeraj Kabi as the multitalented Dr. Guha.

Bakshy! gives new life to pulp/noir tropes that may be near exhaustion in their original U.S. context, and serves as a reminder for those who need it that Indian cinema isn't all Bollywood song and dance. The film's ending promises a sequel, or at least hopes to create demand for one. It succeeded with me, at least.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

An Academic exercise

Do people hate Ridley Scott or what? The detail that leaped out at me when the Academy Award nominations were announced today was that Scott had not been nominated for Best Director, despite having made his most popular movie in ages, that had been nominated for Best Picture. Despite my sympathy for George Miller, I had expected Scott to be nominated and finally win in acknowledgment of a career that admittedly overwhelms Miller's, quantitatively at least. For that matter, I don't know if all the Mad Max films tip the balance against Alien and Blade Runner alone. And for another matter, I still haven't seen The Martian, so I can't say whether or not it's better than Fury Road, though in the category of direction I have my doubts. Scott's absence turns the Best Director race into a clash of spectacle specialists, with three underdogs waiting for the big dogs to cancel each other out. I suspect it's really a three-way race pitting Miller against defending champ A.G. Inarritu (The Revenant) and upstart Tom McCarthy (Spotlight). In the end, I think it'll be Miller and McCarthy. Only two directors have ever won Best two years in a row, John Ford in 1940-41 (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) and Joseph L.Mankiewicz (Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve), and there may be too much resentment of Inarritu's perceived mistreatment of his actors this time for him to join that club. That leaves a clash for voters between two opposed but not necessarily contradictory notions of what great direction is. The trend is on Miller's side because for the last three years Best Director has gone to a spectaclist or CGI wrangler (Inarritu for Birdman last year, Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity in 2013, Ang Lee for Life of Pai in 2012). Spotlight will be a rallying point for voters who prioritize the direction of actors over the construction of spectacle, and for those who found Fury Road pointless or repulsive. Since I consider the direction of action on the scale of Fury Road nothing to be sneered at -- the film's critics are the heirs of those who sneered at The General in its day -- and since I am inclined to see writing and acting as Spotlight's primary virtues, I hope to see Miller win Best Director if not Best Picture. In the latter category I wouldn't object to Spotlight winning, while I do object to the overly self-satisfied Spielberg/Coen Bros. collaboration Bridge of Spies getting a nomination that should have gone to Carol or The Hateful Eight.

Speaking of Tarantino, I was dismayed at the Academy's failure to nominate him for Best Original Screenplay, if only because he actually won the award for a vastly inferior film, Django Unchained.  Of the nominees I have to favor Spotlight slightly over Inside Out, though I have a bad feeling that the award will go to Straight Out Of Compton (haven't seen it) to appease those griping today over no one of color getting an acting nomination. In the Adapted Screenplay category Carol is an easy call for me, if only because that's the only nominee I've seen. What can I say? I'm a critic, not a reviewer, and I don't consider it my job as a movie blogger to see everything. There isn't enough time in a year, given that I watch too much TV and I'm reading more than ever.

I'm similarly handicapped when handicapping the acting contests. For Best Actor, DiCaprio in The Revenant is the only one I've seen, and I think him kind of overrated. I suppose I should root for Matt Damon in The Martian because his is the only completely fictional character in the running, and the Academy has to get over its recent preoccupation with real people -- they might get some more of that much-desired diversity if they would just make more stories up. In Best Actress I've seen Cate Blanchett in Carol and Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and would be satisfied to see either win, but both have won too recently for the Academy's comfort, I suspect. In Supporting Actor I've seen Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, who's very good but not so vital a support as Tom Hardy in Revenant or Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight. It's strange to see Ruffalo here since Spotlight is an ensemble film in which everyone, arguably, is a supporting actor, and yet Ruffalo has the most to do of any character and arguably deserved consideration for just plain Actor. Sylvester Stallone in Creed, playing Rocky Balboa for the first time for another writer, is a sentimental favorite, but despite having not seen it, I just can't see it. I'd be satisfied with either Hardy or Ruffalo but can see Rylance sneaking through. If he does, assume he's actually winning for Wolf Hall. The guy who's really missing here is Walton Goggins for The Hateful Eight. In Supporting Actress we have the continuing controversy of Rooney Mara in Carol and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl being relegated to this category when people consider theirs lead roles. Their rivals are Rachel McAdams, who made no really memorable contribution to Spotlight, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who's really a disgusting cipher at the heart of The Hateful Eight, and Kate Winslet, whose work in Steve Jobs I haven't seen. Of this field, I favor Mara, whether this designation is what she really deserves or not.

