Monday, February 29, 2016


The latest Academy Awards were overshadowed by the "#oscarssowhite" controversy, which itself was successfully turned into more or less a joke by MC Chris Rock. No film loomed so head and shoulders high above all the others that I had any great rooting interest in any of the categories, apart from wanting to see George Miller win Best Director for Mad Max: Fury Road. Instead, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the award for the second year in a row, this time for The Revenant, while Best Picture went to Tom McCarthy's Spotlight. A record was set when Revenant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won his category for the third consecutive year, while Ennio Morricone at last won a Best Original Score award, even though a good part of his score for The Hateful Eight consists of music rejected by John Carpenter for The Thing. In the most noteworthy upset of the night, sentimental favorite for Best Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone (Creed) was beaten by Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). I said before that if Rylance won for a rather minimalist performance in the Spielberg spy film, it would be because the TV miniseries Wolf Hall had convinced voters that Rylance was a great actor, but I also suspect that the Academy might have feared embarrassment over giving an Oscar to Creed's white supporting actor after infamously ignoring its black writer-director and star at the nomination stage. To no one's surprise, I assume, a film touching upon the Holocaust won Best Foreign Language Film, but as I've seen none of the nominees I can't say more than that.

By giving Spotlight the highest honor the Academy takes a swipe at an often-antagonistic Catholic Church, whose offenses against children give the film Significance, but above all seeks to affirm, after some years of fascination with the visual potential of film, that writing matters. It's telling that the only other award Spotlight won was the Original Screenplay Oscar, the film being too much an ensemble play for any actor to have much claim on a personal award. It's a very good film and would have been my second choice from the field of eight after Fury Road, and McCarthy did a fine job in the relatively invisible art of directing actors rather than action, but I can't help thinking that after a few years Spotlight will be remembered as a thought rather than an image. If that can happen to a Best Picture than the point of moviemaking may be missed altogether. Dismiss Fury Road as a genre piece -- The General was dismissed in its time, after all -- and there remain many more visually memorable films than Spotlight. Visuals need not trump writing, for many stinkers are visually dazzling, but shouldn't truly great screenwriting, if it isn't just great theatrical writing, lead to truly memorable moving images? Some will say that's why Inarritu and Lubezki won Oscars again, but given how inferior Revenant was to Birdman, I can't help feeling that everything to do with Revenant, including Leonardo DiCaprio's acting award, was a medal of valor for the making of the picture rather than the finished product. And lest you think this is more special pleading for Fury Road, I would have been happy to see Carol, as different a film as you could ask for, win Best Picture and Director had it been given a chance. The Revenant clearly was the most overrated film in the field, though it was still fiercely compelling at its best, while Spotlight's honors, by comparison, simply signal aesthetic priorities potentially at odds with the best that pictures can be. But what's new? The Academy's priorities, however they shift across history, have always been different from the priorities of art. Sometimes those separate priorities coincidentally complement each other, but whether that has happened this time, posterity must judge.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


This manga-inspired hip-hop martial-arts musical looks like Sion Sono's tribute to Walter Hill, the auteur of The Warriors and Streets of Fire. In a vaguely fantastic Japan gangs control much of Tokyo in an uneasy equilibrium constantly threatened by the most belligerent, decadent and just plain insane gang led by Buppa (Riki Takeuchi) and his vassals -- or are they his sons? Mera (Ryohei Suzuki) is a buff narcissist obsessed with eliminating any man who might have a larger penis than his. Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) is more of a degenerate, dedicated to decorating his quarters with living human furniture. Buppa himself acts more like a hornier homage to Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice from Dick Tracy than anything Walter Hill ever dreamed up. Buppa loves his blowjobs but is equally entertained, it seems, by jacking off a black dildo. He's more or less the godfather hereabouts, but even he answers to a mysterious high priest who communicates via hologram that his intended virgin sacrifice -- his own daughter, it turns out -- has run away. It turns out that Buppa's crew had her (Nana Seino) in their clutches not long before without knowing it, and knowing her intended fate explains why she had dared Mera to "rape away" while she was in his power. Anyway, she and her street-urchin sidekick, both karate experts, break out, and her escape proves the spark to all out war among the Tokyo tribes. Buppa literally has a gang called Waru he can summon to fight his battles, but while they make a menacing show early on they fold quickly under a combined assault of the other tribes -- all more or less good guys and far less entertaining than the bad guys -- who then besiege Buppa's fortress to end his reign of terror....

Tokyo Tribe aspires to epic sleaziness and often hits the mark. The tone is set early when a rookie female cop naively attempts to bust Mera for dealing drugs on a rainy night. The showdown ends with extended scenes of Mera groping the rookie's exposed boobs as she moans in a manner not entirely intended by Sion Sono to inspire empathy with her plight. This is a director whose main concern during the fight scenes seems to be that we get a clear shot of the heroine's white panties whenever she throws a kick. Sion Sono is well known to cult movie buffs as one of Japan's top cinematic provocateurs, and in that capacity he doesn't disappoint. For all I know, his conception of a Japanese gangsta rap movie may be a provocation unto itself. I can't judge the quality of the rapping, of course, because I don't know Japanese and I don't really know hip-hop, but there's an audacity to the mere attempt that impressed me.

