Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Too Much TV: LUKE CAGE (2016 - ?)

The Marvel shows on Netflix are meant to bring superheroes to the small screen without the "cheesiness" of the DC shows on The CW. They appeal to the readership of "gritty" comics with a pretense of urban realism and a disdain for the humane idealism of traditional superhero comics. The ideal is an illusion of real life at street level, combined with the usual fantasies of superhuman strength or other impossible abilities. If that's the mandate, then Luke Cage fulfills it better than any Marvel show to date. At it's best, it's good because it's a good crime show more than it is a superhero show. It pits Luke (Mike Colter, perfectly haunted yet stoic), to whom Netflix viewers were introduced during the Jessica Jones show, against a Harlem crime family with tentacles in the worlds of politics and entertainment. The Paradise nightclub is the headquarters of Cornell Stokes, aka "Cottonmouth" (Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali in the first strike of his one-two breakout punch in 2016). He's the local kingpin,while his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) is a city councilwoman. The subtext of almost-sibling rivalry between these two, Cornell proving to have been a reluctant heir to gangsterdom, Mariah proving a ruthless replacement, almost overshadows Luke's interventions, which escalate after beloved barber Pop, for whom Luke works as sweeper, is mowed down as collateral damage. Corruption at every level of government permits Cottonmouth to flourish, while Luke's own criminal past -- born Carl Lucas, he was framed, convicted and subject to experiments giving him almost-invulnerable skin before escaping prison -- puts him in danger as the hoodie-wearing vigilante becomes a public hero. He gains allies in righteous cop Misty Knight (Simone Messick, who must have wondered why some viewers hoped to see her character lose an arm) and Netflix mascot Claire Temple, the "night nurse" (Rosario Dawson), but gains more powerful enemies as Cottonmouth seeks the means to take down a superhero.

Regains is probably the right word, since the man with the special bullets that can hurt Cage is Willis Stryker, aka Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), Carl Lucas's ever-resentful half-brother and the man who framed him. In the second half of the series Diamondback -- did you know that Marvel Comics has a "Serpent Society" filled with snake-themed villains? -- becomes the big bad, and the show suffers a little for that. While Cottonmouth evolved into a tragic figure, Diamondback is all about simplistic family issues, and is finally offered up as a sort of square-up for viewers who wanted to see Luke fight a costumed supervillain. Fortunately, Woodard's Mariah and her henchman Shades (Theo Rossi), inherited from Cottonmouth, remain cold constants, maddeningly adept at working the system and exploiting every mistake by the good guys. Part of the whole "gritty" thing is a profound skepticism (that often escalates into "grimdark" horror) toward heroes' ability to overcome pervasive corruption. In keeping with that, Luke Cage has no happy ending, though viewers' dismay or frustration with the outcome will be eased by the knowledge that Luke is schedule to return in Fall 2017 as one of The Defenders. The show's biggest success is its creation (credit is due here to mastermind Cheo Hodari Coker) of a milieu in which the outcome seems all too correct. It's dark but happily not humorless; the show can find time to make fun of Luke's original comic-book costume, for instance, which makes Colter look like a "damn fool." But like all the Netflix shows, the humor is toned down considerably from the quipping imperative of Marvel's movies.

I'm not going to get into a flame war over whether Marvel/Netflix or DC/CW is superior; they are different enough in intentions to make them almost like apples and oranges. But while quality control in the Berlantiverse remains erratic, the Defenders project has maintained a consistent level of quality. It's a point in their favor when you can still say that Daredevil season one, their very first production, is their weakest product. While Daredevil inevitably veers into outright fantasy (most of which derives from Frank Miller's vision, despite his grim/gritty reputation) and Jessica Jones is almost Dostoevskian in its preoccupation with personal wretchedness, Cage sets the standard for quasi-realistic superhero television that others will have to meet -- if they care to, that is.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


In the Chinese original, the title of Raymond Yip's picture is something like "Fascination of the Devil." At least that's what Google Translate gives me. So the film can be forgiven for opening with a multitude of spooks to beg the question, "Shouldn't that be Phantoms of the Theatre?" Eventually, however, something close to a traditional Phantom figure emerges, first masked, then revealed as disfigured. He's promoting the career of a movie actress, Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin) who happens to be making a picture in the theater he haunts, which will also host the film's premiere. The premiere will be a private one for a warlord (Simon Yam), whose son Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) directed the film. Father and son have issues, the most profound being that the warlord has swooped in to take Meng Sifan away from the director. Both are being manipulated, reluctantly, by the actress as part of the "Phantom's" revenge plot. Father and son, you see, were in the audience when the Phantom's acrobat troupe botched their big Shanghai debut, the lead female being distracted by the warlord's horndog attentions. That night, a fire gutted the backstage area, killing all but two of the acrobat family: the disfigured Phantom and, as we learn eventually, the young Meng Sifan, who was outside shoplifting at the crucial moment. Our Phantom blames the warlord and intends to see him burn for his old sins, as others who've entered the haunted theater have burned since the start of the picture.

