Tuesday, March 29, 2016

For the record: Batman movies ranked

To put my review of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in some perspective I present my rankings of all live-action Batman movies from 1943 to the present.

1. The Dark Knight (2008) - Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker has overshadowed the tragic element of Bruce Wayne's story in the second film of Christopher Nolan's trilogy. This is the one where Wayne (Christian Bale) wants to give up Batman so he can be with his beloved Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Almost unconsciously, he sets up Rachel's current boyfriend, D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to take his place as Gotham's hero -- a "white knight" to his dark knight -- so he can take Dent's place with Rachel. His plan ends with both Rachel and Harvey destroyed. Having never truly given up the cowl, he now wears it as a matter of penance, not just as the hero Gotham "deserves," but as the hero Bruce deserves to be -- or so we thought at the end until Nolan told us in the next film that Bruce actually just quit. I left Dark Knight feeling that Nolan had said all he needed to say about Batman, and his sequel sadly vindicated that feeling.

2. Batman Returns (1992) - I guess I prefer a tragic Batman, because here's another. Bruce (Michael Keaton) finds a soulmate in damaged, vengeful Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) but if anything they're too much alike for a happy ending to be possible. Returns is Tim Burton in ultimate Expressionist mode, mastering his influences in a never-to-be-repeated personalization of a corporate entertainment property. Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito's Penguin follow Ledger as the best Batman villains on screen.

3. Batman (1989) - Marred by the pop imperative of Prince's soundtrack, the first Burton film remains iconic, and I suspect Ledger has never fully displaced Jack Nicholson as the ideal incarnation of the Joker for many people. Michael Keaton remains the template for unpredictable casting that pays off; at the very least he's the right Batman for a Burton film. Danny Elfman's score is a revelation.

4. Batman Begins (2005) - Strange to report, I didn't see the first Nolan Batman film on the big screen. It struck me at first glance as unambitious in its effort to ground Batman in a realistic milieu, but Begins won me over on the small screen.

5. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) - It should be apparent that Batman fandom biases me in this film's favor a little, but I like Ben Affleck's intensity and the hints of dissolution both he and Jeremy Irons' Alfred display, and I'm interested in seeing more of his interpretation of the character, especially if he asserts more creative control in the future.

6. Batman (1966) - It's a shame Julie Newmar couldn't play Catwoman in this all-star villain jam, but it's a treat to see Cesar Romero's Joker, Burgess Meredith's Penguin and especially Frank Gorshin's Riddler bounce off each other. Many Batman fans still resent this film and Adam West's TV show, and their defensiveness toward their hero has darkened the knight for generations afterward. I felt that way myself for a few years until I came to appreciate that West et al did their thing on purpose, not because they were idiots, and were actually quite good at it. The movie isn't as good as the best episodes -- for me those are the second-season stories with Newmar -- but I still find it entertaining.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) - Nolan concludes his trilogy with a clunk, undermining the tragic message of his previous film by allowing Bruce to escape his destiny and have a happy ending with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but it takes a plot that makes Dawn of Justice look brilliant and at crucial points apes the rather crappy James Bond film The World is Not Enough. Count me as an admirer of Tom Hardy's eccentric Bane, while Hathaway's "Cat" is likable but not as darkly original and powerful as Pfeiffer's. Too many moments that insult the intelligence almost balanced by some epic action scenes, and ultimately the biggest disappointment of all these films considering what was expected.

8. Batman (1943) - Unapologetic wartime racism, chintzy production values and inept action only add to this Columbia serial's bizarre camp charm. On the plus side, the serial gives us Alfred in his definitive form -- the comics imitated it and abandoned his original roly-poly form -- and I enjoy Lewis Wilson's seedy undercover work as "Chuck White," a precursor of Matches Malone and a personality I'd have Batman play in comics if I ever had a chance. Plus, for all that he's a racist stereotype, J. Carrol Naish's Dr. Daka makes a pretty good serial villain.

9. Batman Forever (1995) - Once upon a time Warner Bros. decided that Batman movies had gotten too dark. The solution to the problem was Joel Schumacher. Be careful what you wish for now. The knee-jerk casting of Jim Carrey as the Riddler and the total botch of Two-Face by future Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman and Tommy Lee Jones sealed this film's fate fast. Worse was to come.

10. Batman and Robin (1949) - Say what you will about the 1943 serial, but it wasn't dull. This one was. I remember almost nothing about it, which is the only reason it doesn't sit at the bottom of this list.

11. Batman and Robin (1997) - I remember Schumacher's second, series-killing film all too well. This movie opened thirty-year old wounds for many Batman fans and scarred some who'd never had an opinion about the old TV show. It probably led to some people doubling down on darkness for Batman, with consequences felt to the present day. Compromise the darkness, they might say, and you start on a slippery slope that ends here. Likewise, some will say that blind flight from camp ends at the opposite extreme of Dawn of Justice. A middle ground ought to be possible, but you can understand why people would want to get as far aesthetically as possible from this disaster.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Medical science remains uncertain whether a cure exists for "superhero fatigue," but 2016 has offered two rival remedies. One is the R-rated irreverent black comedy, manufactured by Twentieth Century-Fox as Deadpool and by Warner Bros. (for release later this year) as Suicide Squad. The other is the DC Cinematic Universe, which actually has the R-rated irreverent black comedy remedy built into it but is prescribed initially on the theory that superhero fatigue is really Marvel fatigue; offer something different from Marvel Studios' now-familiar product, the theory goes, and the problem is solved. Each remedy comes with the usual list of potential side effects, the most daunting of which, should you consider taking Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, is "no fun." This warning is issued by people who seem more certain about what fun is than they should be. When they talk and write about fun in movies, they often mean what should be fun, or what we should consider fun. If I say I had fun watching Dawn of Justice some may judge me depraved or write my opinion off as that of an uncritical comic book fan. But I can just as easily say that many reviewers who haven't had fun at the movie didn't want to have fun, or didn't want to have the sort of fun the film offers. How can you tell? If a reviewer says the two main action sequences run on too long, you know they're not having the fun Dawn of Justice is selling. Now, if they want to complain about stuff running on too long, they should focus on after the big fight scenes, when director Zack Snyder succumbs to epic-itis, the inability to actually end a movie succinctly (see also The Lord of the Rings; The Return of the King, so notorious a case that we could call this condition Jacksonitis). Dawn really does terminate interminably without really setting things up for future films any better than the film had already. That's criticism, folks, and there will be more below, because Dawn, to be honest, has some serious flaws. But it succeeds, or so I think, in establishing a cinematic brand different in tone and scale from what seems by now an over-familiar Marvel product that will next be seen, ironically enough, imitating the perceived essence of the DC film with a desperation justified only by Marvel's historic perception of itself as No. 2 to DC. If Dawn is being judged unfavorably for not being like a Marvel film -- in fact, Dawn may help us clarify what makes Marvel work in its particular way -- then it's a strange moment for Marvel to squander its advantage by aping the competition with heroes fighting heroes.

