Sunday, July 15, 2018
The film opens on a note of initially questionable relevance, informing us that American Indians don't grow facial hair, as demonstrated by one specimen showing us his left and right profile. This isn't as surreal as it looks, since it leads to our discovery that Wheeler and Woolsey, or whatever they're calling themselves this time, are running a barber shop on an Oklahoma reservation. Here's a real history lesson for you: the boys are flopping because the barber business back then depended on people coming in regularly to be shaved instead of showing up periodically for a trim. Despite this miscalculation, the oil-rich tribe finds a use for the barbers. Hearing them pontificate on foreign affairs (one of the film's few coherent editorial points is that many nations are deadbeats when it comes to debts they owe the U.S.), the Oxford-educated chief who enters in a limo and is almost too erudite for our heroes to comprehend commissions them to represent his nation at the latest round of Geneva peace talks. Given the generous expense account that comes with the work, the Indians expect results. Should the neophyte diplomats (later explicitly identified in the press as "diplomaniacs") fail to negotiate a favorable settlement, including a permanent anti-war pledge, the chief will turn them into gorillas. Is this typical native witch-doctoring? Since the chief keeps a caged ape he claims was once the most beautiful woman in Paris, it's best for the boys not to take chances.
Recognizing the Oopa-Doop tribe's intervention in international affairs as a potential game-changer like the emergence of Wakanda, powerful arms manufacturer Winklereid (Louis Calhern, Groucho's antagonist in Duck Soup) and his Chinaman-for-hire (Hugh Herbert) scheme to sabotage the Indian mission. Naturally, what you do in such a situation is order up a vamp. Amazon today has nothing on the technology of Diplomaniacs; no sooner has Chow Chow called in the order than the vamp, wrapped in plastic, arrives through a delivery chute. Regrettably, the script doesn't follow up on the possibility that Dolores (Marjorie White) is some kind of robot, but I suppose it's funnier to imagine a real person getting dispatched to her new job in that fashion. Recognizing later that there are two men to vamp, Winklereid and his entourage visit the Dead Rat cafe to recruit uber-seductress Fifi (Phyllis Barry), whose kisses can set people on fire internally and make dangerous projectiles when blown at you. You see, Wheeler and Woolsey usually get love interests in their pictures, and here they are, only marginally more dedicated to their malevolent tasks than the Marxes were when they were hired as hitmen in Monkey Business.
That's about enough set-up. From this point the film is pretty much a sequence of set pieces climaxing when our heroes finally arrive, in appropriate Alpine gear, at the Geneva conference where Edgar Kennedy (Chico and Harpo's antagonist from Duck Soup) presides in two-fisted fashion. There's no time for slow burns in this picture; Kennedy goes from zero to machine gun in career-best time here. During an acrobatic performance the diplomaniacs argue incoherently in favor of an anti-war resolution while Winklereid, taking no chances, throws a classic cartoon bomb into the conference room. The resulting sooty explosion transforms the representatives of many nations into African-Americans, down to the fat white lips shown by such typical specimens of the race as Al Jolson and Eddy Cantor. More than six months before Duck Soup, we get a spiritually-inflected musical number affirming that "All God's Chillun Want Peace." Later, the bomb having failed, Winklereid and his fellow conspirators consider killing the imminently successful diplomaniacs with an experimental explosive bullet, but succeed only in vaporizing themselves, leaving only their clothes to float where they were left. Fortunately, Winklereid's fallback plan of planting a forged treaty on the boys succeeds beyond expectations. Once the fake news is exposed, the film ends with the world at war, Wheeler and Woolsey drafted into the U.S. army (perhaps for gorilla warfare?) and the bad guys looking down with approval from a heavenly cloud.
Damn! Diplomaniacs really does outdo Jenkins' description.It's a comedy of absolute ruthlessness with no pretense of likability unless you, like some girl in each film in the series, find Bert Wheeler strangely cute. Its almost ideological absurdity is highlighted by Hugh Herbert's performance as Chow Chow, the whole point of which is the absurdity of the casting. Chow Chow kvetches at Winklereid from the moment of his arrival, lapses into odd ethnic accents, experiences a flashback of his mother when meeting the notorious Fifi, comments that white vamps, compared to those of other colors, get dirty more easily, and utters proverbs such as "Sex of one, half dozen of another." In the picture's most flamboyant act of narrative vandalism, Chow Chow quits his role as Winklereid's henchman in mid-picture, climbing down from a tree branch and starting home from Paris to China. Shortly afterward, we find him sailing homeward, passing a floating signpost laden with advertising. A few minutes later, we cut back to him arriving in China, where Mrs. Chow Chow berates him for arriving five years late for dinner. During that time she acquired several small children because, as she explains, she wanted to surprise him. Digressions like this one make Diplomaniacs look more stylistically up-to-date than it might have been when Jenkins was writing his books. People who watch it should find it very reminiscent, if not pre-miniscent, of today's absurdist prime-time cartoons, and its overall everything's-a-joke attitude can be found all over the place in our time, sometimes to an unpleasant degree. As a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle it's whatever; those two haven't stood the test of time in cultural consciousness because they never really developed, either verbally or visually, personae as readily recognized and embraced as those of the Marxes. But as a comedy picture Diplomaniacs is a belligerent blitzkrieg that may be more simply stunning than purely funny but is nevertheless an amazing hour to sit through if you get the chance.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Saturday, July 7, 2018
That necessary business aside, has any film ever been more about fathers and daughters than this one? Not only do we continue the daughter-surpassing-the-father storyline of the first film, as Hope gets a shrinking costume of her own, and not only are we reminded of Scott's bond with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), but even Ghost has a father figure in yet another of Pym's old partners, rival scientist and long-ago "Black Goliath" Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Resentment of Pym conflicts with humanitarian instincts as Foster initially strives to help Ghost but ultimately recoils from the selfish ruthlessness of the former SHIELD assassin, who has a mad notion of leeching quantum energy from Janet Van Dyne, should the good guys reach her, in order to save herself. I'm not sure what the point of this triplication is, unless the point is that these storylines are increasingly common as we insist on female empowerment in genre cinema. Whatever the point, Ghost is an entertaining enough villain but suffers from having to share the screen with Goggins and his gangsters, while everyone suffers from the involvement of a bunch of FBI idiots and especially from the return of Scott Lang's ex-con buddies (Michael Pena, Tip Harris and David Dastmalchian), who are now his partners in a budding security business. Those three were just about insufferable in the first film, and there's no question of their insufferability in the sequel. The film, really a Marvel B-movie, is bloated by comedy relief, including a reprise of the storytelling gimmick from the first film in which Pena's character recaps previous events, putting his words in the other actors' mouths. It was interesting the first time, but never since. At least Pena has some natural likability and his character has something of a personality. Dastmalchian's personality boils down to superstition, and Harris doesn't even have that. Nor is Rudd himself particularly hilarious in his comic showcases; Scott Lang often seems more like a shtick than a character, and it's hard to know what more can be done with him, even as we're promised that he'll return in another sequel if not sooner.