Past and present converge in a haunted Shanghai theater

Phantom is a film in love with the glamor of old movies, be they Chinese, French (the young director studied in Paris) or Hollywood. It's as much about how a filmmaker can cast a spell on himself as it is about the Phantom's quasi-supernatural revenge plot. The supernatural aspect of it, highlighted by special effects, apparently can be written off as figments of suggestible imaginations, since the director's platonic lady doctor friend (Huang Hung in a role reminiscent of Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo) figures out a natural cause for victims' deaths by internal combustion. Nevertheless, Phantom is haunted by the supernatural at the level of myth. The director falls in love as much with the character Meng Sifan plays on screen, a ghostly beauty in a tragic romance, as he does with what he thinks is the real woman. His tragic romance redeems what's largely a conventional melodrama with little to really scare audiences.

The film within the film poignantly parallels the heroine's character arc. In Gu Weibang's story, the ghost must eventually cut ties with the living by drinking a special brew. In Raymond Yip's film Meng Sifan must finally cut ties with her tragic past, but that extends to cutting ties with the director and stepping back out into the world to start a life of her own at last. There, rather than with the murder mystery, is the heart of the movie.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


If two films make a category, here's a new one: the Iranian diaspora horror film. At first, there was Ana Lily Amirpour's dystopian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, filmed in the U.S., and now there is Great Britain's official entry for the Academy Awards' Foreign Language film competition, written and directed by Babak Anvari. Unlike A Girl, Under the Shadow is actually set in Iran, specifically during the 1980s war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and addresses some of the Islamic Republic's repressive policies. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is a medical student (her mother was a doctor, and so is her husband) with two strikes against her, and in Iran it's two strikes and you're out. Being a woman might be problematic in the first place, but her worst offense is that during the 1979 revolution she took part in some secular leftist demonstrations. That disqualifies her from resuming her medical studies, according to the government. Until she thinks up a new career within the new bounds, she's stuck being a housewife and mother to Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who's fixated on her rag doll Kimiya. In angry resignation she consigns her medical books to the trash, with the meaningful exception of a textbook inscribed by her mother.

The war is intensifying. Saddam is firing missiles into Tehran and Shideh's husband is called to military service in a combat zone. Their neighbors are moving out of their apartment building and out of town after an Iraqi missile crashes through the roof. It doesn't explode but it gives an old man a fatal heart attack, Shideh's CPR efforts notwithstanding. Her husband urges her to evacuate, but she's reluctant to abandon the big city. Meanwhile, Dorsa is acting strangely. She tells her mom about talking to a new boy in the building who's supposed to be mute. She also talks to disembodied voices, while neighbors talk about djinn to Shideh's sophisticated dismay. She keeps trying to live like a liberated woman, sweating to her clandestine Jane Fonda exercise tape but tossing on the required modest coverings whenever someone rings the doorbell.

Family life deteriorates further after Kimiya the doll goes missing after the missile attack. A persistently feverish Dorsa insists that the doll must be in the closed-off upper floor, and she won't leave until Shideh finds it. Then Shideh's workout tape goes missing. Mother and daughter exchange recriminations after Shideh finds the casette in the garbage with the tape pulled out, and Kimiya eventually turns up mutilated in the locked desk drawer where Shideh keeps her medical textbook. It becomes increasingly apparent to Shideh that there's a third presence, at least, in the apartment that wishes them ill.

While the depopulated apartment building grows more menacing, the djinn increasingly appearing as a sort of animated chador that finally swells to the dimensions of a malevolent tent, Anvari makes clear that it's hardly less dangerous for Shideh outside. At one point she's so spooked that she runs out into the street with Dorsa, barefoot and without her public wrappings, until she's inevitably picked up by Tehran's roving morality police. "Are we in Switzerland now?" they ask her mockingly. Fortunately Shideh gets off with a strict reprimand ("We have values now," a cleric lectures her), but a larger point has been made. Shideh's building may have a specific djinn problem -- that becomes all too obvious during an inventive but overblown climax -- but the real challenge for our heroine is overcoming her stubborn hope of reclaiming her pre-revolutionary past on hostile ground. When she finally takes Dorsa out of the city it's only to move in with her husband's parents in the story, but metaphorically Under the Shadow's message is that the Islamic Republic itself has no place for her. To leave Tehran, and to leave behind relics of the past like the textbook and part of Kimiya, is symbolically to leave Iran, where horrors of different sorts persist. For those simply looking for chills, the film should entertain without seeming preachy, though some Americans might complain about a feminist message being forced down their throats. Anvari has a sure hand for the most part, and I liked how he was able to maintain a running gag about a garage door throughout his horror show and make it pay off at the climax. Another point in his film's favor is that, given how circumstances compel some filmmakers in Iran to stay indoors, it's easy to sustain the illusion of this British-made picture taking place in Iran. But while Shadow has obvious political relevance it also fits in to a global cycle of mother-child horror films (The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, etc?) that may have something more to tell us about the wider world.

