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.
Sunday, March 18, 2018
Laughing Boy is meant as a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans in a white-dominated world, and the film gives us a wider range of Indian personalities than most films of the period. In an implicit commentary on Natives' fractured identity, both hero and heroine have multiple names. Neither is known by their birth name, and Slim Girl (Velez) calls herself Lily in the big city, while our hero is not only "Laughing Boy" -- an ironic naming, perhaps, since the movie character isn't much of a jokester -- but also "Grandfather" in a more obvious comment from fellow Navajo on his traditional ways, and "Wrestler," for the prowess that lets him win a double-or-nothing bet after losing his horse in a race. He falls in love with Slim Girl despite his initial aversion to her American-influenced ways, e.g. dancing too close. A mutual ambivalence persists past marriage, as Slim Girl is torn between the attractions of city life, where she is often a kept woman, and a desire for more rooted existence, even though her American education has unfitted her for the rigors or reservation life. Slim Girl will automatically get the modern audience's sympathy, if she didn't already have the 1934 audience's sympathy, because of her profound alienation from both worlds. People will most likely be on her side from the scene back in the city where she tosses candy over a fence to treat the next generation of Natives going through the American educational mill and gets into a screaming match with her old repressive teacher. Yet her life with Laughing Boy's people is just as demoralizing. Our hero may be a nice guy, but he comes with the west's worst in-laws, utterly unfiltered in their disdain for anything American and modern, including Slim Girl. She tries her best and actually weaves a decent rug without realizing it, only to be told that her design is unfeminine somehow. But she finally draws the line at slaughtering goats for dinner; once she hears the animal bleat she can't go through with it, making herself hopeless in the in-laws' eyes. There's nothing Laughing Boy can do about it; he's condemned in turn for furnishing his hogan with such modern conveniences as a chair, a bed and a phonograph and is accused of being too ambitious a sheepman for his own good.
Something obviously has to give once Slim Girl moves back to the city to make money by selling Laughing Boy's silver crafts and hooking up again with an old American boyfriend. The marriage begins to look like the sort of role-reversal we've seen in other Depression films where the wife becomes the breadwinner, and even though Laughing Boy appears to be successful in his own right, at least in material terms, the old suspicion of the wife in the workplace rears its head. Unexpected, Laughing Boy shows up in the city to eat popcorn and check on his woman. Finding her with the American, he goes instantly into kill mode, though his target is the American rather than his offending spouse. I found it odd that our hero went for his bow and arrow instead of a knife, but I guess the tragic choreography demanded this, since the maneuver gives the cowardly American time to use Slim Girl as a human shield. The white man gets away, of course, while husband and wife make their apologetic farewells. The film closes with Novarro performing an aria of mourning after burying Slim Girl on his land, giving her a home at last. The ending is inescapably sappy and word of mouth may have contributed to the film flopping and most likely sealing Novarro's fate with Metro. But Lupe Velez's performance and an unusually complex portrait of Native American life make Laughing Boy worth a look regardless of its consequences for its star's career.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Religious cults and their leaders scandalize the American mind more, perhaps, than they do any other culture. Cults may be the ultimate abuse of the sacred American prerogatives of freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly, wasting both on voluntary submission to leaders who are undeserving almost by definition. Liberal culture distrusts the religious visionary just as it distrusts most polticial visionaries, on the assumption that such people are out for themselves, interested more in receiving the submission of the gullible than in anything else, unless they happen to be authentically insane, when they might be even more dangerous. The Dowdle brothers' six-part miniseries about the fatal 1993 government siege of the Branch Davidian community in Texas may scandalize audiences most through its efforts to humanize Davidian leader David Koresh. As played by Taylor "John Carter" Kitsch, Koresh is often quite a mundane figure, seen early going out for a jog with his son and playing with a rock band in a bar. It's only when discussing religion that a certain madness emerges; David believes that he's the lamb of God who will open the seven seals of Revelation, after which his children shall be judges over the earth. With great responsibility comes great privilege: David claims the right -- he sees it as his duty -- to take multiple wives while the other Davidian men remain celibate. For all that, things don't seem so awful at his compound, apart maybe from the stockpiling of weapons that attracts the attention of the ATF.
