Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A YELLOW BIRD (2016)

 Singapore has a reputation as a nation that combines free market capitalism and an authoritarian social order of the sort that gets you fined for spitting your gum out in the street and caned for many other offenses. Above all it has a reputation as an orderly place, but K. Rajagopal's film appears to belie that reputation. A Yellow Bird examines the seamy underbelly of Singapore and finds it just as vile as the slums and underworlds of other nations. It opens on a note of absurdity as people in colorful costumes prepare to march in some sort of parade. They're led by two guys wearing giant cartoon heads. It's no doubt less of a shock for the home audience than it is for the rest of us when it turns out that these are all professional mourners taking part in a funeral procession. Two of the mourners are our protagoinsts. Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) is an ex-con who belongs to Singapore's Indian minority. He desperately wants to reunite with his wife and daughter but his probation officer is reluctant to tell him where they live. For all I know they have an order of protection against him, and the way he flies off the handle sometimes that would be very believable. Chen Chen (Huang Lu) is a sometime prostitute  desperate to earn money to support her daughter, who's being raised elsewhere. Sick of being underpaid or ripped off by the boss mourner, Chen decides to resume the world's oldest profession. Seeing a sympathetic face in the imposing Siva, she persuades him to act as her bodyguard and collector with the one word of English she knows: "Money." She still has to go to work for a pimp who maintains two tents in the woods, and he's uncomfortable with the "black ghost" around. It's all pretty squalid and things never really get better. Just when you think the film might be shipping Siva and Chen she accuses him of stealing her savings, and just as he tries to make things right she gets arrested and exits the picture. Finally, though, with help from a somewhat sympathetic probation bureaucrat, Siva tracks down his wife and kid, finds the latter in a terrible state and promptly makes it worse. It's something of a shock that the first Singaporean film I've seen (it's trilingual, by the way) is in the grimy naturalist tradition of global cinema and not something more expressive of the Asian modernity Singapore supposedly represents. I actually appreciate A Yellow Bird more for that reason, because it refuses to flinch from the miserable lives of the underclass or to romanticize their struggles. If anything it may overstate Singaporean squalor with its portrayal of poor people living in apartment complexes that seem modeled on prisons, down to the bars in the doorways. The characters' wretchedness may be too much for some moviegoers, but there's something about the cinema of poverty that works to its advantage as cinema. When done right, it seems more real, if that's what you're looking for, than any other genre of film.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1931)

Like the original film version of The Maltese Falcon, Josef von Sternberg's adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 blockbuster novel is overshadowed by a remake. Sternberg's American Tragedy has the extra misfortune of being overshadowed not only by George Stevens' 1951 A Place in the Sun, but by a previous screenplay that was never filmed. Shortly before, Soviet montage master Sergei Eisenstein apparently got the green light from Stalin to try and make good in Hollywood. He wrote a treatment of the Dreiser novel that David O. Selznick privately praised as one of the greatest screenplays he'd ever read, but he also found it overlong and prohibitively depressing -- if not also too subversive, Eisenstein and Dreiser both being leftists. Sternberg got the project, with an all-new screenplay, and while he might seem an unlikely candidate for such a piece of social realism, known as he is today for his glamorous work with Marlene Dietrich, he had made his name with an independent project, Salvation Hunters, that dealt with working-class striving. He also had an interest in a certain sort of criminal mind that found later expression in an adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. All of that notwithstanding, his version of the Tragedy is regarded as a botch and is rarely seen today, while it was regarded by Dreiser (who was dead when Place in the Sun came out) as a crime against his vision. I have to confess that I never made it through the novel, which is vast, but I read enough of it to understand what Dreiser was griping about. The Sternberg film gives short shrift to the background and upbringing of protagonist Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes), starting him out already established as a Kansas City bellboy. More importantly, Dreiser sees Griffiths, a character based on a real-life murderer, in determinist fashion as a product of his socio-cultural environment, driven to strive for social advancement and ready to sacrifice one love for another when that stronger passion dictates. The 1931 film, however, seems to come down on the interpretation of Griffiths advanced by his defense attorney to save him from the death penalty, which is that Clyde is essentially a "moral coward."

