Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: SINNERS' HOLIDAY (1930)

Preceding Little Caesar into theaters by several weeks, John G. Adolfi's Sinners' Holiday arguably marks the beginning not only of the fabled Warner Bros. gangster genre but of "Warner Bros." itself as an archetype or style rather than a mere studio. It's the first film pairing of James Cagney, whose film debut this was, and Joan Blondell, making only her second feature film, and they instantly make it recognizable as a "Warner Bros." film in a way many studio releases of the same year aren't. Blondell and Cagney came to Hollywood to recreate the roles they played on Broadway, when the play was known as Penny Arcade and an appreciative Al Jolson, Warners' big musical star, was in the audience. They are not the primary characters, though Cagney plays a pivotal role. They seem immediately at home in a milieu of cynical, hard-boiled fast talk that soon would define the studio product. That milieu is a boardwalk full of carny attractions, including the once-titular arcade operated by Ma Delano (Lucille LaVerne). Cagney's her youngest, Harry, and the role reminds me of Kirk Douglas in some of his earliest pictures when he might have been typed as a weasel. Keeping his voice at a high pitch, Cagney plays Harry as the sort of physical, mental and moral weakling moral experts then assumed gangsters to be; watching this, you understand why he was cast initially as the sidekick in The Public Enemy. While his Ma thinks him a good boy, Harry hangs out in pool halls, sucking up to Mitch (Warren Hymer), a bootlegger who runs some of the boardwalk concessions. The actual main character of the film is Angel (Grant Withers), an ex-con barker fired by Mitch and hired by Ma Delano to repair her arcade machines. She can use Angel but doesn't trust him, and she definitely doesn't want him hanging around her daughter Jennie (Evalyn Knapp). Harry has a crush on Myrtle (Blondell), a small-time gold digger, and an unlikely rival for her attentions in Happy (Hank Mann, Chaplin's opponent in the City Lights boxing match and quite adept in talkies.), another boardwalk carny.

The main plot kicks in when Mitch is pinched and has to serve time. Harry takes a chance and takes over the bootlegging operation, explaining his new wealth to his ma with vague remarks. When Mitch gets out he's out to get Harry, who shoots his erstwhile mentor in panic during a threatening confrontation. Jennie has seen the shooting but keeps silent as the cops start investigating. Suspicion swirls circumstantially around Angel, while Harry bribes Myrtle into providing an alibi for him. Ma starts to notice the holes in the stories Harry's telling, and doesn't like the way Myrtle is flaunting an apparent new power over her boy. Under pressure, Harry cracks in Cagney's big scene on both stage and screen. Blubbering like a baby, Harry begs Ma to cover for him. Still hostile to Angel, Ma agrees to help frame him for the killing, not realizing how easily Jennie can destroy their plan....

The stage is set for a tragic family showdown, but at the supreme moment Sinner's Holiday simply runs out of gas. The trap is almost shut around Angel when Jennie turns on her mother and brother. When she spills, we'd expect, after seeing Cagney's abject antics earlier, to see Harry have another breakdown, or attempt a breakout and go out like Cody Jarrett, a role for whom in some ways Harry Delano seems like a rough draft. But no, none of the above: once Jennie rats him out he surrenders instantly and dispassionately, like a good loser, consoling Ma by telling her, "You tried." This scene practically defines "anticlimax." The ultimate disappointment probably explains why Sinners' Holiday isn't as well remembered or regarded as its place in history might lead you to expect. Nevertheless, it's an indisputable milestone in the evolution of Warner Bros., with Cagney and Blondell -- aided admirably by the underrated Withers -- virtually creating a cinematic world before our eyes, or at least beginning the process.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bud Spencer (1929-2016)

Carlo Pedersoli was an Olympic swimmer as a young man. With that background he could have been a Tarzan of the movies. Instead, as he grew huskier and shaggier, he became a fixture in spaghetti westerns under his stage name, an homage to Spencer Tracy. Despite his imposing size and potentially forbidding appearance, he usually played more likable than menacing characters. He achieved stardom during the decadent phase of the spaghetti genre as the sidekick to Terrence Hill in the Trinity movies and a variety of films beyond the genre. In the 1970s Spencer became a solo star, headlining the semi-comic Flatfoot (Piedone or, more literally, "Bigfoot") series about a cop who preferred to use fists rather than guns. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Italian film industry in 2010. A prominent figure in the wild world of cinema in the last years of global grindhouse distribution, Spencer died on June 27. Follow this link for a closer look at some of Spencer's films.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