Marvel certainly tells its stories with more clarity than Snyder, David S. Goyer and Ben Affleck's personal writer Chris Terrio do in Dawn of Justice. I don't recall any Marvel leaving you as uncertain for any period of time of what exactly is going on as Dawn dares to. The connection between Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) African misadventure and the main plot remains mysterious for quite a while, for instance, though one can guess that it has something to do with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who's in a race with Bruce Wayne (Affleck) to acquire a large hunk of Kryptonian mineral that dropped into the Indian Ocean during the events of Man of Steel. Both billionaires want the stuff for the same reason; they want to be able to kill Superman (Henry Cavill). For Wayne it's personal -- when is it not with this guy? -- because a Wayne Financial building in Metropolis was a casualty, along with most of its occupants, of the big fight between Superman and the hostile Kryptonians from the last picture. But it's also a matter of principle; someone with Superman's power is inherently a threat to the world as far as Wayne, an embittered twenty-year veteran of apparently futile crimefighting, is concerned.

Luthor's motivation is harder to pin down. The real weakness of this film's Luthor isn't Eisenberg's manic performance but the writers' failure to give Superman's arch-enemy any agenda beyond destroying Superman. If that sounds weird, let me explain that traditionally Luthor becomes Superman's arch-enemy because Superman was sticking his nose in Luthor's business of mad science and world conquering. His objection to Superman is that Superman is in his way. But there's no sense here that Luthor has any agenda for Superman or anyone else to interfere with. Instead, like Bruce Wayne, Luthor objects to Superman on general principles, as skewed by the unfortunate upbringing Lex hints at: the abused child of a refugee from East Germany who's grown an anti-authoritarian streak of almost Miltonic intensity. "The demons come from the sky," he says, thinking of Kryptonians, yet he thinks of Superman, resentfully, as a God to be overcome by man -- either himself or possibly Batman, so long as mutual destruction is assured -- or by "the devil," by which he means Doomsday, the imperfect clone of General Zod (and hence, to make him three classic villains in one, a Bizarro) further tainted with Luthor's own blood to make obvious that the "devil" is a surrogate or projection of Luthor himself. That's a thin margin of differentiation between Luthor and Bruce Wayne, who may as well be co-villains for most of the picture given Wayne's increasingly pigheaded opposition to Superman, only dimly reflected by reporter Clark Kent's obsession (also arguably a form of projection) with denouncing "the Gotham Bat," whose practice of branding defeated enemies doesn't seem enough to make him a monster in Clark's eyes unless you see Kent's disapproval as an urgent way of saying "That's not me!" I'm not sure it's a good thing to go through most of the picture letting people ask what the difference is between Wayne and Luthor, and it's probably even worse to have the crucial difference emerge in as corny a way as the writers conceive -- it has all too much with the heroes' mothers having the same first name. But the story of the film is Wayne's change of mind, so of necessity he has to start in a dark place where Luthor must remain. In the end, the difference between the two is that Wayne never sees Superman as "God" -- in fact he implicitly sees the Kryptonian as less than human before reconciling with him -- while Luthor, who does see Superman that way, feels compelled to play the devil. But a person could watch the film and see Luthor as a jittery idiot-savant. Since Luthor has a stance rather than an agenda, Eisenberg is left with little to work with but mannerisms. If he is the most-criticized actor in the picture, it's really because he's the one most ill-served by the script. But if he doesn't pull off the miracle that so often chastens the literal-minded comics fans who reflexively criticize unpredictable casting, he may have himself to blame to whatever extent that he refused to imitate the performance in The Social Network that made me, at least, confident in his capacity for Luthor.