The Oscars prove nothing, of course, but the nominations and final awards draw out people's opinions about the relative merits and faults of the year's Hollywood movies, and those are worth debating. In particular there are people who despise Fury Road who, if they'll excuse the idiom, need to be slapped down for their reverse-philistinism. To despise George Miller's achievement because it's too violent, or because it's mere action, is tantamount to reducing cinema to a recording medium for fine writing or fine acting instead of recognizing it as a visual medium above all. There are films elevated to greatness purely by writing or acting, but they are not the greatest films, and in any event I don't see any of them competing this year with a movie that is one of the greatest action films ever made. Remember that I won't mind Spotlight winning, and I'll even take The Revenant, and I also regret Carol not getting the shot it deserved, but if George Miller doesn't get Best Director there is no justice in Hollywood. The point of talking about the Oscars is saying something like that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Too Much TV: INTO THE BADLANDS (2015-?)

If Into the Badlands had only one thing to recommend it, that would be that it's the best martial-arts show in the history of American television. Most of the show's production values appear to be invested in staging the fight scenes, which rise by the end of the first six-episode season to a level of kinetic energy that puts most superhero shows to shame. The postapocalyptic setting -- some technology survives but guns apparently haven't -- frees Badlands from any obligation to realism, allowing creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (of Smallville fame) to indulge every fantasy of martial and spiritual superpower until the characters who appear in the last episode to make mincemeat of our hitherto-invincible protagonist may as well be comic-book supervillains -- if they're villains at all, that is. Badlands thrives on ambiguity, though it leans toward cynicism. There may be no good guys at all in this world, except maybe for the protagonist, Sunny (Daniel Wu). He's a Clipper, an elite fighter and killer who serves Quinn (Marton Csokas), one of the Barons who rule the Badlands. Somehow Sunny has a sense of honor that sometimes clashes with Quinn's amoral or simply impulsive imperatives. For example, when his doctor gives him a terminal diagnosis Quinn wants it covered up and orders Sunny to kill the doctor and his wife. Sunny won't do it, in part because their daughter (Madeleine Mantock) is his secret girlfriend, so Quinn, a formidable warrior in his own right, has to do the job himself. Sunny is so invaluable, however, that Quinn lets a normally fatal act of insubordination pass, little knowing that, worse still in the world of genre TV, Sunny's keeping secrets from him. The first secret is the girlfriend, who ends up the local doctor by default, from whom Sunny must keep secret his own passive complicity in her parents' deaths. The next secret takes us to the meat of the show.

In the first episode Sunny rescues a teenager (Aramis Knight) known only as M.K. -- for Mortal Kombat??? -- from some marauding nomads. M.K. looks like a likely Colt or apprentice clipper for Quinn's army, but Sunny doesn't realize exactly what potential the boy has until M.K. bleeds in a training bout. Shed his blood and M.K. becomes a black-eyed wrecking machine of superhuman power. The Badlands Barons have a vague notion of such people existing. The one female Baron, known as The Widow (Emily Beecham) has the best notion of what M.K. is and wants him, as an exception to her usual all-female rule (not counting some guys who are clearly cannon fodder) as a secret weapon against the other Barons, whom she sees, at least for propaganda purposes, as perpetuators of an oppressive patriarchy. Complicating her plans are Sunny, for starters, and the stirring of feminine feelings for M.K. in one of the Widow's Butterflies, her equivalents of Colts and/or Clippers. Worse yet, Tilda (Ally Ioannides) apparently is the Widow's own daughter, unless "Mother" is an honorific all Butterflies use. Sunny's challenge is to keep M.K.'s potential secret from Quinn, who'd exploit the boy just as the Widow wants to, keep M.K. safe from the Widow herself, and find out why M.K. has a medallion similar to one of his own, showing an Oz-like towered city called Azra. Sunny's endgame is to escape the Badlands with M. K. and Veil the doctor and learn more about his own possible connection to this mysterious place.

Meanwhile, Quinn has more problems that his health and the Widow's aggression. His wives are scheming against each other and one of them sleeps with his son, who's also plotting a double-coup d'etat with a Clipper from another barony. How are you supposed to run an opium plantation with all this drama? No wonder Quinn's head hurts, but that's not the only thing that'll hurt before the season's over. Hardly anyone gets away unscathed, as the final episode kills folks off and throws multiple cliffhangers at us in its bid for renewal.