On the Big Screen: FREE STATE OF JONES (2016)

Gary Ross's film presents Newton Knight as an American Robin Hood, a folk hero Americans should have known better. It leaves you wondering why his story and the legend of the Free State of Jones wasn't the stuff of Hollywood movies (George Marshall's 1948 film Tap Roots is based on a names-changed fictionalization of the story) or Wonderful World of Disney adventures, though the film itself, in its downbeat final act, hints at an answer. The Robin Hood tropes of the first half serve to set us up for the sucker-punch history lesson to come, creating a powerful effect of a dream destroyed. Like many a Robin Hood story, this one opens with the hero involved in a futile war. Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a hospital orderly in the Confederate army who grows increasingly disgruntled with the Cause. He resents a new law that allows soldiers who own 20 or more slaves to go home. Worse, a young relative is basically impressed into service and promptly gets killed despite Newton's efforts to protect him. Allowed to bring the boy's body home, Knight decides not to return. That makes him an outlaw already, but when he prevents the rebel home guard from confiscating a family's livestock Knight becomes a fugitive. His Sherwood Forest is a swamp occupied by runaway slaves, with Rachel, a local house slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) -- seemingly privileged but actually the master's sex slave -- his link to the outside world, while Newton becomes Rachel's link to the world of words and books. With Knight's wife (Keri Russell) forced to flee from Confederate reprisals, Rachel becomes Knight's lover. To mix metaphors, Mbatha-Raw is the hero's Rebecca to Russell's Rowena, but Ivanhoe itself is a Robin Hood story. As an increasingly desperate situation forces the Confederacy to grow more invasive and confiscatory -- the opposite in its intrusiveness to the idealized regime of enduring states-rights fantasies -- the swamp becomes a magnet for white deserters as Knight welds deserters and runaways into a guerrilla force that repeatedly thwarts the Sheriff -- I mean the home guard -- while remaining impregnable on their home ground. Knight's army eventually liberates five counties in Mississippi, initially offering themselves to the Union but finally declaring the Free State in response to General Sherman's indifference. Finally forced to retreat to the swamp by superior Rebel numbers, they remain undefeated at the end of the war and the liberation of the slaves.

As writer and director, Ross sees the Rebellion as the proverbial rich man's war and poor man's fight. Many in the North saw the Union cause in the same way, but the Confederacy as portrayed in Free State seems incomparably more predatory than the Lincoln administration that some see today as the precursor of Big Government. The predicament of poor whites in Mississippi seems to prove the point made by contemporary critics of the Slave Power, that its aggressive defense of privilege would ultimately subvert small-r republican government. Newton Knight becomes conscious of a Rebel exploitation of poor whites that is little different from the planters' exploitation of slaves. It's arguably worse, as Knight points out to one deserter reluctant to consort with blacks, because the planters don't order their slaves to get shot. Who, then, is the nigger? The most shocking, and probably most memorable line in the picture is Newton's assertion that everyone is someone else's nigger at some point. What seems implicit, given the story of the film, is that this is so so long as inequality persists, that the rich inevitably will make everyone their niggers if they need to. The extremity of war finally awakens the poor whites of Jones County to this truth and encourages collaboration, if not true fellow-feeling, with the ex-slaves. The tragedy of the story is that this glimmering of solidarity dies during Reconstruction, apparently because the poor whites no longer feel under the gun and no longer blame the planters for their plight. If anything the film understates this by making Knight's defeat by the Ku Klux Klan so nearly complete, when in fact he led a military force against the hooded terrorists. Knight himself remains a literal negro-lover to an extent that would seem too good to be true if history didn't confirm it.

Free State of Jones is a film that rewards patient viewing. It does something strange about a half hour into the picture, flashing forward to the late 1940s, when Newton Knight's great-grandson is tried for violating Mississippi's anti-miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman while his own blood is tainted with Rachel's. As the film returns repeatedly to this trial, which hinges on whether Rachel can be proven to have been the latter Knight's ancestor, its relevance to the main story remains questionable. Presumably the main story of Rachel and Newton Knight will prove whether Newton's descendant has Negro blood, but confirmation of this in the past can only be bad news for the 20th century Knight. The last half-hour of the picture explains why it's bad news. Newton Knight's defeat in the 1870s makes possible the persecution of his descendant three generations later. A textual assurance that Newton and Rachel personally had a happy ending -- the film goes so far as to suggest that Rachel and Newton's ex became friends -- does little to ameliorate a sense of disappointment that the filmmakers clearly and bravely want to instill in their audience after the exhilarating action of the Civil War section. In the end, after introducing us to a real-life folkloric hero, Free State indicts us as a nation for failing to live up to Newton Knight's heroism and idealism, thus condemning ourselves to another century of racial oppression. I don't know if the country wants to hear such a message this year, or whether this film will be denounced for political correctness, but we can definitely stand to hear that message, especially from a film that succeeds as either an action film or a history lesson.