While much of Dawn of Justice is a three-way competition of Superman, Batman and Luthor, there's a fourth party lurking at the periphery, one whom the film takes its sweet time identifying but is known to everyone thanks to the movie's generous advertising. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is in a race with Bruce Wayne to steal information from Luthor. Luthor has dirt on her, and in the nearest thing to an agenda he ever gets it develops that Luthor has been investigating the existence of "metahumans" all over the world. The film regrettably stops dead just before the first big fight as Diana browses Luthor's files, giving us our first glimpses of characters destined to join DC's Justice League. Diana herself, of course, is sort of a metahuman, though what gets Bruce Wayne's attention is that this hot chick -- the old horndog apparently enjoys one-night stands and claims to have known women like her (since he considers her a thief when he says this you can guess who he means) -- is over 100 years old and a veteran of World War I. Not wanting to answer questions and resenting surveillance, Diana is about to leave the country -- she's actually on the plane -- when hell breaks loose in Metropolis. That looks like a job for Wonder Woman, and Dawn of Justice does nothing better than advertise next year's Wonder Woman movie. I'd read that audiences almost everywhere break out in applause when Gal Gadot appears in full costume, and damned if that didn't happen in my theater, too. Gadot earns that applause. She was easy on the eyes before, and now she kicks ass like a goddess. Based on what I saw in the final fight, I'd like her chances with Doomsday one-on-one. And to be honest with you, it seems pointless to have the final fight end the way it actually does -- remember, this is Spoilervision! -- with Superman sacrificing himself by running Doomsday through with the Kryptonite spear Batman had built -- when Supes should have simply tossed that thing to Wonder Woman and let her finish the beast at relatively little risk. But I suppose the writers thought that if they were bringing in Doomsday they might as well let the other shoe drop like it did in his original 1990s comics. Don't worry, though; Superman's inevitable return is foreshadowed at the end of the picture.

As for Wonder Woman, the only way her solo debut can fail after this build-up is if the period setting -- a generation earlier than her canonical appearance in Man's World, motivated most likely by a reluctance to look like Captain America: The First Avenger -- renders her adventures anticlimactic after Dawn of Justice's epochal battle. For now, I'd like to think a star is born, but if Gadot steals the picture without really being challenged as an actor, the rest of the cast (arguably excepting Eisenberg) hold up their tentpoles admirably. Affleck brings unprecedented intensity to Bruce Wayne, compared to Michael Keaton's introversion, Christian Bale's role-playing and the hopelessness of the two other guys, while his stuntmen deliver the energetic, acrobatic Batman fans have longed to see in earlier tech-obsessed movies. He also has an excellent unpretentious Alfred in Jeremy Irons. While Affleck may get more screen time than Henry Cavill, this is still a Superman movie at heart, and Cavill gives the film that heart, as well as a conscience. As well, kudos to the filmmakers for finding stuff for Amy Adams to do and recognizing that in the scrum of super powers and super wealth Lois Lane remains as canonical and important a figure as any of the heroes.

Dawn of Justice is a far more digressive, self-indulgent (and, yes, self-important) movie than anything Marvel has made.It gets downright eccentric with its preoccupation with dreams and premonitions. Bruce Wayne gets several dream sequences (Clark Kent gets one, sort of), some of which seem intended to be prophetic, most notoriously the dystopian desert scene with soldiers wearing Superman shields, supported by what look like parademons from the evil planet Apokolips, and even Luthor, in his last scene, lapses into prophetic mode, warning that "the bell has been rung" for Someone out there to hear. Awkward moments like these have inspired fresh appreciation for Marvel's efficiency and clarity, but I wonder whether those positive qualities have made Marvel Studios pictures too formulaic for their own good, or recognizably formulaic enough to induce superhero fatigue, in reviewers if not in audiences. Compared to Marvel movies Dawn is a loose baggy monster, but as with Man of Steel Zack Snyder invests the film with a wild, raw power that no Marvel movie, even with the Hulk rampaging, has achieved. The best thing Dawn did to differentiate itself from the Avengers films was to make its final battle a fight with one mega-powerful antagonist instead of having the DC "trinity" plow through faceless video game-style hordes of inhuman aliens or robots. The fight with Doomsday brings Dawn closer to the kinetic energy of authentic comic-book action than ever -- the titular fight has its moments, both impressive and silly, but is eclipsed by the final battle -- and that may be what reviewers don't like about it: the duration, the refusal to be glib, etc. That would be funny, if true. Ever since Man of Steel came out, debates have raged in comics fandom over whether it was true to DC Comics or not, the film's decision to have Superman kill Zod coming in for inquisitorial criticism. Ever since Marvel rolled out its cinematic universe, fans have tried to explain why DC didn't do it first instead of compartmentalizing Batman and Superman movies, aborting every attempt at a "universe" until Marvel had shown the possibility and profitability of doing that. Fans often complain that the current management at Warner Bros. and DC Comics, not to mention Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer and perhaps even Christopher Nolan of not understanding or respecting comic books and superheroes. It would be supremely and, yes, grimly ironic if word of mouth ends up killing Dawn of Justice at the box office after its critic-proof opening weekend because it is, if nowhere near the best superhero movie, arguably, the movie that's truest in design and spirit to superhero comics.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

TAXI (2015)

On some level I think the Iranian government realizes that the country's filmmakers are its best ambassadors, but I don't think they really like that fact. They realize that Iranian directors show the world an Iran very different from whatever dystopian caricature is invoked by the words "Islamic Republic" and the dire legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini -- a nation of recognizable, relatable, modern human beings rather than stereotypical religious fanatics or medieval throwbacks. But it's not exactly the Iran the rulers, particularly the clerics, want the world to see or believe in, and they're the sort of people on whom the distinction between criticism and criminality often seems lost. Yet even they could do worse. Consider Jafar Panahi. Several years ago he was sentenced to house arrest and banned for 20 years from directing movies. Since that verdict, he has released three feature films to the outside world. If the Iranians really wanted to enforce that ban, they could so so easily enough by putting Panahi in prison -- but they haven't done so. Just to show how mixed up the Iranians are, their national film board simultaneously congratulated Panahi for winning the Golden Bear for Taxi at last year's Berlin Film Festival and criticized the festival jury for honoring the film and thus, according to Wikipedia, "spreading misunderstanding." That sounds like they resent any attention paid to Panahi that makes him out to be a martyr, while still taking a sort of nationalistic pride in a countryman's achievements.