According to the miniseries it's only under pressure from the government, once he believes that he has only a short time to complete his prophetic work, does David become something like the demonic figure the feds took him to be all along, holding dozens of innocents hostage to his ambition. The immolation of the compound thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a liberal government that fears the implicit tyranny of cults, but even then Waco, based partly on a survivor's memoir, takes pains to show that Koresh wasn't directly responsible for his followers' deaths, except insofar as he blundered by trapping them in a bunker without realizing how easily a tear-gas assault can turn into an inferno.
From the other side, Waco follows the account of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon in a rare good-guy role), who came to Texas after bringing the Ruby Ridge siege to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout, Noesner's main concern is saving lives, which infuriates his colleague Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), whose own concern for the children in the compound is eclipsed by his impatient contempt for Koresh. Mitch becomes the real bad guy of the piece, but in a way that implicates an audience likely to share his impatience with Noesner's seeming coddling (at taxpayers' expense) of a despicable villain's stall tactics. He gets a sort of moral comeuppance at the end when, after the final assault goes to hell, he makes an agonized single-handed effort to rescue Rachel Koresh (Melissa "Supergirl" Benoist) from a compacted escape hatch. The scene sums up the tragedy of Waco, at least as the Dowdles see it, by underscoring Mitch's sincere desire to rescue innocents (however complicit Rachel may have been as David's primary wife) while showing how his own bullying tactics sabotaged his best impulses.
The show as a whole will no doubt please those who see the Waco siege as Exhibit A of big-government intrusiveness against people's right to live as they please, but by now I don't think anyone doubts that the government went too far there, nor do I think that saying so implies any endorsement of religious cults. Some may wonder whether Waco goes too far in portraying Koresh as a tragic antihero as late in the game as the end of episode five when, defying Mitch's psy-op tactics, David performs an impromptu rock concert, but that's inevitably a matter of subjective perception. The miniseries for all its virtues doesn't change my view that the Waco story was a double tragedy, most obviously in the way it ended, but also because cults like Koresh's are a human tragedy in the first place.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Inevitably there are complications. For one thing, Ling Moy is sort of attracted to Ronald Petrie, and can't bring herself to knife him during a golden opportunity. For another, she has another suitor, the Chinese detective Ah Kee who took out Fu Manchu and now has a crush on the girl he rescued from the devil doctor. Daughter of the Dragon has far more historic than aesthetic value because Corrigan brings together the most successful Asian-American actress of early Hollywood and the most successful Asian actor of the studio era. Ah Kee is played by Sessue Hayakawa, best remembered now as the increasingly perplexed prison commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai but long before that a legit sex symbol if not an all-purpose ethnic star following his breakthrough role in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat. Daughter was a Hollywood comeback attempt for the 42 year old Hayakawa, who like Wong had gone to Europe seeking a wider variety of roles and was well received for his efforts. Unfortunately, unlike for Wong, English was a second language for Hayakawa and it shows. He makes a heroic effort, but his accent is almost impenetrably thick sometimes. Worse, he's been cast as a Chinese detective when, for those who know the difference, few men look and sound more obviously Japanese than Sessue Hayakawa without wearing samurai armor. No doubt Paramount Pictures expected few people of 1931 to know the difference or call Corrigan out on his caricature of Chinese culture. There's a scene where Ling Moy, trying to string Ah Kee along, performs a traditional Chinese song for him. I don't claim to be an expert on Chinese music but I think I've heard enough to recognize Wong's singing for the laughable imposture it most likely was. You could believe that she had no more clue about Chinese music, or music in general, than Corrigan did. It's like when American actors try to speak some Native American language like they're reciting Shakespeare, with no apparent awareness of how Natives actually talk. But I digress. Miscast as Hayakawa is by modern standards -- though it wasn't so long ago that Zhang Ziyi starred in Memoirs of a Geisha -- the fact that counts is that Ah Kee is the hero of this picture: a competent detective who's good with a gun and capable of breaking out some jiu-jitsu moves, or whatever people would have called it back then when a Chinese man did them.
