Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

Ever since I read Harry Jenkins' What Made Pistachio Nuts?, a critical account of the rise and fall of vaudeville-inspired "nut" comedy in the early sound era, I've wanted to see Diplomaniacs, a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle Jenkins treated as an exemplar of the subgenre's disregard for conventional narrative. What mattered most was not narrative coherence or traditional appeals to morals or emotions, Jenkins wrote, but giving the star performers opportunities to do their distinctive thing. In time nut comedy was supplanted by screwball comedy and other "classical" subgenres that offered audiences a more comfortable immersion in cinematic fantasy worlds, but for a time the novelty of funny voices and a certain sense of cynical absurdity in the face of the Depression made comics like Wheeler and Woolsey popular. Their films were personal showcases, but in retrospect, their fame having long since faded compared to the Marx Bros., the pair seem more like cogs in comic machines, consistent with what's struck me as a tendency of their home studio, RKO, to reduce comic actors to human cartoons. Diplomaniacs is an especially infernal machine, directed by William A. Seiter but effectively devised by co-writer Joseph L. Manckiewicz, who trod similar pseudo-political territory the previous year with Paramount's Million Dollar Legs. In other words, Diplomaniacs is in the same neighborhood as Duck Soup, and shares some cast members, but Jenkins warns us against thinking of any of these films primarily as political satires. Politics, he argues, only provided a setting appropriate for the antics of the nut comics. Films like these are anti-war only insofar as they're anti-everything.

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

DVR Diary: SANDOKAN THE GREAT ( tigre di Mompracem, 1964)

The late Umberto Lenzi (he died in October 2017) may be best known today for his cannibal films of the 1970s. He started out making period adventure films, and by 1964 he was assigned an Italian pop-culture icon: Sandokan, the anti-imperialist Malaysian pirate hero of Emilio Salgari's novels published between 1883 and 1913. Contemporaneously with Italy's infamous failure to conquer Ethiopia and the establishment of colonial rule over Libya, Salgari's protagonist battled the ever-expanding British empire. The anti-colonial 1960s were a ripe time for a Sandokan revival with Steve "Hercules" Reeves in the title role. Sandokan the Great, as it was called in the U.S., was the first of a four-film series, the first two of which starred Reeves under Lenzi's direction. The series carried on with a new director and Ray Danton as Sandokan while Lenzi made two more exploitation pictures featuring a character called Sandok, offered as "The Maciste of the Jungle." In the premiere outing Reeves traipses about in a costume out of Hollywood's Arabian Knights fantasies and is overall less concerned with flexing his famous muscles than with something more like swashbuckling. He, his tea-obsessed sidekick Yanez from Portuguese-ruled Goa (Andrea Bosic) and Sandokan's mostly-loyal followers wage guerrilla warfare against the Brits, who answer less to the empire proper than to a character here called Lord Bromm who is really John Brooke, the historical White Rajah of Sarawak, the big bad of Salgari's books. Along the way Sandokan kidnaps a British official's daughter who gradually becomes radicalized (Genevieve Grad) and must worry about a traitor within his ranks. The traitor mystery is handled rather half-assedly and the action overall is rather unspectacular, and quite landlocked for the adventures of a reputed pirate, until we come to the climactic attack on a British fort, where Reeves gets to show some strength and the pace quickens as we near the end. The film's main assets are Lenzi's locations and Reeves's reliably heroic presence. Apart from the exotic locales and the appearance of a somewhat less civilized yet friendly tribe, nothing here really suggests what Lenzi will become as a director. Compared to his horror films Sandokan is kiddie stuff, and it probably was such on its own terms. TCM broadcast Sandokan recently while you can find its immediate sequel, as I did years ago, in some cheapo Mill Creek boxed sets. If you don't expect much from them they make for undemanding light entertainment with just a hint of progressive political consciousness to make it worth some people's while, but not so much to turn others off.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