It may be that Taxi gets more attention than it deserves aesthetically because of the circumstances under which it was made. Panahi has some freedom of movement within Iran and used it to drive a taxi cab around Teheran in order to shoot his film. He leaves the car occasionally, but the camera stays inside, mounted on the dashboard but maneuverable enough to look inside the car, shifting from driver's side to passenger side. Playing himself as probably Teheran's least-knowledgeable cabbie, Panahi deploys actors through town to pick up for little eccentric episodes that serve as slices of life in Iran. He tries to present a cross-section of Iranian society, from a dwarfish video store clerk who tries to sell bootleg DVDs to the director, a past customer whom he, a film buff himself, recognizes instantly, to a couple of batty old ladies whose lives seem to depend superstitiously on getting their pet fish into the Pool of Ali. The Iranian authorities probably resented the emphasis on the seamier side of life, particularly the burgeoning black market in media the government censors. Censorship itself becomes the film's subject when Panahi picks up his precocious niece -- obnoxiously precocious as precocious kids everywhere often become -- who's trying to shoot her own movie for a junior film school class. She recites the rules for making a releasable film in Iran, including the avoidance of controversial subjects and such chickenshit as not allowing your hero to wear a necktie. Panahi manages to make comedy out of this potentially (and somewhat actually) heavyhanded material by having the niece argue with a street kid she filmed picking up money that fell out of a bridegroom's pocket during a photo shoot. She browbeats the boy into returning the money so he can appear morally upstanding and her film will be releasable, but everyone ignores him as she kvetches like the global stereotype of the exasperated filmmaker.

Since Panahi seems forced into making himself the subject of his films, there's a certain self-referentiality to Taxi that may be meant to hide the film's more obvious debt to someone else's picture, Abbas Kiarostami taxi-bound Ten. The passengers who recognize the director, and assume almost unanimously that he must be shooting a movie, comment on how certain incidents resemble scenes from previous Panahi pictures. Inevitably also, Panahi's own sense of persecution asserts itself at the end when, after a scene with a human-rights lawyer who faces a ban of her own, he and the niece go to Ali's Pool to return a pocketbook one of the old ladies left in the car. As uncle and niece leave the car and disappear, the government spies some viewers probably expected to see all along finally show up to break into the cab and grab the camera. It can be argued that Panahi overstates his case here, since the world has seen and honored Taxi and, to my knowledge, he still isn't in jail. But given his circumstances a certain angry overstatement is understandable, just as all the film's limitations can be excused in light of the risky ingenuity that's gotten his most recent films made and released. Whatever Taxi's shortcomings -- derivativeness, narcissism, heavyhandedness -- like all the best Iranian films it's still a breath of fresh air for us foreigners, a window into an Iran that's not defined by its own or its enemies' propaganda. The taxi-ride format automatically appeals to the virtual tourist in me, and despite any limitations you perceive you can tell that it's the work of a brilliant, resilient filmmaker whose filmography has more historic value already than those of most living directors. Taxi is certainly open to criticism, but it deserves celebration as well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: ROAR OF THE DRAGON (1932)

I'd been waiting for a chance to see this RKO film from the director of Cimarron since Erich Kuersten gave it a rave review on his invaluable Acidemic blog, and last week Turner Classic Movies finally came through. Normally "from the director of Cimarron" is not a recommendation for me, but whether thanks to or in spite of Wesley Ruggles' directorial touch Roar of the Dragon proved to be one of the pulpiest pictures I've seen in some time. It's basically a disaster movie or Stagecoach kind of film with a motley collection of characters thrown together by crisis, only they're in an isolated location, a Chinese inn under siege by bandits with a grudge against the American sailor holed up inside and the warlord's runaway mistress. The warlord -- apparently a Russian exile commanding Chinese -- is C. Henry Gordon, perhaps Pre-Code cinema's most reliably repulsive character actor, here allowed to play a little badass. We're introduced to him giving orders as his face is getting cauterized with a red-hot iron. It seems that that American sailor had cause to bite the warlord's ear off before the film even got started. The sailor is the star of Cimarron, Richard Dix, which usually isn't a recommendation even if you leave Cimarron out of it. But Roar of the Dragon is now my favorite Richard Dix movie because he plays the hero as a hardcore drunk -- and a bit of a jerk -- who only seems to sober up under threat of imminent death. He has a great line when he opens a door in the inn and finds the warlord's ex inside, pointing a gun at him: "I didn't know you wanted to marry me." As the exotic woman with the gun, Danish import Gwili Andre looks like the cover of a Pre-Code picture book. RKO brought her to America to be their Garbo or Dietrich, but she didn't get far beyond this movie, and that's too bad since I thought she was fine for what the part required.  The collection of characters gets still more motley from here, encompassing Arline Judge as a horn-playing dame called Bridgeport with a soft spot for Chinese orphans, Edward Everett Horton as Bridgeport's earnest suitor, Dudley Digges as a craven capitalist possibly more vile than Gordon's warlord, and ZaSu Pitts in an especially useless version of her stock nervous Nelly role. Also present is history's only nonwhite WAMPAS Baby Star, Toshia Mori, as a stylishly modern Chinese girl whose dad runs the inn. But most importantly, our little band has a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

