Saturday, November 17, 2018

LEGENDS OF THE POISONOUS SEDUCTRESS: FEMALE DEMON OHYAKU (1968)

Female Demon Ohyaku is like a film noir where the hero and the femme fatale are one and the same. The heroine is the moll of a thief whose gang is planning a big gold heist thanks to inside information from a government bureaucrat. The heist goes off as planned, and then the betrayal goes off as planned -- except for one thing. The bureaucrat, probably to no Japanese audience's surprise, plans to eliminate the thieves and claim all the gold for himself, presumably writing it off to the government as a loss. The gang is wiped out except for Ohyaku (Junko Miyazono) and her boyfriend Shin (Kunio Murai), who's stashed the loot in secret. Shin is put to the torture, his head placed beneath the blade of a guillotine, and when that doesn't work Ohyaku is tortured in front of him. To spare her he gives the gold away, and for his trouble his head's lopped off as Ohyaku watches. She's sent to an island prison where slave labor mines more gold.



To this point, everyone has underestimated the heroine. She survived a near-drowning in infancy when her mother jumped off a bridge, but bears a scar as a constant reminder of this primal injustice. She grows up to be a high-wire artist but has grown sick of all the wolf whistles by the time the story proper starts. Shin's scheme looks like the easy path to a new and better life, but after the great betrayal the only path left to her is the path of revenge.


On the island, Ohyaku becomes the plaything of a privileged convict and his wife, a tattoo artist (Yuriko Mishima) who grows obsessed with the heroine's smooth skin. She aches to tattoo and otherwise make Ohyaku her own. Ohyaku appears to give in, and rather likes the idea of a big nasty demon tattoo on her back, but for her the non-poisonous seductress is just one of many people she manipulates and leaves in the dust on the way back to the mainland. There, her ultimate revenge will be twofold. With some gangster friends she'll rob not merely a gold shipment, but the mint itself -- and then she'll kill the bureaucratic bastard who ruined her life the same way he had Shin killed.


Female Demon Ohyaku has an oldschool attitude toward revenge from which modern American pop culture has grown alienated. We've long understood that revenge can make a monster of you, the end justifying all means and all manner of mistreatment of not just the guilty but the innocent. Nowadays, we like to catch someone on the brink of taking revenge and tell them, "This is not you" or "You're better than this." I don't know if Japanese attitudes have changed in a similar way over the last 50 years, but in this picture, set sometime during the 19th century, when Ohyaku tells her friends what she's going to do to her past tormentors, their response basically is, "You go, girl!" Some modern viewers may expect her to stop short, to decide that the bad guy isn't worth what Ohyaku presumably is doing to her own soul or karma, but let me assure you that she does not stop short. There's something both awful and awesome about that that may be lost on those whose moral hedonism is so absolute that they can't even imagine anyone actually deserving to be killed. Movies like Ohyaku allow a vicarious release from the passivity such absolutism may encourage, without necessarily convincing anyone to turn killer. Ohyaku's revenge may seem self-indulgent to some viewers, but it also lends the film a kind of gravitas lacking in today's more common appeals to "hope," regardless of whether you think the heroine right or wrong. One can assume that identifying her as a "demon" makes Yoshihiro Ishikawa's film something other than an unambiguous endorsement of Ohyaku's revenge, but the fact that she is a heroine probably tells you as much about the world she lives in, or the world as Ishikawa saw it, as it tells you about Ohyaku herself.


Monday, November 12, 2018

A note on Stan Lee

Historians and older comics fans continue to debate Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel Comics universe. The debates were initially fueled by the perception that Lee, who died today at age 95, tended for a long time to downplay if not minimize the contributions of artists Steve Ditko, who died earlier this year, and especially Jack Kirby. If the question is who created characters or came up with specific concepts, then the credit often and rightly goes to Ditko, who created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and Kirby, who created nearly everything else until 1970. Lee's distinctive and crucial contribution was twofold, one part of it becoming only more obvious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe conquered multiplexes in the Stan the Man's last decade.