Afterthought: That ego-trip of a poster doesn't help the film any. Make no mistake: McConaughey is great as Newton Knight, but the advertising ought to be selling Free State as an epic adventure, not spooking them with the specter of a wild-eyed fanatic for who knows what cause. If the picture doesn't get the grosses it deserves, you can partly blame that image that looks more like a wanted poster than a movie poster.

Monday, June 20, 2016

DVR Diary: RAMPAGE AT APACHE WELLS (Der Ölprinz, 1965)

Winnetou, Karl May's Apache hero, had a number of white friends in his fictional career. Taking his cue from such American heroes as Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson), Old Rough and Ready (Zachary Taylor) and Old Fuss and Feathers (Winfield Scott), May made many of the white protagonists of his German westerns "Old" men. The best known of these is Old Shatterhand (played by Lex Barker in the West German westerns of the 1960s) but there was also Old Firehand (Rod Cameron) and Old Surehand, Winnetou's sidekick in Harald Philipp's adaptation of May's novel The Oil Prince. Stewart Granger was the token Hollywood star for the Surehand films. He makes Old Surehand more of a smartass than Barker's Shatterhand, who was nearly as stolid as Winnetou himself, as played by the improbably idolized Pierre Brice -- though to be fair I've only been able to judge Brice by the emotionless, charisma-less dubbing of the American versions of his films. Surehand is more likely to taunt his antagonists, especially when he has the advantage on them. There's an almost Tarantinian moment in Der Ölprinz when he's caught a villain in the act of imposture, pretending to be the scout he'd murdered, whose body Surehand has just brought into town and identified. "Is your name Billy Forner too?" Surehand asks with wolfish interest, repeating the question until his man is terrified. It's good to see that Granger invested what he may have seen as a thankless role signifying his decline from stardom with some personality, especially since Brice remains crippled, from an American perspective, by the robotic dubbing. But for all I know, a certain Spockish emotionlessness may have been part of Brice's appeal all along.

It's disappointing initially to see Philipp reuse the exploding oil refinery footage from the earlier Winnetou Part II (Last of the Renegades) to introduce his villain (Harald Leipniz), who is only ever known as "the Oil Prince." But after the blatant process shot placing Leipniz and another actor in front of the stock footage Ölprinz reverts to the good form of German westerns with spectacular natural locations. In this story the Oil Prince (so-called or self-styled?) wants to get rid of white settlers who are in the way of his prospecting. He proposes to eliminate them by having some Indians wipe them out, first by convincing the impressionable natives that the settlers are hoarding gold on their wagon train, then by having one of his own men knife an Indian searching a wagon, so that the settlers will be blamed and a massacre ordered by an angry chief and father who demands fifty lives for his son's. It's up to Surehand and Winnetou to track down the knife-thrower we know to be the true killer and convince the old chief that this man, and he alone, could have murdered the brave. It's all too neatly resolved, but from what I read this film is taken from one of May's more juvenile-oriented stories. Like other German westerns, this one's weighed down a bit by oldschool comedy relief, from both Surehand's white sidekick Wabble (Milan Srdoc) and from a fat, fussy German composer working on a western opera (Heinz Erhardt) -- the sort of role S. Z. Sakall would have played in the classic Hollywood version of this story. Like Winnetou Part II, Ölprinz features Mario (Terrence Hill) Girotti in a minor good-guy role as proof of the shared genetic pool, so to speak, of the German western cycle and the Italian spaghetti westerns. Unlike Klaus Kinski in Winnetou Part II or Mario Adorf in its predecessor, Harald Leipniz isn't that impressive a villain, apart from wearing a black suit very stylishly. Nor is Philipp the equal of Harald Reinl in directing action, though this film does sport an impressive flaming-arrow attack from a commanding height on a wagon train and an arduous rescue of rafters on dangerous rapids. Ölprinz has many of the seeming shortcomings that left the Germans far behind the Italians in the race to colonize the American west, but like the other German westerns I've seen it has an almost refreshing earnestness about it and a definitely refreshing approach to landscape, as opposed to the Italian preoccupation with desert and dust. Whether you like these films or not, all western movie fans owe the German genre a look.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