Director Peyton Reed, star and co-writer Paul Rudd and the supporting cast for 2015's Ant-Man return for the inevitable sequel, and if you've seen the first one, you've pretty much seen this one. Last seen on the losing side of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Rudd) was sentenced to house arrest and is days away from completing his sentence when a strange vision brings him back into contact with his estranged mentor, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still fugitives held responsible for Lang's use of Pym's shrinking-growing suit during the 2016 conflict. Coincident with the Pyms' attempt to contact the quantum realm, where Janet Van Dyne was lost thirty years earlier, Lang has a vision suggesting that during his short time in the quantum realm he had somehow made contact with the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer, returning to superhero cinema after more than a quarter-century). Much as they resent Lang for forcing them into a fugitive life, the Pyms realize that he's essential to their plan to rescue Janet through all manner of quantum-this, quantum-that technology. Not only must Lang risk a longer sentence for breaking house arrest, and not only must the Pyms perform delicate science on the run, but all three have to deal with people muscling in on their work. A gangster (Walton Goggins) who'd provided the Pyms with crucial components for their projects now wants commercial control over their work, while a super-powered interloper who comes to be called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wants access to the quantum realm to cure her chronic intangibility, the by-product of an accident that killed her father, a former Pym colleague. Meanwhile, the audience expects the Infinity War to break out at any moment, and when it does in mid-credits, the consequences are dire.

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


The main selling point for Don Siegel's thriller was that  it was shot, in Cinemascope, on location at the Grand Canyon. This was probably not as impressive as it could have been had a Cinerama camera not already been flown through the canyon several years earlier. Still, many people probably hadn't seen any Cinerama by 1959, so there was no doubt some thrill and novelty to seeing planes fly through and stuntmen cavorting on a cable car above the abyss. These thrills aside, Edge of Eternity is a pretty basic mystery story. It opens with a failed attempt at vehicular homicide at the canyon's edge, the intended victim eliminating his attacker only to be done in a few scenes later. It's up to Deputy Les Martin (Cornell Wilde) to figure out whodunit despite the distraction of speed-demon heiress Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw). After leading him on a merry, picturesque chase early on, Janice provides Les an entry into her wealthy gold-mining family, including her crabby dad and her drunken brother. People get on Les's case for failing to crack the murder case quickly, but Janice's eye for fashion finally provides a crucial clue tying the victim, if not his initial attacker, to the mining interests around the canyon, ranging from gold to guano.

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

DVR Diary: UP TO HIS EARS (Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine, 1965)

Whoever wrote the introduction for the recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast of Philippe de Broca's film was determined to categorize this and the director's previous team-up with Jean Paul Belmondo, That Man From Rio, as James Bond knockoffs or at least James Bond-inspired. But you can just as easily assign Up To His Ears to the international Jules Verne cycle dating back to 1954's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It's adapted from an 1879 Verne story, "The Misadventures of a Chinaman in China," wherein the great Frenchman apparently invented the idea of a man contracting for his own death, only to change his mind. De Broca and writer Daniel Boulanger updated the story to their present day and made the title character a Hong Kong-based French businessman (Belmondo) who, believing his fortune lost, wants to end it all. He's convinced by his Chinese friend Mr. Goh (Valery Inkijinoff) to take out a policy to ensure that his fiancee (and her parasite parents) will be taken care of. Very quickly reconsidering, he and faithful servant Leon (Jean Rochefort) must trek through Asia to find Mr. Goh in order to cancel the hit. Along the way, he acquires two incompetent bodyguards and a more likely life partner in Alexandrine Pinardel (Ursula Andress), an aspiring writer earning her way as an exotic dancer. In one of the film's many surreal touches, she's introduced doing a striptease in reverse, and later in the picture I suppose the idea of having her wash ashore on a beach after a shipwreck could have been inspired by her iconic entrance in Dr. No. While Goh only meant to teach our hero to appreciate life, his prospective in-laws decide that they'd like to cash in that policy after all, and eventually an obese American gangster, "the Al Capone of the South Seas" (Joe Said) decides to kill him on general principles.

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

Too Much TV: LOST IN SPACE (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

THE TROJAN HORSE (La guerra di Troia, 1961)

In the absence of a definitive beginning-to-end narrative of the Trojan War, writers ever since have told the story to suit themselves. Giorgio Ferroni's Trojan Horse is an attempt to fill the gap between Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid, stressing Aeneas's heroic role during the last stage of the war, after the death of Hector. With Steve Reeves as Aeneas you have to wonder how the Greeks could prevail, since the ancestor of Romans is shown to be stronger than Ajax and a better fighter than Achilles. To be fair, this film's Achilles (Arturo Dominici) is a lot older than you might expect and invincible only by repute. Still, it's an original idea of this film, as far as I know, that Aeneas had Achilles at the point of mortal defeat before glory-hog Paris hit the Myrmidon leader with his famous poisoned arrow.