As a hip-hop movie, Tokyo Tribe tries to have things both ways, clearly relishing the power fantasies represented by the bad guys but preaching at the end against the lust for power. The problem with its late attempt at moralizing is the usual one with pop action films, which is that the villains are so much more entertaining than the heroes, whose desire to just have fun just isn't as much fun. More imagination -- on film if not in the original manga -- has gone into Buppa and his entourage, down to a female minion who acts as his herald and praise-singer in human-beatbox fashion, only to make a quick-change into an iconic yellow tracksuit during the final battle. "Kill Bill, eh?" her opponent asks. "No, I'm Bruce!" she replies before cracking his skull with her nunchakus and giving with Mr. Lee's characteristic caterwauling. For all this, you can see Sion Sono growing bored with his toys. While you expect epic defeats or deaths for all the main bad guys, Nkoi, as if bored himself, simply turns on a secret death machine, a giant fan that sucks most of the villains into its blades and turns them into CGI splashes. Buppa himself dies (as does "Bruce") in this ignominious fashion, leaving Mera the last villain standing for a climactic fight with a quite less charismatic (but, as we learn in an epilogue, much better endowed) hero. At least Buppa got in some decent gatling-gun action before his abrupt exit. It seems fair to sum up Tokyo Tribe as a mess, but it's sometimes a gorgeous, hot mess and more entertaining overall than not. It's definitely a singular Japanese movie experience; at least it's hard to believe there could be two of these.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

On the Big Screen: DEADPOOL (2016)

The superhero genre is bringing out its big guns this year. No, I don't mean Batman fighting Superman or Iron Man fighting Captain America. War is coming, true, but Marvel Studios doesn't have a dog in this fight. They gave theirs away to Twentieth Century-Fox a long time ago, at a time when they probably didn't have an idea of what they were giving away. To understand what I'm talking about, go to any media store. Go to one of those places where tie-in toys take up an ever-increasing amount of floor space as the stocks of CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays dwindle. At one of our local media stores you can see what I'm talking about pretty clearly. Probably all such places will have two big display stands stocked with red-clad figures. There will be more of these two, probably, than any other comic book character. You'll have guessed already that one of these is Deadpool, the "merc with a mouth" whose movie rights belong to Fox by virtue of the character's association with Marvel's mutant books, who gets a reboot in Tim Miller's new film after a disastrous debut in the disastrous spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The other shoe drops in August, when Harley Quinn makes her big-screen live-action debut in the Suicide Squad movie. These two characters are the crimson monsters of tie-in merchandising, while their movies promise an irreverent alternative to the often-oppressive solemnity of superhero films, which is likely to hit new highs (or lows) with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. While both Deadpool and Harley embody black humor, their vibrant redness also promises anarchic relief from the drab darkness required by comic-book fans desperate to keep everything "cool." Arguably they achieve another level of cool where you don't care how stupid you may look while indulging your every destructive whim or saying anything that pops into your head, while many comics fans (or comics-movie fans) remain afraid of looking stupid and thus insist on their fantasies being taken with the utmost seriousness on screen.

Something like Deadpool might have been reviled as camp had it not targeted some "uncool" conventions of superhero cinema for parody. Its most sharply satiric moment comes when our hero (Ryan Reynolds, returning bravely after the Origins debacle while mocking his other debacle in the genre, Green Lantern) has an enemy at his mercy, pointing a gun at his head. Along comes Colossus, a stalwart, steel-skinned X-Man, to give the standard speech that comes at this point in a superhero movie when someone has to be talked down from killing someone else. You heard it most recently in X-Men: Days of Future Past when Professor X convinces Mystique not to kill Senator Kelly. A true hero spares the lives of beaten enemies, Colossus says, but in mid-sentence Deadpool pulls the trigger. This is as good an example of any of how Deadpool is often funny, but rarely is as funny as it could be. The filmmakers go for the obvious punch line of Deadpool not taking the boilerplate speech seriously, but what I was expecting, and what I still think would have been more funny, was for the villain to ask Deadpool to shoot him and end his misery by sparing him the rest of the speech. Almost unerringly, Deadpool goes for the easy jokes, the cheap cultural references -- all too typically slightly anachronistic -- the in-jokes about the X-Men movie franchise, Marvel movies in general and Ryan Reynolds himself, and dirty talk for its own sake in celebration of the film's unprecedented R rating. Deadpool wants to be a masked Marx brother but more often ends up a monkey flinging poo, which is probably the smart play for modern comedy fans.

For all that it wants to mock its own genre, Deadpool succeeds best on the genre's terms, as an action film. That only makes sense, since the filmmakers want to eat their cake and have it, too. They strike a tone of self-aware, satiric irreverence, yet still want us to empathize with poor Wade W. Wilson, the ex-Special Forces soldier who meets his perfect mate (Morena Baccarin) only to fall victim suddenly to late-stage cancer. His only hope for a cure is a dodgy experimental procedure touted by Francis "Ajax" Freeman (Ed Skrein) which could make him into a superhero. Freeman aims to awaken latent mutations and transform patients into "super slaves" for hire. His tortures of Wilson trigger a healing factor that makes the patient practically indestructible but also disfigures him, pocking his face, while retaining the chiseled Ryan Reynolds facial structure, in a way that reminds some of avocados reproducing in unnatural fashion. In one respect Deadpool is different from many comedies; it highlights one of its worst lines in the advertising, but I suppose they had to pick something without swear words. In any event, Wilson feels cheated somewhat, while Freeman, impatient with his patient's complaining, impales him and leaves him in a burning basement. Wilson survives, of course, and becomes Deadpool (he briefly considers adding a "Captain" to that) in order to find Freeman and compel him to cure his disfigurement, as he fears his beloved will no longer love a face that looks like a Deadpool has given another Deadpool a Cleveland Steamer, or something along those lines. So it comes to a climax a lot like every other climax, except that the large object -- it sure looks like a SHIELD helicarrier to me, although those shouldn't exist in Fox films -- had already fallen some time ago. The damsel's in distress, the hero has to save her (despite getting a knife driven into his brain), and somebody makes a speech about not killing people. You see what I did there: I got back to the point in time I flash-forwarded to in the last paragraph after a long flashback, which goes to show I can write reviews the way some people write movies.