Don't expect any profundity or sensitive analysis of the political situation in Asia from this movie. You'll be too busy guessing which of the characters gets killed, or rooting for certain characters to be killed. Its setting is a fantasy China where Americans can cut loose and play out whatever fantasies of destruction Depression and its frustrations might inspire. It would be called irresponsible now, and may have been then, but it's less disturbing than the many fantasies about vigilante justice and vigilante leaders playing around the same time. Nothing symbolizes this blowing off of steam better than the spectacular site of Edward Everett Horton -- the simpering, fussy comic relief in so many Astaire-Rogers musicals and similar pictures -- going all Wild Bunch on a horde of bandits with that machine gun. The only thing that might have been more transgressive would have been to give ZaSu Pitts a turn at the gun, but the filmmakers clearly had no idea what to do with her apart from her routine Olive Oyl antics. I suppose she forms part of an ensemble of more-or-less Ugly Americans running amok in the Orient, with Digges the ugliest of all, some of whom are redeemed by heroism, not to mention heroic death, while some, like ZaSu, stay the same as they ever were -- and maybe that's the point of her. Dix's half swaggering, half staggering performance carries the picture, artistically assisted by Edward Cronjager's cinematographer and a characteristically ominous Max Steiner score. Roar of the Dragon packs a lot of mayhem into 70 minutes, and while Wesley Ruggles remains no great shakes as a director he (or at least the writers and actors) packs more energy into it than there was in all but the first reel of Cimarron. Apart from violence, Roar doesn't push too many Pre-Code envelopes -- and, to be fair, it does include someone getting burned at the stake -- but its furious energy fits the period just fine.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


The Protestant Reformation opened the door to a priesthood of all believers, empowering anyone to interpret Scripture for himself (or herself!) Worse yet for those establishing or consolidating Protestant denominations, people claimed not just direct access to Scripture, but direct access to God. Authority preferred to believe that the work of revelation was done; it challenged those who claimed that God or the Holy Spirit communicated with them directly with the possibility that it was the devil talking. The patriarch of the doomed family in Robert Eggers' film hasn't necessarily claimed divine communication -- in fact he seems to hold a radical doubt about his own or other people's salvation -- but he has reached a point where he, and by extension his family, can't accept the authority of the local church fathers, and so, like many real families of 17th century New England, they are cast out to make their own way in the wilderness. In isolation they have only themselves from which to make the sacred drama that defined so many lives back then. There's something incestuous and almost cannibalistic about it, and maybe something fundamentally American that would make The Witch as much a prophetic film as a period piece.

Because Eggers has made a "Folktale," supposedly inspired and to an extent copied from contemporary documents, he has no obligation to whatever the "truth" was about witches in New England. You could watch this film and believe that belief in witches made them real, that the witch was a role someone had to play in the sacred drama of Puritan existence. Just as the man who thinks he hears God may hear the Devil, so those who separate or are separated from the mainstream faith community exist virtually next door to exiled or self-exiled witches. How different is this patriarch's "conceit" from the witches'? The Witch is a microcosm of the New England legend, the little family turning on itself amid simmering sensual tensions, the children (specifically the daughters, of course) accusing each other of witchcraft, with the folktale twist of genuine magickal menace in the woods just past the lonely family farm. A baby disappears in a virtual blink of an eye. The stakes are even higher than we moderns appreciate, since the baby hasn't been baptized and the family appears to believe in infant damnation as a corollary of original sin. Father (Ralph Ineson) can't assure his kids that they're saved, while sisters Mercy (Ellie Grainger) -- the younger, and a twin -- and Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the elder, take turns pretending to be witches and accusing each other of witchery to tease and torment each other. Mercy and her twin brother have an unsettling devotion to the turbulent goat Black Phillip, while Thomasin, coming of age, is constantly unsettled, newly attentive to male flesh -- father's, brother's -- and other phenomena. Thomasin's increasingly an unsettling element in the family, one the parents consider purging by hiring her out as someone's maid, to help themselves make it through the winter after a poor harvest. As witchery outside grows more blatant and aggressive, the family grows more determined to find it in their own midst -- where, in fact, it is.

The Witch goes for dread more than scares, having few conventional horror cues until it gets diabolically busy toward the end. The wilderness without and the family drama within are ample if not equal sources of dread. The family is a disaster in the making from the beginning in its fanatic isolation and obsession with damnation, and the wilderness seems to respond to that by revealing witches. Black Phillip stands for the diabolic potential of the entire animal kingdom, if not the whole natural world, and it's almost certainly the greatest film performance ever given by a goat. Its human co-stars are uniformly plausible as people of the 17th century and convincing in their moments of hysteria. Their drive for isolation and their divinely or diabolically inspired impulse toward mutual recrimination -- their habit of seeing the devil in each other, of blaming one another for failures tantamount to damnation -- don't quite seem obsolete from today's perspective. Despite the antiquarian detail, part of the horror of The Witch comes from recognizing the forces that drive this family to destroy itself as elements that exist today, even if often stripped of their theological trappings. Don't get the idea that the film's a political statement; I don't think Eggers intended any such thing. But what he achieved is so effectively evocative that it's bound to resonate relevantly with many historically conscious or simply sensitive viewers. Horror fans should dig it for its dreadful escalation toward some intimately epic mayhem. Any sense of relevance they or the rest of us get out of it is a bonus.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian is one of the ur-texts of the western genre. It contributed a phrase to the American language -- "When you say that, smile!" usually paraphrased as "Smile when you say that!" and formed the basis for at least four movies and one long-running TV series. I happen to be more familiar with the TV show than the book, which the show of necessity adapts very loosely in order to last for nine years. While the TV Virginian is one of the greatest westerns in that medium, it very quickly ceased to have anything to do with Wister's story. It can be jarring to watch an adaptation that comes closer to the source, though Victor Fleming's 1929 film is twice removed from the novel, being adapted from a more action-oriented 1904 play that Wister co-wrote. The essence of the story remains: the ever-nameless Virginian (that wouldn't be allowed to stand in a modern TV show) feuds with the rustler Trampas (who on TV was never anything but the hero's pal, and often the hero of his own episodes) and is forced to hang his feckless friend Steve (who was written out of the TV show, presumably still alive, after two seasons). The hanging complicates his courtship of Molly Wood, the new schoolteacher from the east (on TV a journalist until she's murdered offscreen in the second season) but everything turns out right after the archetypal showdown in the street with Trampas.