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

Too Much TV: THE TERROR (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

Too Much TV: KRYPTON (2018 - ?)

Inspired at least in part on the Gotham show's premise that the breeding ground of a hero is of inherent interest even before the hero himself appears, Krypton is the latest variation on an increasingly dystopian myth. Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster saw Superman's home world as a sort of utopia of ultimate human development, yet there was a seed of dystopia in Jor-El's failure to convince his rulers of the crisis facing their planet. You could argue that the Jor-El myth is the starting point for the modern Cassandra trope in which an expert correctly identifies or predicts disaster but goes unheeded for any number of petty reasons. As Krypton's history has undergone multiple revisions since the mid-1980s, many writers have stressed the negative aspects of Krypton, which in earlier times had been an object of wistful nostalgia for Superman. There is little lovable about the planet as it's portrayed on the current series, developed by Man of Steel co-writer David S. Goyer. Krypton is politically fragmented and, at least in the city of Kandor, burdened by a caste system that privileges the Guilded (I like the pun on "gilded") and oppresses the Rankless. Among the latter we find Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), whose once prestigious family was relegated after his grandfather Val-El (Ian McElhinney, who persists as a sentient hologram) was executed for subversive scientific research. Despite his disreputable status, people are interested in Seg. The de facto ruler of Kandor, Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan) thinks the young man will make a good genetic mate for his daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day), while a stranger who calls himself Adam and claims to be from another world (Shaun Sipos) claims that Seg has a destiny of literally universal import.

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

Too Much TV: FAHRENHEIT 451 (2018)

With all the talent involved it's stunning how bad the new version of Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic is, but 2018 is probably both the right and the wrong time for dystopias. The Donald Trump presidency has put a lot of people in a dystopian frame of mind, but that creates too great a temptation to turn any dystopia into a commentary on Trump and Trumpism, which are at most symptoms of potential dystopia rather than precipitating events. If someone uses "America" and "again" in the same sentence, especially as a slogan, as is done in Ramin Bahrani's film, it's all too obvious that you're saying something about Trump that isn't necessarily relevant to Bradbury's vision. Worse, however, is the new film's preoccupation with social media as the alternative to not only literature but all the arts, demonstrated mainly by using the fronts of skyscrapers as Facebook Watch style screens flooded with comment emojis (and words!) and constant invocation of "the Nine" as the place where everyone looks at everything. The story's message is muddled for no good reason by the idea that some of the classics, at least, survive in emoji translation, as if that somehow dilutes their dangerous potential. In general, Bahrani goes for a "day after tomorrow" look rather than the more futuristic vision Francois Truffaut aspired to in his 1966 adaptation, the Second Civil War that led to the rejection of books, on the ground that they provoke ideas that in turn provoke conflict, having happened only very recently from appearances. Bahrani's 451 is arguably more about 2018 than Bradbury's or Truffaut's were about the actual dates of their creation, to the new film's disadvantage. Its presentism arguably explains its abject failure as a dystopia, since it portrays a moment where the new order doesn't really seem to have sunk in, but must still resort to terror against a resistance (the "Eels") of uncertain scope. We never do meet true believers who take the post-literate order for granted, or at least we encounter none as important characters in the story. Instead, we get a villainous authority figure, the top "fireman" of Cleveland (Michael Shannon) who appears obsessed with text, writing excerpts from literature from memory on cigarette papers only to destroy them, even as he lectures his protege Montag (Michael B. Jordan) on the perils of books. This character is too ambiguous for the story's own good, while Montag himself, Bradbury's protagonist, is fatally detached from the ordinary dull society that actually alienates him; the scenes featuring his wife (Laura Harrier) were left on the cutting room floor for some reason. Perhaps Bahrani decided that her storyline and its preoccupation with status and conformity dated the overall story as a relic of the suburban Fifties. Whatever his reason, he reduces Montag to a loner who is, if anything, egged on to explore books by his conflicted commander -- and worse, he saddles the character with a hackneyed "fathers and sons" story in which flashbacks conveniently reveal long-suppressed truths about the elder fireman's fate. For an indie filmmaker who won acclaim for social-realist views of immigrant and working-class life, Bahrani is strangely determined here to reduce Bradbury's fiction to a collection of genre cliches, down to an inept climax involving a bird infected with the sum total of human knowledge needing to fly through a hole in a barn in a race against time with Shannon's slow-motion flamethrower, distracted by a Montag angling for martyrdom. As I recall, the Truffaut Fahrenheit is generally thought of as a failure, yet in retrospect it seems superior to the new Fahrenheit in every way. It shouldn't have been so, because it really isn't that hard to see how a consensus against uncomfortable ideas could arise in our time, and it shouldn't have been hard to translate that vision to film, yet the new film pays only lip service to how appealing and tempting that reaction might be in its rush to turn Bradbury's dystopia into just another action movie.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cheyenne, Cheyenne, where will you be camping tonight?...