Deadpool isn't as funny as it thinks it is, and isn't even as irreverent as it thinks it is -- true irreverence requires a more respectable target than the superhero genre -- but it delivers the goods in its action scenes. Oddly, though, I was more impressed by the slobberknocker side fight between Colossus and Ajax's super-strong enforcer Angel Dust (Gina Carano) than by the main character's aerial antics and gun-fu. The Colossus-Angel Dust battle is pure primal fisticuffs, with humongously powerful people punching one another great distances and Carano's MMA skills thrown in for extra measure. That core fantasy of strength is not upstaged by all of Deadpool's shooting, stabbing and slashing, though all of that is fairly well executed. In his second attempt at Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds may be forgiven his previous sins against comic-book characters, but he's still pretty much his same smug self, which this time just happens to work in his favor. I never really came to care for the character, but for all their bids for empathy I don't think the filmmakers really needed or wanted anyone to care that way. They got what they wanted, which was a big opening weekend and a film that obviously could have been much worse than it actually is. And if it doesn't inspire me to buy Deadpool comic books, then only Marvel Comics loses, which probably makes Fox's success that much sweeter smelling, like an air freshener raping another air freshener or something.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

DVR Diary: FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR (La Marca del Hombre Lobo, 1968)

The coming of all-digital television and the allotment of extra digital channels to existing local stations has resulted in more people discovering old movies the old way: on commercial TV, interrupted by ads, possibly further edited for time and formatted to fit the screen. In the last year or so, my local cable service has added three channels that occupy local stations' digital space. Grit is an action-oriented channel split between westerns and more recent shoot 'em-ups. Get.TV is a less genre-specific channel that showcases the Sony Pictures library, along with a bloc of vintage western TV shows. Most intriguing of the lot is Comet, which aims to cover more psychotronic territory. While the name says science fiction, Comet also shows horror films dating back at least to the 1950s, and it was on Comet that I finally got around to seeing Paul Naschy's first appearance as the accursed Waldemar Daninsky, el Hombre Lobo. The only difference between seeing it on Comet and catching it on an independent station some weekend thirty years ago is that Comet happened to have a widescreen print of the American edition of this 70 mm extravaganza, which played in 3-D during its original European release.

Readers of this blog probably know how Enrique Lopez Egiuluz's film got its inaccurate American name. U.S. distributor Independent International was committed to deliver a Frankenstein picture to theaters, namely Al Adamson's legendary Dracula vs. Frankenstein, but the picture wasn't ready, apparently due to legal reasons. So I-I  slapped a new title on the Spanish film -- the end credits offer yet another title, Hell's Creatures -- and added a prologue explaining how the Frankenstein family had been cursed with lycanthropy for its unholy experiments and renamed Wolfstein, thus explaining how the film's Imre Wolfstein is a werewolf. Ironically, a later Daninsky film, released in some places as Dracula vs. Frankenstein, was retitled Assignment Terror for the deference to the Adamson film. More confusing still, the Hammer production Horror of Frankenstein was released in some U.S. markets as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror! Check out the Gadsden Times for January 31, 1972 on the Google News Archive if you don't believe me.

Naschy was the onscreen alter ego, adopted to win over this film's anticipated German audience, of screenwriter Jacinto Molina, heretofore little more than a bit player in movies and a big fan of the Universal horror cycle. Molina/Naschy's career project was to revitalize Universal tropes with a modern, adult Euro sensibility. Waldemar Daninsky is his take on Larry Talbot, albeit more dangerous as man and wolf. His opening scene, in which he appears at a costume party in a mephistophelean red outfit, is a warning that, however charming Daninsky may be, he's someone dangerous to know. And that's before Imre Wolfstein, recently resurrected by fools removing a stake from his heart, transmits his curse to the Polish Count. While Naschy does the Talbot torment thing well, screenwriter Molina spares himself the "they won't believe me" misery Lon Chaney's Larry often endured. Daninsky has won friends who see plainly what has happened to him and are eager to help him beat the curse. Their research turns up a potential expert on curing lycanthropy whose work was thirty years in the past. The expert's son arrives by train with his female assistant and one large wooden crate. He is, in fact, the expert himself (Julian Ugarte), a vampire who revives Imre yet again, imprisons Waldemar, and plans to make Waldemar's friends his undead thralls.

Ugarte's vampire is the weirdest thing in the picture. You know he's bad news before the reveal, as the camera approaches him warily at the lonely train station. Once he's revealed, he proves a strangely frolicsome creature, seducing an intended female victim with a running dance. Here Molina takes no cues from Universal but gives us a vampire whose spirit of amoral play reminded me of Molina's contemporary, Jean Rollin. Treating the vampire that way makes sense on Molina's own terms, however, because it maximizes the contrast between the elegant, almost ethereal vampire and the brute force of the werewolf, played by Naschy as a drooling cannonball of animal fury, especially compared to the greying Imre. The transformed Daninsky swipes at his prey compulsively, swinging his arms like he was throwing haymakers, when he isn't hurling himself at human or undead targets. Even before the makeup goes on, when Waldemar is chained, the former weightlifter Naschy thrashes about so, while an incredible chanting theme for the transformation plays, that you fear for the props. Naschy has always reminded me of John Belushi a little, and if any of you remember Belushi's Weekend Update editorials when work himself into an apoplexy and throw himself to the floor, that's Naschy just getting started. You can see how he became a horror star here; Naschy as performer and Molina as writer infuse the old tropes with an unprecedented level of energy, while the widescreen cinematography and terrific locations and sets give Daninsky the biggest possible showcase. Frankenstein's Bloody Terror isn't free of the curse of dubbed Euro-horror: bland supporting characters are rendered still more bland by dull dubbing, and either this cut or further cuts imposed by Comet eliminated nearly all of a final fight between Daninsky and Imre. Most of the time, fortunately, the slow bits are redeemed by the pictorial spectacle, even in what looked like an unmastered print. Under even worse broadcast conditions long ago, Frankenstein's Bloody Terror inspired people to seek out more of Naschy's work. It has been a while since I'd seen any Naschy movies, but now I want to get back into the habit.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Too Much TV: Now more than ever