I'd like to see a second season. Daniel Wu is a bit of a stiff as an actor but still projects the stalwart quality that's essential for Sunny to be our protagonist. He's surrounded by far more colorful characters and benefits from the contrast, appearing more the oldschool strong, relatively silent type. In any event, Wu isn't here to act; he's here to fight and, boy, does he fight! See above: best martial arts I've seen on American television. The other actors, particularly Csokas and Beecham, put up decent fights themselves. Beyond that, Badlands has that essential feel of a thoroughly imagined fantasy world with lots left for us to explore in future seasons. Oddly, and to preview a future review slightly, I found the fantasy world of Badlands more convincing than that of Gough and Millar's other big project, The Shannara Chronicles, even though that show's based on a long-running series of fantasy novels. I suspect that venue makes a big difference in overall quality. Shannara is on MTV while Badlands is on AMC, home of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, and thus has a very high standard to maintain, but not a demographically narrow audience to pander to. It'll never live up to those other shows' standard of writing or acting, I presume -- I watch or have watched exactly none of them -- but after just six episodes Badlands is already a strong contender for best action show on television. Imagine where it might go if given a chance to really cut loose.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On the Big Screen: THE REVENANT (2015)

Going into the new year, I felt pretty certain of which film would be the best western of 2015. The commercials for The Hateful Eight were awful, highlighting some of the film's most inane moments, while the trailers for The Revenant were epic and revelatory. One film looked profound, the other moronic. Now that I've seen them both, I'm relieved to report that both are good movies. As for which is better, ... I'm not sure. On many levels Revenant is a more accomplished or at least more innovative picture, though it's arguably a remake of 1971's Man in the Wilderness, being based on the same true story as that Richard Harris vehicle. But when it was over, I had an unexpected "is that it?" feeling that hints at a certain emptiness to Revenant that I didn't perceive in Hateful Eight.

Alejandro G. Inarritu's new film, his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Birdman, is more a mountain-man movie than a western. To the extent that there's a mountain-man genre, it's a phenomenon of the 1970s and its revisionist, deglamorizing tendencies. Mountain-man movies are grimy and visceral, in some eyes a more honest representation of the pioneer experience. They stress the ordeal of settlement, but in the case of Revenant that ordeal has been upstaged somewhat by the reported ordeal of filming the picture under the exacting conditions set by Inarritu and two-time-defending cinematography champion Emmnauel Lubezki. Some of the film's early box-office success -- it has far outpaced Hateful Eight -- may be a matter of curiosity over exactly what Leonardo DiCaprio endured on the long location shoot, for which he has just earned a Golden Globe award. If any doubt remained that DiCaprio had transcended his pretty-boy past to become a mighty man of cinema, Revenant should eliminate it once and for all. Whether he deserves the awards he's gotten or will get for this picture is another matter, but that's no reflection on the actor, even though he was outclassed, in my opinion, by Tom Hardy's villainous turn. Once again Hardy requires headgear to make him stand out -- from the front it looks like a do-rag, but it's a cloth patch covering where his character had been partially scalped in the past -- but he's able to invest his character with more personality, not to mention more bile, than was required of him, to be fair, in Mad Max: Fury Road. If Hardy has the advantage over DiCaprio -- and if Leo is a favorite for Best Actor Hardy should be a lock for Supporting Actor -- it's probably because his character, Fitzgerald, stands for something that inspires characterization, while DiCaprio's Hugh Glass is just the good guy by comparison.

Fitzgerald represents raw materialism and pure acquisitiveness. Disgruntled because his trapping party must stash their pelts away in the wilderness and flee for home due to Indian attacks, thus delaying his payout, Fitzgerald is not consoled by this boss's observation that at least they'll still have their lives. Fitzgerald has no life, he bluntly admits, unless he has money. He disdains spirituality, making a joke of an old partner's sighting of God in a squirrel -- the punch line is that Fitzgerald killed the squirrel and ate it. He may demand his due for the pelts, but self-interest overrides any impulse toward reciprocity or responsibility. Volunteering to stay with Glass after the already-immortal sequence in which Glass is mauled while fighting (and killing) a bear -- and, yes, I can see why it looked to some people like the bear was raping Glass -- and then only after their leader has increased the monetary incentive, Fitzgerald reneges, as soon as he thinks he can get away with it, on his obligation to care for Glass until he dies and then bury him properly. He's never liked Fitzgerald, assumes he's a goner anyway, and is more worried about his own skin with Indians supposedly near.