For all that the comedy was tiresome, the action kept me interested. While the fight choreography itself is nothing special, the idea of people who can shrink and grow (though the Wasp never becomes giant like Lang can) fighting someone who can turn insubstantial gives an inventive quality to the battles between Ghost and the title characters. I was also amused by the chase scenes with shrunken cars racing through San Francisco, which seem partly an homage to the toy-car chase scene in the SF-set The Dead Pool. These bits are good enough for me to spare Ant-Man and the Wasp a thumbs-down, though the stale comedy parts make it slightly worse than the original film. Both are definitely lower-tier Marvel films, but that seems to be understood by all going in. It also seemed to be understood that something light and possibly funny was needed after the sturm und drang of Infinity War and before the heavy lifting of its sequel next year. That the Ant-Man films are mere programmers by Marvel standards shouldn't be held against them, but I think we have a right to expect a third film to escape the rut the filmmakers seem determined to drive the series into. More of the same next time will be more difficult to forgive.
Saturday, June 30, 2018
Siegel's writers try to keep things mysterious by having a later killing carried out POV camera = killer style, but it only looks awkward and evasive. Toward the end, the killer is revealed without anyone on the screen having deduced his identity from clues, though I suppose some in the audience may have guessed the culprit by process of elimination. His discovery sets up the big thrill climax on the guano car, but the thrill of actuality is undermined every time Siegel cuts from the long shot of the stuntmen to the studio close-ups of Wilde et al in front of rear projections. The location stuff is nice to look at, though, thanks to Burnett Guffey's cinematography, and seeing the juggernaut cars of the era in action is always fun. Even with the special attraction of the Canyon this is little more than a B picture, and as such its diverting enough without lasting long enough to waste your time.
Saturday, June 23, 2018
Up to His Ears is episodic and ultimately overlong, the sort of film that looks to be wrapping up at least half an hour before it actually ends. In that respect it might be inspired more by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World than by any other picture, but let's remember that the French themselves invented sight-gag slapstick cinematic comedy and need no inspiration from elsewhere. Some of the gags here are truly inspired, none more so to me than the bit that finds our hero and his servant on a shaky rope bridge in the Himalayas. Inevitably they go over the side (or was it through) and descend dangling from a near-infinite rope of clothes disgorging from a suitcase. The thoughtful servant always makes a point of pinning his master's clothes together for trips like these, you see -- and one may assume that the clothes are all double stitched. Other moments are striking for their juxtaposition of silent-comedy style action in exotic Asian settings, as when our heroes struggle to escape a Nepalese village via a rope ladder dangling from a hot-air balloon, or when Belmondo in a stage-magician's costume gets into a fighting chase on the scaffolding of a tall building, as if Harold Lloyd were playing Fantomas. I don't think it's as good as That Man From Rio or my favorite from the Belmondo-de Broca team, the tragicomic swashbuckler Cartouche, but it's still terrifically entertaining just to look at. Belmondo is a kind of French Cary Grant, capable of being both the epitome of cool and, as here, playing an utter clown, while de Broca is more like a French Blake Edwards. I couldn't help thinking that the Mirisch Company should have hired them to do that Inspector Clouseau movie back when Edwards and Peter Sellers weren't interested. I can't guarantee that such a thing would have been good, but I would have liked to see them try. In any event, there are still more of their actual team-ups for me to see, those the three I have seen are just about enough to earn Belmondo and de Broca a place among the great comic actor-director teams.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
As a kid, I hated Lost in Space. I pretty much hated all those silly shows from the mid-Sixties that dominated syndicated TV when I was growing up. I even went through that comics fan's phase when you hate Batman until you appreciate how funny it is on its own terms. But Irwin Allen's sci-fi show only ever seemed stupid, part of a profound dumbing down of American TV that came when the major networks went all-color. It's one of those shows reputed to be less dumb and kiddified in its one black-and-white season, but I've never had the courage to try verifying that for myself. Suffice it to say that if any title could stand a radical reboot on the Battlestar Galactica model, it was Lost in Space. But would the presumed target audience recognize the new thing as Lost in Space without the sniveling comedy relief and the snarky robot and the goofy aliens they and the rest of the crew met every week? Or was I wrong about who the target audience was? Was the familiar name only meant to get people's attention while the show itself catered to more modern story expectations and sensibilities.