During the month of February 2016 I'm watching ten hours of original series programming a week. That's an unprecedented amount for me but it could have been eleven, except that I gave up on the Beowulf show (Esquire) after one episode. Most of what I'm watching are new episodes of series I've already reviewed, but there are a few new ones I've stuck with and plan to review in depth soon. For now I just want to show you just what's on my plate, along with trying to watch movies while keeping up with my old political blog and my new pulp-fiction blog. February and March probably will prove to be a peak viewing time, since several of these shows are cable programs with limited seasons. I'll be glad to have more free time when they wrap, but I have to say that right now is a pretty good moment for genre TV -- and I say that without watching what most people consider the top two genre programs, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. I don't doubt their quality, but I simply lack the time to catch up with them. Anyway, here's what I am watching, in calendar order:

Monday: Supergirl (CBS) - A guilty pleasure I blame on my interest in superheroes, this is Greg Berlanti's incursion into the Tiffany Network and part of his expanding universe based on DC Comics, as will be confirmed by a crossover with The Flash in March. The Berlanti formula is clear enough: "family" is the focus here as Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) nee Kara Zor-El deals with angry remnants of her Kryptonian heritage while working with her adoptive sister for the DEO, a super-secret government agency watching aliens on earth and run, as known only by Kara and her sister, by just such an alien, martian manhunter J'onn J'onzz in the guise of Hank Henshaw. Her informal family works at Catco for media mogul Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart), including refugee from Metropolis James Olsen and son-of-a-supercriminal Winn Schott. What distinguishes Supergirl from the rest of the Berlantiverse is its determination to play the traditional secret-identity game, at least with Cat Grant, Kara's boss in civilian life. After teasing that Cat had figured out Kara's secret one week, the show restored her to ignorance through a ploy involving J'onzz/Henshaw's shapeshifting abilities. As a result, despite "girl power" elements and Berlantian soap opera that annoy many male fans, Supergirl is in many ways the most oldschool comic-book show running right now, to the extent of being considerably cornier than Berlanti's CW shows. Its special effects oddly often seem inferior to those on The Flash, though that may simply be because flying presents more difficult challenges, and the comedy-relief moments at Catco are often hard to bear, but Melissa Benoist is the show's trump card, a near-perfect embodiment of its more upbeat, idealistic attitude.

The Magicians (SyFy) - this adaptation of Lev Grossman's fantasy trilogy is just about the best new show of the 2015-16 season in my book. I'll definitely review it in more depth when the first season finishes, but I won't wait to recommend this grungier, grittier, more mature take on the Potteresque trope of the school for magic. This show has explosive potential and everything it's doing right now seems fresh in the best way.

Tuesday - The Flash (CW) - Season Two sees this Berlanti show still going strong, its multiverse still expanding with the discovery of "Earth-Two," one of presumably many alternate earths on which our regular cast can play variations on their normal themes. The premise allows Harrison Wells to reappear as an abrasive but ultimately benign refugee from Earth-Two who helps our heroes fight "Zoom," the Earth-Two superfast big bad who lives off the Speed Force Barry Allen generates and hopes to leech off him as he did the Earth-Two Flash, Jay Garrick. Flash continues to strike a superior balance between high concepts and soap opera than Arrow has managed lately and as of now there may be no limit to the writers' imagination other than whatever Hollywood imposes to keep the upcoming DC movies special.

Marvel's Agent Carter (ABC) - I enjoyed the first season of this retro prequel to Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (which I don't watch) and I'm liking the second season better as it gives Peggy Carter, the intrepid British agent from Captain America: The First Avenger, a truly super villain in Whitney Frost, a Hedy Lamarr-inspired genius in an actress's shell tapping into the dangerous power of Zero Matter. Moreso than in the first season, Carter aims to be transgressive by the standards of the period it's set in by teasing a romance between Peggy and a black scientist who, unfortunately, is rendered intangible most of the time by Zero Matter. Meanwhile, the whole Zero Matter business is complicated by a questionable FBI man (Kurtwood Smith!) and a mysterious secret society to which Frost's husband belongs. Carter risks overdoing the comedy sometimes, but a bit in the most recent episode where Peggy repeatedly has to shock a randy Ray Wise to knock him unconscious and forgetful of her presence was genuinely hilarious. There's not too much suspense to be had, since Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed that Peggy lived to the present day, so I suppose a lighter tone than typical for comic-book shows is justified. Rumor is that this is Carter's last run; if so, that'll be too bad.

iZombie (CW) - Not much to add to last year's review except that, if anything, this best-plotted of all genre shows is getting more richly complicated than ever. The writers' ability to deliver an interesting mystery just about every week while juggling the major storylines involving Blaine's new business as a drug dealer/undertaker, his imminent showdown with Seattle crime boss Stacey Boss, Major's conflicted work as the Chao$ Killer, a hitman hired by the Max Rager people to wipe out zombies, the police evidence that circumstantially points to Blaine as the Chao$ Killer, the tension between the cops who want to arrest Blaine and the prosecutors who need him as a witness against Boss, and the fact that Ravi's zombie-cure can fail at any moment, turning Blaine and Major back to zombies, is almost uncanny. I wrote that whole sentence without mentioning our protagonist Liv Moore, but as the center and anchor of this maelstrom she remains one of the most appealing, sympathetic characters on TV despite all the obnoxious variations her brain-eating inflicts on her. In a less-blinkered world Rose McIver would get Emmy nominations.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV) - Hard to believe this adaptation of Terry Brooks's popular fantasy novels comes from the same producers who gave us Into the Badlands, but Gough and Millar clearly tailor their product to their market. For MTV that means pretty young people with anachronistic attitudes and a lot more overt sexuality than Badlands or, I presume, the original Shannara books. Movie buffs may be startled to discover that the young star of Pan's Labyrinth has grown up into this show's Eritrea, an allegedly amoral bandit who grows a kind of conscience as if to spite her exploitative father/gang leader. She's part of a pretty trio, along with an elf princess and a halfbreed hunk, destined to save the elf kingdom's sacred tree from corruption and thus save the Four Lands from demonic invasion, with the help of the mighty druid Alanon (Manu "Slade Wilson" Bennett). Readers of the novels tell me that the show is more blatantly postapocalyptic than the books, perhaps because vestiges of our world -- Eritrea and the princess recently traipsed through the ruins of an American high school -- give the MTV audience something to identify with. Bennett and the venerable John Rhys-Davies appear to be the only people in the cast who can act, but I can overlook the youngsters' limitations -- the girls are pretty -- as long as the show satisfies my modest appetite for high fantasy. Still, the thought that this show might survive while Badlands' future remains in doubt is a sad one, especially if it teaches Gough and Millar the wrong lessons.