I spoil nothing to note that Glass does not die, though the character himself states otherwise in a line quoted in the advertising. He has the same relentless endurance he's tried to inculcate into his half-breed son, whom Fitzgerald stabs to death when the lad protests the abandonment of his dad. But while the film emphasizes Fitzgerald's selfish materialism in a way that seems to set Glass up as his opposite, presumably a more spiritual person, the screenplay never really sells the opposition despite the occasional delirious vision Glass experiences. If there's a real, grave weakness in the story, it's that Glass undergoes any number of rebirth experiences -- from clawing out of the shallow grave Fitzgerald dumps him in to forcing his way out of a frost-stiffened, disemboweled horse carcass -- he never really seems to change. That's because Inarritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith have stacked the deck in Glass's favor by making him a squaw man, a literal Indian lover who is already a priori a more spiritual person and more in harmony with nature than the bigoted Fitzgerald, for whom Indians are "tree niggers." There is no need and no room for Glass to undergo a spiritual transformation or any other sort of transformation during his long journey. The most the writers try to say, or so I infer, is that Glass comes to realize that his survival is a matter of grace, dependent not on himself alone but any number of chances or interventions, from the ministrations of a lone wandering Pawnee to the availability of that horse carcass, which Glass himself had ridden off a cliff. Such a realization, I suppose, is supposed to explain the clunker of a climactic moment when Glass at last has Fitzgerald at his mercy. We can imagine Fitzgerald saying lots of things at this ultimate moment, but probably not the comic-book level line he utters about vengeance not bringing Glass's boy back to life -- to which Glass answers, with equal inanity, "Vengeance belongs to God."

At that point the film tries to wrap up some of the subplots trailing behind Glass, most notably an Indian chief engaged in a Searchers-in-reverse quest for a daughter who'd been kidnapped by white men. I'm not sure what the point of the subplot was other than to provide more people to chase Glass around and someone to possibly give Fitzgerald what he deserves. The script had attempted to draw a parallel between the chief and Fitzgerald earlier, the chief ranting about whites stealing everything and Fitzgerald ranting while looting a ruined camp about Indians stealing everything, but that's really as far as it went. In the end, Fitzgerald is held accountable for something he didn't actually do -- unless I missed something -- which presumably is preferable to Glass taking personal vengeance on the brute. But if Revenant ends badly, you shouldn't hold it against the remarkable two hours or more that come before the end. Lubezki is clearly after a three-peat at the Oscars and has a solid shot; the only knock I can give him is that there was something distractingly mechanical about some of his 180-degree pans. If anything, Lubezki is more a show-off this time than he or Inarritu was in Birdman with his no-cut policy, but the cinematography works to give the story the visceral and atmospheric realism it requires. Some of Robert Richardson's outdoor footage for Hateful Eight may be just as impressive, but that picture goes indoors too soon for Richardson to really compete with Lubezki. DiCaprio deserves praise for his rugged physical performance, but it's not as rich as, say, Robert Redford's endurance test in All Is Lost. Despite that, Revenant is definitely a must-see for anyone who acknowledges spectacle as part of the essence of cinema, even if it shows that spectacle isn't everything. It's a very good film, but not so great as it could have been.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

PHOENIX (2014)

The official sources of Christian Petzold's film are well-established. He's the second filmmaker, after J. Lee Thompson in 1965, to adapt a 1961 French novel called Return from the Ashes. The true sources go further back. As an archetype, the main idea echoes the Anastasia legend; someone is shaped into an imposter, but the person she's impersonating is actually herself. But I felt more than a hint of Vertigo, which is also based on a French novel, in this more guilt-ridden variant on the legend. Look at it from the man's point of view. He's creating a simulacrum of someone he's lost, whose loss he feels responsible for. Having perfected his new creation, and discovering that it is the person he'd lost -- though Phoenix is less complicated about this than Vertigo is -- he loses her again.

The story as Petzold and Harun Farocki adapted it has an archetypal simplicity and an archetypal gravitas compounded by the setting. Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) has barely survived a Nazi concentration camp and requires reconstructive surgery on her face. With a friend and fellow survivor, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) she returns to Berlin, where she had been a cabaret singer. In Berlin it looks like Germany has lapsed back to Weimar days, at least in the nightclubs. Nelly is looking for her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), an Aryan musician. When she finds him at the Phoenix Club, he's a waiter who doesn't recognize her after her surgery. And since she hadn't introduced herself, he takes her for a stranger who just happens to resemble his long-lost wife. The resemblance is enough that Johnny thinks he can pass the stranger, who calls herself Esther, as Nelly. As the apparent sole survivor of her family, Nelly would inherit a nice fortune, and if Johnny's scheme works, he'll share it.

A tug of war develops. While Johnny obviously needs "Esther" for his con, Lene wants Nelly to go to Palestine with her. Maybe it's me, but I got the impression that Lene's insistence on this is not entirely Zionist in nature. She clearly doesn't trust Johnny. I don't mean about now; Lene suspects that Johnny actually ratted Nelly out to the Nazis and is determined to prove it. But Nelly can't walk away. It's as if she knows she's in an archetypal story and expects a magical moment of recognition that will make everything right. However, Lene finds a way to force a decisive choice on Nelly, and I told you a couple of paragraphs ago how the story ends.