From the director of The Devil Bat and The Abbott & Costello Show comes a film that lives in infamy as the humiliating final film of Basil Rathbone, even though he made one more film in Mexico. This sequel to Las Vegas Hillbillys -- I believe the producers had to use the illiterate plural to avoid confusion with The Beverly Hillbillies -- better fits a narrative of tragic decline, especially when you see how far down in the billing Rathbone is, below not only the title characters but fellow horror men Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine, who presumably were more accustomed to such work by this point in their careers. It's not merely the badness of this Woolner Bros. production but the mere idea of these beloved actors stooging for second-rate hillbilly actors -- and that's being too generous -- that offends fans of the horror genre and classic cinema in general. Seeing it offered in one of Turner Classic Movies' eccentric moods, I expected something dreadful, and got it. A trio of protagonists returns from Las Vegas Hillbillys, the entertainers Woody (Ferlin Husky) and Jeepers (Don Bowman) and "girl singer" Boots Malone, originally played by Mamie Van Doren but now incarnated by Joi Lansing. They're on their way to Nashville but interrupt their trek to allow the allegedly agitated Jeepers some r & r. Told that there are no hotels or boardinghouses in the small town where they stop for gas, they decide to squat in a mansion recommended to them. This is our haunted house, but it's actually infested by spies for Red China who intend to steal an important formula from a nearby military base. The spies seem to be divided into two factions. Gregor (Rathbone) and Himmel (Carradine) are straightlaced, almost effete characters, compared to their handler Madame Wong (Linda Ho), her henchman Maximillian (Chaney) and his sidekick, Anatole the gorilla. Tension flares up constantly between Himmel and Anatole, escalating from insults to banana stealing and, finally, murder. Into this volatile setting blunder the hillbillys, who stand their ground despite the spies' best efforts to scare them away, and in spite of the fact that hillbillys scare very easily. There's a twist to come, however, that upends everyone's plans....

Hillbillys may be the worst haunted-house comedy I've ever seen. The reason has nothing to do with the performances or misuse of the horror stars, and everything to do with Lansing, Husky and especially Bowman being without doubt the worst scaredy-cat comedians I've ever seen. The singers have no comic timing at all, and while Lansing at least can scream when required, the men seem incapable of emoting in any way, and Duke Yelton's script leaves them helpless like fish on a haunted beach. Here's his idea of something either funny or scary. Jeepers tries to soothe his alleged nerves by watching some television. Luckily for him, some station is showing a performance by Merle Haggard. The spies are able to interfere with the broadcast, so that Haggard's singing is intercut with random shots of Rathbone, Chaney, Carradine and Ho staring at the camera or making faces, while Bowman tries to indicate in his stunted way that he's frightened. Maybe a laugh track would have helped.

Of the horror men, Carradine probably does the best with what he's given. He gets to have mood swings from his mounting rage at Chaney and the gorilla to his friendly, familiar banter with Rathbone. One of the few interesting things about the picture is the way Rathbone and Carradine seem to be competing over who can underplay better in their scenes together. Carradine in particular is unusually relaxed and casual in those moments, and the veteran actors succeed, at this if at nothing else, in convincing you that Gregor and Himmel are longtime partners and friends for whom this preposterous mission is just another day on the job. By comparison, Chaney is on autopilot at best, and at worst has a pathetic scene when Maximillian, in all the actor's sodden, grizzled splendor, infiltrates the military base and must convince a talkative janitor that he's a scientist with high security clearance. It's hard to tell whether his obvious unfitness for the task was meant to be a joke in a comedy picture or not, but Chaney's actually a sadder sight than Rathbone for most of the picture.