What was more obvious early on was that Lee gave all the comics, whether drawn by Kirby, Ditko or others, a specific authorial voice that helped set Marvel Comics apart from DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That voice took the idea of a narrator character from earlier crime and horror comics and applied it to superheroes. Lee wasn't an "onscreen" narrator like Mr. Crime or the Crypt Keeper, but established his authorial, brand through his constant explanatory  footnoting and a narrative tone that could be several things at once: bombastic and bufoonish, bardic yet self-mocking. It gave a wide range of readers leeway to take Marvel as seriously as each one chose, or to appreciate it at multiple levels simultaneously, and it allowed Lee to be campy and sincere at the same time. His narration probably strikes most people as corny today -- it's even worse when he speaks it aloud on bad cartoons of the 70s and 80s -- but in those formative years it didn't keep readers from feeling genuine emotions about the Marvel heroes.

In the long run, Lee really laid the groundwork for the 21st century success of Marvel movies by giving Marvel Comics a "universal" vision that neither Kirby nor Ditko might have given them on their own. In his later career especially, Kirby preferred to isolate his creations from the rest of his employers' product, balking at crossovers when they were suggested, while Ditko arguably never got along with others that well. Of course, the heroes of any given comics company had been joining forces since DC's Justice Society of America in the early 1940s, but outside the designated team books they rarely if ever interacted with each other. At Marvel the constant crossing over of characters was an essential part of Lee's world-building, and for all that Marvel heroes tended to fight each other on their first meetings, they were inherently more compatible as components of a shared universe, once someone actually tried to do that in movies, than DC's iconic  characters have proven to be so far. One could argue that Kirby and Ditko could have come up with all their great creations with no input from Lee, yet could not have come up with the Marvel Universe as either comics or movie fans understand it today without Stan Lee's vision, however self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing it seems to his critics. This note certainly won't end the Marvel debates, but it should make it more clear that however clownish or crass he was at times, Lee was one of the great pop-culture geniuses of the 20th century, with a legacy sure to last well beyond his lifetime.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

OUTLAW KING (2018)

Most people's primary reference for the career of Robert the Bruce is Mel Gibson's Braveheart, in which the Scots hero is shown as a well-meaning but vacillating young man increasingly ashamed of his leprous father's cynical realpolitik until, finally his own man in more than one sense, he avenges William Wallace at the decisive battle of Bannockburn. Whatever else you say about the Gibson film, it gives the Bruce a great character arc, the absence of which is felt throughout the new film by Scots director David Mackenzie, in which Robert (Chris Pine) is the main character. Inescapably, Wallace haunts the film, literally and gruesomely in one scene as a quarter of him is displayed in a public square. This is shown to be just about the last straw that pushes Robert into rebellion, after humiliating treatment by Edward I (never called "Longshanks" here, and played by Stephen Dillane) in the opening scenes. With Wallace at bay at that point, Robert is made to watch the English attack Stirling Castle with a massive trebuchet hurling a fiery payload, and made to marry the Irish noblewoman Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). A widower, Robert slowly warms to Elizabeth as she warms to the Scots cause, but cools toward Scotland's subjugation to England. His Rubicon is the killing of a pro-England Scots rival in a church. The Scots clergy are willing to forgive this (though the Pope, unmentioned, wasn't) and crown Robert King of Scots in return for a vague promise of support for them. The uprising is nearly aborted by a treacherous night attack, but Robert survives to take up guerrilla warfare with the archetypal ragtag band, while Elizabeth flees from castle to castle until the English catch her and cage her outside a grim castle.