What surprised me about the 1929 Virginian is how much of a coming-of-age story it was. This comes through the most when the film focuses on the title character's friendship with Steve. As the Virginian -- he's never called by that title but is once referred to as "that Virginia boy" -- Gary Cooper is approximately the same age James Drury was when he commenced the role on TV, but compared to Cooper, who shows some early-talkie rawness here, Drury's Virginian seems like a much more mature man. My impression was that this was the film that typed Cooper as a cowboy, but his Virginian isn't the laconic Cooper cowboy ("Yup.") of caricature, and in any event Louella Parsons suggests that Cooper got the part because he was typed already, as a he-man if not a cowboy.

Still, Cooper's Virginian is a flirtatious prankster in the first half of the film, fond of practical jokes like switching a room full of babies awaiting baptism so they'll get the wrong names. For all that, he has an ambition that Steve (Richard Arlen) lacks, perhaps because Steve has a fatalism the Virginian lacks, a feeling that it makes no difference what you do when you end up dead anyway. Like many a modern gangster or gangbanger, Steve drifts into crime because he doesn't really give a damn about anything, not even himself. There's something about him I think audiences would recognize today, while by comparison Trampas (Walter Huston) is a stock villain. The best part of the 1929 film is the sequence leading to Steve's lynching, and this is where Cooper really shows his acting strength. The Virginian is doubly horrified by the necessity of hanging a rustler and his friend's apparent indifference to his feelings or his own imminent death. The scene is softened when someone slips him a note from Steve explaining that he actually couldn't face his friend without "playing the baby," and it closes on a bromantic note when our hero after the hanging hears the call of a quail, which had been his and Steve's private code, as a kind of epitaph for Steve's untamed nature. Corny, but effective.

"Virge," as I call him, is going to take it all out on Trampas, but the bad guy drygulches him first, forcing our hero into a recuperation period under Molly's (Mary Brian) anxious care. The showdown when it comes is a nice climax to some well paced build-up of tension as Virge wanders the streets and Trampas builds up liquid courage. It can't live up to the same scene in the novel, which is the one substantial section of it that I've read, in which Wister gives us a psychologically convincing look into the mind of a man watching the minutes drain away before possible death, from Trampas's point of view. But it's still nicely put together by Fleming, and the film as a whole is pretty fluent for a 1929 all-talking picture mostly shot outdoors. I like it better than the bland 1945 remake with Joel McCrea and Brian Donlevy as hero and villain. On the level of pure story and performance, there are some episodes of the TV series I like better still -- but that's another story.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

On the Big Screen: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (El abrazo de la serpiente, 2015)

Ciro Guerra's film was a finalist for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but lost to a Holocaust movie. I don't mean to be unfair to Son of Saul, which I haven't seen yet, but it does seem like the deck is stacked when you have a film like that in the competition. Embrace of the Serpent comments on a different sort of Holocaust, the virtual destruction by European colonialism of a people and their way of life. The site is Colombia, a land raped by rubber barons and tormented by the Catholic Church. Karamakate, the "world mover," believes himself the last survivor of his people, the last custodian of their traditional knowledge, which he guards jealously. He isn't untouched by colonization, since he speaks Spanish, but he has resisted its influence to the point of isolating himself. In 1907 a still young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) encounters Theo, an ailing German explorer (Jan Bijvoet) and his guide Manduca (Yauenku Migue), an educated native who also acts as Theo's secretary. Karamakate hates whites and despises Manduca as a sort of race traitor, but agrees to assist them as guide and healer when Theo says he's seen other survivors of our hero's people. Thus begins the first of two intercut phantasmagoric quests, the other taking place several decades later, during World War II, when an older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) encounters Evan (Brionne Davis), an American looking for yakruna, the mystical healing plant described in Theo's posthumously published journals. Because both sequences are shot in black and white by David Gallego, the visual effect of the aboriginal river journeys is as much Dead Man as Apocalypse Now, though some of the episodes come closer to the latter in tone. It becomes clear that the second quest gives Karamakate a chance to deal with some unfinished business in his own life. In old age, he fears he has become a chullachaqui, an empty shell or ghostly projection of himself, void of memories or real knowledge, and is inclined to believe that all whites are chullachaquis. His anxieties go back to an angry act of cultural destruction back in 1907 when, discovering at the end of his quest with Theo that his people had become decadent, he torched the last yakruna tree rather than see the sacred stuff cultivated as a commercial crop. By the 1940s he claims to have forgotten most of his old knowledge, though much of it returns, or comes out from hiding, during his quest with Evan. Karamakate learns that one of his earlier attempts at cultural preservation has gone terribly awry, and comes to the realization that, whatever he thought his mission was to his own people, his real destiny was to transmit his knowledge, including the yakruna and the hallucinogenic cappi drink, to Evan, who, unlike Theo, is able to embrace the serpent and see the world as Karamakate saw it.

In many ways Embrace plays out like an old-fashioned adventure movie full of perils and escapes. In 1907, Karamakate and his companions try to rescue native boys from the tyranny of a crazed Catholic priest whose abuse of his charges extends at least to flogging. They can't do much but beat the priest down, since the Colombian army is bearing down on the territory, but this is where our hero tries to teach the boys something of their culture. When he returns in the Forties, the old school has been taken over by a religious cult worshiping an abusive self-proclaimed Messiah who's only defeated when he invites his own people to devour him in the ultimate unholy Communion. Somehow Karamakate blames himself for this, since things did not develop according to his plans from the past. He embodies an ambivalence toward cultural exchange that's highlighted best in 1907 when his party visits a village where Theo is an old friend, but whose chief steals Theo's compass. Theo demands to have it back on "prime directive" grounds: if the natives come to rely on the compass for navigating the jungle, they'll lose their unique knowledge and methods of learning. Both Karamakate and Manduca object to this, protesting that Theo has no right to prevent natives from learning useful things. Otherwise, however, Karamakate acts as self-appointed guardian of traditional culture against pollution by whites, except when he's destroying that knowledge by burning yakruna. His lifelong confusion about his purpose encourages his suspicion that he's only a chullachaqui until Evan gives him a last chance at purpose. What is regrettably still a novelty to Embrace is its well-rounded presentation of a native personality; the complexity of Karamakate and Manduca -- who has a backstory of oppression in his own right yet resents Karamakate's hectoring -- is what sets it apart from pulp fiction or Hollywood stories set in this same part of the world.