While most viewers will resent the lack of comedy or terror in Hillbillys, the producers seemed most concerned that audiences would think there wasn't enough music. Thus, after the spies are defeated, we get a square-up reel that finds the Hillbillys finally in "Nashville" hosting a variety show with guest performances by Haggard and other possibly-popular singers of the moment, as well as a comedy song by "the Great Jeepers," all before a stock-footage audience, apart from occasional insets of about a dozen people. Because it's a performance setting, the echo-chamber effect you get in all the film's musical numbers -- including Lansing's pathetic "Beautiful Dresses," in which she's supposed to be an 18th century aristocrat in a bouffant hairdo --  isn't as glaring, but this musical epilogue is strictly for country-western fans of the old school. For the rest of us, it simply keeps a terrible film going for another twelve minutes or so.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


In 2015 Alexander Hamilton was reintroduced to pop culture in phenomenal fashion by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning hip-hop musical, which has won guarded endorsements from historians like Ron Chernow, on whose biography it is largely based, and Gordon S. Wood, the dean of historians of the Revolutionary era. Miranda apparently has succeeded in making the first Secretary of the Treasury not only relevant but fascinating -- Chernow's book is a best-seller again -- through his choice of music and lyrics and aggressively inclusive casting in which almost none of the players are white. Miranda is 36 years old. He plays a man who died at age 49. Miranda follows in the footsteps of Mr. George Arliss (as movie publicists worshipfully called him), who wrote a 1917 play about Hamilton and starred in John G. Adolfi's film adaptation fourteen years later. Arliss's Hamilton -- on the strength of his Oscar-winning turn in Disraeli the actor had considerable creative control over his work at Warner Bros., Adolfi being little more than his stooge -- is microfocused on one episode in the great man's short yet eventful career, but opens several years earlier with the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783. In this scene Hamilton, then 28, is played, as in the rest of the picture, by Arliss, then age 63. The principal action is set in 1790, when Hamilton was 35, and Arliss is still 63. Only our imagining of all the Founders and Framers as patriarchal figures can excuse such ghastly casting, but without Arliss there probably would be no Hamilton movie in 1931. What would we have missed?

Alexander Hamilton's subject is the Funding Act of 1790, better known as the Assumption Bill. If approved by Congress, the federal government will take responsibility for the debts the states owe to Revolutionary War soldiers, many of whom were still owed considerable back pay. Hamilton considers this step necessary to establish the credit of the new federal government. It is opposed mainly by southerners, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (Montagu Love) and James Monroe (Morgan Wallace) -- James Madison is strangely absent from the movie even though he was one of the leaders of the opposition to the bill in the House of Representatives, while Monroe did not join the Senate until November 1790, after the bill was passed and signed -- along with the fictional Senator Roberts of nowhere in particular (Dudley Digges). They dislike the measure because it will compel states that have paid their soldiers, like Jefferson and Monroe's Virginia, to help bail out other states. Jefferson also sees it as part of Hamilton's overall program for a consolidated central government, which he sees as fatal to state autonomy. Another factor in the opposition that doesn't come up until later in the picture is the fact that speculators were swarming the country buying up veterans' IOUs from their state governments in the expectation of making a killing if the feds paid up at full face value. Hamilton can't be bothered with Jefferson's ideological paranoia, but at least the Virginian is making a principled stand. Roberts proves more dangerous because he's less principled. You probably could guess he'd be the bad guy once you realized he wasn't real, and if you recognized Dudley Digges as a regular heel actor in pictures.

Hamilton thinks he can win over the Virginians by promising them that the permanent U.S. capital will be built in the South. He'll get northern congressmen to sign off on that idea as long as Jefferson and Monroe can get their fellow southerners to support the assumption plan. The location of the capital really matters to the Virginians, so they'll willing to make a deal, but the unreconciled Roberts tries to sabotage everything by entrapping Hamilton in a compromising situation with a young woman while Mrs. H. is away in London. The trap sprung, Roberts blackmails the secretary, telling him to withdraw the bill or face public exposure. In real life, Hamilton probably would have challenged Roberts to a duel, but in reel life he preempts the senator by confessing his indiscretion. After that there's apparently nothing left to do but resign, but in a Charlie Brown Christmas moment the leaders of his own party and the opposition, including Jefferson and Monroe, and President Washington himself (Alan Mowbray) in full military uniform, show up to announce that the Funding Bill has been passed by an overwhelming margin and that of course Hamilton can stay in the Treasury! Imagine what the Clintons could have accomplished back in the 1990s if politics actually worked this way.