The new creative team had credentials possibly worthy of Irwin Allen, having written the better-than-expected Dracula Untold but also the recent Power Rangers reboot movie and such big flops as The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt. Their end product, however, is more modest and straightforward than that filmography might anticipate. The new show's main line of revision is a familiar one: female empowerment. In the new story of humans fleeing their dying planet, the mother, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is the real leader with the major scientific and technical credentials, while her estranged husband John (Toby "Captain Flint" Stephens) is basically a grunt, though an elite one as a Navy SEAL. As for the kids, the teenage girls Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) are the real brains. Good old Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) is no slouch, but Mom had to fake some test results after an attack of nerves left the boy with a score unfit for space colonization. To top things off, the old show's villain-turned-clown,Dr.Smith, literally has his identity stolen by the show's new, somewhat darker antagonist. June Harris (Parker Posey) got into space by poisoning her sister and stealing her identity. During the panic created by a mysterious robot attack (You can't really do a gender flip here), she steals the ID badge of one "Z. Smith" (Billy Mumy!) to get access to a landing craft. We haven't learned yet after the first season whether June has any vocation other than survival, but she applies herself to her calling with a subtle ruthlessness, insinuating herself into the Robinsons' temporary household while constantly watching for ways to turn them against each other, and also coveting the alien robot, which has somehow bonded with Will, as her ultimate defense against other people. Because "Smith" is female, she's likely to remind viewers of the archetypal female "from hell" of Lifetime movies, but there's a purity to June's sociopathy, unleavened so far by any sexuality, that makes her almost inhuman, yet fascinating to observe. She's almost perfectly amoral, utterly incapable of imagining that she may not deserve to survive, and for that she may actually seem more sympathetic to today's narcissists than her male model was fifty years ago.
As with any reboot of an old TV series, there's both more and less story here than in the original. The first season is one ten-part story and future seasons will no doubt be likewise, and while modern shows lose out on variety of stories they usually gain in emotional depth. Inevitably modern shows focus more on the relationships among regular characters than on the interventions of guest stars, and with the new Lost in Space you get the now-expected family tensions as well as the addition of a larger supporting cast (along with Ignacio Serricchio as a new, roguish Don West) promising a wider range of relationships. Of course, we may never see those supporting players again after the season-ending cliffhanger that sees the Robinsons, West and "Smith" sucked through a wormhole, but even if being lost in space means getting cut off from the rest of humanity, it wouldn't surprise me if the rest of the Resolute crew reappear at some point, since the imperative for relationships makes the current situation too potentially incestuous for anyone's good. For all that, on some level, or for some viewers, this is still a show about a boy and his robot, and by keeping that relationship near the forefront the new show manages to be recognizably Lost in Space while retaining its options to expand the story in any number of promising directions. If the new creators play their cards right, their show could come closer to pleasing everybody than the original ever did.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Fans of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy will be horrified to learn that Paris (Warner Bentivegna) is the villain of this piece. On top of the war being his fault, he feels that his royal status entitles him to military leadership when Aeneas, who also loves Paris's sister Creusa, is clearly more qualified. He blows a chance to defeat the Greeks decisively when Aeneas arrives with fresh allies after a diplomatic mission because he resents the hero taking the initiative without his say-so, and his blind vanity brings the title construct, the instrument of Troy's destruction, within the city's gates. Paris is also the picture's most interesting character because it treats him in almost noirish fashion as a hapless sap of a victim of that apex femme fatale, Helen of Troy (Hedy Vessel). Almost a living Barbie, Helen sees the handwriting on the wall for Paris and his city and can't be bothered hiding her contempt.
The best scene in the film has nothing to do with Aenas: after the Greeks inside the horse have opened the gates, Paris panics and asks Helen what he should do. She makes a few disinterested suggestions but surmises that he'll simply wait there to be killed. Sure enough, the angry ex, Menelaus of Sparta (Nando Tamberlani) appears with vengeance on his mind. He slaps a tiara off Helen's head, then orders Paris to pick it up and wear it. He then orders Paris onto a bed, but before you can worry about what he has in mind he stabs the pathetic Trojan. He then orders Helen to deliver the deathblow and kill whatever memory she has of Paris as a romantic hero, but this proves unnecessary, first because Paris dies quick and second because Helen had given up on him long ago. Epic stuff in its own way.
The more I see peplum films in their proper widescreen format, the more respect I have for their production values. All you need to do is watch Mill of the Stone Women to appreciae what Giorgio Ferroni was capable of visually, and while Trojan Horse is nowhere near the level of that minor masterpiece of production design the film does boast some impressive Trojan sets and reasonable sized armies in action. Unfortunately, it has the common failing of may films of its genre: uninspired combat. The duels pitting Aeneas against Achilles and Ajax aren't awful by any means, but the full-scale battle scenes are lifeless, mere assemblages of men waving swords or javelins at each other until told to stop. Of course, people probably didn't go to these movies to see hordes of soldiers fighting. They went to see the musclemen do their thing, and as far as that goes all I need to say is that Reeves is presented convincingly as an epic hero. Fans of the Aeneid may be disappointed by the absence of the hero's father Anchises, but Reeves presumably got to trod more Virgilian territory in the sequel to this picture, The Avenger, which if all goes well you should read more about this summer.