Clyde's on trial for his life because his efforts to dump a working-class girlfriend (Sylvia Sidney) for an upper-crust counterpart (Frances Dee) ends in disaster, despite his last-minute decision not to murder the poor girl. It involves a boat on a lake in a way that suggests that the nearest spiritual adaptation of the novel is F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, even if the girl in that film doesn't die and the poor couple has a happy ending. Sternberg's Tragedy is disproportionately dedicated to the climactic murder trial, which, to be fair, is the most entertaining part of the picture, thanks to the dueling bombast of Irving Pichel, as the prosecutor, and Charles (Ming the Merciless) Middleton as a defense attorney. Even A Place in the Sun is to a large extent a trial picture, one that most likely earned Raymond Burr, its prosecutor, his career-defining gig as defense attorney Perry Mason. Pichel and Middleton, both charismatic hams with great voices, give Sternberg's film moments of not just life but fun as the lawyers threaten to throw down and fight right in the courtroom. Pichel, probably best remembered as an actor for his ultra-creepy supporting turn in Draclua's Daughter, really gets to shine as the prosecutor methodically demolishes Clyde's defenses. He and Middleton damningly expose the film's fatal vacancy, which is Phillips Holmes' performance, which really does very little to make you sympathize with Griffiths (as Montgomery Clift manages in the Stevens film) even as you concede his guilt. Holmes always has struck me as a superficial pretty boy, and this film only proves that he never had a tragic hero in him.

As for Sternberg, there's little he can do stylistically with a courtroom drama, though there's one startling scene, when a spectator is ejected from somewhere near the nosebleed seats of the courtroom for heckling Clyde, that gives you a shocking sense of the almost literal theatricality of the whole event. There are some other isolated moments of pictorial or storytelling genius, the former when a fatal joyride is filmed from the outside, looking through the windshield of Clyde's car, the latter when the camera follows Clyde and the rich girl paddling their way into a boat party cacophonous with singing and laughter that all goes silent instantly when gunshots are heard, as Clyde's boat continues gliding through the muted crowd. Otherwise, either the story or the stars fail to inspire Sternberg to make something distinctive or characteristic of the material. Because I think Sternberg more capable of doing justice to the subject than others may believe, I find that a minor tragedy in its own right.

Monday, May 15, 2017

DVR Diary: BAYOU (1957)

Turner Classic Movies ran Harold Daniels' film last weekend as part of an "Underground" double-feature, along with Timothy Carey's legendary World's Greatest Sinner. "Presenting Tim Carey" is the future auteur's screen credit in Bayou, even though Carey had already appeared in several films, most notably in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Edward I. Fessler's screenplay is set in the Cajun country of Louisiana, and Cajuns were still sufficiently exotic in 1957 that their name and ethnic origins have to be explained with some expository dialogue. Suffice it to say that for the film's purposes they are hillbillies with even funnier accents, perhaps more developed technologically yet just as slovenly. Lording it over the film's community is Ulysses (Carey) who runs the general store and has something like the power of life and death over the crabbers and shrimpmen through the power of credit. It's best to think of Ulysses as the Bluto of the Bayou. He's willing to extend credit to old man Emil Hebert (Douglas Fowley) if Emil will get his daughter Marie (Lita Milan) to go out to the big dance with him, and show him other attentions. Into this serpent's eden comes an architect from Poughkeepsie, Martin Davis (Peter Graves), who's come to the territory to pitch his design for a nearby project. Martin's ultimate audition for the commission is a test of character: a pirouge race in which he must compete against the mighty Ulysses and others. Martin's defeat costs him the commission, but he stays on because he feels romantic and protective toward Marie. Recognizing a rival, Ulysses intimidates him with a mating dance during a traditional chivaree for a newlywed couple. But during another showdown at Emil's funeral Martin finally makes a stand....

It is ridiculously easy for Carey to overshadow Graves, having a height as well as a charisma advantage over the future Mission Impossible star. His overwhelming dark-side-of-the-life-force performance also overshadows everyone else in the picture, few of whom make any real impression. At the same time, Ulysses is pretty unconvincing as a ruthless man of business or as someone enamored with anyone but himself. Carey's fans will see his mating dance as the highlight of the piece, anticipating similar antics in World's Greatest Sinner, but the artless exhibitionism of it really takes you out of the picture, which isn't hard when the picture's as flimsy as Bayou. Maybe it was different when the movie was new and few knew who Tim Carey was, and none knew what he would be, but to me now it's obvious that the film needs a more basic, truly threatening villain, but in Carey it has a buffoon. But maybe it wasn't so different back then. Daniel's exercise in pulp ethnography reportedly bombed at the box office until it resurfaced several years later and was sold on its new title, Poor White Trash. Bayou is described as one of Carey's largest roles, but it seems to prove that, unless you want to go all the way and OD on Sinner, he's best taken in small doses like those prescribed by Kubrick in Killing and Paths of Glory. For some, Carey may be spectacle enough to make Bayou worthwhile, but he doesn't really do the film any favors.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Definitely too much TV.

As regular readers may have noticed, they haven't had so much to read here lately. Part of that is that I haven't seen too many movies worth writing about lately, and another part is that other projects have demanded my attention. But the main reason is that a lot of the time I might have been here writing about movies has been spent watching TV as the long 2016-17 season winds down. Of course, it's only winding down in the sense that the long-form shows that began their seasons back in the fall are approaching their season finales. In fact, new shows continue to appear while other short-season shows have only recently reappeared. In short, there's been a lot on my plate, so I may as well describe some of it.