I suppose Mr. Arliss might not bother you if you didn't know how young Hamilton was, but he does look pretty ghastly. There's something immobile and lacquered about his face that seems exaggerated by his own knowledge that he's playing a much younger person. As a dramatist he does an okay job of setting up the issues behind the assumption debate, only to trivialize them with his pandering melodramatic subplot. Oddly, I can see the seeds of Capracorn in Arliss's tale of a principled man nearly broken by manufactured scandal but vindicated by other people's good conscience at the end. Capra did it better, though, because he was totally untethered from history, while Arliss's plot contrivances turn a promising historical picture into a travesty as well as a preposterous ego trip. A hip-hop Hamilton might seem authentic by comparison.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

DVR Diary: BLOODY MAMA (1970)

Imagine Christopher Nolan making a Batman movie and casting an actor from the 1966 TV show as the villain -- as the same villain he or she played on the show -- and the effect would be similar to Shelley Winters, Batman's Ma Parker, playing that character's real-life model, "Ma" Barker, in Roger Corman's film. I suppose it was a case of no other actress being imaginable for such a role at the time, especially if you take a "print the legend" approach portraying Ma as the violent mastermind of her family's gang, despite testimony to the contrary from contemporaries. There's really little difference between Winters playing the role straight and her camping it up, and given the strong hints of incest in the Corman film, and Winters' mature acting style, you could argue that she camped it up both times. For Corman it was a resumption of a gangster cycle he had started with 1958's Machine-Gun Kelly and resumed with 1967's St. Valentine's Day Massacre. By 1970 no film in that genre could go uninfluenced by Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, and Corman shows its influence in an increased gore quotient and a concern with sexual dysfunction, from an incestuous bent in Ma herself dating back to a childhood rape at the hands of her brothers to the homosexuality of one of her sons. The drug addiction (and eventual overdose) of one son (Robert DeNiro) only adds to the decadence. Corman probably also owes to Bonnie and Clyde a consciousness of economic injustice that in this case doesn't really make the Barkers sympathetic. Bloody Mama is a more cynical film that discourages sympathy with Ma in many ways. It acknowledges the folk-hero popularity of country bandits like her family as Ma notes that she'd probably get more fan mail than Eleanor Roosevelt if people knew her address, but the film also makes clear that she doesn't deserve it, most pointedly in a narrative read over newsreel footage in which Ma notes with contempt the debate in Congress over an anti-lynching bill, then notes with relief its defeat with help from "some good people," aka the Klan. Ma is all too conscious of inequality, but no sense of solidarity results from it. "It's supposed to be a free country," she says at one point, "But unless you're rich you ain't free, so I aim to be freer than the rest of the people." Depression ethics are dog-eat-dog ethics as far as Ma is concerned, while her boys are too stupid even to consider ethics. If Bonnie and Clyde influences most of the film, Corman seems to take his cues for the climax from The Wild Bunch as the Barkers inflict far more casualties on the cops besieging their Florida hideout than history records. History apparently confirms the added satirical note Corman adds to the Peckinpah-style finish by having spectators arrive with picnic lunches to watch the siege and gasp whenever a cop gets shot. Overall Bloody Mama is an energetic film with decent shootout and chase scenes and the right amount of sleaze to make it contemporary. Your tolerance for it will depend on your tolerance of Shelley Winters, still playing a cartoon character but in deadly earnest.

Bonus Content: American-International Pictures sent young Robert DeNiro on press junkets to promote Bloody Mama, and inevitably to promote himself as a possible future movie star. Here's a typical interview from the Spartanburgh Herald Journal of March 22, 1970.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Too Much TV: the season in review

There are still new shows running in June and into the summer -- I'm currently watching Preacher and Outcast -- but the traditional "fall" TV season ended last month. So at a moment when I'm not finding much time to watch movies -- perhaps perversely, I'm going back and forth on Netflix between Jacques Rivette's Out 1 and Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights, so don't expect to see my reviews of those monsters for a while -- I've decided to indulge in a little ranking. With no further ado, here are my ten favorite TV shows of the late season.

1. Black Sails (3rd season, Starz)
2. The 100 (3rd season, The CW)
3. iZombie (2nd season, The CW)
4. The Magicians (1st season, SyFy)
5. The Last Kingdom (1st season, BBC America)
6. Jessica Jones (1st season, Netflix)
8. The Night Manager (miniseries, AMC)
8. The Flash (2nd season, The CW)
9. Into the Badlands (1st season, AMC)
10. Ash vs. Evil Dead (1st season, Starz)

Honorable mention: Underground (1st season, WGN America).