Monday, January 23, 2017


A hit in Europe but condemned at home for its frankness about sexual need, Leslie Stevens' film was widely thought lost until a restoration premiered at last year's TCM Film Festival. Private Property is frank without being explicit, of course, but the fact that no one could mistake what its characters are after no doubt made many people uncomfortable back then. Duke (Corey Allen, the chicken-run loser from Rebel Without a Cause) and Boots (Warren Oates, whose presence no doubt gave this film instant hipness upon its rediscovery) want to "make it" with a girl, Boots apparently for the first time. Though Oates was several years Allen's senior, Boots is the junior partner of the pair, unless Duke's "When I was your age ..." remark is meant as a joke. These guys are drifters and, apparently grifters who come in from off the beach to shake down a gas station for soda pop and cigarettes, hitch a ride and virtually carjack their way at both explicit (Oates) and implicit (Allen) knifepoint to where they want to go. The tone is set when Duke's threat/bluff proves more intimidating than the actual steel in Boots' hand. Duke's most dangerous weapon is his gift of gab. Casing a neighborhood to find an abandoned house, he starts a long-con seduction of the bored, sexually-frustrated housewife Ann (Kate "Mrs. Stevens" Manx), supposedly in order to deliver her to the waiting Boots. Posing as a door-to-door landscaper (a job he probably did hold at some point), Duke seems to respond to the prospect of genuine emotional and sexual conquest as Ann's need becomes apparent. Yet he also feels honor-bound to fulfill his promise to Boots, who proves a very reluctant rapist. Despite that, the thought of Ann submitting to Boots breaks Duke's heart and his mind. He takes his disappointment out on her, leaving a more realistic bruise on her face than you usually saw in movies at that time, and it's Boots who comes to her rescue, or tries to.

The film ends in Lifetime movie territory and the last line's promise of marital reconciliation is truly awful, but otherwise Private Property lives up to its fresh ahead-of-its-time reputation. Corey Allen gradually moved behind the camera to become a busy TV director but might have lasted long in front of the camera had this been more widely seen in the U.S. His future as a character actor as films grew both more frank and more explicit later in the Sixties probably would have been assured. He gives Duke a certain fragile charisma, the fragility of which may have made him only more attractive to Ann, compared to her aloof though well-meaning husband. Boots is early Warren Oates, from when he seemed typed as a sub-normal, and the actor doesn't get to shine as much as Allen does. His two big moments are the quasi-rape scene and the funnier bit when Boots, finally invited to Ann's house, has to play the role assigned him by Duke, an appliance store sales manager, while explaining his unprofessionally scruffy appearance. If anything, Manx, who broke up with Stevens and killed herself in 1964, is all too convincing in Ann's desperation, and I say that having not known the actress's fate until a few minutes ago. It's probably too soon to call Private Property a rediscovered classic, but it's now doubly fascinating as a historic document, both for what the film itself tells us of its time, and for what the time told us of itself by suppressing it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

AFERIM! (2015)

Radu Jude is one of a generation of filmmakers who have put Romania on the map of the wild world of cinema in the 21st century. He was an assistant director on the breakthrough Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and started making his own features soon afterward. His Aferim! (it translates roughly as "Bravo!") was the big winner of the country's Gopo Awards, Romania's equivalent of the Oscars. Shot in beautiful black and white by Marius Panduru, it looks like a throwback to the subgenre I call "history of cruelty" that was popular in central and eastern Europe during the 1960s. Aferim! takes place at a later time than most of those pictures, during the early 19th century, but it may as well be medieval times. Gypsies (i.e. "crows") are mostly enslaved and in an aristocratic hierarchy most free people aren't much better off. A relatively privileged person is Constandin (Teodor Corban), a kind of constable tasked by his boyar master with finding a runaway "crow" in a neighboring territory. Accompanied by his son (Mihai Comanoiu) he rides arrogantly through the countryside until they track down Carfin (Toma Cuzin) and start back for home.

Constandin is a boor and a bigot, but so's everyone else in this benighted land. In one grimly hilarious scene he encounters a rural clergyman who launches into a long list of ethnic stereotypes stretching from England ("They think a lot") to the Middle East. Human life has little value and "crows" have less. But on the return trip, especially when Constandin gets to relax (and get laid) at a tavern, he starts to warm to Carfin a little. He's still a ruthless, mostly heartless person, as we see when he sells a "crow" boy in a festive market town -- complete with a proto-Ferris wheel -- but he's not entirely heartless, nor is he incapable of treating a "crow" somewhat like a human being. The long tavern sequence is a breather for the audience, too, and it's a relief to see these people enjoying life a little. Even if it seems cruel to have Carfin try to get a coin off the top of a lit candle with his teeth, the spirit of play in the scene encompasses everyone in momentarily humane camaraderie.