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Back in the 1980s I remember seeing lurid, grimly fascinating photographs of dead crewmembers of the Franklin expedition, exhumed from Arctic ice in frozen mummification. Sir John Franklin led one of the last attempts to find the chimerical "Northwest Passage" to the Pacific Ocean in 1845. He and all hands from his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, died. The fate of the expedition and the horrifying retrieval of its dead inspired Dan Simmons to write a fantastical reimagining of the expedition. His 2007 novel in turn inspired David Kajganich's adaptation for AMC. Simmons's novel idea was to add to the crew's already overwhelming woes the plotting of a malcontent matinee and imposter calling himself Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitas) and the degradation of a monster that is not quite a bear and not quite anything else. Nagaitas makes a nicely hateful villain while the tuunbaq, a kind of demon, provides the more overtly spectacular horrors as he targets the white intruders upon Inuit (or Netsilik) land with the uncertain if not reluctant guidance of a native woman the British call Lady Silence (Nivea Nielsen). The actual hero of the piece, after Franklin himself (Ciaran Hinds) is eliminated early, is his colleague, Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). Crozier evolves into an indefatigably resilient character, overcoming his own alcoholism the hard way, along with other failings, as he takes responsibility for himself and the increasingly desperate men, many of them driven mad or simply debilitated by the expedition's ample supply of tainted canned goods. Harris heads a strong ensemble that passes the essential test of appearing and sounding plausibly like 19th century people; little feels anachronistic here. The overall production is exemplary, with some of the best CGI simulations of sky and landscape that I've seen on TV or film. It helps, of course, that we rarely get the sort of unnatural blue sky that always gives things away, but credit is still due to the virtual craftsmanship employed. The true story of the Franklin expedition is so horrific that it'd be hard to botch a fictional version, but Kajganich and his team of writers and directors deserve credit in turn for avoiding the traps (or tropes) that TV conventions set for creators. More successful at evoking period and mood than The Alienist, The Terror should serve as an example of how to do a modern miniseries right.
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Adam claims to be from a future time in which Seg's grandson is the greatest of all heroes. He's come to the past after learning that "Superman's greatest enemy" was plotting to eliminate the hero from history, presumably by killing Seg-El. Adam can monitor the success of his and the enemy's efforts by the rate of decay of a Superman cape, which serves as this show's equivalent of the leaves on The Shannara Chronicles' Ellcrys tree. Somehow I don't think the effects of time travel can be measured so gradually, but let's move on. Val-El's clandestine research appears to confirm Adam's suspicion that the enemy is Brainiac, the cyborg collector of worlds who in comics history captured the city of Kandor and kept it in a bottle for years before Superman rescued it. In fact, the green-skinned villain has already infiltrated the planet, taking over the body and mind of Kandor's spiritual leader, the Face of Rao (toad-voiced Blake Ritson, like Cowan an alumnus of Goyer's Da Vinci's Demons series). In the meantime, Kandor has problems of its own creation, including a nihilistic terrorist movement known as Black Zero and the ambition of Daron-Vex, who conspires with the military Zod family to assassinate the Face. And for what it's worth, the youngest of the Zods, Lyta (Georgina Campbell) is in love with Seg-El, who has already conceived an heir, in Krypton's sexless fashion, with Nyssa-Vex. This raises the tantalizing idea that Jor-El and the comics' General Zod are half-brothers, and this is at least half-confirmed when the General himself, Dru-Zod (Colin Salmon) turns up in the Black Zero camp, having come back in time to change history by thwarting Brainiac, whose seizure of Kandor will destabilize the planet and ensure its destruction. The General's appearance throws Adam's calculations of ultimate enmity into question, but portraying the man who plans to save Krypton as the anyone's greatest enemy is a hard sell, even if saving Krypton means no Superman for the greater universe. As we learn, saving Kandor and Krypton could have even worse consequences for the universe, given the increasing resemblance in the current collective imagination of Kryptonians to the conquering superhuman Saiyans of the Dragon Ball Z mythos, with Superman as the benevolent Goku who won't be in the way if General Zod gets his way.
Like other prequel shows, Krypton succumbs to the temptation to do more than foreshadow the hero's career by having familiar antagonists show up in his past. We have not only Brainiac and General Zod but a dormant Doomsday as well, which leaves you wondering when Lex "Superman's Greatest Enemy" Luthor will make his grand entrance. Since time travel is a big part of superhero mythology, however, the presence of canonical Superman villains doesn't seem like as much of a cop-out as it was when the Enterprise show had to have virtually every famous alien race from Star Trek generations before humans presumably met them. Comics fans thrive on time paradoxes anyway so these interventions actually do more than the scheming of the main characters to keep the show stimulating. Leave the time travel element out and Krypton is little more than standard backstabbing fantasy intrigue stuff on a sometimes shockingly limited budget (cramped indoor sets for public spaces; few extras, etc.). Seg-El himself isn't much of a personality, or else Cameron Cuffe isn't, and you could believe that the show could do without him after the season-ending cliffhanger so long as Nyssa and Lyta are both with child. Adam Strange, a DC Comics character going back to the 1950s, is a generic zero-to-hero type who hasn't quite gotten to hero yet as the first season ends, and few other characters have much more meat or depth to them, while Brainiac does little more than croak commercial-break climactic threats like "Your world is mine!" when he's only after one city. Despite all this, as a comics fan Krypton held my interest more for the way its potential paradoxes stimulated my imagination than for what was going on on screen at any given moment. The idea of Krypton is often more entertaining than its actuality, but for me its ideas are the real essence of the show, and entertaining enough that I'm willing to keep watching for what it tries to throw at me next.