For me, the milestone event of the 2016-17 season was the end of Starz' Black Sails after four seasons. The pirate show might have been, for a brief moment, the jewel in Starz' crown, but was soon eclipsed utterly by the premium channel's first true blockbuster series, Outlander. I don't watch Outlander, so I can't help wondering what it has that Black Sails didn't -- apart from time travel, that is. For what it's worth, for the past two years I though Black Sails was the best show on television. All that was left was to stick the landing, and I'm not sure that it did. Season four gave me the impression that the producers actually had a five-year plan, as events often seemed rushed. It ended on an unexpected, and thus odd note of optimism for a show that often seemed to set the standard for fatalism. Everyone's expectation, I think, was that the show would end with the stage effectively set for Treasure Island and Robert Louis Stevenson's characters set in the relationships readers of his novel would recognize, and with the historical pirates all dead or, in the case of Anne Bonny, given a more definite fate than history relates. Instead, the writers chose to stop at a moment of victory for many of the characters -- the defeated include historical pirate-hunter Woodes Rogers and the treacherous Billy Bones, the latter now stuck on the famous island -- and with a sort of happy ending for the main character, Captain Flint, who's forced to end his war against the world but receives consolation from a reunion with a long-lost lover from the second-season flashbacks. This resolution seemed to go against the grain of the grim destinies spun out on many of the more acclaimed shows of our time, and I'm not sure if the change of pace was intentional or whether the story wasn't truly finished when Starz said it was done. Still, if the landing is a little wobbly for its intentions being unclear, Black Sails was its usual brilliant self much of the time, unafraid to turn Billy, initially one of its most likable characters, into one of its most hateful villains, or to subject one of the leading female characters to a brutal, protracted (and for some misogynist fans, much desired) death scene. As things now stand, Black Sails is one of the most underrated series of this, the "platinum" age of television. One can only hope it gets the recognition it deserves some day.

With Black Sails gone, I need a new "best show on television." Based on recent performances, let me give you a top three:

1. The Magicians (SyFy)
2. iZombie (The CW)
3. The 100 (The CW)

With its second season complete, The Magicians continues to amaze with its originality in approaching traditional fantasy material and the convincing complexity of its main ensemble of student sorcerers. In its third season iZombie remains the best-plotted show I watch and the best at maintaining the tricky balancing act of advancing the seasonal metaplot every hour while offering an entertaining mystery of the week and a new personality for Liv Moore to exhibit. While The 100 was my number two show after Black Sails in the recent past, it has slipped slightly in its fourth season and arguably nearly jumped the shark with the introduction of a new character, another disgruntled grounder with a grudge against technology after last season's City of Light fiasco, who put the survival of the human race, grounders and sky people alike, in jeopardy by destroying one of the few certain shelters from a coming "death wave" of radiation in a fit of pique. It was bad enough that this character wasn't killed on the spot, but it was even worse when Octavia, established this season as the sky people's ruthless assassin, fell for this primitive screwhead, slept with him and followed him home to his benighted tribe. Apparently much can be forgiven when you're a pretty boy as he was, and once he developed a sensitivity commensurate with his looks. Fortunately, as that "was" probably gave away, this wretch finally killed got what was coming to him in one of the season's best episodes, a bloodbath battle royale to determine which tribe would have access to the super-bunker that had been under the grounder capital all along. Apart from the brainfart that was this loser's character arc, The 100 has been its reliable, exhiliratingly miserable self most of the time as our protagonists debate how to select a necessarily limited number of survivors before the radiation arrives, or whether to just give up and actually enjoy their last days on earth. It's had the guts to give us a mass suicide in the most recent episode, but as far as I can tell The 100 flies low enough under the mainstream radar that this has not been controversial -- or it may be that no critic would dare question the legitimacy in story terms of what took place.