Some of the reviews I've read found it implausible that Johnny doesn't recognize Esther as Nelly immediately, since Nina Hoss doesn't really look much different in the present than she does in pre-war photographs. The difference definitely isn't as drastic as that between Kim Novak's Madeleine and her Judy in Vertigo, and Johnny doesn't have the handicap of not really knowing Anastasia that the grifters in the 1956 Ingrid Bergman movie labor under. I think we have to dismiss the objection with an admission that Phoenix is not an experiment in realism of any sort. However, there may be more going on with Johnny than such a dismissal implies. Seeing him make every arrangement for his own comeuppance, I was reminded of something the leftist thinker Slavoj Zizek said about Donald Rumsfeld. Zizek was riffing on Rumsfeld's famous comment about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Zizek's idea is that there is, or must be a fourth category: the unknown known, the things we don't know that we know. Esther's true identity is arguably such an unknown known for Johnny, in which case his effort to transform Esther more completely into Nelly is subconsciously tempting fate -- specifically the fate he may think he deserves. Looking at it another way, recreating Nelly is a way for him to deny what he presumes happened to her, and to wash his own past clean. And Nelly's temptation to play along is just as much a form of denial, one she can no longer sustain after Lene's final intervention in her life.

However you analyze it, it builds up to a powerful closing scene that we really should have seen coming, in which Nelly reveals herself in a way Johnny can't mistake, and thus ruins him. While this is very much Nina Hoss's movie -- she and Petzold may be the hottest actor-director team in Germany since Kinski and Herzog -- this climactic moment is all about the desolate shame on Ronald Zehrfeld's face as he hears the undeniable voice and stares at her tattooed forearm. No further denunciation is necessary. It may be an imperfect film if you can't suspend disbelief, but you might find it a perfect ending anyway.

Monday, January 4, 2016

On the Big Screen: THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Unlike Quentin Tarantino I won't keep you waiting. The Hateful Eight is a considerable improvement over Django Unchained and if still not on the level of his best work it's reassuring proof that Tarantino hasn't lost his skills. While the film boasts of its epic cinematic trappings, down to the overture and intermission music in select theaters, it's also the writer-director's most theatrical film in many obvious respects. More significantly, it indicates that Tarantino may be moving tentatively away from his obsession with revenge stories. If anything, and as a pleasant surprise, it's ultimately a tale of reconciliation, albeit arguably the sort of reconciliation that can come only at the point of death. While Samuel L. Jackson sports a costume reminiscent of Sartana, the new Tarantino film finally feels less like a spaghetti western and just a little more like a Sam Peckinpah picture, its shiny new (or almost new, according to some reports) Ennio Morricone score notwithstanding.

This is another Tarantinian experiment in suspense, trapping its cast of suspicious characters in a "haberdashery" while a blizzard rages outside for most of the film's expansive length. The one fact we can trust is that bounty hunter John "the Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) -- so named because he always takes his men alive, so they can hang -- is trying to bring his woman, Daisy Domergue (pronounced "Dahmer-goo" and played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearby town of Red Rock, where he'll collect a $10,000 bounty. As the blizzard bears down, he reluctantly takes on extra passengers before reaching the haberdashery. Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) -- named after midcentury writer-director and authentic pulp fiction author Charles Marquis Warren -- is a fellow bounty hunter with victims of his own, dead, to collect on. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) is the son of a Quantrell-like Civil War guerrilla commander, improbably appointed the new sheriff of Red Rock. Of the three, Warren is the most familiar with the haberdashery and the first to find it strange that the proprietors have left the place in charge of a stranger to him, Senior Bob (Demian Bichir). Hunkering down with him are Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who conveniently introduces himself as Red Rock's new hangman, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who announces that he's writing his life story, and an elderly ex-general of the regular Confederate army (Bruce Dern). Ruth is disinclined to trust any of them, and Domergue encourages his suspicions just to annoy him. The two bounty hunters join forces to protect their bounties against all comers, but fall out when Warren's honesty -- he claims to own a personal letter from Abraham Lincoln -- is thrown into question. To go further into the story, however, would be to spoil things.

Oddly absent here are the really long Tarantinian conversations, inspired by George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard and Sergio Leone, that expand the space of suspense in most of his films. While I was relieved to find that the dialogue was not as banal as trailers and commercials suggested, it still isn't quite up to Tarantino's standards. Interestingly, though, he uses action -- or, to be more accurate, activity -- to expand that space. He and cinematographer Robert Richardson do a great job of establishing the atmosphere outside in the opening chapters -- yes, he still has that chaptering tic -- but Tarantino reinforces that atmosphere by emphasizing the labor characters have to perform in the thick of the storm, from tending to their horses in the barn to repeatedly hammering shut a front door with a broken latch. He calls our attention to the arduous process of establishing a walkway from the haberdashery to the outhouse, giving his setting a feel of authenticity more likely to be appreciated by fans of American westerns than fans of spaghettis. The activity is interesting enough, or filmed in interesting enough ways, and the character interplay is intriguing enough that Hateful Eight never seemed to me as slow or boring as some critics have charged.