Ah Kee is also a tragic hero in that Ling Moy really wants Petrie more than him. She finally goes off the deep end after being haunted by her father's voice after her first failure to kill the Englishman and seeing how Ronald reacts when the film's bland blonde (Frances Dade) is imperiled. That puts her into full Oriental torture mode, threatening to disfigure her rival before finishing Petrie off. In the meantime, her goons have temporarily taken Ah Kee out of action, tying him to a chair near an upper-story window where he can watch Petrie's friends, including the film's comedy-relief servant, blunder into danger. Our hero tosses himself out the window and crashes to earth to get their attention, and he's still got enough juice left after that to shoot down his beloved, finishing the "House of Fu," when she takes a last stab at poor Petrie. Corrigan can't help but play for pathos as poor Ah Kee lays himself down to die beside Ling Moy, but I'd like to think that even 1931 audiences had to wonder why the detective needed to die at all. In a better world, Ah Kee, accent and all, would have gone on to star in his own series of B movies, playing the yellow peril to the yellow peril -- just as I always say that the way to bring back Fu Manchu today is to make him a fugitive from the People's Republic and make a Chinese agent prominent in pursuit of him. Ah Kee could have been a Charlie Chan who kicked ass, but that could only have been in an alternate reality. In fact, Hayakawa was soon back in Europe, where he remained through World War II before Hollywood caught up with him again, while Anna May Wong had a minor apotheosis in her next, infinitely better picture, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, where she gets to kill Warner Oland. Ironic, no? Daughter of the Dragon may be a uniquely historic Hollywood effort, but it's a good thing that no one involved is best remembered for it.
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Arlen and Rogers are the leads in the film's tragic bromance of frenemies. They're from the same town, where David Armstrong (Arlen) is a privileged rich boy and Jack Powell (Rogers) is a car enthusiast. Both pine for rich girl Sylvia Lewis (Harold Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston), but Jack does so almost as a matter of one-upmanship with David, and in spite of the obsessive attention paid him by his neighbor Mary, his neglect of her all the more inexplicable by the fact that Mary is played by top-billed "It" girl and legendary sex symbol Clara Bow. Maybe Mary comes on too strong, as Bow often does in her films. She does score a point with Jack by naming his homemade race car "the Shooting Star" and creating a logo he'll also use on his fighter plane.
The audience will be all for Bow because Mary also enlists, joining the motor corps as an ambulance driver. There's a scene nearly midway through the film that may remind today's moviegoers of Wonder Woman's exploits in a French village, down to the climactic destruction of a church steeple. Of course, all Mary can do is cower under her truck as that steeple crashes down point first almost on top of her, provoking what probably was some salty language from our star, though my lip-reading isn't good enough to verify it. As an aside, there's at least one "Son of a bitch!" during a dogfight scene that absolutely no one will miss. In any event, Mary's really big adventure takes place in Paris (some actual second-unit shooting was done there), where she's tasked with dragging a sozzled Jack from a bar because his leave's been cancelled. This is part of the scene that includes a famous tracking shot including two lesbians at a table, for what that's worth to you. On one hand, this is one of the film's dumbest scenes, sinking to the level of idiot comedy as Jack becomes obsessed with champagne bubbles and begins hallucinating them everywhere in special-effect form. On the other, the whole bubble business has a brilliant payoff when Mary, having changed from her chic uniform into a sequined cocktail gown to get Jack's attention, shimmies a blizzard of bubbles at him that finally wins him away from a predatory French woman. Of course, he's so stinking drunk that he never recognizes her through the whole experience, finally passing out in a hotel room just before some MPs show up to arrest Mary in mid-change back into her uniform. Her war ends with the grim irony of dismissal for immoral conduct, and when Jack reads about her "resignation" in a hometown paper, still none the wiser about Paris, he remarks that Mary didn't seem like the quitting type.