Finally Constandin delivers Carfin to the boyar Iordache (Alexandru Dabija). By now, we know that Carfin bolted because his affair with Iordache's wife had been found out. The boyar, a virtual Dracula in his moustache and archaic costume, is determined to personally, publicly castrate Iordache to teach his wife and everyone else a lesson, but Constandin, of all people, pleads for mercy. He only gets threatened for his trouble, while Iordache's poor wife gets Carfin's brutally severed balls rubbed in her face. Jude happily skips graphic detail in this scene, but Carfin's screams tell the story as eloquently as any image might. The moral seems to be that cruelty flows from the top in this feudal culture, and the man on top is tops in cruelty.

Aferim! is a modest masterpiece of juxtaposition, using some of the most lavish monochrome cinematography I've ever seen to illustrate the sordid poverty of old Romania. Some scenes have an almost painterly quality, and others made me think of the Russian Ilya Repin's  paintings of rough peasantry come to life, only greyscaled. You could imagine the film as a photograph of the age it portrays, while color might only undermine its illusion of authenticity, which extends to the art direction and the performances. The whole project is a satiric rebuke to nostalgia for some endangered authentic national culture, shown here to have been utterly squalid not so long ago. It's to the Romanians' credit that they haven't taken the film as an insult, but have honored it instead.

Monday, January 16, 2017


Actors turned directors fall roughly into two types. Some are committed to directing as a craft, e.g. Ida Lupino, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, etc. For others, craftsmanship takes second place to personal expression. Their films aren't as slick as the other group's but are unmistakably personal. That lineage goes back to Charlie Chaplin, and Mel Gibson is probably the exemplary figure in that category today. Cornel Wilde belongs to that lineage, and in his attention to violence and suffering Wilde, who directed eight films over twenty years, looks like a direct precursor to Gibson. No Blade of Grass in some ways looks like a precursor or prequel to Mad Max, the George Miller film that made Gibson a star. Wilde's clumsy flashforwards, his self-indulgent solarization, and his heavyhanded pictorial editorializing sometimes make Grass look like the missing link between Mad Max and Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend in its apocalyptic pretentiousness. David Thomson says of Wilde's films that they sometimes make you believe they're the first movies ever made, and Grass, adapted by Wilde under a pseudonym in collaboration with Sean Forestal from a John Christopher novel, approaches its subject as if no one had considered such stuff before. In fact, Wilde was not the first actor to visualize the collapse of civilization; Ray Milland beat him to the punch with Panic in Year Zero! several years earlier. Maybe actors have some special appreciation of how fragile the veneer of civility actually is, but that's a topic for another time.

In Grass the environment is buckling under human pressures, from population growth to pollution -- Wilde can't show enough pollution -- and some people are starving while others enjoy plenty. In case this isn't crystal clear to you, Wilde cuts back and forth from TV footage of starving Africans to Brits stuffing their faces at a well-stocked buffet. Soon no one will enjoy plenty, as a grass-killing plague spreads around the world. John Custance (Nigel Davenport, starring in Wilde's on-screen absence) and his brother David (Patrick Holt) get the straight dope from their government friend Roger (John Hamill). David heads north to start a potato crop that will ensure a food supply for his extended family, and invites John to bring his family to safety. By the time John's family (his wife is played by Jean Wallace, the current Mrs. Wilde) gets going things are already falling apart. Their trek grows progressively more dangerous as civilization deteriorates rapidly into violent predatory factions, and the Custance party has to leave their scruples behind to survive.

The Custances pick up allies along the way, though some are of dubious value. Pirrie (Anthony May) proves the most dangerous, killing his own woman in a fit of jealousy and eventually claiming John's daughter for himself while demanding equal partnership in their journey. The tense relationship of Pirrie and Custance holds your interest until the small band starts growing, most people recognizing strength in numbers, though our protagonists have to kill the leader of a larger band to get them to go their way. Ironically, as everything else falls apart this motley group (including a token "Paki")  pulls closer together, effectively defending themselves against a gang of horned-helmeted, tactically challenged bikers in the picture's action highlight. The more bitter irony emerges when John's party reaches David's farm, only to learn that David, understandably not anticipating such a large group, refuses to allow anyone in but John, his immediate family, and Roger. In what might be seen as a last stand for civilization over tribal kinship, and at the same time as an ultimate breakdown of human order, John decides to lead his band in a hostile takeover of David's compound, putting the group before family.