Another crucial element in establishing suspense is Daisy Domergue, whose rough treatment by the bounty hunters may be the film's most controversial element. Handcuffed to Ruth most of the time, Domergue is repeatedly subject to physical abuse: punches in the face, elbows to the nose, etc. Worse will come as the film lurches inevitably into Grand Guignol territory. Initially, Ruth's violence raises questions Tarantino clearly wants us to ask. What has Domergue actually done, both to have such a bounty and to make Ruth treat her that way? How dangerous is she, really? Leigh plays the character with deceptive superficiality as Domergue often plays the clown through a mask of blood. But in the film's disappointment, Domergue never develops into much more than a cipher, if not a Macguffin. If Tarantino seemed to have begged a question of what specific evil Domergue had perpetrated, he never bothers answering it. To spoil things just slightly, we learn that she is the sister and partner-in-crime of an outlaw gang leader, but we never learn whether she's done anything in particular apart from be in the gang and the family to justify the price on her head. You spend time wondering where Tarantino is going to go with the character -- whether he wants to build sympathy for her under Ruth's misogynist assault, only to reveal her as a legitimate monster, for instance. While she is the villain of the piece by default, she never quite develops into the epic villain she might have been, and that failure raises the question of whether Tarantino put Leigh through the mill just as a provocation, to dare the audience to call him a misogynist on top of all his other sins.

Marquis Warren's character arc is hard to figure out, too. Being Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackson being top-billed, he's presumably our point-of-view character, but being one of the Hateful Eight as well, Warren does things to alienate the audience and the other characters, most of whom already look at him slightly askance due to his race. Under pressure from the skeptical Mannix, Warren admits that his Lincoln letter is a forgery that he justifies by claiming that it serves as a sort of safe-conduct pass for a black man. He admits to carrying out an atrocity during the war, having burned down a prison to escape from it and killing fellow Union soldiers as well as his Rebel captors. Suddenly on the outs with most of the others, he takes his frustrations out on the old general, provoking him with a vicious account of killing the general's son after stripping the young man naked and forcing a blowjob from him. Given what we've just learned, we may wonder whether Warren is lying again in order to goad the most obvious racist in the room, even though Tarantino flashes back to the event in almost-unflinching detail. This episode nearly took me out to the picture, mainly because I still can't quite believe that even the most hateful 19th century people would brag of such loathsome antics in the slangy terms Warren uses. It came off as if Tarantino were subjecting the entire western genre to Norman Mailer's turd test, especially since it was unclear whether he wanted us to see the story -- either the incident itself or the telling of it to the old man -- as a despicable act or whether he was still in Django mode, in which racists are fair game for any reprisal blacks may have in mind. On the other hand, it may simply have been Warren's ploy to see whether the general was part of any conspiracy with Domergue, the idea being that, were that the case, he would not raise to the bait Warren flaunted at him. I suppose it's a virtue of the film that you can speculate that way about it after the fact.

But if Warren's encounter with the general reopens wounds of war and slavery, his evolving relationship with Mannix points toward an alternative outcome. As the guerrilla leader's son and an unapologetic apologist for The Cause, Mannix should be as irreconcilable an enemy to Warren as the general is. Yet when circumstances force him to choose sides, he sides with Warren. You get the feeling that his ability to see through Warren's occasional bullshit makes it easier for them to get along, or at least work together. They're both still haters -- Warren often dismissively refers to Mannix as "white man" -- but there's also a degree of respect on a no-bullshit level that warriors presumably share. At a crucial moment, Mannix rejects a moral equation of his father's guerrilla army with Domergue's gang. Mannix's Marauders, or whatever they were called, were probably worse than any outlaw gang by modern standards, but by the standards of the story, or Mannix's own standards, the guerrillas fought beyond any hope of victory in order to claim an honorable defeat, while all notions of honor are presumably alien to Domergue and her cohorts. At the end, Mannix can see through Domergue's lies while gaining some appreciation of Warren's need to lie, and Mannix and Warren can agree with Ruth that people like Domergue deserve to hang because shooting -- the mark of war -- is too good for them. Many westerns from classic Hollywood stage some sort of too-good-to-be-true North-South reconciliation through combat with outlaws, Indians, Mexicans, etc. The Hateful Eight takes that trope to another level by pitting a black man and a virtually unreconstructed Reb against the outlaw nihilism represented by Domergue. Neither man really changes, much less improves, but in any setting like this one somebody has to be the least hateful, and in Tarantino's hard world those are our heroes. Or at least they're heroes the way the old lady is a good person in the Flannery O'Connor story, as long as someone has a gun to her head. And for all the expected gore (much less than in Django) and toilet talk there's an appreciation of mortality, if not morality, that may signal a belated maturation in the veteran enfant terrible of Hollywood.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Year of Joy