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.

This video of the Cheyenne theme song was uploaded to YouTube by Alan Fisher.

Saturday, May 19, 2018


Tim Miller's Deadpool was one of the surprise hits of 2016 and the first proof that an R-rated brand-name superhero movie could succeed at the box office. Miller is gone but the star and writers remain; in fact, Ryan Reynolds, who plays Deadpool, has joined the writing team for the sequel, and the greater creative control granted him reportedly helped drive Miller from the franchise. So what's different? In some respects Deadpool 2 is a more conventional superhero movie thematically, despite the continued in-joking and fourth wall-breaking Reynolds indulges in, extending here to assassinating himself a couple of times to prevent bad career decisions. Even in the relatively irreverent first film, you get a standard origin story and you're meant to sympathize with Wade Wilson through his formative ordeals even as you laugh at his ultraviolence and raunchy jokes. In the sequel, you're not only expected to empathize with Deadpool even more, but you're supposed to follow him through a storyline sometimes more typical of a CW show. Recovering with the X-Men as a trainee after the death of his beloved (Morena Baccarin) makes him ineffectively suicidal -- he can't even blow himself to pieces as long as someone picks them up -- he gradually befriends a troubled young mutant (Julian Dennison) who literally burns for vengeance against his tormentors at a private school dedicated to suppressing mutant abilities. Naturally, a man comes from the future to kill the kid, for should history run its course the kid will graduate from revenge to gratuitous mass murder. Deadpool is determined to keep Cable (Josh "Thanos" Brolin) from killing the kid, but eventually realizes that the real solution is to keep the kid from taking his revenge. Let that sink in: Deadpool is going to tell someone not to kill someone. I understand that Reynolds et al are self-conscious and somewhat tounge-in-cheek about taking up this trope, but it still bogs the film down a bit. Why does it need to be conscientious about anything, after all?

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


It was interesting of TCM to run Toshio Matsumoto's film in the "Underground" time slot instead of during the customary foreign-film slot, as if the programmers thought Funeral Parade of Roses might be too radical for their regular foreign-film audience. Radical it certainly is, flaunting its Godard influence and featuring a "gay boy" as its hero. It's of a piece with contemporary Japanese New Wave cinema in its attention to political protest in the country, but its suggestion of an affinity between political and sexual radicals proves problematic given its sometimes satiric presentation of cross-dressing homosexual youth. Given the way it speeds-up catfights between transvestites or between them and a girl gang and presents them like scenes from silent slapstick, you have to wonder whether the film is pro-gay at all. You could believe that Matsumoto finds gayness as another form of rebellion as an end unto itself. He doesn't exactly hint at greater depths when he stages interviews with protagonist Eddie ("Peter," a performer best known as the Fool in Kurosawa's Ran) and other "gay boys" that show them unable to articulate intelligible reasons for their behavior, though one arguably gives the right answer, by today's standards at least, by stating that he was simply born that way. There doesn't seem to be much more depth to the political radicals we encounter, who seem as much preoccupied with making experimental films, getting high and having orgies as with staging demonstrations that seem little more than performance art. They're such losers at times that they drop eye drops on their tongues in a desperate effort to get high. One suspects that most of them couldn't articulate their motives any more eloquently than the gay boys do. Meanwhile, critics make a big deal of the Oedipus angle of Eddie's story, in which he becomes the madam (after fighting his predecessor) for a pimp/gangster who turns out to be his father, whose wife died by frequently-flashbacked violence. Once all becomes clear -- Eddie has kept photos of his family with the father's face burned out -- the dad kills himself and Eddie decides that the only thing to do is put his eyes out in classic style. Whatever effect he aims for is undercut when he makes his way downstairs to a street, where a crowd has gathered, but instead of reacting with appropriate horror they mostly shrug and go their way. They've probably grown accustomed to such performances, while the sheer archetypal nature of Eddie's situation simply underscores the extent to which he, like others, is playing a role rather than living a life, just like those people whose protests are nothing more than performance.  It didn't surprise me to learn that Matsumoto, who died last year, didn't make many feature films in his career, since Funeral Parade, howevermuch it revels in its radical techniques, expresses an inescapable pessimism about cinema's ability to change the world. It may change the way we see it, but whether anything can change how we behave and treat each other seems open to doubt after this film.