The first half hour or so of Grass is pretty bad, but once Wilde gets outdoors he's on familiar turf. His recognized masterpiece is The Naked Prey, a film that consisted of himself being chased by African tribesman, and Grass proves again that he has an eye for landscape and people moving through it with dramatic urgency. As John Custance's band grows the film builds real momentum, despite everything Wilde does to sabotage himself with pointless flashforwards previewing events to come a few minutes later.There's a real sense of tragedy in the final confrontation between the brothers that survives Wilde's portentous narration and the dreadful folk song that opens and closes the film. There's no getting around the fact that No Blade of Grass is a profoundly awkward move -- never more awkward than in a montage crosscutting between a young mother's doomed labor and John's flashback to his wife's first childbirth, highlighted by out-of-nowhere graphic birth-of-a-baby footage of the sort that used to be shown to adults only with a lecture and booklets for sale. But if you tried to smooth all the rough patches in Wilde's work you'd probably lose most of the knobby authenticity and rugged power they have. You have to take the bad to get the good, and fortunately there is some good in Wilde to justify the effort.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

On the Big Screen: SILENCE (2016)

Martin Scorsese has made films about Jesus Christ and the Dalai Lama. Silence, adapted from a novel by the Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo, sometimes seems like an attempt to reconcile or synthesize Christianity and Buddhism in the historical context of the persecution of Christians by Buddhists in Tokugawa Japan. Two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) sneak into Japan to investigate reports that one of the last remaining priests, Fr. Ferrera (Liam Neeson) has apostasized, renouncing the faith. They minister to underground congregations who revere "Deus" and cherish any material artifact of faith, from crude tiny crucifixes to rosary beads. These people face terrible torture and certain death if their faith is discovered and they refuse to recant by trampling icons. The priests are in constant danger from betrayal, especially from the man who ferried them to Japan, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobozuka), an abject character whose family was slaughtered despite his apostasy. Kichijiro in many ways is the worst sort of Christian, one who wallows in his weakness just so he can confess it, yet we will see that his faith is in some sense the strongest of all. Ultimately it is Rodrigues whose faith faces the sternest test after Kichijiro betrays him into the hands of Inoue (Issey Ogata), ironically designated an "Inquisitor." Inoue sees Christianity as the foot in the door for unwanted European influence in his country, and claims that it may be "true" elsewhere but not in Japan. He respects the power of symbolism, telling Christians that they don't have to sincerely recant so long as they go through the motions he hopes will demoralize others by undermining respect for the clergy and their sacred symbols. One can also see an ideological threat to the shogunate, at least as seen by a Japanese believer and a Catholic filmmaker, in the Christian insistence on the value of every human life, while Japan's feudal culture -- as shown in many a Japanese film -- holds much life worthless. You can understand the preference for a Buddhism that aspires to the nullification of self and implicitly acquiesces in feudal tyranny, as well as the significance of the apparent conversion of Fr. Ferrera to Buddhism. He claims to be convinced that real Christianity can get nowhere in the "swamp" of Japan, and tries to convince Rodrigues that keeping the faith is worse than futile. He employs moral blackmail, holding Rodrigues responsible for the torture that the audience more likely will blame on Japan's vicious rulers. But if unassailable power holds innocent lives hostage against the priest's apostasy, Ferrera claims they'll be sacrificed to Rodrigues's pride. Through his ordeal, Rodriguez aches for divine guidance, but the film's title tells you what he gets until the climax.

Apart from a couple of pretentious shots early on, this is a relatively austere film for Scorsese, and that may explain why some reviewers find its length oppressive. It's also unavoidably an intellectual if not theological film, for all the gruesome poignancy of the tortures inflicted on Japanese Christians, and for that reason Silence has probably lost some reviewers' attention. One particularly philistine pan asks why everyone makes a big deal about trampling icons, but this issue really is -- pun intended, I guess -- the crux of the film. Ultimately Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks, if not Endo before them, are critiquing a materialist element of Christianity that arguably can be done without. Investing these symbols with such crucial significance leaves the faith vulnerable to the sort of hostile iconoclasm Inoue practices. Rodrigues's initial dismay at the Japanese Christians' devotion to symbols proves the right instinct, and while we see that Christians ultimately can't do entirely without such symbols, it looks like the key to the survival of Christian people is their readiness to sacrifice symbols, on the understanding that the symbols aren't the faith itself. The less Christianity takes the form of idolatry, the less vulnerable it is to Inoue's sort of propaganda. It's an oddly Protestant note to sound as an important theme of a Catholic story, but there it is.