A shared sense of irony connects two 2015 releases with principal characters named Joy, both of whom are plunged into pits of despair -- one of them pretty much literally. The irony is strong in these two when you consider that Joy is the actual title of one of these pictures, the one based on a real person of that name, while the other features an actual embodiment of the emotion of joy. But if David O. Russell's Joy resembles any Pixar cartoon it's Brad Bird's Ratatouille, in which an ambitious striver transcends a demoralizing environment. Russell has gotten some grief this holiday season for daring to release a film that refrains from banal idolization of Family, but I'd wonder about people for whom the heroine's familial dysfunction doesn't ring at least partially true. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is trapped in webs of neediness and codependence; apart from her beloved grandmother her relatives are about as helpful to her as Anger, Disgust and Fear are when left to steer a human being on their own. Yet Joy is still a vindication of family if only by default, because the heroine never even thinks of walking away from them. Part of the motivation for her fateful creativity -- the real Joy Mangano built an entrepreneurial empire on her invention of the self-wringing Miracle Mop -- is the sense of responsibility she feels for the lot of them, and she never stops feeling responsible no matter how many times they fail or betray her. She goes slightly Michael Corleone on her envious half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm) in one wrong-note scene, but if you want to sustain the comparison then at least Joy will be the sort of benign leader of her family that Michael only promised to be.

If Joy still seems like a slap in the face to some current sensibilities it's also a throwback to the aspirational melodramas of the supposedly more innocent days of classic Hollywood, when they had different illusions from ours but didn't share all of ours, either. Joy is the work of a modern (or postmodern) Fannie Hurst, Russell acknowledging the soap-operatic nature of his story by making Joy's mother's favorite soap opera a running joke that bleeds into Joy's dreams, but also seemingly acknowledging a truth at the heart of soaps that transcends their bad acting and flat staging, just as Russell seems to consciously echo the bad-on-purpose TV direction in some of the main story's climactic confrontations. In recent films he's striven to master the machinery of melodrama and here again, as with American Hustle, the results are highly entertaining if ultimately too good to be strictly true. But speaking of classic Hollywood, everybody lay off Jennifer Lawrence. When Russell casts her in roles that seem too old for her, he's only doing what studios did with leading ladies all the time long ago. How else do you explain that Olivia De Havilland and Kirk Douglas will both turn 100 this year, but Olivia had a decade's head-start in Hollywood on Kirk? Actresses were considered early bloomers back then, capable of maturity beyond their years, and Lawrence is simply a throwback to that sort of stardom, with the charisma and power to justify the casting. It's her turn to be the star of the Russell Stock Company this time and, ably supported by regulars Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper ("Him again!?" someone protested when Cooper was revealed as the QVC honcho who gives Joy her big break), as well as newcomers like Edgar (Carlos the Jackal) Ramirez (as an increasingly helpful ex-husband) and Isabella Rossellini (as an increasingly wicked stepmother of sorts) she's her usual unstoppable self. The only real fault I can find with Joy is that its final reversal of fortune, bringing the heroine's final triumph, comes out of nowhere. One moment she's had a self-pitying tantrum that seems finally to reveal her as her father's daughter, and in the next she's facing down a sinister businessman who vaguely threatens to kill her with reveals of detective work that probably should have been shown rather than told about. I think it would have added to the suspense if the audience had clues that there was something fishy about the rival patent claim that Joy needed to figure out, and it couldn't have hurt if the audience saw Joy start to figure it all out rather than keep us wondering what she's up to cutting her hair and going to Texas before the big showdown. But if the climax comes too abruptly the character's victory still seems well earned after everything she's endured; the heroine's journey matters as much as the destination and by the end Joy makes the journey for the heroine and the audience seem worthwhile.