The first time I ever heard of Robert the Bruce was in a school reading textbook that had the legend of his encounter with a spider. Outlaw King (or Outlaw/King as it appears onscreen) invokes that legend by making Robert the spider at the center of a marshy web in the climactic battle of Loudon Hill. One must assume that the English learned their lesson from this catastrophe, presuming that it played out in history as it plays here, as they subsequently dealt with the French more or less the same way during the Hundred Years War. This film's big battle scene inevitably must be compared with the Stirling battle in Braveheart, but each aims for a different effect. Gibson expresses furious exhilaration -- I still remember a woman behind me starting to laugh like a madwoman at the peak of the action when I first saw it -- while Mackenzie adds a note of horror to whatever satisfaction audiences may feel on seeing the English get their comeuppance. At first glance, Outlaw King strikes me as a more gory film than the massively violent Braveheart because of the more overtly horrific presentation. Mackenzie doesn't show it in a particularly lurid way, but in a matter-of-fact fashion that makes such moments as the casual disembowling of a man all the more horrifying. While Braveheart could be accused of glorifying war, Outlaw King is less vulnerable to that charge, though it goes too far to equate it to the alleged antiwar aesthetics of the superficially similar marshy combat in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, to which Mackenzie's battle scene has been compared. There's no denying, after all, that in the context of this film that fight was necessary.


I wonder how self-consciously Mackenzie and his co-writers strove to make their film "Not Braveheart." Not having William Wallace as a character is probably the most obvious way to make clear that this is going to be a different kind of story. More interesting is their attempt to make the Prince of Wales, later Edward II (Billy Howle) as the main antagonist, with his dad remaining in the background until he dies, ahistorically, en route to Loudon Hill. Outlaw King reimagines Edward II as a Messala-type character who once was Robert's buddy but becomes his most dogged enemy for reasons of state. Ironically, in light of what Gore Vidal often said about his conception of the Messala character in Ben-Hur, the new film goes out of its way to avoid anything that could be interpreted as homophobic (as in Braveheart) in its presentation of Edward II, to the point that the casual viewer would have no idea that he was reputedly homosexual. On the other hand, Edward's sexuality has nothing to do with his or his father's policy toward Scotland, so there really isn't any need to address it here, and it's arguably a fair hit on Braveheart that it's treatment of the character was gratuitous. Both films take huge liberties with history, including Outlaw King's placement of Edward II, king before his actual time, in command of the English troops at Loudon Hill and engaged in single combat with Robert at its close. That scene really hurts the film, since the writers take too many and not enough liberties at the same time. If you're going to have the English king fight the Scots king on the field of battle, and have Robert disarm and decisively defeat Edward -- which obviously didn't happen -- why not go all the way and have Robert take Edward prisoner and force the liberation of Scotland ahead of schedule. It looks stupid to just let him go, especially if the writers' excuse is "well, he wasn't captured historically." That aside, Outlaw King is a decent historical drama, though lacking much of Braveheart's primal passion, especially in Pine's relatively dispassionate but conventionally stalwart performance. I'll give him and the film credit for one thing, though. The standard before-the-battle speech is quite nicely done here because it boils down to: I don't care why you're fighting with me as long as we win. Whether you find it better or worse than Braveheart, or don't believe in comparisons, at least it's a legitimate change of pace.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

APOSTLE (2018)

Gareth Evans, the director of the Raid movies, arguably the best martial-arts films of the 21st century so far, returned to his native Wales to make an action-horror period piece set in Edwardian England. It starts slow, introducing us to former missionary Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), who infiltrates a Welsh island that's been taken over by a religious cult. The cult, which has scriptures of its own and a putatively charismatic leader in Malcolm (Michael Sheen), has kidnapped Richardson's sister and is holding her for ransom. They've been reduced to that because a once-flourishing community has seen harvests fail, but some cult members believe that even more extreme measures are necessary to revive the crops.