Saturday, May 26, 2018
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Starting in 1955, Cheyenne was the first hourlong western series. Technically it wasn't quite that long at first; as part of Warner Bros. Presents, it had to make room for studio promos during its first season. Still, it proved that more substantial stories could be told in the western genre, and it made Clint Walker a star. Cheyenne wasn't exactly an adult western of the sort playing in contemporary movie theaters; Cheyenne Bodie was more a conventional goody-good than a conflicted figure, but the massive Walker gave the role a physical authority and gravitas that made his heroism convincing. Adding to the gravitas was the poignant theme song underscoring Cheyenne's status as a classic wandering hero, as restless as he was virtuous. Walker was restless in his own fashion, fighting with his studio and walking away from the show for a year, but he was also idealistic in his own fashion. He was perhaps too cartoonishly big a man to succeed in the movies, but he gave a game, interesting performance as an ex-con sideshow cowboy in a more adult, spaghetti-influenced western, Robert Sparr's bleak More Dead Than Alive (1969) -- yet he was uncomfortable with the whole project. It was too dark for his taste, almost a betrayal of the heroic ideal he apparently truly believed in, though I don't know how he felt about his best-known film performance as one of The Dirty Dozen. Like many TV western stars, Walker enjoyed a long life, falling approximately one week short of his 91st birthday. He lived to see Cheyenne regain a place on cable TV and proliferate on DVD, and to be recognized, if not as a real cowboy, then as a true pioneer.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
The answer is probably that no matter how wacky or trangressive the films are meant to be, their success is still presumed to depend on the hero being likable in a very conventional way. It makes Deadpool 2 a somewhat"X-hausting" picture not unlike some classic comedies in which the story is something you must endure between the more inspired bits of grand guignol comedy or meta joking. It leaves Josh Brolin in the flesh an inferior antagonist to the CGI-enhanced Brolin of Avengers: Infinity War, but that was probably inevitable once it became clear, as it was all along to comics fans, that Cable isn't really a villain. No one really rises to the level of "big bad," despite the appearance of the Juggernaut (voiced and mo-capped by "himself," i.e. Reynolds), a major X-Men villain who provides the returning, long-suffering Colossus someone to have a CGI fight with. To be fair, a largely comic film like this might not need an epic villain, but the lack of one adds to the impression that Deadpool 2 is often simply spinning its wheels. It doesn't help that new director David Leitch (fresh from Atomic Blonde) doesn't do much to make the action fresh, though individual fight gags are often quite entertaining in the expected outrageous way. And make no mistake: the funniest parts of this film are wildly hilarious, and there are plenty of funny moments. There are easily enough to recommend the sequel to fans of the original, but don't fall for the hype that says the second film surpasses the first. If anything, Deadpool 2 proves that there's a plateau for this sort of film, and this franchise already got there. It's still hanging around there and may do so for some time and some films yet, but I don't think it's ever going to get much better than the first time.
Sunday, May 13, 2018
Saturday, April 28, 2018
Fortunately, Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Sean McFeely, picking up hints from James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films, largely rose to the challenge. The most important of those hints is the fraught relationship between Thanos and his daughters Gamora and Nebula, which gets fleshed out considerably here. It was still up to Markus and McFeely themselves, however, to give us the why of Thanos, and it was especially up to Brolin to make the why plausible in practice. They came up with something different from the comic-book Thanos, or at least the character as Jim Starlin created him, who's usually out to exterminate all life because of his infatuation with a personified Death. The movie Thanos is a comparatively familiar type, perhaps especially to the comics-reading audience. He's ultimately a utilitarian, seeking the greatest good for the greatest number but rigging his calculation to reduce the greatest number to only half of all currently living things. There's an air of arrogant self-pity to him, the resentment of all those who fail to appreciate how eminently reasonable his semi-annihilation scheme is, or the willpower it all takes, who can't look past the cost to the benefits. In his own mind he's humane but he lacks any humanism, any regard for each individual life as an end unto itself. It genuinely hurts him especially that his favorite adopted daughter Gamora has never appreciated what he's trying to do. But in short he's like what any number of people living today might be like with an Infinity Gauntlet and godlike power. What Brolin does exceptionally well is recognize that Thanos, even at his worst, isn't really alien to us. There's a weary weight to the Titan that becomes most obvious when he plays the role of father, and a sort of resigned attitude toward inevitable resistance. You get the sense that it's all been hard work for him, and of course it only gets harder as his work comes to the attention first of Thor and the Hulk, picking up from Ragnarok, then Dr. Strange, and eventually the whole crew, some of whom eventually join forces uneasily with the Guardians, for one can join forces with that bunch in no other way, to try to stop our villain from finishing his Infinity Stone collection.