The most improved show of 2016-17 is Arrow. If the third season for the founding show of the still-expanding "Berlantiverse" (watch for Black Lightning in 2018) saw a major decline from the epic second season, last year's fourth season was an almost complete disaster. Star and showrunners apparently recognized it for what it was and have tried to return to basics this year. They have a strong new villain in Prometheus, the strongest series of flashbacks in some time as Oliver Queen solidifies his ties with the Bratva in Russia, and -- most surprisingly, a fresh crop of supporting characters including yet another Black Canary and a live-action version of a failed Punisher ripoff, Wild Dog, who's become a major asset with his ballbusting comedy relief. I mean this just about literally, since a running gag has him referring to Curtis Holt's versatile T-spheres as his "balls." I have a feeling that's never going to grow old. Conversely, however, the show that's lost the most ground  this year is The Flash. Apparently the Berlantiverse writers will hit a creative wall in each show's third season (which means it's Supergirl's turn this fall). In this case, they couldn't solve the conundrum of how to challenge a super-speedster with anything but another super-speedster, and so they gave us Savitar, the so-called god of speed, who goes around in a suit of armor that looks as if running was the last thing it was designed for. Flash is motivated to fight this preposterous being because he ran himself into the future one day and saw Savitar gutting his beloved Iris. Psych! Turns out Savitar is a "time remnant" version of Barry "Flash" Allen himself, according to a revelation that probably drove many people to drink. I know a lot of comic book writers are more interested in having heroes fight heroes than in heroes fighting villains, but this is a new extreme. Everything about Savitar is uninspiring, from his feeble origin to his ugly suit (Evil burnt-face Barry has to go to all fours before he can climb out of it) to the cheesy Omen-style chanting whenever he appears. Fortunately, the Flash writers have learned their lesson and are promising a non-speedster big bad for the fourth season. If it takes them only one year to right the ship, compared to Arrow's two years, that will be progress.

Along with the shows I've mentioned, I still have the current seasons of Supergirl and Into the Badlands to finish, the former an improvement on its first year and the latter just as good as before. You can expect separate reviews dedicated to the newest shows I'm watching: Iron Fist, The White Princess and American Gods. Finally, schedule changes and recent channel pickups by the local cable company are giving me more vintage westerns to watch, most notably Tales of Wells Fargo on Starz Encore Westerns. Once most of my shows wrap up later this month I should finally be able to write more of the western reviews I've promised -- and for the hell of it, I might actually watch some more movies, too.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) in SPOILERVISION

How can the Guardians of the Galaxy claim to be friends, one skeptic scoffs in James Gunn's sequel to his 2014 sleeper hit, when all they do is argue and yell at one another? The answer, as one might guess without seeing this film but having seen many another popular film of our time, is that the four interstellar misfits, plus the offspring of their late cohort, are not friends but "family." Gunn doubles down here on this more dubious aspect of the previous film, but people today apparently dig this idea. The interesting thing is that Guardians Vol. 2 harps on this theme while simultaneously highlighting a sororial blood feud and an act of celestial parricide. In the main event, Peter "Star Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), the human being of the team, finally meets his father, the unselfconsciously named Ego (Kurt Russell), who gives the galaxy's biggest fan of 70s pop the great news that he has the genealogy of a god. Biological didn't bother until now because his momentarily conscience-stricken agent, the ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker), kept little Pete to train as an artful dodger. Now that Quill has proven himself a space hero -- the Guardians now hire out as a cosmic security detail, defending an obnoxious planet's power batteries against a random monster during the opening credits -- Ego wants to test whether he, of all his many, many offspring, has the divine spark. It turns out that he does, and that makes it possible for Ego, whose consciousness is one with the planet he lives on, to implement his long-cherished plan to exterminate all other life in the universe. Star Lord will come to realize almost too late, just as Gunn beats the point into our heads, that Yondo is more his true father than this literal rockhead. Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) carry on their lifelong battle, which climaxes this time with a space-opera homage to North By Northwest on the surface of the redundantly-named "Ego's Planet," yet appears to end on a tentative note of reconciliation. And wouldn't you know? Daddy's to blame. Family seems easier without one of those around.

The novelty of the first Guardians picture is irrecoverable, and the sort of shtick we often get in its place here is a poor replacement. There are times when you may imagine yourself reading the script and seeing "[Insert joke here]" with numbing regularity. Not even Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is as funny as he was before, though it's not the actor's fault that his best moments were used in the trailers. His imperturbable, sometimes arrogant imbecility, combined with lapses into childlike enthusiasm, still make Bautista the best thing about these films. He gets a new foil, and the film gets a much-needed breath of fresh air, in the form of the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a reluctant protege of Ego's. She's based on one of Marvel Comics' most obnoxious characters of the 1970s -- which is saying a lot -- but writer/director and actress redeem her by emphasizing her naive insecurity and a plausibly alien nature compared to the Guardians, who all, regardless of species, seem all too human most of the time. There are many more weird new characters, including some sure to appear in the next Guardians film, if not sooner, among them a group of badass elders some may recognize as the original comic-book Guardians of the Galaxy, but the gold-skinned Sovereigns (ruled by Elizabeth Debicki), for whom war is a bloodless (for them) video game, don't make much of an impression despite their importance to some plot threads now and in the future. On every level Vol. 2 is less inspired than the first film, but despite its faults the sequel manages to get audiences emotionally invested in the heroes' climactic perils, and it retains the original's surprising sense of wonder amid all the hard-boiled antics. From the more attractive landscapes of Ego-land to the outer-space fireworks display during one character's viking funeral, Gunn's determination to hit us with moments of pure or at least aspiring beauty is one aspect of the Guardians series that continues to surprise.