If Silence convinces people of anything, it's that Andrew Garfield still has a future in movies after the Amazing Spider-Man debacle, though Hacksaw Ridge may already have convinced some people. The film ends up on his shoulders and he bears it well. I was even more impressed by the Japanese performing in English. Kobozuka goes all out as Kichijiro, giving the story's Judas a pathetic grandiosity that might remind you of Akira Kurosawa in his more Dostoevskian moods. Issey Ogata gives an eccentrically gnomic performance as the Japanese inquisitor (credit is also due to Tadanobu Asano, more fluent than ever, as his slick interpreter) both verbally and physically creepy. There's a moment where Rodrigues seems to have the upper hand in a debate when Inoue seems to deflate in stages before our eyes; the only missing effect is the steam coming out of his ears. He makes a great villain, though Neeson, in a smaller role than his billing suggests, is arguably more effective the sort of devil's advocate the story really needs. It looks like the film will prove a flop at the box-office, and that makes me wonder why Paramount didn't promote Silence more to the apparently growing audience for religious pictures. It certainly would strike a chord with those Christians who for whatever reason feel persecuted today, but perhaps the film is too specifically Catholic for the faith-based audience here, and maybe some still hold the allegedly sacrilegious Last Temptation of Christ against Scorsese. That'd be unfortunate, since Silence is really a more effective Christian film than that earlier effort. It's still far from Scorsese's best, but it's one of the better pictures of 2016.

Monday, January 9, 2017


Did you ever watch a movie to the very end, and at the very end find something out that makes crystal clear how the filmmakers could have made a better picture? For me, Richie Smyth's Siege of Jadotville is such a film. The film he actually made is a modestly well made war story, ironically with United Nations peacekeepers as the protagonists. Besieged at Jadotville in the newly-independent Republic of (former Belgian) Congo in 1961 are a badly-outnumbered Irish unit facing a mixed force of Euro mercenaries and native troops from the breakaway resource-rich province of Katanga. The Congo in 1961 was bad news. The UN secretary general died in a plane crash (and was very possibly shot down) on his way to Katanga, where secessionist Moise Tshombe defied a leftist central government and was lionized by the American right. The Irish troops are shown receiving little support from their UN superiors, or at best mixed messages, but they hold out against great odds until they can't. It's quite an accomplishment that they didn't lose a man, given how the deck seems stacked against them, but at the end we learn that, because they surrendered, they were reviled in their homeland and around the world as cowards for decades after the siege. Only in the 21st century did they receive proper recognition. Learning this, I saw Smyth's Siege as a film begging for a framing device. 

While I have an interest in this period and its conflicts going back to my boyhood collection of magazines -- I still have the Life magazine reporting the secretary-general's death -- I suspect that the siege would be more compelling for most viewers had they been made aware up front of the cowardice libel and how the main story would refute it. As it is, Smyth and writer Kevin Brodbin sketch a clear portrait of the complications and frustrations of "peacekeeping" at the height of the Cold War. Since I don't know from Fifty Shades of Gray this was my introduction to Jamie Dornan, and I was fairly impressed by his soldierly performance, as I was by Mark Strong cast somewhat against villainous type as Conor Cruise O'Brien, the UN point man in the Congo. The film may overdo it a little in personalizing the siege as a showdown between Dornan's commandant and a French mercenary (Guillaume Canet), but the latter helps convey the hopelessness of the Irish troops' situation, as well as the cynical professionalism of their foe. Siege isn't a bad film at all, but it's just a lttle sad to see so clearly by the end how it could have been better.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

DVR Diary: WAR DRUMS (1957)

When sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans became fashionable in 1950s westerns, the Apaches became the most fashionably sympathetic of Indians. Why that should have been the case I can't say. Maybe it's because they looked different from most movie Indians, more civilized somehow because they didn't wear the stereotypical war bonnet or feathers in the hair. Whatever the idea was, it led to a cycle of Cochise films and continued with this colorful Bel Air production from the people who gave us The Black Sleep: producers Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck, writer Gerald Drayson Adams and director Reginald Le Borg.

The protagonist this time is Cochise's father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas (Lex Barker), and the main story of the picture is an interracial romantic triangle that isn't quite equilateral. Mangas and his white friend Luke Fargo (Ben Johnson) are friendly rivals for the Mexican spitfire Riva (Joan Taylor). Mangas has the advantage here because he saw her first, rescuing her from virtual slavery in a comanchero camp despite her best effort to kill him. His shield with its three layers of buffalo hide fends off her close-range rifle blast, and despite his traditionalist ways he's as impressed by Riva's fighting spirit as Fargo is by her looks. No amount of trade goods will persuade Mangas to give her up, but Fargo, this film's good white man, is a good sport about it.

Speaking of the Apaches' relative degree of civilization, they seem positively bourgeois in their conservative disdain for Riva, a liberated woman in more than one sense. Apache women warn her constantly that she'll have to do all the household work, including building a wikiup from scratch after gathering the raw materials, now that Mangas intends, again to the women's disdain, to make Riva his wife. But Riva has had enough drudgery in her life with the comancheros, and Mangas apparently agrees with her. After she gets into a fight with some tribal women over her indifference to domestic chores, the young chief decides she's better suited for a warrior's role. He teachers her to hunt and shoot and she proves a quick study, while Mangas fights two tribal rivals to the death to defend his right to marry the outsider.  Not even a fine horse Fargo offers in his latest trade package will turn Mangas from his marital purpose. Again a good sport, Fargo turns the trade goods into wedding presents. Meanwhile, playing the usual white-man's role in such encounters, Riva teaches the nose-rubbing Mangas how to kiss.