Yet Embrace may want to have it both ways by spiritualizing Karamakate as a bearer of authentic wisdom and meaningful vision. Guerra and his co-writers seem to feel that Karamakate's religion is right if not true in its receptivity to nature in a way Christianity isn't. The film turns colorful for Evan's cappi-fueled headtrip in a manner dimly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's headrush toward enlightenment and evolution, and invites us to think spiritually when Karamakate vanishes after Evan comes to. It implicitly approves of Evan's decision, under pressure from Karamakate, to abandon his gear in a way Theo never did, overcoming a "white" obsession with stuff that our hero has always deplored. In this sense Embrace merely exchanges an old cliche, according to which Christianity is superior to primitive paganism, with a more recent one in which the superiority of native ways is self-evident. But I wonder whether the Evan sequence as a whole is more symbolic than the Theo sequence. That is, I wonder whether the old Karamakate Evan encounters is really his own construct of native wisdom, derived from his reading of Theo's writings; whether by following in Theo's footsteps Evan evokes a Karamakate who is a chullacaqui, a ghost who haunts the American until Evan truly internalizes his booklearning through the cappi ritual, at which point he no longer needs Karamakate, so Karamakate is no longer there. This is probably my resistance to aboriginal spirituality talking, since in dramatic terms Karamakate has a character arc to work out that requires his actual presence with Evan. If I must be skeptical, I can assume that old Karamakate simply walked off while Evan was tripping. But while I might resist any proselytizing for aboriginal superiority, that doesn't change my ultimate opinion of the film, which is very positive right now. It's an ingeniously directed and brilliantly acted film that should stand comparison with the best American films of 2015. Since the Academy doesn't have that great a track record when honoring foreign films, all I can say after seeing Embrace of the Serpent is that Son of Saul better have been a masterpiece.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: THREE WISE GIRLS (1932)

A girl walks home alone at night, but it's not that kind of a vamp. It's Jean Harlow and her date didn't go well. She left him in his car, presumably passed out, possibly knocked out based on what we see later, and she took his key with her, which she gives to a would-be samaritan driving the other way. In William (One-Shot) Beaudine's picture Jean is Cassie Barnes, a small-town soda jerk who lives and sleeps with her mother. Stop those thoughts right now; Pre-Code isn't that extreme and, anyway, women aged so much more rapidly in those Depression days that Cassie's mom (Lucy Beaumont) looks to us like Cassie's grandma. On top of that, Cassie's a good girl, in her sometimes surly, sometimes violent way, and what she really wants is to make enough money to make Mom's declining years more comfortable. When an old friend who found work in New York buys a new car for her aged mother, Cassie resolves to try her luck in the big city. Soda jerking is tougher there; the customers are more eccentric, the employers more grabby. She has to sock one of the latter, and one of the former, a hungover millionaire who ordered Bromo-Seltzer, has to intimidate that employer into paying Cassie her time when she quits ahead of getting fired. The drunk, Jerry (Walter Byron), gallantly drives Cassie home -- I should say he has his driver do that while he shares the passenger seat with her. Cassie still thinks he's a bit of a creep but she'll warm to him eventually. For now, she's got to find another job to hold up her end of the rent -- which is probably the lioness's share since roommate Dot (Marie Provost) actually has one of those envelope-addressing jobs you always used to hear about and throws a fit every time someone has a polysyllabic name.

Since that old friend of hers, Gladys (Mae Clarke), is doing well as a fashion model, Cassie decides to see her and Gladys decides to give her a tryout against the will of her manager, who changes his mind once he sees how Cassie can fit a gown. Gladys is living very well, beyond a model's means, because she's the mistress of a millionaire. She's impatient for her man Arthur (Jameson Thomas) to dump his wife and will warn Cassie for the rest of the picture not to hook up with a married man. Jerry proves persistent, however, and he's even willing to clean up his act to impress Cassie. One problem, though; Jerry's married, too, as Cassie discovers when the wife goes shopping to see her model clothes and surprise Jerry. Meanwhile, Dot's having better luck making time with Jerry's chauffeur (Andy Devine).

Is the title Three Wise Girls meant ironically? Possibly. We encounter women who get wise and women who think they're wise, but wise to what? This is a film pretty much without a moral, despite Gladys's attempts to impose one. She says don't hook up with married men and kills herself to make the point after her paramour publicly reconciles with his wife. On the other hand, a later newspaper heralds Jerry's divorce from his wife and signals a happy ending for Cassie. All this proves is that hooking up with a married man is a lottery. Cassie won and Gladys lost, while Dot probably had the sure thing all along by sticking with the chauffeur. Sure, it's Andy Devine but this was probably as young and hunky as he was ever going to be, and Provost was no prize compared to Harlow and Clarke. In any event, that lack of moralizing, the film's refusal to accept Gladys's fatalistic view of things, is a point in its favor. It scores additional points by being briskly written, without seeming rushed, and well shot by Beaudine, who's not bad at all when he has a real studio behind him, and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff.  This is one of two features Harlow made at Columbia before settling into M-G-M stardom, and it whets the appetite for more Pre-Codes from that studio, from which most of us have seen little from the period other than Frank Capra's films, including Harlow's Platinum Blonde. Three Wise Girls is definitely a film of its period and a pretty good representative of it. It's tragically dated, in fact, since five years after its release two of the wise girls would be dead.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