Incomplete: Daredevil (2nd season, Netflix)

As a reminder, I don't watch everyone else's favorite shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, only because they began before I made my current commitment to series TV and I'll never have time to catch up. I'm too busy trying to catch up with shows from 50-60 years ago to even try, and I hope to say something about some of those shows this summer.

For the hell of it, here are my least favorite shows of the season:

1. DaVinci's Demons (3rd season, Starz - QUIT)
2. The Bastard Executioner (1st season, FX - QUIT)
3. Legends of Tomorrow (1st season, The CW)
4. Arrow (4th season, The CW)
5. Wynonna Earp (1st season, SyFy - QUIT)

No show fell in quality as rapidly as DaVinci's Demons, crashing from the pulpy heights of the hero's improbable Incan adventures in Season Two to unwatchable pointlessness as the writers indulged in the Hydrafication of the Renaissance by portraying a Turkish incursion into Southern Italy as a feud between two secret societies that had little to do, of course, with Islam or Christianity, and then stalled the invasion to have our hero hunt for a serial killer, while checking in dutifully on characters no one cared about in further subplots. Arrow has fallen nearly as far from its height, but it's taken the producers two seasons to reach those depths, while Legends of Tomorrow most likely will never have heights from which to fall. No show seemed more randomly or futilely plotted as that one. At least it moved, if only flailingly, which was more than could be said for the numbing inertia of Bastard Executioner. Wynonna Earp is by far the least offensive of these shows: it merely bored me. Gotham, which I quit in the middle of the "Rise of the Villains" arc, gets a dishonorable mention in this category.

Since there is always too much TV, stay tuned for my reviews of Preacher, Outcast and The Night Manager as well as some old but good westerns and possibly a few things more.

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Any Swedish actress who takes on the role of Christina, her nation's most famous queen, has big shoes to fill. Greta Garbo most famously essayed the role in a 1933 Hollywood film, while Liv Ullmann took her turn in a 1974 British film. Each could claim to be one of the most famous and acclaimed actresses in the world when they played the role. Malin Buska can't say the same, though like her predecessors she performs the role in English for Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki's history play. While Garbo's Queen Christina and Ullmann's The Abdication were prestige pictures in their day, I suspect that Buska's Girl King is aimed at a niche market. Here, what is only hinted at by Garbo's infamous kiss of a lady-in-waiting becomes almost the main subject of the film. I say almost because The Girl King aspires to be more expansive in its portrayal of Christina as an Enlightenment intellectual and a woman ahead of her time. Unfortunately, it leaves you with the impression that the queen was a pretentious brat.

Christina was raised to rule despite her gender and grew up a tomboy who apparently never reconciled fully with her femininity and the expectations it created. Like Elizabeth I of England Christina resolved to be a virgin queen, going so far as to adopt an heir to the throne rather than make one herself. Like many women of her time, she had at least one special female friend, Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), but as in those cases it's unclear how intimate (by our standards) the women were with each other. By our standards, at least, it seems odd for Christina to flirt with Ebba at one moment, and with the Catholic Church in the next. Then in another moment she's assisting Rene Descartes (Patrick Bauchau) in a dissection of a cadaver's brain, revealing the pineal gland which the philosopher declares the physical seat of the human soul, while nobles and courtiers huff and hurl. Buska lacks Garbo's innate gravitas (I haven't seen Ullmann in The Abdication) and by giving her too many interests the filmmakers make Christina look flighty rather than enlightened.

The Girl King suggests that Christina's abdication was precipitated by the discovery -- apparently in the nick of time -- of her sexual attraction to Ebba, who is kidnapped and quickly married off to a blond, blank nobleman. Her Catholic hobby is an additional deal-breaker but the film's message seems to be that she can no longer be queen if she can no longer live and love as she chooses, so she'll go to Rome and hang out with the Pope instead. I guess he could commiserate about the celibacy, or perhaps explain alternatives to the new exile. The movie ends with Christina's abdication ceremony, culminating with her crowning of the new king and her shucking off the royal robes to march off in a man's costume, saying in effect that she's free, though to do what is left an open question, since she isn't able to take Ebba with her. It's closer to history than the Garbo film, in which Christina's great love is a Spanish nobleman, but that's pretty much its only advantage over the 1933 picture.In the end, I doubt whether Girl King is romantic, tragic or titillating enough for its presumed target audience, and it's most likely less of all these things for everyone else.