It's remarkable that Wings made Buddy Rogers a star when Jack is such an obnoxious character. Not only does he treat Mary like dirt, only to win her at the very end of the picture, and not only does he delude himself about Sylvia when she really loves David (as Ralston did Arlen), but on top of everything else he kills David. Not intentionally, mind you, or not in the "I want to kill David" sense, but because, believing David dead behind enemy lines, he goes on a berserker rage during the big American push, breaking from his formation to go on a solo rampage against any German plane he can find. So of course David has survived, and of course he steals a German plane in a desperate effort to get back to his own lines, and of course Jack isn't going to realize that it's his buddy in a German plane flying toward the American lines. This is all a big tragedy, of course, but Wellman takes it beyond tragedy to outright horror, milking David's hopeless helplessness for all it's worth as he knows exactly who's after him from the shooting star logo on the pursuing plane. This isn't a moment of valorous resignation but a sustained fit of despairing terror, and Arlen makes the most of it. Sure, the boys reconcile before David finally expires, after he's shot down and crashes into a house, but while Wellman strives to restore a sentimental tone -- the symbolic cut to a plane's propellers slowing to a halt outside a military ceremony is a nice touch echoed in the epilogue by Sylvia's mournful stillness in the swing she and David used to swing on -- that play for pathos can't erase the memory of one of the most terrifying moments in all silent film, all the more terrifying, of course, for knowing that Arlen is up in the clouds, theoretically as helplessly vulnerable as the character he plays.
It's quite an achievement by both Wellman and Arlen that that scene of one man in peril is so memorable after some massively detailed scenes of land and air battle, nearly as definitive as the trench warfare scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front. Wings is more of a patchwork than that film, with wider variance in tone than Sunrise, to return to the original 1927 comparison, in an effort to please every part of the audience. Somehow it's a film that elevated everyone involved, including Gary Cooper in his famous few minutes as a doomed trainee pilot. Wellman knew star power when he saw it, and while Cooper doesn't have quite the godlike emergence here that James Cagney gets in Wellman's Other Men's Women, you can tell from the way the director dissolves to a closer shot of Cooper as he prepares to leave his tent for the last time that the young actor would make an indelible impression. But hell, this film even elevated El Brendel. Brendel really became a big deal in talkies, when his Swedish accent was judged inherently hilarious, if nothing else about him was. What on earth did he have to offer in silent film? Apparently Wellman found his face funny, having used him in an earlier picture, and in the meantime silence freed the presumptive comedian from the confines of his own shtick, so that here he can play a German-American, Herman Schwimpf, who has to fend off disdain for his enemy ethnicity by displaying an American flag tattoo on his bicep. Apart from that, he gets beat up during an aggressive demonstration of hand-to-hand combat and is forgotten about for most of the rest of the picture until he turns up firing an anti-aircraft gun before the climactic battle. He was there for someone's benefit, I guess, though I'd wonder about anyone who found him the highlight of the film. He's what you get when you try to have something for everyone in a movie, and that just goes to prove that Wings is more -- far more -- than the sum of its parts. Parts of this film are probably still the best air-war movie ever made.