Infinity War has an understandably choppy start, made more difficult by the introduction of Thanos's four henchmen, who really do exemplify power without personality. The Guardians threaten to grow increasingly insufferable, though they have their funny moments, but the actors adapt well to the story's inexorably darkening tone. Brolin gives the best performance almost by default because there are simply too many heroes for any to give a standout performance, but there are some good ensemble acting moments, especially when Robert Downey's Tony Stark clashes with Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange, an alpha male in the same mode, or with Chris Pratt's Star-Lord, who wishes he were one. The action scenes are inevitably too busy to match the near-perfection of the set pieces in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, but as the story gains momentum the action gains an intensity arguably unseen anywhere but in the final Doomsday fight in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. As the end near it's hard to suppress the impulse to root for someone, anyone, to take Thanos down, and for that reason the mega-downer cliffhanger ending may be hard for some to take. For them I can only prescribe patience -- and it's not like most people haven't had to deal with drastic cliffhangers on TV. We comic-book readers are especially used to this sort of thing, but if the ending of Infinity War affects people strongly or perhaps even offensively, it's still proof that Marvel Studios has succeeded massively at what they've tried to do. Unlike their competition, and despite my doubts, they simply know what they're doing better than anyone else making comic book movies. Of course, that may only mean that Avengers 4, or whatever they end up calling it, will prove a massive disappointment. For now, however, Marvel deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Saturday, April 21, 2018
If it matters, Black Lightning takes place on none of the multiple Earths on which the other Berlanti shows take place, and doesn't seem designed to fit the now-annual crossover pattern. On Black Lightning's Earth Supergirl is one of many comic-book characters, while most actual superhumans are the products of government experiments, most notoriously a Tuskegee-esque program intended to render inner-city populations docile. That program created superhumans as a side-effect, but most of them have been confined in suspended animation by the shadowy ASA. In the present, that organization conspires with the drug gangs to introduce greenlight, an enhanced version of the original drug, to the youth of Freeland where the Pierces live. A repentant former ASA operative, Peter Gambi (James Remar), acts as Black Lightning's informant and tech specialist, but that's the extent of the hero's support team. In a pinch, Gambi will join the action with guns blazing, and in one such scene, wielding two guns with a scarf over his mouth, he looked tantalizingly like The Shadow, but nothing has really followed from that. In any event, the show's main focus is on its gangster villains. Like Luke Cage, it has two charismatic villains, teasing one as the successor of the other. Tobias Whale, an albino (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III) has developed a healing factor that keeps him from aging while enhancing his strength. Whale killed Jefferson Pierce's father many years ago, and more recently Pierce thought he'd killed Whale. His reappearance -- he was actually saved by Gambi -- provokes the return of Black Lightning. While Whale has been Black Lightning's arch-enemy since the characters were created in the 1970s, he's upstaged in the middle of the season by a surly underling known as LaLa (William Catlett) who, apparently executed by Whale, comes back from the dead with mysterious powers of his own, haunted by the people he's killed. Catlett gives the best performance of the season, a low-key mental breakdown as LaLa struggles to comprehend what's happened to him while moving to usurp Whale's leadership while the boss recovers from an assassination attempt.There's something both tragic and threatening about him, especially when he learns that he'd been Tobias's stooge all along. Until then, LaLa was just about the most frightening villain, judging by attitude rather than raw power, that the Berlantiverse has produced.
Black Lightning seems designed to annoy comics fans who resent political or social commentary on their shows. Early on there's a gratuitous scene in which Thunder destroys a Confederate statue -- our only evidence that Freeland is somewhere in the South -- and in the first episode Jefferson Pierce is subject to racial profiling. More effectively, in a later episode in which Pierce is framed for drug-dealing, we're shown his harrowing, humiliating journey to a jail cell, including the ultimate indignity of a cavity search. The writers sometimes go cartoonishly overboard in expressing white villains' racism, but there's something compelling in about the emergence of superheroes from exploitative government experimentation that shouldn't be dismissed as partisan paranoia. More importantly, the show works very well as a superhero story. From their powers to their unashamedly colorful costumes, Black Lightning and Thunder can pull off impressive superhero tricks and look good doing so. Superhero fans should be able to enjoy the show regardless of their political leanings -- left, right or indifferent. While not on the level of Luke Cage or the best Netflix Marvel shows, Black Lightning is a breath of fresh air on The CW that one hopes won't grow stale in its second season, when the temptation to lapse into convention and cliche will certainly be strong.
Sunday, April 15, 2018
The best and simplest praise I can give Simmons is that you can always tell which Howard you're dealing with thanks to their different styles of dialogue and other details of body language. The actor deserves still more credit because the differences between the Howards can't be reduced to any obvious "mirror universe" dichotomy. If you must make Star Trek comparisons, than Counterpart puts me more in mind of the episode where Captain Kirk is split into two people, each an imperfect version of his true self, one dangerously passive, the other violently aggressive. The two Howards don't differ in the same way, but you can see that each has qualities the other lacks, for better or worse. This is best illustrated as our Howard befriends the other Emily and meets a daughter who doesn't exist in his world, both unsurprisingly estranged from their Howard -- who, we learn, was corresponding with our Emily before the "accident," and who indignantly discovers her affair with another man. It tells us a lot about the two Howards that the other Howard throws this in our Howard's face the first chance he gets -- only to be told that our Howard knew but forgave Emily -- but has not yet told our Howard by season's end that our Emily is waking from her coma. For that matter, he'd at first told our Howard that his own wife, the other Emily, was dead. For all that, there's no problem accepting the other Howard as a good guy, or at least that he's on the right side, since there's no sympathy to be had for the sleeper conspiracy. The most we get is a closer look at one sleeper who's murdered and replaced her counterpart, the wife (Nazanin Boniadi) of a high-ranking figure in Howard's agency (Harry Lloyd), whose child she's borne. Neither is really very sympathetic, so one can view their subplot with relative objectivity. Meanwhile, the show's focus on Baldwin often seems like a distraction from the main story. We learn that her counterpart in our world was a concert violinist who gets killed during an attempt to take out Baldwin herself, while Baldwin enters a lesbian relationship with the violinist's close friend who discovers the truth implausibly late. It will all seem a waste if Serraiocco leaves the show as the season-finale suggests, but I suspect the writers have more in store for her unless the actress has gotten another gig already. But if the point of Baldwin is ultimately elusive, it matters little since Counterpart remains The J.K. Simmons Show despite strong performances from Williams, Lloyd, Boniadi and others, including an effetely malevolent Stephen Rea as an other-side spymaster. It's very rare for someone like Simmons to get an opportunity like this and he definitely makes the most of it. He makes such a strong impression here that not only will I be back to watch the second season, but I'll be calling the guy in the Farmers commercials "Howard" for the foreseeable future.