Wednesday - Arrow (CW) - At least I can say that Season Four is a slight improvement on Season Three, since Neal McDonough's Damian Darrk is a more charismatic supervillain than last year's Ra's al Ghul. This season also has a compelling framing device, opening with a flash-forward showing Oliver Queen mourning at an as-yet unidentified grave and vowing to kill the person responsible for the as-yet unidentified death. The problem with Arrow is that I doubt whether the writers actually had made up their minds, when they wrote that first episode, about who was in the grave. The show continues to have an often-infuriating quality of evolving by the seat of its pants, with the writers making it up under deadline pressure from week to week without an adequate overall plan for the season. No genre show out there is a better argument for making the shorter, more "serialized" season the standard for all TV shows, since no show has more episodes that simply seem like filler, irrelevant to the main plot and insignificant on their own terms, than Arrow. While this show often tries my patience, I'm vested enough in the characters that I still want to know what happens to them. And despite everything, it's still better than Gotham, which wasted what good will it earned with some strong episodes at the start of its second season by lapsing into moments of unmatchable stupidity that finally drove me away for good.

Thursday - DC's Legends of Tomorrow (CW) - The newest Berlantiverse show unites supporting players from Flash and Arrow into a misfit time-traveling team tasked with stopping immortal big bad Vandal Savage from conquering Earth in the 22nd century. The idea is to find periods in the past when Savage is relatively weak and undermine his power. The problem with this approach is that it leaves poor Savage, and poor us, without an overarching plot to hold our attention. Much like Arrow, and unlike Flash, Legends has a desperately improvised feel to it. It may be, however, that Vandal Savage is just a human MacGuffin to justify what the writers really want to do, which is to watch its nine main characters bounce off each other and see what happens. It's really too many characters for any writer to handle while doing justice to all of them, which is why we rarely see all of them working together in any coordinated fashion. Instead, some do field work while others are assigned character development and the bluntly sardonic Mick "Heatwave" Rory (Dominic Purcell) steals almost every scene he's in. That's no surprise, since it was recently shown that Purcell could be intensely compelling while eating yogurt. He's not enough, however, to keep this from being Berlanti's weakest superhero show so far.

The 100 (CW) - What do my two favorite TV shows have in common? As of this winter, the answer is Zach McGowan. The great thing about short-season series is that actors can do two shows (or possibly more) at once, depending on their schedules. So just as Fear the Walking Dead's Alycia Debnam-Cary returns to this show as Lexa, the grounder Commander in a love-hate relationship with Eliza Taylor's Clarke, now McGowan, Black Sails's Charles Vane, joins up as Roan, an effortlessly badass renegade prince of the much-dreaded Ice Nation, the real mischief-makers among the twelve tribes of grounders. Roan first appears as a bounty hunter pursuing Clarke, who has gone on a great walkabout after earning the epithet "Commander of Death" for exterminating Mount Weather and is first seen this season killing a sabre-toothed panther. More mayhem ensues when Roan tries to drag Clarke back to Lexa, whom Clarke would love to kill for betraying her at Mount Weather. Just as the Ice Nation and its malevolent queen start making more trouble, a newly-discovered band of Sky People with no patience for negotiation with grounders makes life still more complicated. Now that this band's leader, Charles Pike, has gotten himself elected Chancellor of the Sky People on a violent anti-grounder platform, things seem set to go to hell in that 100 fashion we all love. And I haven't mentioned the looming threat, if we must call it that, of the City of Light, which Theolonious Jaha has found to be some kind of virtual reality into which humans have uploaded their consciousnesses to achieve a kind of immortality and an itch to convert others to their way of life. Leave it to Jaha, the show's most erratic character, to become a missionary for this dubious utopia, with the charmingly despicable Murphy as his ever-skeptical foil. True to form, Murphy is too mean-spirited (and apparently self-loathing) to find that sort of utopia desirable, and that will probably make him one of our heroes this season. In an interesting and slightly worrisome change, Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley) is now narrating the intro instead of Clarke. Variety is nice but this is the sort of change that makes you wonder whether Clarke is going to survive the season. But if I trust any show to whack its main character and keep going strong, it's this one.

Saturday - Black Sails (Starz) - In the first episode of the first season a character was promised an encounter with Blackbeard, and was shown a prostitute with very thick pubic hair. This season Edward Teach himself has arrived in the person of Ray (Volstagg) Stevenson, who cleverly underplays a character we might expect to be a manic monster. While Stevenson's size makes Blackbeard a credible threat on every level, it's cool to see him portrayed as a clever strategist, as opposed to John Malkovich's crackpot on that godforsaken Black Sails ripoff NBC did some time ago. Teach wants Charles Vane to give up his quixotic idea of defending Nassau against the great powers of the Caribbean and become the son Blackbeard never had. It's a tempting premise now that the pirates' real-life nemesis, Woodes Rogers, is on his way across the Atlantic with Eleanor Guthrie and Captain Hornigold in tow, but Vane has never seemed like the cut-and-run type. Meanwhile, the Treasure Island gang have evaded pusuit, survived weeks in the Doldrums, and are on their way home, where friends and enemies alike think them all dead. The interjection of the fictional characters means all bets are off as far as history's concerned, and it's worth remembering that according to Treasure Island Blackbeard was but a child in ferocity and viciousness compared to Captain Flint, who has become a seagoing nihilist interested only in avenging the death of his beloved last season on everyone. Now that John Silver has lost part of a leg he looks more like himself and is becoming more assertive and challenging toward Flint; one can begin to see the relationships evolve toward what they are in the novel, though those events are as much open to change as history's events in this alternate reality. From week to week, this, iZombie or The 100 is the best show I watch. The distance between these three and all the others is vast, though The Magicians is moving up very fast and Into the Badlands could move quickly to the top tier if it gets renewed. Stay tuned for more detailed reviews of Magicians and Supergirl and, hopefully, a reconsideration of Legends of Tomorrow, as well as comments on the classic-era western shows I've just discovered on Throw those in and I really, really watch too much TV.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