Inevitably some no-account white trash find gold in a stream on Mangas' territory, terrorizing the residents of a nearby wikiup and shooting a little boy. They won't believe Mangas when he tells them there are richer gold deposits not far away and flog him for a liar, the worst humiliation an Apache can endure.Now Mangas makes war, donning the red shirt that earned him the "Coloradas" nickname to hide the scars on his back, and so does Riva. She shoots one of the offending whites in the back with an arrow, but it doesn't go deep enough to keep him from going crying to the Army. Fargo agrees to lead a party under a white flag to get Mangas' side of the story, but the Apaches anticipate a sneak attack and the Cavalry obliges. Fargo, unwilling to fight, gets wounded and is healed by Riva. This is the white man's best chance, but it's still no dice. He's fascinated by her blend of beauty and bloodlust, and she explains this by revealing her half-breed nature as the daughter of a Mexican and a Comanche. Fargo's response: "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Later, it's Mangas's turn to be wounded, but this time he needs modern medical skills to save his life so his tribe takes a white settlement hostage, the settlers' lives forfeit unless their doctor can extract a bullet from the war chief's chest. Despite the distraction of a woman in labor, the doctor does the job. Fargo arrives with fresh cavalry to find what still looks like a hostage situation, but Mangas explains that the doctor had fulfilled his end of the bargain, so he has no power over the settlers. On his own initiative Fargo arranges a safe-conduct for the Apaches, offering them the friendly advice to stay high in the inaccessible hills for a while.

In reality, the whites captured Mangas and reportedly tortured the old man into making the escape attack that customarily allowed you to kill an enemy, but the Fifties Apache cycle (which continued into the next decade with 1962's Geronimo) often tries to have things both ways, acknowledging the injustices done to Native Americans while allowing them happy endings of sorts. Cochise, who died undefeated, made the perfect hero for this cycle, while erasing the actual end of Mangas Coloradas makes him an easier fit for the formula. By 1957 the novelty of articulate, intelligent, sympathetic Apaches must have worn off a little, though it may still have been a novelty for some to see recent Tarzan Lex Barker give an articulate performance in any role. Neither he nor Johnson (whose career seemed to be in freefall after an early push) is very charismatic, but the real novelty that makes War Drums worth seeing today is Joan Taylor as an all-out woman warrior in an explicit repudiation of the traditional female role in a Fifties film. She makes a modest outdoor western just a little bit more than that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Known in Great Britain simply as The Tunnel, Maurice Elvey's film may be the first of its kind in one respect. It's the first film I can think of that hires a star actor for the cameo role of an anonymous President of the United States. Not only does it use Walter Huston, who had already played presidents at least twice on film -- Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith's biopic of that name and a divinely-guided corpse in the megalomaniacal Gabriel Over the White House -- but it also enlists Mr. George Arliss, who had already won an Oscar playing such a person, as an anonymous, monocled Prime Minister of England. These men have easy jobs since their roles can hardly be called characters; they are only ever seen delivering speeches, and one wonders whether they had to bother memorizing anything.

Tunnel is very much like the sort of crisis film in which some famous actor as The President was touted as an extra added attraction. It has a premise that probably was obsolete when this picture, set sometime after 1940, was made: that ties between the U.S. and U.K., commercial and otherwise, could be strengthened by running a tunnel across the North Atlantic. The benefits of doing this as opposed to developing air travel are never really weighed, but nevertheless the Anglo-American team of engineer Mack McAllan (Richard "Cimarron" Dix), who has invented a new type steel for tunnel construction, and inventor Robbie Robbins (Leslie "The Most Dangerous Game" Banks), whose "radium drill" will cut the tunnel, manage to convince a small coteries of millionaires to bankroll their project. Disasters public and private ensue as Mack grows estranged from his wife and son, leaving his chaste chum Robbie to be their go-between, and the tunnel hits various snags, most dangerously an undersea volcano in its path. One can easily believe that Richard Dix could grow too preoccupied with mechanical tasks for family or any emotional ties, even if he's hardly more convincing as an engineer than Lon Chaney Jr. was in The Wolf Man. A nerd in the body of a lummox, Mack is first seen frantically scribbling figures while a very exclusive audience attends to a private performance by a symphony orchestra. Shortly thereafter he is seen tugging at the tight collar of his monkey suit like the oaf he appears to be. Yet women throw themselves at him, and Mrs. Mack (Madge Evans) truly resents his absence. She shows her resentment by taking a nursing job in the tunnel project's infirmary. Just as we learn that tunnel gases can cause blindness, she goes blind. The son, grown up over the years of construction (Jimmy Hanley), takes a tunnel job to prove his manhood to himself and his distant dad. He dies. There's also an attempt by a financier's daughter to lure Mack into marriage, an attempt by a munitions magnate to gain control of the tunnel company for who knows what purpose, and the looming threat of the Eastern Federation of Powers, which may exploit any failure of the tunnel project to make its move for world domination.