Saturday, April 7, 2018
I suppose I sound mean, but this is still a Spielberg film in the old style and the old man can still stage entertaining action and does so with some extra relish now that he can play with so many licensed properties at once. Ready Player One is crowd-pleasing light entertainment on that level, but otherwise it's pretty dumb if not stupidly fatalistic in its ultimate acquiescence in dystopia. Sure, the world has gone to shit, though apparently not in any way that actually motivates people to change society itself, but we damn well can't let that bad old corporation turn our privately-held virtual commons to shit, now that there's a new boss as opposed to the old boss who was too much of a dweeb to be truly evil. The film's ultimate revolution consists of shutting down the Oasis two days a week so that boys can meet girls the way Halliday never could manage. Huzzah! Meanwhile, our hero is a cypher and his allies, dispersed across the globe though they may be, can appear by his side almost instantly in the real world, dystopia having not at all affected communications and transportation. They're cyphers too, pretty much -- but oh! One of them is a woman pretending to be male, and another is an 11 year old pretending to be an adult, played by an actor pretending to be a child, on the evidence I saw and heard. What of it? The film's fatal flaw is that it lacks the sort of "welcome to the desert of the real" moment that makes The Matrix potent, however silly I thought that was, to the present day. In fact, despite often heroic efforts by Spielberg's most loyal sidekick, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it's alarmingly hard sometimes -- most damningly in what should be one of the film's most dramatic scenes, when corporate drones blow up the trailer-tower where Wade's aunt and uncle live -- to tell the real from the virtual world.
Scratch that. The film's real fatal flaw is that Eighties bullshit. Apparently the novel is like that, too, and if Cline explained it there -- like maybe it's because everyone emulates Halliday, who grew up back then -- he didn't translate it into his screenplay. It's as if the dystopian event that made Wade's world happened around 1999 rather than in the 2020s. There's precious little evidence in the picture that the 21st century actually took place, while one of our heroic quintet is chided for never having watched The Shining, as if 80% of teens today have seen the Kubrick film. Rationalize this as ye may, but I call it just another excuse to sell a nostalgic soundtrack album alongside Alan Silvestri's John Williams pastiche of a score, called into being presumably because the old master can't keep up with Spielberg any longer. The implausibility of this omnipresent nostalgia pretty much took me out of the picture, since it sounded like no future any sensible person might imagine, and none of the heroic characters had enough gravitas to draw me back in. Best in show goes to Mendelsohn, who between this and Rogue One may become the go-to organization-man loser villain of our time. And to be fair once more, even if the story and overall concept here are shallow if not cynical, but not satirical enough for their own good, Steven Spielberg is still a master of eye-candy spectacle and despite all I've said, I'm geek enough myself to have had some fun spotting all the pop-culture characters running around. If that sounds like fun to you, and if you don't expect anything deep, you probably won't be disappointed.
Monday, April 2, 2018
It hasn't been widely reported that Caleb Carr gave an interview effectively repudiating TNT'S adaptation of his blockbuster 1994 novel shortly before it began airing back in January. Carr is credited as a "consulting producer" despite wanting his name removed, and had only seen the first two episodes of the ten-part miniseries at the time of the interview. He singled out Brian Geraghty's performance as police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt as one of several bad decisions the producers made. In fact, Geraghty is pretty bad, but I think I understand why. On the screen, the energetic, charismatic Roosevelt would be more likely to upstage Carr's fictional protagonists than he was in print. The writers clearly meant to tone Teddy down, but I think there's still enough awareness of what the man was like for people to notice something wrong with Geraghty's glum, almost introverted performance. This can only ever be a minor complaint, however, because The Alienist isn't primarily about Roosevelt.
In the story, the hands-on reforming commissioner facilitates the formation of a team of investigators to track down a serial killer preying on boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. The team itself consists of artist/journalist John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans), pioneer police woman Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), high-tech crime fighters Marcus and Lucas Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) and the title character, proto-psychologist Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruehl), whose entourage of patients-turned-servants also helps out. They face resistance from corrupt and vested interests all around, from Roosevelt's political enemies in the police department to members of the proverbial 400 at the top levels of society as they combine early forensic techniques with Kreizler's innovative attempts at psychological profiling. The mystery is basically a procedural on a massive scale, filmed at highly-publicized expense with Budapest playing the role of Old New York quite impressively. It's been more than twenty years since I read the novel so I remembered little about it to compare the miniseries with, at least as far as the plot was concerned. I ended up more impressed with the show's queasy detailing of the sordid underbelly of the 1890s metropolis than with the solving of the mystery.
If the miniseries has a major weakness, it's that it's probably too long for the material and grows repetitive in its clichéd interviews with vintage madmen, among other things. Apart from that, Geraghty's wasn't the only performance lacking something. While Evans fairly effortlessly made himself a man of the time, Fanning seemed to struggle uncomfortably with her character, who is progressive in practice but isn't written like the archetypally spunky or sassy progressive female heroine. Sara is often grimly straitlaced, and Fanning sometimes reminded me of the rugged he-men in old movies itching to tear off the monkey suits forced on them by formal occasions. That might be the correct impression to leave, but I somehow didn't think it deliberate. As for our Alienist, Bruehl is handicapped by having to play a deeply introverted, self-repressing character, trapped by the trope that will force Kreizler to come to terms with his own traumatic past. The German actor had already shown in Captain America:Civil War that he had difficulty investing characters with strong emotions in English, and he's little better here, often appearing preoccupied, furtive or sulky in a manner unbecoming the protagonist of the story. Despite the sometimes questionable performances there was a lot worth looking at in this spectacular production, even if the actual mystery didn't enthrall you. Carr published a sequel in 1997 and a long-awaited third novel will appear later this year, but my hunch is that this is the one chance you'll get to see Carr's New York on screen anytime soon. The least I can say is that most viewers should get something entertaining out of it, though your results may vary.