OCTOBER 1 (2014)

Kunle Afolayan's October 1 is a far more ambitious Nigerian film in form and content than the populist entertainment identified with the "Nollywood" label. Though handicapped by bad acting, it soundly strikes its intended ominous note as deaths and prophecies of death shadow the coming of Nigerian independence from Great Britain on October 1, 1960. As the official handover of power nears, Inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba) -- "Danny Boy" to his condescending British superiors -- has to track down a serial killer in the town of Akote. The victims are virgin women whom the killer marks with an X -- or a cross, depending on your angle -- on their backs. Inspector Waziri faces more culture clashes in the town. While he speaks primarily in English, as does the Nigerian elite generally, he's of a different ethnic group from the Akote people, and the local police have to interpret for him when he interviews possible witnesses or informants. Even the Anglophone police have such thick accents and such limited English that their dialogue is subtitled while Waziri's is not. They're more superstitious than he, though he's assured that human sacrifices are a thing of the distant past. This is, in fact, correct, for the killings aren't sacrifices of any sort. They are acts of revenge on the whole community for a crime only one of them knows about.

You get the impression from October 1 that Nigeria is more a figment of the Anglophone elite's imagination than something the common people identify with. There's a nicely satiric scene in which a schoolteacher leads her class through the English lyrics of the new nation's anthem. When the first run-through proves too lackadaisical for her tastes, she makes them do it again with a threat of beatings. Yet this teacher, Miss Tawa (Kehinde Bankole) is one of the film's sympathetic characters, sincerely intended as an embodiment of the country's promise. We follow her renewed romance with Prince Aderopo (Demola Adedoyin), who's returned to his ancestral home before resuming advanced study in Britain. "Ropo" is stylish, sophisticated and sardonic. He's also pessimistic about the country's future, making an on-the-nose prediction that Nigeria will see civil war in seven years' time.

Before going further, a spoiler warning is in order, since this is a mystery movie.

*   *   *

Actually, October 1 is a mystery movie only until its midway point, and it actually ceases to be one before that if you pay attention to how the otherwise-unseen killer is dressed during one of the attacks. The film becomes a thriller when one of the policemen, pursuing a suspect through the forest after the latest kill, stumbles upon a bloodstained Aderopo, who takes advantage of the officer's confusion to silence him permanently. The prince himself is the serial killer, despite a seeming discrepancy between the first murder and his return to Akote, and after this revelation October 1 becomes a race against time for Inspector Waziri to figure out the truth after an innocent stranger is captured, blamed for the killings, and killed by a victim's father. At the same time, the film becomes a whydunit. Why is this westernized member of the new elite killing virgin women and carving crosses into their flesh? The answer places part of the blame for Nigeria's fratricidal destiny squarely on its British rulers, through the medium of that universal villain, the Pedophile Priest.

Aderopo has a school chum (Afolayan) who had gone to Lagos, the capital, with him a while but returned to Akote to go native. He initially refuses to speak English to Waziri, even though the inspector learns that he was a top student while in Lagos. Asked why he rejects the lingua franca, Agbekoya snarls, in English, "Western eduction is bad!" which is the usual translation of the words boko haram, the slogan and name of Nigeria's modern day Islamist insurgency. But Aderopo and his brother are Christians (Waziri himself seems to be a secular Muslim), so why should either of them think this? Well, you might think western education is bad, too, if it included being summoned for "evening prayers" by a creepy Anglican cleric. While Agbekoya couldn't take it and quit school, the prince wanted education bad enough to stay on and take it for years more. He then took his anger out on the priest, but that didn't satisfy him. He blames Akote itself for his pain, as if the town had sacrificed him to some evil god, and his plan is to kill one virgin for each year he suffered under the priest's ministrations. Tawa, supposedly his beloved, is his intended final victim. In a scene that shows clearly how irredeemably messed up Aderopo has become, Tawa asks why he intends to rape her since she'd give him love willingly. He doesn't want anything given to him, he answers; he only wants to take and make the whole community feel his pain.

October 1 succeeds in creating mood while stumbling in other respects. Once the director tips his hand and reveals the killer, it becomes too easy for Inspector Waziri to figure it out, though it's a telling detail in the overall context that the tune "God Save the Queen" is a crucial clue. Some of the actors, including Sadiq Daba as Waziri, and especially the few white actors in the cast, have a tendency to shout their dialogue, though Adedoyin as the prince and Bankole as Miss Tawa are admirable exceptions. Daba doesn't really give a bad performance, but the cadences of his English and a certain whininess in his voice take getting used to. He shows a healthy range of moral indignation, whether directed at the condescending or simply contemptuous Brits or at the raw horror of the Akote murders, that holds the film together effectively and emphatically. Overall, Afolayan's film, though flawed, is entertaining, and it's worth a look as a symbolically critical retrospective of the birth of a troubled nation.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On the Big Screen: HAIL CAESAR! (2016)