Saturday, April 28, 2018


The other day I rewatched Justice League and liked it even less than the first time. As a result, I watched Avengers: Infinity War under the most favorable conditions. I'm sorry, as a DC Comics fan, to report that the Russo brothers' film, the first part of two despite Marvel Studios' desperate efforts to deny this, makes last fall's DC extravaganza look cheesy and cheap in almost every way. But I had trepidations going in just the same, because I was afraid that Marvel would repeat one of Warner Bros.' crucial mistakes. My worry was that, despite his occasional appearances going back to an Avengers post-credits scene, Thanos the Titan would leave everyone cold the way Justice League's Steppenwolf did, that he'd have no personality but his power. I've always wanted to see a mega-powerful supervillain in action on film. but Justice League taught everyone that power without personality is dead on arrival. You can sort of get away with having a mega-powerful villain without much personality in comic books because a great artist can make that power visually attractive in a way Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon largely failed to manage with Steppenwolf, while old-school writers like Stan Lee could give villains personality with bombastic rodomontade that no movie writer could get away with. A movie mega-villain simply has to be more rounded; he can't be a mere combination of powers and taunts.

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

Too Much TV: BLACK LIGHTNING (2018 - ?)

The latest DC Comics series on the CW looks very much like a belated response to the challenge of Netflix's Marvel Comics shows. Inevitably it'll remind people of Luke Cage because of its largely black cast and its focus on inner-city crime. It also resembles the Netflix shows in its shorter format -- the first season only had thirteen episodes -- and in its freedom from the increasingly tiresome relationship preoccupations of Greg Berlanti's other productions. While the other shows are about "family" in the intimate-friendship-with-a-common-purpose sense, Black Lightning is about a literal family. The father, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), is a high-school principal and former costumed vigilante with metahuman power over electricity who returns to crimefighting when a local gang -- ironically or in-jokingly named "The One Hundred" as if after the network's brutal sci-fi series, which will take over this show's time slot for its new season -- starts pushing an especially dangerous new drug at his school. Jeff's a divorcee, but his return to action and the manifestation of mutant powers by his daughters bring him and his ex-wife (Christine Adams), a scientist, back together. The elder daughter (Nafessa Williams) gains superhuman strength by disciplined inhaling. The younger, still a student (China Anne McClain), develops the ability to generate energy, which she uses to give her dad an occasional jump-start. There's some predictable secrets-are-bad drama as the elder daughter (speaking of predictable, she's a lesbian) discovers that dad has hid his superhero activity from her for years, and then the younger daughter discovers that dad and sis have kept their powers secret from her. But you get the impression that showrunner Salim Akil hurried to fill out the CW checklist of tropes so he could move on to matters that interested him more. We heard nothing of "Thunder's" love life during the second half of the season, for instance, and from that point the show is largely free of the "drama" that always threatens to define the Berlanti shows to the detriment of superhero storytelling.

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

Too Much TV: COUNTERPART (2018 - ?)