Probably because Evans is more interested in the fantastic horrors to be revealed later, Apostle makes it hard to believe that Malcolm's cult could attract as many people as it seems to. As Malcolm, Sheen simply isn't that charismatic, and we see pretty much nothing to explain the cult's appeal. Evans himself seems to realize the limitations of the Malcolm character, since about midway through he builds up Malcolm's second-in-command, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) into the real villain of the piece. Quinn disapproves beyond all reason of his daughter's romance with the son of another cult leader, finally killing the girl, framing the boy for the crime and executing him with a gruesome machine that bores a hole through the back of his head. By this point Quinn has gone over the edge entirely, determined to overthrow Malcolm and take the leader's daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) -- as well as Thomas's sister (Elen Rhys) -- as a broodmare sex slave.


While Malcolm is at best a half-baked conception of a cult leader, Quinn proves a villain worthy of an Edwardian horror story. By this point in the picture we've learned that the cult leaders had some time before captured a sort of earth goddess (Sharon Morgan) who subsists on human blood. By sacrificing to her, the cultists initially enjoyed good harvests. But just as she seemed ready to die when they found her, so she seems reluctant to go on living on the diet they offer her. It's bad enough that Malcolm sheds his own blood to force-feed her and has others do the same. Quinn quite explicitly wants to treat the goddess like a machine, hoping to jump-start her power by gorging her with full-scale human sacrifice. That rings true as a particularly 19th century (or so) form of villainy or industrial-strength hubris combined with control-freak patriarchal insanity. Jones runs with the idea and his over-the-top villainy pretty much saves the picture.


It helps, too, that the latter half of the film has more action, allowing Evans to show off his real strengths as a filmmaker. The two big scenes are Thomas's fight with a "Gimp"-like henchman who operates a human-sized meat grinder for Quinn and his final battle, assisted by his sister and Andrea, with a nearly indestructible Quinn. Jones has been such a despicable villain that Quinn's gruesome demise is the picture's indisputable highlight. Unfortunately, Apostle still has to resolve Thomas's character arc. He lost his faith, you see, when his church was burned and friends were killed in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Were this a different sort of film, you might expect his struggle against real evil to revive his faith, but faith doesn't come into it, since he instead encounters, for all intents and purposes, a real god. Better still, he gets to become a real god by the end of the picture as the old goddess passes her mojo on to him. Is this a good thing? Much of the cult village has been burnt down by this point, but Malcom is still wandering around and gets to see Thomas's transfiguration. Does that mean the cult gets to start over again, only better this time? It's probably better not to ask. Apostle adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but there is genuine horror in it, just enough to justify its presence on Netflix over the past Halloween season, and maybe enough to justify a look at other times of the year.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (1970 - 2018)

Updated on November 5 after watching the accompanying Netflix documentary,  
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead. 
Orson Welles and Netflix might have been a perfect match. There wouldn't have been any worries about how many paid admissions each project of his could draw, and they wouldn't have depended on him overmuch to attract new subscribers. All that would have mattered, presumably, was how much money he spent and when he delivered the product. Of course, what sort of product he proposed to deliver would make a lot of difference. Batting out something like F for Fake on a relatively regular basis might not have been much of a problem. A narrative film, alas, would have been a different story.

It's interesting that Welles brings up Hemingway in this picture, since it reminded me of some things Hemingway said. Hemingway said of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon that the it was no masterpiece in the making, but that it showed that Fitzgerald had just enough skill to keep publishers interested enough to advance him more money. Of a Norman Mailer novel -- The Deer Park, if I recall right -- Hemingway said that the author had blown the whistle on himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles portrays his director protagonist (John Huston) as a Hemingway type, if not more obviously a darker version of himself. Wind, however, is an attempt at what Hemingway, describing his own efforts, called a bank shot, touching several thematic bases at once. It's a work of self-criticism to an extent but also a satire of the whole cult of the director, almost as contemptuous toward "cineastes" (a repeated sneer-word here) as those filmmakers of the generation before Welles who hated (or affected to hate) analyzing their careers. It could be seen equally as an indictment of the creative bankruptcy of auteurism or a confession of Welles's own creative bankruptcy.