Through it all Mack and Robbie endeavor to persevere, and in spite of everything Mack and his Mrs. are reunited for the opening ceremonies, presided over by an invisibly Jesus-like "Ruler of the British Empire." It sounds more like a prototype for disaster movies than a pioneer sci-fi film (Britain had the lead over the U.S. in this race, with Things To Come still to come that decade), but as sci-fi Tunnel boasts some impressive sets and special effects, though some of these are reportedly borrowed from a German film based on the same (German) source novel. Interesting, Bernhard Kellerman's 1913 Der Tunnel  proves to be more prescient than the 1935 movie; it concludes with air travel having made the transatlantic tunnel instantly obsolete.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

On the Big Screen: JACKIE (2016)

There are two kinds of women, Jacqueline Kennedy tells her priest (John Hurt) in the Chilean director Pablo Larrain's first U.S. film: those who seek mastery in the world and those who seek it in bed. Since Jackie (Natalie Portman) has just told him that her husband, the late President of the United States, had been sexually estranged from her, sleeping in a separate bed on their last night together, this means that the First Lady, as conceived by Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, has been trying to make her mark not merely in the world, but on history. Jackie is the story of her effort to define John F. Kennedy's presidency immediately after its abrupt, violent termination, and to define her place in a world without JFK. It's told in the now-typical nonlinear manner, framed (but not actually bookended) by a fictionalized version of the post-assassination magazine interview in which she invoked the musical Camelot to define the Kennedy years. This framing device is a weakness of the picture because the interviewer (Billy Crudup) seems much more confrontational than the real man, Theodore H. White, probably was so soon after the national tragedy. It's too blatantly a modern narrative device than effective historical drama, and it's undercut by Jackie being more honestly confessional to the priest. But the interviewer's mention of Jackie's TV tour of the White House allows the staging of extensive reenactments (in mock kinescope) of her performance while establishing the thematic importance of her expensive renovation/restoration of the executive mansion. Denied intimacy by her husband (though they would have a child, who died early, in 1963) and denied the sort of influence First Ladies have enjoyed more recently, Jackie dedicated herself to making the White House a kind of living museum of the Presidency, complete with as many original furnishings as she can recover. The main action of the film, however, is her gradual moving out of the place after her husband's assassination, while she plans his state funeral, first wanting to walk beside the coffin in an epic procession, then chickening out when the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald makes her fear a more extensive murder conspiracy, then changing her mind once more in what we later learn is a kind of death wish, a dare to any hidden killers. She finally achieves something like closure by having their two dead infant children buried with Jack in Arlington and devoting herself to her two living children.

Jackie's end-of-an-era quality certainly will resonate with many viewers as the nation passes from the idealized Obama years to the disreputable-seeming successor administration, and the film itself sharply observes a fateful changing of the guard amid the title character's mourning. The mutual resentment of Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Saarsgard) crackles whenever we see it, putting added pressure on Jackie as she struggles to come to terms with her trauma. The film's actually at its best when if focuses on her mood swings from dazed mourning to grandiose planning, and the reenactment of the White House special pays off when we see the widowed Jackie wandering through the same rooms, sometimes slightly sozzled, attempting to comprehend the sudden emptiness everywhere -- and when we see her later still packing clothes, artifacts and children's toys into all-too-modest cardboard boxes. Natalie Portman lives up to her awards hype less through her physical impersonation of Jackie -- though in fleeting moments the resemblance, especially in facial expressions, is uncanny -- than through a convincing portrayal of stunned, disoriented grief balanced with an ambitious sense of responsibility for JFK's legacy. I don't know if Portman really benefits from the non-linear presentation, which throws a gruesome recreation of the assassination at us almost at random late in the picture and seems vague until the end about where the priest scenes fit in the chronology. It's still a strong star turn by Portman, and Larrain, who made his name globally with a trilogy of films chronicling the Pinochet years in his home country, does a good job adding a historical gravitas to her storyline. Director and star really click in a scene where Jackie stomps and staggers through Arlington in the rain, her high heels sticking quite spontaneously in the mud, seeking out an appropriate site for her husband's grave. It's a moment when the physicality of Portman's work beyond the actorly impersonation really counts. I can't help thinking that Larrain and Portman might have come up with something even better had they been able to tell Jackie's story in a more straightforward, linear manner. But even if the story structure handicaps them somewhat, they still make Jackie a picture very much worth seeing.