Starz's newest dramatic series, created by Justin Marks, is a showcase for Academy Award winning character actor and insurance pitchman J. K. Simmons. The former J. Jonah Jameson and present-day Commissioner Gordon gets to play a dual role in this high-concept sci-fi show. He plays Howard Silk, a mild-mannered Berlin-based UN bureaucrat going through a grave crisis. His wife Emily (Olivia Williams) is in a coma following a traffic accident, and her relatives' lawyer is badgering Howard to have her moved to a British facility. He faces a whole new crisis when his superiors bring him face to face with himself. Howard learns that sometime in the 1980s a portal to an alternate universe opened in East Berlin; that his office has been responsible for monitoring traffic between the universes; and that people on "the other side" are physically identical to their "prime" selves, but otherwise very different. The other Howard Silk, despite looking as much a chinless wonder as the first one, is an arrogant badass who works at a higher level for the equivalent agency to our Howard's. He's here against protocol to warn of an assassination attempt against comatose Emily. He thwarts the attempt, but the assassin, a tomboyish woman known as Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), escapes to kill another day, albeit scarred by a bullet through her right cheek. In drips and drabs, our Howard, suddenly promoted and sent to the other side to impersonate his other self, learns of a long-simmering conspiracy to infiltrate other-side sleeper agents, changelings in effect, in place of disappeared civilians, the better to carry out terrorist attacks. You see, the two universes have evolved different histories: 9/11 never happened on the other side, but the world was devastated by a plague that many there blame on our side. The other Howard is trying to thwart the conspiracy of vengeance, and so is another important figure in their intelligence bureaucracy: the other Emily, whose husband had said was dead. We learn eventually that our Emily was involved as well, and was targeted for vehicular assassination for that reason. Despite their clashing personalities, the two Howards must work in concert, if not really together, in spite of compromised bureaucracies on both sides, to stop the sleeper agents from carrying out their vengeance agenda.

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

On the Big Screen: READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

For better or worse, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg's Battle Royale. While those to whom that sentence might mean something figure it out for themselves, let me add that this adaptation of Ernest Cline's latter-day cyberpunk novel, co-written by the author, reminded me a little of Around the World in 80 Days -- the 1956 Oscar winner, that is, -- in that people may be more interested in scrutinizing each frame for some cameo by a pop-culture character than in the actual plot of the film. When this hits home video it'll probably have the slowest playback of any movie as completists strive to catch 'em all, and that's excusable, since the plot is basic stuff. In Dystopia 2045 nearly everyone escapes from the misery of everyday life by partaking of the Oasis, a VR multiverse created by geek genius James Halliday (current Spielberg alter ego/good luck charm Mark Rylance). The late Halliday has promised effective ownership and creative control over the place to whoever can complete a series of challenges and acquire the keys to the virtual kingdom. Among the favorites on this quest are Parzival, aka Wade Watts of Columbus OH (Tye Sheridan), and Art3mis, aka Samantha Cook of parts unknown (Olivia Cooke), who is as much interested in denying victory to the debt-peon hordes working for the IOI corporation as in winning the quest herself. At IOI, toady turned tycoon Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) hopes that victory in the quest will allow maximum commercialization of the Oasis, which we the audience are meant to see as an evil innovation -- which is rich considering how thoroughly infested the place is already with people using copyrighted cartoon, comics and movie characters as their avatars. In short, it's a treasure hunt with riddles, and Wade/Parzival's extensive scholarship in the minutiae of Halliday's exhaustively chronicled or recreated existence has an intellectual advantage over the competition, or at least the good luck to have insights tying the clues to  that are absolutely correct. Assisted by some friendly ethnic types -- a black woman whose avatar is some sort of male cyborg orc and two Asians who take quite predictable forms -- our heroes remain mostly a step ahead of the plodding Sorrento, an unimaginative character who can't remember his passwords and whose avatar looks like the idiot spawn of Superman and Captain Sternn (see, I can do it too!), and his real and virtual henchmen, until the corporate boob gets the upper hand for the sake of drama. Then it's time to rally the hosts for an epic battle of the memes that becomes less epic -- perhaps deliberately so -- when Spielberg peeks behind the curtain to show us the common people of Columbus doing their part by holding a mass conniption fit in the streets. Have you never yet shaken the suspicion that the person striding ahead of you chattering away on his or her Bluetooth is actually just a good old-fashioned paranoid schizophrenic? If so, then this fleeting moment may be the most frightening or the funniest in the whole film.