The way he tells the story clearly interests Welles more than the story he tells. That story, based on what Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich and others have salvaged from the surviving footage, attempts to account for the creative exhaustion of the Huston character, Jake Hannaford, who's showing excerpts of his in-progress production "The Other Side of the Wind" at a birthday party in the hope of raising the funds needed to finish the project -- much as Welles himself screened scenes at his AFI lifetime achievement award ceremony. The film within the film is both to some extent a parody of Zabriskie Point and a way for Welles to show what he can do visually in color and widescreen. A man stalks and courts a mysterious woman (who may be a terrorist) who goes about naked a lot (Oja Kodar) and torments the man in many ways. They wander through an old move backlot before she meets such fate as she has in the desert. As a commercial project it seems hopeless, but what's specifically stalled it is Hannaford's falling out with his neophyte star, Johnny Dale (Bob  Random). The director made a project of the young man, apparently a drifter, after rescuing him from an apparent suicide attempt, but became suspicious of his authenticity. Dale turned out to be a boarding-school dropout involved in some sort of homosexual scandal. Hannaford tormented him on the set of the movie until Dale stormed off, buck naked, after a scene that teased his castration. His departure, and a failure of funding, has let the film a confused jumble, and it's unclear that any amount of money, in the absence of the original inspiration, can solve its problems.

The film proper is kaleidoscopic, showing Hannaford surrounded by fans, sycophants, critics and parasites, many of whom are shooting their own documentary or home-movie footage of the film party. The fatal flaw of the film as a whole is Welles's belief that diversity of film stocks could substitute for diversity of character. None of the characters feels genuinely fleshed-out; you get the sense that Welles knows more about them than the footage used here actually shows, but you also get the suspicion that he knew more about them than he could or cared to show. Many are probably analogues for cronies of Welles himself, and Bogdanovich definitely and almost masochistically -- taking over for an absconding Rich Little -- plays a version of himself as a pushy superfan with ambitions of surpassing the master. The mock-festive setting reminds me of a truly amateur movie of the same period, Norman Mailer's Maidstone -- and Welles' raving about improvisational filmmaking, captured in the accompanying documentary, suggests at minimum a coincidence of his thinking and Mailer's -- while the flailing experimentation anticipates a similar work of what we could call neo-amateurism, Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again. Unfortunately, Wind lacks any sense of spontaneity, mainly because of Welles's late-career choppy style of editing together shots taken months or possibly years apart, and probably because his control-freak auterism had overcome his interest in improvisation at some point in the production. You get one shot of a character talking, and then we cut to a shot of the next character talking, when what's arguably needed is the more naturalistic overlapping dialogue of Robert Altmann's films. To be fair, Welles may have meant to mix the sound differently -- and for that matter I think I would rather have seen the film without a music score in the absence of any Wellsian input on the selections --  but there's no way to know that for certain.  What seems inescapable is a sense of exhaustion with storytelling even as Welles remains fascinated by the possibilities of editing and composition. In simplest terms, the ultimate subject of this film may be not the death of cinema, but the inevitable if not necessary demise of a certain kind of filmmaking, with the far more lively F for Fake showing the way ahead. The really sad thing about Wind is that, as the documentary makes clear, much of it was filmed after Fake, as if Welles hadn't realized, or wouldn't admit, that the project was a creative dead end.

Demoralizing as it may be, The Other Side of the Wind probably should be mandatory viewing for movie fans, if only for the unexpected encores it provides for so many long-gone character actors, from Mercedes McCambridge to Cameron Mitchell, from Edmond O'Brien -- bloated and roughened to the point that he resembles Lon Chaney Jr. -- to Angelo Rossitto. One would have liked the film to have proved a buried masterpiece, but contrary to what the film itself may suggest, even the ambitious failures of an auteur like Welles can reward watching, as cautionary tales or tragic hints of what could have been. As a work of art it isn't much, but like any Welles film it has many memorable moments of pictorial power. As a historical document, I highly recommend it.