BLACK SOULS (Anime nere, 2014)

Francesco Munzi's crime film dominated last year's David di Donatello awards, Italy's equivalent of the Academy Awards. Munzi won Best Director and shared in the Best Screenplay award for an adaptation of a novel by Gioacchino Criaco. Black Souls is a stark picture that challenges the "family" myth of organized crime in unsettling ways, mainly by moving family drama to the forefront. In short, it's the story of a competition for influence over a young man between his father and his uncle. The father, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) is actually the eldest brother of the family, while Luigi (Marco Leonardi) is the youngest. Theirs is a crime family, but Luciano has kept out of the business to raise goats, leaving middle son Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) to run the business end of the family while Luigi acts as legman for drug deals and enforcer, and acts even more like an overgrown kid, and like an older brother to Luciano's boy Leo (Giuseppe Fumo). While Luciano has aged into a stubborn isolato, Leo emerges from adolescence eager to "command respect" in a way his father doesn't. When Leo gets involved in a petty local beef Luciano wants to shut him down, but Luigi only encourages him. You get the dreadful feeling that Luciano doesn't have a chance with his kid. Leo isn't the most emotive of rebels; rather, it looks like something's already dead in the lad's contemptuously poker-faced expression that Luciano can't bring to life.

Tragedy ensues as the local conflict escalates. When Luigi is killed, Leo rejects all warnings from his father and resolves to avenge his uncle. The naive punk promptly gets himself set up to be whacked in turn. You see where this is headed, right? Now Luciano is going to assert himself and take out his family's enemies. He thought he was out for life, but now he's dragged in. Perhaps he will prove more ruthless than Luigi or Rocco. Well, sort of and sort of. Following the pictures will be spoilers for the end of the film.

(l-r) Fabrizio Ferracane as Leo, Marco Leonardi is Luigi, Giuseppe Fumo as Leo


Anime Nere's ending is a genuine shocker. Luciano does go on the warpath, but he takes his wrath out on Rocco and other family members, those he presumably blames for his so taking the wrong path. At its climax Munzi's film veers violently from the cliches of the crime genre and upends whatever notion we may have had of Luciano as an honorable loner. The ending puts his isolation, his jealousy of his brothers' influence over Luigi, and even his distance from organized crime in a different light, or a darker shade. More than a jealous patriarch, he appears as an anti-social, self-righteous if not plain selfish man, someone who never sought to command respect because he never gave a damn what anyone thought of him. The image of his abandoned flock of goats at his doorstep after he leaves for his final showdown with his family is perhaps too on-the-nose in its symbolism, but it's definitely telling. It's a cunning, nearly cruel swerve by the filmmakers and the original author, since we're conditioned to think of the lonely man who holds himself aloof from organized crime as a hero, even when it means keeping aloof from his own family. But the family aspect of it all should have tipped us off that something more (or less) than a morality play was playing out here. That the ending shocks while ringing true is a tribute to the actors (none of whom scored a David, by the way) and Munzi's psychological craftsmanship. I haven't seen any of Black Souls' competitors for those awards, but at first glance it looks like those it won were well deserved.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


This 1938 picture is one of the more obscure items in John Ford's filmography -- little known, I suspect, before its DVD release as part of the monumental Ford at Fox collection. That may be because it's an atypical Ford film, more Anglophile than Irish. I suspect it's also because the film's message became politically incorrect very soon after it was released. Based on a Cosmopolitan magazine serial by David Garth, from the days when that magazine was far more literary than it is today, the globetrotting story reflects a then-popular suspicion that the world's wars could largely be blamed on the world's "merchants of death," the arms and munitions manufacturers. You initially expect something reminiscent of The Four Feathers as the sons of the disgraced Col. Loring Leigh (C. Aubrey Smith) reunite to restore his good name after his own attempt to do so is aborted by murder. Leigh is framed for a battlefield blunder in India, when the real question is how did the insurgents he fought get up-to-date firearms. His sons -- barrister George Sanders, diplomat Richard Greene, aviator David Niven and student William Henry -- aided by the diplomat's American girlfriend (top-billed Loretta Young) split up to pick up the pieces of the mystery, two brothers going to India, the other two to South America, where a revolution is brewing. The South American section is the best part of the picture, combining the brutal spectacle of a revolution betrayed and slaughtered and the introduction of the merchant of death himself (Alan Hale Sr.) Hale rarely played villains but when he did so his normally affable manner only seemed to make the bad guys more cunningly dangerous. There's a great suspenseful scene, just after we've seen him throw a client to the wolves, in which he has to b.s. his way through an encounter with Greene and Niven. He excuses himself to fetch something out of his closet. Inside the closet is a servant who silently hands him a pistol and grabs one for himself. Hale pockets the gun and returns to show his guests some of the benign rubber product his perfectly innocent firm manufactures in the region. If anyone says something wrong our good guys, as yet none the wiser about Hale's character, are sure to be killed. Ford and his writers maintain the tension while leavening it with comedy as Niven, playing a bit of a ninny, grows fascinated with Hale's rubber toys. A different kind of tension develops as our heroes' suspicions turn toward another arms manufacturer who happens to be the Loretta Young character's father. Finally, in true thriller fashion -- this film looks forward to the later international spy genre in some ways -- the reunited brothers raid the villain's yacht off the Egyptian coast. Four Men is neither a characteristic nor canonical John Ford picture, but it shows him an expert studio craftsman earning his keep by making an often-exciting and just about always entertaining movie.