Monday, March 5, 2018
The Academy will be forgiven, presumably, for failing to bestow Oscars on actors of color this year, since they went progressive behind the camera. By now there's nothing new about naming a Mexican as Best Direction, of course, since Guillermo del Toro is the third such person to win the vote in the last five years, but his The Shape of Water, which also won Best Picture, is some sort of milestone depending on whether you count it as a fantasy, horror or monster movie, and its message was no doubt suitably inclusive for Academy voters. Another horror movie, Get Out, earned Jordan Peele a historic first original screenplay Oscar to a black writer, while veteran scribe James Ivory of Merchant-Ivory fame overcame ageism, if you will, when his adapted screenplay for the gay-themed Call Me By Your Name made him the oldest-ever competitive Oscar winner. On the acting front the Academy fell back into old habits, not so much by honoring whites only but by honoring half of them for biopics, including Gary Oldman for his (to judge by advertising only) preposterous turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Apart from applauding del Toro while insisting that Shape of Water isn't really his best stuff, I can only make superficial judgments because I didn't watch as much Oscar bait as I probably should have. No doubt I waste too much time on superhero films, but I sometimes think that I learn more about cinematic storytelling, good and bad, from those films than from those whose virtues are more strictly literary. I don't think any of 2017's comic book films belonged on stage last night, but I don't take it for granted that yesterday's honorees really were the year's best films, either. I do have a better idea of what to look at now before making up my own mind.
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Where Fuller probably won't pass muster with many modern viewers is his casting of white actors in two crucial "half-caste" roles. Angie Dickinson gets the romantic lead playing Lia, a lithe lush better known as "Lucky Legs" or "Lucky" for short. Everyone remarks on how Lucky can pass for white, but her son is not so Lucky. Although the boy's no more than one-quarter Asian -- his father is American -- he looks so entirely Asian that the father, Sgt. Brock of the Legion (Gene Barry) freaks out and runs out on wife and child. That fact makes him a heel to everyone else in his unit, and it definitely complicates his mission to penetrate enemy lines to find the Communist weapons depot beyond the China Gate, with Lucky, a fixer who travels often between the lines, as their guide and shield.
Fuller quickly establishes his anti-communist credentials -- many of the Legionnaires are Korean War veterans who went to Vietnam so they could keep killing commies -- and that gives him cover from which he attacks his real target, American racism. By comparison, we never really encounter a dogmatic communist. As noted, the Viet Minh grunts we meet are simply grunts, no better or worse than other soldiers. When we get to the final boss, Major Cham, he's shown to be no more than an opportunist who had formerly hated communism, as Lucky notes in an embarrassing moment in front of Cham's masseuse, but now sees it as the wave of the future and his surest path to success. On the evidence of China Gate, communists are bad guys mainly by virtue of being more ruthless and indiscriminate, for some reason or other, in their violence.
It's probably for the best that Fuller didn't try to make any ideological statement when his main commie villain, the other half-caste in the story, is played by Lee Van Cleef. While the actor's name actually resembles a Vietnamese name, the resemblance pretty much ends there, which makes it unintentionally preposterous when Cham tells Lucky that he gets along better with the Reds because he looks more "Chinese" than she does. Cleef actually tries hard here to pull off a character who has actual feelings for Lucky, apparently his sometime lover, and for her son, whom he'd like to give a chance at advancement by getting him educated in Moscow. I have a feeling, however, that the naturalistic, non-stereotyped dialogue Fuller gave him made him even more damningly unconvincing as an Asian in the eyes of contemporary audiences, so that what actually looks now like a halfway decent performance probably looked like the worst in 1957.