Hail Caesar! may be Joel and Ethan Coens' most infuriatingly lazy film. They've been lazy before, but their laziest effort heretofore, Burn After Reading, was redeemed by hilarious performances from George Clooney, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. Clooney's along for the ride again, in his fourth film for the brothers, but this time he has pathetically little to work with. You can sum it up as "dumb actor" or, at most, "impressionable actor." He never gets to go over the top as he did in Burn After Reading, nor does anyone else in the overcrowded cast. The problem may be that the picture isn't about Clooney's dumb actor nor any of the other eccentric contract players at Capitol Pictures. Instead, it's left to Josh Brolin to hold the picture together as Eddie Mannix, Capitol's "head of physical production." Named after the nearly legendary M-G-M fixer who figures in many Hollywood myths, Caesar's Mannix is a hustling, guilt-haunted manager who answers reverently to the unseen and also-based-on-reality moneyman Nicholas Schenck. Along with tracking down or ransoming his kidnapped actor -- I assume everyone knows that detail from the commercials -- Mannix has to create a cover story for the impending birth of an illegitimate child to his squeaky-clean swimming star (Scarlett Johansson), smooth the transition of the studio's singing-cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) to drawing-room dramas, and secure the approval of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish leaders for the Hail Caesar! picture within Hail Caesar!, a mash-up of Sam Zimbalist's M-G-M epics Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959) in which the Clooney character stars, and all while placating, stalling or lying to rival gossip columnists who are twin sisters (Tilda Swinton x2). On top of all that, he has to consider a promising job offer from Lockheed that could save him from a doomed business while trying (and failing) to quit smoking. All this results in an amusing satirical scene with the religious leaders, in which the Jew is perhaps more mocking than he might have been at the actual time, and a framing gag about Mannix's obsessive recourse to the confessional. The joke here is that Mannix lives by lying, or at least by making promises he's not sure of fulfilling, yet the lies he confesses to have to do with his promise to his wife to quit smoking. It's as if he doesn't recognize most of his own lies as lies, but that's par for the course in Hail Caesar!, where the main thematic subtext is a human capacity for self-delusion that found midcentury expression in both Hollywood bible epics and the International Communist Conspiracy.

This is a meta movie in which the film itself and the film within the film are both narrated by Michael Gambon. That's meant to call our attention to the essentially mythic nature of the main story, in which a more malevolent version of the Hollywood Ten carries out the Clooney kidnapping and at least one major studio star is an active agent of the U.S.S.R. I'd like to assume that the unreality of the whole thing is obvious enough that no 21st century leftists will cry foul, though they may resent the parallels the Coens present between communism and Christianity. They're more amused than we are, I suspect, by the idea of Clooney being more or less converted by the commies, if only because he's so sociably impressionable, while he's such a bad actor that he can't sell the spiritual experiences of his movie character, a Roman converted to Christianity. But the way they film both the argument of the religious leaders over the nature of Jesus and the doctrinal bickering of the commies suggests that they view both Christianity and communism with their characteristic, much-deplored distanced disdain. Let's put it this way: I was never so conscious of how dialectics almost rhymes with dianetics as I was while watching this film, though that may have a lot to do with the time period Caesar! is set in, c. 1956. This is all rather interesting, but after a certain point the Coens give up on using the story to demonstrate the argument, and give up on the story as well.

Another germ of an idea is Caesar!'s use of the singing cowboy character. Presumably inspired by John Mack Brown, a retrospectively implausible leading man for Greta Garbo, and Tim Holt, who actually acquitted himself admirably in The Magnificent Ambersons, Hobie Doyle seems intended to emerge as the true protagonist of the film and a sort of amateur detective. His insight about extras being more suspicious than regular crew members is proven correct by what we've already seen of Clooney's kidnapping, and it's Hobie who follows the money to Clooney's place of comfortable confinement. One can imagine the fantastic or satirical potential of a singing cowboy solving the mystery, but the Coens clearly were uninterested in making the sort of comic action picture that would have resulted. Similarly, Hobie has a charming first date, arranged by the studio, with a Carmen Miranda-esque musical star (Veronica Osario), but the Coens aren't interested in following up on it. Likewise, the identity of a commie spy within the studio is clearly meant to surprise us, but since the Coens couldn't be bothered to build that character up as a person rather than a mere performer, the revelation leaves us indifferent. The brothers reject every opportunity to create thrills, and might argue that they never meant to make a thrill picture, but when the potential is so obviously there you can't help seeing the end result as slapdash and half-finished. For almost the first time I could believe the libel that the Coens are self-satisfied and contemptuous toward their audience, given how half-assed Hail Caesar! is. Maybe they got distracted by the writing for hire they've done lately for Steven Spielberg and Angelina Jolie, but none of that justifies the mess they've dumped on us. There's still just enough comedy to keep this from being their worst film -- their 2001-4 run remains the trough of their career -- but knowing what the Coens are capable of when they really care, I suspect I'll dislike this one more than many films that are objectively worse. Some people can't help making bad films, but when the Coen Brothers do it, it's like they're ripping you off. Perhaps they'd like to confess something now, but I doubt it.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: A MODERN HERO (1934)

G. W. Pabst was as cosmopolitan a director as the early-talkie period produced. The German director of late-silent classics like Pandora's Box didn't want to lose his international standing with the coming of sound. So like the Hollywood studios he made multiple versions in different languages of several of his early talking films. He also became a cinematic nomad, leaving Germany with the rise of Hitler, the Nazis being no fans of his Threepenny Opera or Kameradschaft, to make films in France. It was probably inevitable that he would follow fellow German geniuses Ernst Lubitsch and Friedrich W. Murnau to Hollywood. The Pre-Code period probably was the best time to cross over, and Warner Bros. probably was the ideal studio for Pabst. Warners assigned him an adaptation of Louis Bromfield's 1932 best-selling novel A Modern Hero. I can't help wondering if that was because the novel's hero starts in a circus, since German cinema made a lot of circuses. Modern Hero traces a singular rise-and-fall character arc as Pierre Radier (Richard Barthelmess) rises from bareback rider to automobile tycoon, loving and leaving ladies along the way and changing his name to Paul Rader to better fit into the upper crust. While the women in his life are disposable, he retains a soft spot for the boy he left behind, the one he sired in a one-night stand with starstruck Joanna Ryan (Jean Muir) in Pentland back in his circus days. His ambition is twofold: to make a name for himself and to give the boy, who only knows him as a friendly patron at first, all the opportunities he missed in his youth. As for the women, Pierre's mother (Marjorie Rambeau), a maimed animal tamer turned alkie fortune teller, sums it up for another of her boy's paramours by saying, "Being a woman ain't much fun, is it?"