Saturday, March 31, 2018
Imagine the Coen brothers (or Martin Scorsese in comic mood) directing the Three Stooges in one of those wartime propaganda pictures in which Moe Howard played Hitler and you'll get close to the flavor of this film. Stalin's inner circle are portrayed as thuggish clowns -- which probably is unfair, to the extent to which they were committed ideologues with an ideal of the common good that just happened to be incompatible with liberal democracy, but isn't exactly inconsistent with the way Stalin himself treated them during his long late-night bull sessions. Their sophomoric antics on such an evening are juxtaposed with both a final wave of arrests and the farcical doings at a Radio Moscow studio when the dictator requests a transcript of that evening's concert, forcing the idiot managers to restage it since they'd forgotten to record the performance. The unvarnished brutality of the roundup is intercut with comedy on the level of, "You'd better do as I say, or off with your head!" It reminds you that despotism has always been the stuff of slapstick comedy, tapping into shared destructive fantasies. A thread runs from this scene through the rest of the picture as the featured pianist (Olga Kuryenko in the nearest thing to a sympathetic role), who holds out for a huge bribe before reprising her performance, sends a nasty message to Stalin that becomes part of the later power struggle.
Inevitably the story gets going as Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and spends a fatal night on his office floor marinating in his own pee, because the guards outside are too scared to investigate the loud thump they heard. Finally his henchmen are summoned to the scene, setting up the funniest scene in the picture as they compete to express grief and collaborate to move the still-living leader despite their great disgust at his urine-soaked clothes. It becomes clear that while the dim-witted Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, way too old yet ideally expressing the character's lumbering incompetence) is Stalin's heir-apparent, real power will be seized either by longtime security chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) or the Moscow party boss Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Beria would seem to have all the advantages, including a vicious streak that has him, on film at least, still personally torturing suspects, but everyone else's fear or hatred of Beria ultimately works to Khrushchev's advantage. The film leaves the impression that the result made little difference, since each man was committed to a degree of liberalization, if only to gain popularity. The film is even more insistent, however, about each man being out only for himself, while their Politburo colleagues are too dumb -- or too damaged in the case of longtime foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) -- to show any initiative.
From one perspective this approach indisputably trivializes history, but Iannucci's perspective and purpose are bluntly iconoclastic. He was disturbed to see Stalin portraits shamelessly on display in Moscow hotels, finding that equivalent to Germans displaying portraits of Hitler. While Russians might answer that Hitler helps explain why they see Stalin as a good guy, Iannucci presumably sees both men as tyrants and gangsters equally deserving of repudiation from their people. His film suffers from his conflicting desires to lampoon and condemn as it swings from the pitch-black comedy of the title event to the more dramatically brutal resolution of the Khrushchev-Beria feud. There's little funny about Beria's end, apart from Jason Isaacs's over-the-top portrayal of Marshal Zhukov as a two-fisted Russian cowboy -- as Khrushchev has his rival shot in the head and burnt in a courtyard -- in a compression of events that played out over several months -- and in fairness to Iannucci's intentions little is meant to be. To reinforce his point that all Stalin's men were gangsters -- hence, presumably, the casting of Buscemi in the first place -- he ends the movie like a gangster picture, apart from an epilogue that uses title cards to skim through future Khrushchev power struggles that might have made for a full-scale sequel. Ultimately The Death of Stalin is grimly entertaining despite some tonal incoherence, and with Russophobia at a new fever pitch in the west, the nebulous attitude of the President of the United States notwithstanding, the picture probably has found an ideal moment to open wide in the U.S. Since Iannucci has next to nothing to say about communism as an economic or political system, Russians today are probably right to guess that his film's ultimate message will be that Russians have always been thugs and always will be. Since they take a tit-for-tat attitude about such slights, perhaps we'll soon see something in Russian about British or American scandals or atrocities, maybe something that makes Churchill or Reagan look like an idiot -- and if we did see such a picture here I suppose that would prove a point.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
This is a war film that ends with the hero killing himself, though technically the denouement comes when Crocker takes the corpse up for the last flight so he can blast its skull with machine-gun fire to make it appear, for whoever might care at the base or back home, that Jerry died nobly in combat. I guess that makes it a Pre-Code war film, though there are other touches that date it that way, like Slug teaching a French waitress English using A Night in a Turkish Harem as a textbook. Speaking of Jack Oakie, you've got to admire a film that slaughters its comedy-relief character, and you've got to admire Oakie for really being more of a character actor here, as he would be later in The Texas Rangers (where he also dies) and Call of the Wild. He may have been the only Thirties comic able to pull that sort of trick off. Meanwhile, its a bracing surprise to see Cary Grant, still just an up-and-comer here, playing a bloodthirsty asshole, though ultimately he's just a straight man for Frederic March's manic-depressive pyrotechnics. I like the way the screenwriters actually didn't stress the class differences among the characters illustrated in the credits, allowing you to speculate subtextually on how Jerry and Crocker's different social status may have contributed to their conflicts without forcing an explanation on you. The three lead actors in this nearly all-male picture -- Carole Lombard shows up for one scene as "The Beautiful Lady" -- bounce off each other to nice effect throughout, and their performances probably made Eagle and the Hawk worthwhile for audiences otherwise put off by its war-is-miserable message. As for John Monk Saunders, Code Enforcement led to tamer films like West Point of the Air, and before he could have his say on the next war, he hung himself.