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

Too Much TV: THE ALIENIST (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

On the Big Screen: THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017)

Russia banned Armando Iannucci's burlesque of Soviet history shortly before its scheduled release in the former U.S.S.R. The country's culture ministry describes it as an incitement to ethnic hatred and an insult to those who lived through the Soviet Union and apparently liked it. The Russians protest that Ianucci and his co-writers, adapting a French graphic novel, sought to brainwash moviegoers so that "the thought of the 1950s Soviet Union [would make] people feel only terror and disgust." A westerner's inevitable rejoinder might be, "what else was there to feel?" but we should never underestimate the persistence and virulence of "my country right or wrong" thinking anywhere, or the legitimate pride Soviet citizens may have felt or still feel about the nation's technological achievements, particularly in space exploration. Also, to the extent that Russia was a different culture before Stalinism arguably warped it further, patriotic Russians today, from the president on down, may simply disagree with the admittedly reflexive western assessment that Stalinist terror -- the killing of actual and (mostly) suspected political enemies -- disqualifies Josef Stalin's every other achievement, from the decisive battles against Nazi Germany to ... well, whatever Russians think he achieved. The irony of Russian outrage, no doubt exacerbated by their resentment of the persistent vilification of their country since the ascent of Vladimir Putin, is that The Death of Stalin may well offend people who have the polar opposite view of Stalin and his collaborators. Iannucci's burlesque treatment of the power struggle following the tyrant's demise will no doubt appear to trivialize the cruelty of Stalin's despotism by making it an occasion for black comedy.

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

Pre-Code Parade: THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933)

It may have been impossible not to romanticize World War I in the air, but John Monk Saunders did his damndest. He was the go-to-guy for air war pictures, whether original screenplays or adaptions of his prose stories, and his popularity in that role tells you something about what people thought of the Great War not so long after its end. Stuart Walker's Eagle and the Hawk is an adaptation in which Saunders himself, as far as I know, didn't participate, but inevitably his dark tone shadows the picture, and in hindsight the picture foreshadows his dark destiny. This may be the darkest of all Saunders' stories, following three American pilots, only two of whom will survive the picture. Walker uses admirable pictorial shorthand to establish the characters, using the actors' title cards to illustrate their social class. Jerry Young (Frederic March) is one of the idle rich, shown playing polo. Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) is shown supervising some construction project, which defines him as a worker and a more practical sort than Young. Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) has no obvious occupation; his characteristic moment is getting a coin-op fortune, predicting great danger, as he exits a restaurant. And sure enough, we dissolve to "Slug" in France, where he's become Jerry's best buddy. Jerry and Crocker don't get along at all. Crocker isn't a very good pilot and nearly gets both men killed when their plane ends upside down on the landing field. Crocker is relegated to the status of "observer," which means that he mans the machine gun, standing upright in the open in the rear of a two-seat plane. While he resents the seeming demotion, the work suits his ruthless attitude toward war. He commits the sort of atrocities the Germans were accused of, mowing down a helpless Hun who's bailed out of an observation balloon (in some of the footage this film borrows from Wings). That's tantamount to murder as far as Jerry's concerned, but to Crocker the point of war is to wipe out the enemy as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Jerry isn't seeing the point of the war they way he used to. Losing five observers in a matter of weeks will do that to you. And Crocker getting Slug Richards killed because he wanted to stay in the air to kill more Germans won't help, either. The breaking point comes when Jerry goes up with a rookie observer making his first flight. Of course the kid gets shot -- some rookies didn't even make it into the air because the Germans bombed their headquarters -- and of course the poor wretch plunges from the plane to a still more horrific finish when Jerry loops the loop to evade German pursuit. But the very last straw comes when Jerry actually brings down the German, learns that it's one of the top enemy aces, but only sees the face of a youth hardly older than the doomed kid who went up with him. And for that Jerry gets another medal! For that he's the toast of the base yet again, but he answers their toasts with a drunken tirade against war. Initially contemptuous, Crocker grows more concerned as he sees Jerry crack. But there's nothing he can do -- nothing to save Jerry's sanity or life, that is. Yet there's one thing he can do to save his frenemy's reputation, although that hardly matters to Jerry himself by the end.

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.