By modern standards, given China Gate's anti-racist line, any ending that falls short of a happy ending for Lucky, Brock and their son probably will look like a cop-out. Does it undercut Fuller's message that Lucky sacrifices her life, after tossing Cham off a balcony, to blow up the ammo dump, even if the ending makes clear that Brock will take his Asiatic boy home with him after all? Some people are bound to think so, but let's remember that Fuller comes from an older tradition that values pathos and aims for bittersweet effects. If anything, you can argue that Lucky's death will only remind Brock even more of the wrong he did her earlier and the debt he owes their child. Tragedy was more commonplace in pop culture back then, especially when the one-and-done format of TV drama meant that heroes and heroines often loved and lost in a single hour. The same format also encouraged people to shrug off tragedy rather than wallow in it, and something like China Gate probably should be taken in the same spirit. It's not really a Fuller masterwork but it has a lot of interesting stuff going on, including the best performance I've ever seen from Gene Barry. The guilt trip he takes in this picture breaks down that typical smugness that makes his Bat Masterson so insufferable and suggests that he could have done more with his career if wanted to or was goaded into it. Cole also shows potential he got very little chance to develop further beyond his W. C. Handy biopic of the following year. I doubt anyone accepts Angie Dickinson as even partially Asian but she gives the right kind of charismatic performance for the familiar type of pulp heroine she plays. Overall China Gate is the typical "primitive" Fuller mix of impressive tracking shots, intense action, mostly decent art direction, badly integrated stock footage, etc. The film won't really tell you anything about Vietnam, but it's a diverting yarn on its own terms.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
The stage is set for a sequence of bloodbaths that are more realistic and more extreme than anything Marvel has shown us on Netflix before, but the first season also has time for a major subplot involving a disturbed veteran turned terrorist and some Shane sort of interaction between Frank and Micro's "widow" and children. Like all of Marvel's Netflix shows, except for the misbegotten Defenders, Punisher benefits from an impressive ensemble of supporting players, with the shambolically cunning Moss-Bachrach the standout in a strong group. It benefits most of all from Bernthal's soulfully feral lead performance. Since he showed up on Daredevil I've heard people complain that Bernthal is too small to be Frank Castle, who's often drawn and was always played in movies (by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson) as a massive man. Yet the Punisher has always been more about rage than size, and few people on TV right now do tormented rage as well as Bernthal. You don't read or watch the Punisher to see him perform feats of strength, after all; you watch to see him go apeshit on bad guys with guns, knives, fists and whatever tools are at hand, and the series successfully transforms Bernthal into a master craftsman of that trade. Punisher is a return to form after the Defenders debacle, as well as a radical departure from the, well, comic-book tone of the other shows. Were it not for Deborah Ann Wolf reprising her role from Daredevil and a few other tokens, this might not look much like a Marvel show at all -- and with no offense intended to the Netflix franchise, that's a good thing for this particular show. Season one closes with the grim irony of Frank Castle contemplating peace with fear, but we should fear not. The Punisher will return, and if the show comes back as strong as its first season, that'll be cause for celebration.
Saturday, February 24, 2018
The story focuses on a quadrilateral of characters: the Republican soldier Lluis (Marcel Borras), his wife Trini (Bruna Cusi), his buddy Soleras (Oriol Pla) and the local aristocrat, the Carlana (Nuria Prims). We meet the Carlana first as she barely escapes with her life when an anarchist army overruns the Carlan's estate and executes him. She convinces the soldiers that she was just a sexually-exploited maid, and now she continues to occupy the property. Looking to her children's future, she wants them recognized as legitimate heirs to the land. As no witnesses to her marriage to the Carlan to survive, she looks to Lluis to help persuade some local peasants to perjure themselves by swearing under oath that they witnessed the wedding. She's made it clear to lonely Lluis, far from home and wife, that helping her with this is his best chance at getting to ride more than the Carlan's horse.
Lluis and Trini try to reconcile but their child's illness brings a new crisis. Medicine for diphtheria is in short supply on both sides of the war, as Soleras unhappily admits, but someone of the Carlana's standing can deliver the goods -- for a price. The price she extracts from Lluis for his son's life is Soleras's death. Fortunately, Soleras is more willing to pay that price than Lluis did, but what good does any of this do anyone while the war grinds on. A closing air raid blends into newsreel refugee footage, with some of our actors added, to suggest that any victory in such an environment is only temporary.That's the moral of this vividly shot picture -- cinematographer Josep M. Civit runs the gamut from the funereal darkness of the crypt to the blazing light on the landscapes. It's more a sensational, psychological piece than a historical or political drama: the foreign viewer won't learn much about the civil war from Uncertain Glory, apart perhaps from how it was experienced on an unideological individual level. You don't really need to know what any side stood for to appreciate the film's human drama and its dramatically picturesque presentation. At a time when societies everywhere seem to be coming apart, it might seem less like a period piece and more like a premonition in its gothic timelessness.