There's a frankness about Pierre's sexual adventures that's part Pabst, part Pre-Code, and by the standards of rise-and-fall melodrama Modern Hero is admirably understated until the final reel, when it goes completely off the rails. The script (if not the novel) arranges for Paul Rader to lose his fortune to a bad investment and his son to a car wreck all in one day. We're invited to see this as some sort of comeuppance as Paul, on a train ride back to Pentland, relives his mistakes as flashbacks that recede to the horizon as the train moves on. It looked like a set-up for suicide to me, but the film ends on such a preposterous note that I find it hard to believe that Pabst himself filmed it. Paul goes looking for his mom but is told that "Madame Azais" has moved away. She hasn't quite, however, and instead we get a sentimental reunion in which the mother, who hasn't yet started drinking ("I'm bad when I'm drunk" she told a customer earlier), reassures her boy that all may have been for the best, since now Pierre presumably knows the difference between what's worthwhile and what isn't. Mother and son decide to start over in Europe, Pierre promising to become worthy of his mom. That looks like Pre-Code covering its tracks -- the film was an April 1934 release, so Code Enforcement was no excuse -- but very little like Pabst, who himself went back to Europe, and eventually back to Nazi Germany, after Modern Hero failed at the box office. Trade papers reported that he'd sign with RKO, but nothing came of that, and with Code Enforcement coming Pabst's window of opportunity to do anything worthwhile in Hollywood was closing fast.

The most interesting thing about A Modern Hero is Richard Barthelmess's performance. Pierre Radier is supposed to be a serial seducer but Pabst gets Barthelmess to give a coolly introverted performance, toning down his regional accent to achieve a soulless flatness. Despite how that all sounds, it's actually one of Barthelmess's most relaxed performances in talkies. The one problem with it is that the role presumes a certain irresistible quality in Radier/Rader, while Barthelmess, once a beautiful youth, is definitely starting to go sour inside at age 38. Hero was his last film but one for Warner Bros. It may be regrettable that Pabst didn't get to work with the real stars of the Warners stock company, but for Pabst's purposes a more naturalistic acting style than Cagney or Robinson or Muni practiced was required, and to his credit and the film's Barthelmess delivered the goods. In the end A Modern Hero is a failure, too short on the melodrama that fuels its genre until there's way too much, but for the most part it's a worthwhile failure, i.e. a failure worth a look.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


There's an interesting choice in the competition for the Best Actor Oscar between two kinds of survivor. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are the front-runners for the award, and that's remarkable in itself in that Damon's character in The Martian is completely fictional, while DiCaprio's in The Revenant is several degrees removed from his real-life original. But this mano-i-mano also gives Academy voters a meaningful choice between two sorts of performance as well as two types of survivor. DiCaprio is favored for internalizing the ordeal of his character, filming under harsh if not mortifying conditions. His performance is as much an act of will as his character's survival is in the film. By comparison, Ridley Scott's Martian is the movie that gave us one of the lines of the past year, when Damon's character says "I've got to science the shit out of this." It isn't elegant but it makes the point. As most people know by now, his character, astronaut and botany expert Mark Watney, is abandoned on Mars when a freak accident during a storm cuts off his life-sign monitors and his ability to communicate with his crewmates. Right here the difference between Martian and Revenant couldn't be more stark; DiCaprio is abandoned by human malice, Damon by pure accident. The differentiation continues as it comes to take a planet, nearly, to rescue Mark Watney, while his crewmates, belatedly informed of his plight, risk their lives to lend a hand. The Martian is a fable of cooperation as well as personal ingenuity, while The Revenant is all about the powers of will and hate. Mark Watney is a 21st century Robinson Crusoe, but only for a brief time is he as truly alone as Crusoe was for so many years. Martian is less an existential survival tale than All is Lost or even Gravity; the internal life of the astronaut ends up relatively irrelevant, and for the story's purposes all we really need to know about Watney is that he's really smart and resourceful. In turn, all Damon really needs to be is a clever Everyman in a way DiCaprio's revenant isn't. Watney is a glib, narcissist Everyman dedicated to recording himself -- not that that's a bad idea, given his historic as well as perilous situation -- without contributing much introspection to the recordings. I doubt the film could stand much of that, anyway. It aims to please, sometimes to a crass extent, from its have-it-both-ways attitude toward disco music -- it's there to sell a soundtrack album, and because it's apparently all Watney has to listen to, but he hates the stuff -- to one of the most belabored in-jokes in movie history to exploit Sean (Boromir) Bean's presence as a NASA mission director. I can forgive its sins of crassness or shallowness because I think The Martian is the sort of optimistic celebration of human potential we ought to have in movie theaters alongside the more artistic and self-indulgent stuff. Though a period piece, Revenant is a kind of apocalyptic survivalism that isn't meant to inspire and doesn't have to to impress us. On some level it probably appeals most to people who imagine having to live like DiCaprio does someday. The Martian, meanwhile, should have people asking what happened to our manned space program, which has only progressed in the film's fantasy world that otherwise looks exactly like ours. That both films have been very popular tells us something about our divergent attitudes toward survival and progress. Which of the two stars wins the Oscar -- if either does -- may tell us something else of interest.