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What's missing at the climax of Joy is the moment of realization and enlightenment that comes in Pete Doctor's Inside Out when that film's Joy discovers the truth about her increasingly conflicted relationship with a dysfunctional colleague. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the first among equals -- she's the first to emerge from the void at the dawning of consciousness -- in a committee of five emotions who steer the development of a girl named Riley. I mentioned three of her colleagues in passing a paragraph ago, but if anyone presents a real threat to her as Riley grows older, it's the backward seeming Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Joy is possessive toward Riley and insists on unconditional happiness for her, but when Riley's family moves from Minnesota to California Sadness becomes almost unconsciously more assertive and more dangerous, changing Riley's core memories from Joy's gold color to her own blue. Joy's jealous efforts to prevent these changes plunge the pair into a typical Pixar predicament. Cast out of their control center, they must team up to make their way back through Riley's subconsciousness before the other three knuckleheads make the girl take extreme measures. This is possibly the most apocalyptic of Pixar films as Riley's turmoil literally burns bridges and devastates vast areas of her mind and memory all around our little heroines. Pixar's knack for portraying tiny but perfectly recognizable figures in huge settings really gets a showcase here.

At the darkest moment, with nearly all of Riley's islands of happy memories destroyed, Joy is separated from Sadness and plunges with Riley's old imaginary friend Bing-Bong into an oubliette from which escape seems very unlikely. Here Joy breaks down and sobs in despair, in an unusually long close-up shot. And it's when Joy discovers her own capacity for sadness that she also discovers the connection between joy and sadness in memory. She's been hoarding a number of golden core memories, one of which Sadness has partially tainted with her touch. Joy remembers the occasion when this particular memory was minted, but buzzkill Sadness has a very different memory of the moment. At first Joy dismisses Sadness's memory as her typical stupidity, but in her great moment of insight she learns that Riley's sadness that day was the precondition of her later joy, and deduces that Riley will never know joy again unless she can express her suffocating sadness now. It's an ingenious solution grounded in one of Pixar's most thoroughly imagined fantasy worlds, one replicated in the brain of every sentient creature. Inside Out gives us tantalizing glimpses of the play of emotions in the heads of other people and other beings, enough to suggest an entire theory of emotional maturation. Two of Riley's emotions are male, three female, but when we look inside her parents' heads the older emotions have grown homogenized. Each one retains its original color and basic shape, but all of Mom's emotions wear the same glasses, wig and pearls (and a remarkably calm Sadness is their leader), while all Dad's emotions sport moustaches (and a relatively laid-back Anger has the comm). These fleeting scenes speak untold volumes, placing this cartoon among the more emotionally if not intellectually profound Pixar productions. But it's often funny as hell as well, from the macabre slapstick of Joy and Sadness's effort to infiltrate a dream studio in a patently fake and promptly dismembered dog suit ("Bark! Bark!" emotes Joy) to some of the stupidest cops (in Riley's subconscious) that cinema has shown us in some time -- the "My hat" gag may be my favorite in the whole picture. The only problem I have with Inside Out is the way people say it's the best Pixar, or the first good Pixar, in such a long time, as if there's something wrong with Brave. That being said, I think it is better than Brave, while I insist on that film's quality, and Pixar's best since Toy Story 3. Its combined critical and box-office success ought to have Pixar asking why they keep having this compulsion to do sequels when originality has rewards such as these.

The moral of both films is that true joy comes through struggle and after coming to terms with the inescapable sadness of life. The virtue of both is that each can find so many funny or otherwise entertaining ways to say this. Inside Out and Joy represent the best, or nearly the best, of what pop cinema can produce when the machine runs on all engines.

Friday, January 1, 2016

True Pulp Fiction is here

After nearly two years of talk and plenty of previews here, I've finally launched my pulp fiction blog. I'd wanted to call it "Real Pulp Fiction," but someone on Blogger has that name, so True Pulp Fiction it is. This will be my most ambitious blogging project in some time, since I'm committed to daily content. Starting today, I'm creating a Pulp Calendar of classic magazine covers, along with comments on the histories of the magazines, their authors, and their stories when I've read them. Along with this daily feature, I'll gradually show you my own pulp collection, complete with story reviews. The scope of the thing will expand to encompass other media (apart from movies, which is what Mondo 70 is for) from what I call a golden age of storytelling. I have a vintage paperback novel collection, too, and we'll probably delve into Golden Age comic books and Old Time Radio as well, both of which have plenty of primary sources online. Pulp will be the highlight, and I hope the rarity of some of our subject matter will give the new blog some of the exotic novelty value Mondo 70 has when I delve into the more obscure stuff. True Pulp Fiction is still a work in progress, but you should see it shape up rapidly the more you come back. Meanwhile, Mondo 70 and The Think 3 Institute will continue. Over here this weekend look for "The Year of Joy," in which I consider two of my favorite 2015 films, and if time permits I'll deal with The Hateful Eight, which I'll be seeing tomorrow. But for now, take a look around the new place and let me know what you think. The address is: