A randomly comprehensive survey of extraordinary movie experiences from the art house to the grindhouse, featuring the good, the bad, the ugly, but not the boring or the banal.
Sunday, December 30, 2018
AQUAMAN (2018) in SPOILERVISION
The new film is set some time after the events of Justice League. By now "the Aquaman" is more or less a known quantity, known or assumed to be an Atlantean, but not really a full-fledged public figure. He continues his low-key career of good deeds by rescuing a Russian submarine from some high-tech pirates but makes a long-term enemy of the son (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) of the pirate commander, whom Aquaman leaves to die for his bad choices, but who actually kills himself after tasking his son, soon to be known as Black Manta, with vengeance. Then it's back to hanging out with his dad (Temuera Morrison) who once upon a time had a fling with an Atlantean princess (Nicole Kidman) fleeing from an arranged marriage. This princess eventually was forced to return home, marry and birth a legitimate heir to the Altantean throne. When her affair and her terrestrial son became known, she was condemned to death. Her affair and her fate have embittered King Orm (Patrick Wilson) against the surface world, which has ages of pollution and depredation to answer for as well. Orm is trying to unite a number of undersea realms into a grand alliance that will confirm him as "Ocean Master" and enable him to wage war against the land. A clique of powerful insiders, including Orm's vizier (Willem Dafoe) and his bride-to-be (Amber Heard, seen briefly in Justice League) hope to avert war and see Aquaman, the man who could be King Arthur, as the answer to all problems. Orm is secretly collaborating with Black Manta to create provocations to drive the kingdoms into his embrace, while Aquaman, resenting Atlantis for killing his mom, rebuffs entreaties from below. Only when Orm launches a tidal-wave attack that nearly kills Arthur's dad does the hero agree to assert his claim against the fanatic king.
The story devolves into a Raiders-style treasure hunt for the sort of artifact that automatically confers legitimacy on he who wields it. The pursuit of this macguffin allows Aquaman to become a globetrotting James Bond style adventure and an all-out CGI explosion at the same time as Arthur and Mera follow clues above and below the surface in prickly partnership. All Atlanteans have superhuman strength and speed on land, so Mera is already a formidable heroine, but on top of that she has a special ability to manipulate water, pulling off stunts from drawing water out of Aquaman's scalp to attacking Atlantean goons with daggers of Sicilian wine. She's one of those longtime comics characters who's been upgraded in recent years from damsel-in-distress to kickass co-star, and whatever you think of Amber Heard's performance, the character certainly gets over. This film doesn't ask to be judged on its acting, however -- and that, given Wilson's vapid villainy, is probably a good thing. Aquaman is above all a pure spectacle, and you can believe while watching it that Justice League looked so cheap so often because most of Warner Bros' money was going into this film. It isn't that impressive at first, but kicks into super high gear in its relentless second half. It overwhelms you with imaginative battles between armies of shark-riding undersea cavalry and giant sentient crustaceans, among other things, filling the screen almost to overflowing with detail, and it also pulls off a tremendous extended parallel chase scene in Sicily as Mera fights off Atlantean pursuers across the rooftops while Aquaman deals with an upgraded Black Manta. There are times when throwing everything but the kitchen sink (though I may have missed that) at the audience is a good thing, and Aquaman is one of those occasions. For all that the future of a movie "universe" was riding on this film, it has an admirable nothing-to-lose recklessness to it, exemplified when at the end of his quest our hero encounters an immense sea monster, half kraken and half kaiju, and it talks to him -- in what must have been meant as a flagant F.U. to Disney, whose Mary Poppins reboot premiered the same week -- in the gravelly tones of Julie Andrews. If Justice League at nearly all points seemed cautious and stunted, Aquaman has the sort of creative insanity that when done right can justify a comic-book movie's existence. At the same time, Momoa clearly has more of a grip on the title character than he's ever had before as an actor, and may be able to take credit for molding Aquaman into his own self-image. If this was a make-or-break moment for the DC movie franchise, then Momoa should be a made man in Hollywood for literally saving a universe.
Saturday, December 22, 2018
On the Big Screen: MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)
A film adaptation of John Guy's biography has been in the works for more than a decade, but I could see people seeing the finished product, English-made as it is, as some kind of allegory for progressives refusing to support Hillary Clinton. The film flaunts its own progressiveness with aggressive inclusive casting, making the English ambassador to Scotland (Adrian Lester) and a member of Elizabeth's privy council black men and by adding a degree of homophobia to the sins of the Scots establishment given the relationship between Lord Danley (Jack Lowden) and Mary's minstrel-scribe David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova). The Brits are probably more used to inclusive casting by now thanks to Shakespearean theater giving worthy actors of color opportunities to play the great roles, but it seems harder to justify when some of the performers are little more than well-dressed extras. But by now I've reconciled myself to this violation of realism on film -- the "meta" quality of the stage may make inclusive casting less jarring -- by reminding myself that for generations Hollywood cast gentiles as semites in Bible stories with almost no one protesting. In any event, only two performers really count here -- and of the others Tennant is particularly bad in a one-dimensional heavily bearded role written with little understanding of how someone like Knox could be a successful demagogue. The real battle for supremacy on screen is between Ronan, who gets all the sympathy from the screenplay, and Robbie, whose past experience playing a she-devil in clown makeup no doubt recommended her for the role of Elizabeth I as envisioned here. To be fair, Elizabeth is portrayed as a tragic figure, no less compromised by refusing to mate than Mary is by taking husbands. She proves incapable of showing the solidarity with another woman that the film demands because her solution to the dilemma of a woman claiming power is l'etat, c'est moi, only with the opposite effect of the egoism we associate with that motto. Elizabeth must become the state at the expense of her femininity, her persistent and increasingly delusional vanity notwithstanding, and ultimately at the expense of effective empathy. Whether there was ever any chance of the two queens forming a matriarchal alliance given the inherent threat Mary presented to Elizabeth and the realities of Reformation geopolitics is less important to this version of the Mary story than Elizabeth's more timeless failure. But if this all sounds dismissive, let me close with praise for Saoirse Ronan. With the whole deck stacked in her character's favor, she does a great job portraying Mary as a three-dimensional, fallible heroine instead of a flawless martyr. Her effort alone just about justifies this enterprise.
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
DVR Diary: DEATH BY INVITATION (1971)
Young and ambitious, Friedman made a film about revenge across the centuries. It opens with unconvincing scenes of 17th century New Netherland, where a woman is tried and condemned for witchcraft to the accompaniment of a loud heartbeat. We cut abruptly to the present day, where a distant descendant of the lead accuser (Aaron Phillips) -- you can tell because they look alike -- presides bibulously over the Vroot family dinner. Arriving late is family friend Lise (Shelby Leverington), who bears a strong resemblance in turn to the accused witch of yore. She entices young Roger to meet her later at her apartment -- despite the father's warning that he shouldn't hang out with "any of those way-out people" -- where she tells a strange story that deserves to be quoted in full, since it's the highlight of the film. Imagine the following told in a spaced-out monotone, like the incantation it apparently is:
Roger, do you know of the Southern Tribes? Well, it was the common practice for one certain tribe that the women were the hunters, while the men were domesticated. When the village needed food, the women would go out and hunt for it. The men on the other hand were allowed to grease [pronounced "greeze"] the women's bodies before the hunt, but they were never allowed off their knees while massaging the oil into the women. When a band of women found a prey, they would rush at it together, all stabbing wildly with their knives, until the blood of the animal flowed upon their bodies, often mixing with their own blood. Then without knives they would rip away at the flesh of the animal with their hands and mouths. They would rub their bodies against the ravaged animal, against his head, against his genitals, and after they had completely satisfied themselves upon the animal and upon each other they would drag the remains back to the men. Now the men would grovel on the ground when the women returned, exposing themselves, hoping to be chosen, for if they were chosen, and if they were good, they were given food.
But it happened once that one certain man found that he could hunt in the woods and bring in more food than the women could, and that with his rather large body he could satisfy four or more husbands. And with this man as their leader the men began to ignore the women, disobey their commands. They found they no longer needed the women. Whereupon the women came together and met, and they ["greezed"] and oiled their own bodies and they prepared to hunt that man, naked. We were -- they were naked. They tracked that man in the woods until they came upon him in the clearing. They fell upon him at once, ripping him open and eating his insides. The men were made to watch. They drank his blood and they chewed his bones until all of him was inside of them, but strangely they had raised themselves to passions far beyond their belief, and still writhing with pleasure and desire they fell upon the other men one by one, ripping them open and devouring them all.
Now that's a come-hither speech, and it works! Roger can't resist approaching this alluring and long-winded bacchant, and of course he gets what's coming to him, to the extent that Friedman's budget can visualize it. Practically speaking this means we get a shot of Roger from the neck down as several streams of blood begin to flow down his naked back. Lise's plan, you may not be surprised to learn, is to work her way through the Vroots, killing them indiscriminately, the women as well as the men. She takes out two daughters at once, though one is more or less accidental, the younger girl recoiling from the sight of her elder sister getting decapitated until she falls down a flight of stairs and brains herself. While synopses usually describe Lise as a descendant of the accused woman of the past, her slip of the tongue during her speech raises the possibility that she somehow is the fiend herself, though we have only the word of the accusers that that woman did anything wrong. In any event, while the local police are helpless to stop here -- they're comedy relief figures out of a 1940s B-movie -- Lise has not reckoned on another family friend, Jake (Norman Parker), whose virility overcomes her power. At the climax she tries repeatedly, in increasingly pathetic fashion, to repeat her Southern Tribes speech, as if she needs it to get sufficiently worked up, only to have Jake interrupt her repeatedly with his own come-ons, until old Peter Vroot charges in trying to finish what his ancestor started. Parker and Phillips share what might be, in spite of everything else, this film's strangest scene when Jake visits Peter at his office. Peter Vroot likes his Muzak, apparently, and has the stuff cranked up so loudly -- I recognized one familiar theme from a Tom and Jerry cartoon -- that he and Jake have to yell in order to hear each other in Peter's allegedly impressive sanctum sanctorum. You could believe that Friedman had the music playing on the set, and it may even be possible that he meant this to be funny. If so, it'd be one of those rare and serendipitous moments when a comedy scene is unintentionally funny. Some may say the whole film is that way, but that Southern Tribes bit is genuinely jaw-dropping and could well stop the snarkiest viewer in his or her tracks. To my shame, I found myself wishing that Friedman had had the means to put that story on film, though such a film probably wouldn't be something I could review here.
Saturday, December 15, 2018
On the Big Screen: THE MULE (2018)
Yet The Mule is as much a vanity project as a confessional, though the two aren't necessarily contradictory. Split the difference and call it one of Eastwood's most narcissistic pictures. He's reached a point at last when he's undeniably frail, though apparently healthy; any fantasy of Eastwood overcoming younger antagonists is no longer plausible. Nevertheless, and regardless of whatever Leo Sharp felt during his misadventures, Eastwood's Earl Stone never shows fear, veers between stoic and smartass except when dealing with family, and gets to cavort, so to speak, shirtless with topless women as a guest of honor at a cartel party. Perhaps because he's so plainly frail now, Eastwood seems to feel a greater need to reaffirm his virility than we've seen in past films. The main thing he wants to reaffirm, or perhaps prove once and for all to skeptics, is that he can act. The Mule is Oscar bait, its primary goal, apart from getting the bad taste of The 15:17 to Paris out of people's mouths, is to give Eastwood one more chance at a vindicating Best Actor award. Unfortunately, while he's loosened up a lot and is often quite natural and funny, he still can't do much with Schenk's bluntly on-the-nose dialogue in the family scenes. Overall, his performance may contribute to uncertainty about the tone of the picture. People, I think, were prepared to see this as some sort of tragic commentary on socioeconomic modernity -- look what this war hero was reduced to! -- but it plays more like a mildly black comedy because Earl Stone doesn't take his situation very seriously and seemingly would rather take nothing too seriously. When he feels guilty, it's all about his family and not in the least about running drugs. Eastwood probably would rather not have his character seen as a victim of anything other than changing times, and in its own way the film is very much about personal responsibility in the conservative sense of the term. Within his thespian limits, he gives a subtle performance that easily could be seen as a shallow one.
Social commentary is inescapable, however. Earl Stone's flower business is ruined, so he thinks, by the internet, and his downward spiral is accelerated by the logic of the bottom line. This becomes most obvious on the cartel side of the story. Earl is initially an object of amusement if not contempt by the cartel gangbangers, but his easygoing zero-fucks-given attitude and some quick thinking in a pinch eventually earns the criminals' admiration, to the point when the big boss (Andy Garcia) invites him to his big decadent party. Soon enough, however, a new regime takes over, eliminating the old boss because he'd become too "lenient." What the new boss demands, above all, is efficiency and the strictest time management, with the slightest deviance punishable by death. It's just a slightly exaggerated metaphor for the modern job market, or will seem that way to some viewers. Earl's success as a mule is a commentary unto itself. He's recruited not only for his perfect driving record, but because he, as an elderly white man, is one of the least likely people to be profiled as he drives around the country. The wisdom of his recruitment is demonstrated in scenes when plodding DEA agents (played with deceptive efficiency by Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) reflexively profile after getting tipped off about a mule driving a black pickup. In one awkward scene, they pull over a hispanic-looking man who speaks no Spanish and frets loudly about the danger he's in. Later, staking out a motel where Earl is staying overnight, they see virtually everyone else there as their likely suspect. It all appears to prove a point against profiling; organized crime will respond to it by recruiting contrary to the profile. It's the same logic that makes the earlier cartel bosses indulgent toward Earl's eccentricities; his unpredictability will make him more difficult to track down. As Earl falls through the cracks in society, he can slip through some as well. In the end, though, The Mule is only superficially a crime film. It's more a character study than social commentary, though the latter often can reinforce the former. Good as it often is, it's not top-tier Eastwood but it'll be of lasting interest to auteurists for what it seems to try to say about the ultimate actor-turned-auteur of our time.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018
National Film Registry Class of 2018
A large bloc of "Movie To Be Announced" on the cable guide for TCM reminded me that the time had come for 25 more films of reputed historical value to be added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, and for some of them to play on the movie channel later today. As usual, we have an eclectic lot chosen according to criteria of generic and demographic diversity rather than by the sort of chronological priority that arguably should prevail when films are designated for preservation. I have no problem with any of this year's "diversity" choices (the headliner in that category is Brokeback Mountain), but as far as mainstream Hollywood is concerned this may be the most "meh" selection ever, ranging from a seemingly random Viola Dana picture from 1917 (The Girl Without a Soul -- not a horror film) to the stolid George Cukor musical My Fair Lady (which I suppose qualifies on the strength of its best picture Oscar) to the bland Broadcast News. The Registry has dutifully added another Keaton, another Welles, another Hitchcock and another Kubrick, but nothing seems historic about it. The two films that strike me as most deserving of the bunch are the documentary features Monterey Pop and Hearts and Minds, though I can't argue either with the 1908 actuality footage of an expedition to the Crow Nation or the supposed first-ever footage, from 1898, of a black couple kissing. More than ever, with the exceptions mentioned, the Registry announcement seems merely like a list of "great" movies, though the greatness of some (One-Eyed Jacks?) will remain subject to debate. Another look at the Registry website's list of "Some Films Not Yet Named to the Registry" reminds me that the annual selection could be far more exciting from a historical standpoint, though also probably far less compelling for the casual movie fan whose attention the curators crave. Of the 50 I selected from that list in 2015, only one -- Steamboat Bill Jr. -- has been added to the Registry. I realize my error, of course. I started from the beginning and made it to fifty films by 1943. That was very elitist of me, I guess.
Sunday, December 9, 2018
Too Much TV: THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA (2018 - ?)
Her problems are not solved. Working independently of Father Blackwood and the witch establishment to push Sabrina toward the dark side is a demoness who takes the form of Mrs. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez), a feminist high school teacher who becomes Sabrina's mentor. There's some deep ambiguity if not hypocrisy at work with this character. She does much to advance the show's feminist subtext, insinuating that the male-dominated with establishment fears female power, yet her ultimate goal seems to be to render Sabrina subservient to the very male Dark Lord. This becomes only slightly less murky when Wardwell reveals herself as the Lilith of Jewish/feminist myth, aspiring to equal standing to Satan, if not still more. Her special interest in Sabrina on the Dark Lord's behalf raises questions about Sabrina's own identity and destiny that remain to be answered and provide a hook for the second season that has already been filmed.
Sabrina is one of Greg Berlanti's productions but goes relatively light on the "lies are bad" hobbyhorse that powers many of his other shows. The writers, led by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who writes a Sabrina comic book, are too busy world-building to indulge too much in teen genre-soap cliche. I think that makes the show's deeper dives into soapy sturm und drang all the more effective, more heartfelt because you're not seeing the characters going through the same contortions every single week. The writers are especially good on the family drama of the Spellman household, from the literal Cain-and-Abel dynamic of Zelda and Hilda (which borrows an idea from Alan Moore) to the sexually-frustrated Ambrose's (the show's token homosexual so far) embroilment in a slow-burning murder mystery. The best thing about the Spellman family is that their dynamics aren't set in stone; Zelda in particular proves to have more conscience and compassion than you would have guessed at first. As a whole, because the show has no monolithic vision of evil, all the characters seem more well-rounded than is usual in genre shows. Combined with Black Lightning on The CW -- I can't speak for Riverdale but Sabrina makes me more willing to give that show a chance -- this program shows that the Berlanti team is enjoying a strong second wind as its empire expands ... and I may have more evidence of that to report shortly....
Sunday, December 2, 2018
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
'Misanthrope?' I don't hate my fellow man, even when he's tiresome and sulky and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that's just a human material, and him that finds it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.
Perhaps feeling less capable of telling a feature-length story lately, the Coens reportedly contemplated embarking on series television. It was announced that they were creating a western anthology series for Netflix, but instead, apparently quitting while they were ahead, they delivered a feature-length collection of six stories: five of their own and an adaptation of Jack London's "All Gold Canyon." There's a variety of tone to the anthology that belies any stereotype of the Coens' character or philosophy and makes it truly reminiscent of the Twilight Zone of western anthology TV, Zane Grey Theater. It opens with a trolling provocation featuring Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a seemingly invincible and suprisingly lethal singing cowboy who ultimately yields, in the most cartoonish fashion, to a harmonica-playing stranger presumably representing a later era of westerns. It's a combination of what some may enjoy most and what others despise in the Coens' work, but as the film moves from episode to episode it grows less predictable, veering from the fateful absurdity of "Near Algodones," in which James Franco's hapless bank robber escapes one hanging only to be doomed to another, to the utter nihilism of "Meal Ticket," in which Liam Neeson exploits a limbless savant who performs recitations and murders him when he fails to draw crowds anymore, before following London in a more hopeful direction.
The longest episode -- or so it seemed, though not in a bad way -- is both the most romantic and the most tragic. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is a wagon-train story of the deliberate courtship of a suddenly penniless pioneer woman (Zoe Kazan -- a veteran of Meek's Cutoff, by the way) and a wagonmaster's lieutenant (Bill Heck), as much motivated by monetary concerns as by feelings of ardor. There are elements in the story -- a dog with a maddening bark, a bankroll left in a corpse's clothes -- that lead you to suspect an absurdly happy ending until the story takes a twist out of nowhere when the girl and the wagonmaster (Grainger Hines) are caught alone by an Indian attack. The Coens have set up an archetypal frontier scenario of the sort that might get them scolded for their portrayal of Native Americans, down to the wagonmaster giving the girl a gun so she can kill herself if the Indians get him, in order to spare herself the fate worse than death, which here gets described in some detail. In a brilliantly swervy climax, it looks like he's driven the war band back only to get tricked by a seemingly riderless horse. The Coens keep our eyes on this scene, as the Indian moves in to take a scalp, only to get killed by the possum-playing wagonmaster. Hooray! -- except that the girl was just as fooled as the Indian was, and the finish could be considered an indictment of the mortal terror of Indians the old tales induced. This is a great piece of filmmaking on its own, but it could only happen in an anthology format, since it's too short to be a feature and a standalone story won't go on series TV nowadays.
The film ends on an eerie note with a story that's part Stagecoach, part Samuel Beckett, with a typical Coen cast of eccentrics and grotesques sharing a ride with two men who may be bounty hunters or may be far more sinister than that. On paper it's little more than an opportunity for a lot of newcomers to the Coens' world to tuck into their meaty flights of rhetoric, especially Chelcie Ross as an interminible trapper. One thing you can depend on, no matter what the content or tone of the tale, is that these westerners won't sound just like the people next door today; it's of a piece with their True Grit in many ways, and maybe meant to show that they weren't just mimicking Charles Portis's prose. While they portray The Ballad of Buster Scruggs onscreen as an old hardcover book with color illustrations, it reminded me more of the western pulp magazines I've come to enjoy reading in its simultaneous variety and consistency. The finished product may or may not count as a salvage job, but it still plays to the Coens' strengths while minimizing their weaknesses in a way that makes it a vast improvement over the tedious Hail Ceasar! The brothers may well have found the right medium in Netflix for this point in their career. Had it been packaged as a series, that would only have made it more clear, as it was clear a century ago, that great filmmaking isn't restricted to feature-length storytelling.
Saturday, November 24, 2018
DVR Diary: KENTUCKY KERNELS (1934)
The boys get the idea into their heads that the man needs someone to care for and set out to adopt a child for him. At the orphanage, Margaret Dumont seems glad to be rid of Spanky (McFarland,natch), an infant psychopath with a compulsion to break glass. Soon to be the leader of Our Gang, Spanky is almost the antithesis of Shirley Temple; nearly as cute, yes, but a creature of pure mischief. Apparently Kalmar and Ruby thought the preceding the best way to get him on the screen with Wheeler and Woolsey, and at this point the despondent man disappears from the narrative, having reconciled and eloped with his girl. That's okay, though, since it means W&W will have to chaperone the tyke down south when it's revealed that he's the heir to a backwoods fortune. Unfortunately and inevitably, Spanky has inherited a household embroiled in one of the region's characteristic feuds. He's also inherited Willie Best (here billed only as "Sleep 'n Eat") as the family retainer, making this quite the household. Best is always a problematic presence, with his work alongside Bob Hope in "The Cat and the Canary" and "The Ghost Breakers" probably his most acceptable performances. Here, he's largely a poor man's Stepin Fetchit.
Inevitably and unfortunately, Wheeler -- the younger, more effeminate member of the pair -- falls for a girl from the enemy family (played by the late Mary Carlisle, who departed this earth last summer at age 104). This sparks a reconciliation of the families, helped along by the big song of the picture, presented in what had become the cartoonish RKO musical comedy style. Wheeler and Carlisle get the first verses, and then we cut to the patriarch and matriarch of the rival broods, allowing Noah Beery to show off the singing voice that got him cast in the infamous Golden Dawn of a few years before. Then we cut to a random collection of blacks for a more swinging rendition of the tune. Then Spanky sings it to a dog, and then Woolsey sings it to a mule. It's very much like the changes run on "Everyone Says I Love You" in Horse Feathers, only done all at once, and then, except for a little bit of recitative at the banquet table, the musical portion of the picture is over.
The feud resumes when Spanky pops a champagne cork and all the erstwhile feudists mistake that for gunfire. They recommence to shooting, all apparently missing each other at point blank range. All efforts at reconciliation fail, until our heroes, Spanky and Sleep 'n Eat are besieged at the ancestral manse. There's no way Kalmar and Ruby can top the siege sequence in Duck Soup, though there's an absurdly inventive bit of business involving a meat grinder, a blow torch, a string of light bulbs and some raspberries enabling the besieged heroes to fake a machine-gun attack on the besiegers. There are also painful bits when Spanky appears to invite gunfire by mounting hats on fragile objects on top of a crate inside of which Best cowers to no particularly comic effect. All ends peacefully, however, when the good guys produce a telegram showing that Spanky had been identified as heir to the estate by mistake, making it unnecessary to murder him or any of his household. It's the final bit of randomness in this most arbitrary of stories, but after all, it's the journey, not the reason, that matters.
This is Wheeler & Woolsey's first Code Enforcement picture and thus quite unsalacious if no less nutty than previous vehicles, presumably including the Kalmar-Ruby script for Hips, Hips, Hooray! Despite what I said about Stevens's contribution, there are a couple of nice gags with protracted payoffs that show the lessons he learned from Hal Roach. Early, Spanky sat on the accelerator of W&W's car, causing them to get in trouble with a traffic cop. Woolsey decides to impress the cop with his magic, appearing to tear the ticket to shreds, only to produce it intact before the flatfoot can get mad. The cop is impressed and asks how the trick is done, so Woolsey gives him instructions, and of course the gendarme irreversibly rips the ticket apart. He's a good sport, though and sends the boys on their way. Back home, they get the news about the man's elopement, along with a $1,000 check to cover taking care of Spanky for another month. Also impressed by the earlier magic, Spanky snatches the check and tears it to shreds. Down south, Spanky's new estate sports a prominent greenhouse, and the tot has to be steered constantly away from temptation until, at the very end of the film, as Woolsey, Wheeler and his girl are driving off, Woolsey and Spanky exchange glances in the front seat. Echoing the child's characteristic "Okey-doke!" Woolsey cathartically plows the car through the greenhouse. It's a characteristic closing gesture for a style of comedy itself on the way out at the end of 1934.
Saturday, November 17, 2018
LEGENDS OF THE POISONOUS SEDUCTRESS: FEMALE DEMON OHYAKU (1968)
To this point, everyone has underestimated the heroine. She survived a near-drowning in infancy when her mother jumped off a bridge, but bears a scar as a constant reminder of this primal injustice. She grows up to be a high-wire artist but has grown sick of all the wolf whistles by the time the story proper starts. Shin's scheme looks like the easy path to a new and better life, but after the great betrayal the only path left to her is the path of revenge.
On the island, Ohyaku becomes the plaything of a privileged convict and his wife, a tattoo artist (Yuriko Mishima) who grows obsessed with the heroine's smooth skin. She aches to tattoo and otherwise make Ohyaku her own. Ohyaku appears to give in, and rather likes the idea of a big nasty demon tattoo on her back, but for her the non-poisonous seductress is just one of many people she manipulates and leaves in the dust on the way back to the mainland. There, her ultimate revenge will be twofold. With some gangster friends she'll rob not merely a gold shipment, but the mint itself -- and then she'll kill the bureaucratic bastard who ruined her life the same way he had Shin killed.
Female Demon Ohyaku has an oldschool attitude toward revenge from which modern American pop culture has grown alienated. We've long understood that revenge can make a monster of you, the end justifying all means and all manner of mistreatment of not just the guilty but the innocent. Nowadays, we like to catch someone on the brink of taking revenge and tell them, "This is not you" or "You're better than this." I don't know if Japanese attitudes have changed in a similar way over the last 50 years, but in this picture, set sometime during the 19th century, when Ohyaku tells her friends what she's going to do to her past tormentors, their response basically is, "You go, girl!" Some modern viewers may expect her to stop short, to decide that the bad guy isn't worth what Ohyaku presumably is doing to her own soul or karma, but let me assure you that she does not stop short. There's something both awful and awesome about that that may be lost on those whose moral hedonism is so absolute that they can't even imagine anyone actually deserving to be killed. Movies like Ohyaku allow a vicarious release from the passivity such absolutism may encourage, without necessarily convincing anyone to turn killer. Ohyaku's revenge may seem self-indulgent to some viewers, but it also lends the film a kind of gravitas lacking in today's more common appeals to "hope," regardless of whether you think the heroine right or wrong. One can assume that identifying her as a "demon" makes Yoshihiro Ishikawa's film something other than an unambiguous endorsement of Ohyaku's revenge, but the fact that she is a heroine probably tells you as much about the world she lives in, or the world as Ishikawa saw it, as it tells you about Ohyaku herself.
Monday, November 12, 2018
A note on Stan Lee
Historians and older comics fans continue to debate Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel Comics universe. The debates were initially fueled by the perception that Lee, who died today at age 95, tended for a long time to downplay if not minimize the contributions of artists Steve Ditko, who died earlier this year, and especially Jack Kirby. If the question is who created characters or came up with specific concepts, then the credit often and rightly goes to Ditko, who created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and Kirby, who created nearly everything else until 1970. Lee's distinctive and crucial contribution was twofold, one part of it becoming only more obvious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe conquered multiplexes in the Stan the Man's last decade.
What was more obvious early on was that Lee gave all the comics, whether drawn by Kirby, Ditko or others, a specific authorial voice that helped set Marvel Comics apart from DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That voice took the idea of a narrator character from earlier crime and horror comics and applied it to superheroes. Lee wasn't an "onscreen" narrator like Mr. Crime or the Crypt Keeper, but established his authorial, brand through his constant explanatory footnoting and a narrative tone that could be several things at once: bombastic and bufoonish, bardic yet self-mocking. It gave a wide range of readers leeway to take Marvel as seriously as each one chose, or to appreciate it at multiple levels simultaneously, and it allowed Lee to be campy and sincere at the same time. His narration probably strikes most people as corny today -- it's even worse when he speaks it aloud on bad cartoons of the 70s and 80s -- but in those formative years it didn't keep readers from feeling genuine emotions about the Marvel heroes.
In the long run, Lee really laid the groundwork for the 21st century success of Marvel movies by giving Marvel Comics a "universal" vision that neither Kirby nor Ditko might have given them on their own. In his later career especially, Kirby preferred to isolate his creations from the rest of his employers' product, balking at crossovers when they were suggested, while Ditko arguably never got along with others that well. Of course, the heroes of any given comics company had been joining forces since DC's Justice Society of America in the early 1940s, but outside the designated team books they rarely if ever interacted with each other. At Marvel the constant crossing over of characters was an essential part of Lee's world-building, and for all that Marvel heroes tended to fight each other on their first meetings, they were inherently more compatible as components of a shared universe, once someone actually tried to do that in movies, than DC's iconic characters have proven to be so far. One could argue that Kirby and Ditko could have come up with all their great creations with no input from Lee, yet could not have come up with the Marvel Universe as either comics or movie fans understand it today without Stan Lee's vision, however self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing it seems to his critics. This note certainly won't end the Marvel debates, but it should make it more clear that however clownish or crass he was at times, Lee was one of the great pop-culture geniuses of the 20th century, with a legacy sure to last well beyond his lifetime.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
OUTLAW KING (2018)
The first time I ever heard of Robert the Bruce was in a school reading textbook that had the legend of his encounter with a spider. Outlaw King (or Outlaw/King as it appears onscreen) invokes that legend by making Robert the spider at the center of a marshy web in the climactic battle of Loudon Hill. One must assume that the English learned their lesson from this catastrophe, presuming that it played out in history as it plays here, as they subsequently dealt with the French more or less the same way during the Hundred Years War. This film's big battle scene inevitably must be compared with the Stirling battle in Braveheart, but each aims for a different effect. Gibson expresses furious exhilaration -- I still remember a woman behind me starting to laugh like a madwoman at the peak of the action when I first saw it -- while Mackenzie adds a note of horror to whatever satisfaction audiences may feel on seeing the English get their comeuppance. At first glance, Outlaw King strikes me as a more gory film than the massively violent Braveheart because of the more overtly horrific presentation. Mackenzie doesn't show it in a particularly lurid way, but in a matter-of-fact fashion that makes such moments as the casual disembowling of a man all the more horrifying. While Braveheart could be accused of glorifying war, Outlaw King is less vulnerable to that charge, though it goes too far to equate it to the alleged antiwar aesthetics of the superficially similar marshy combat in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, to which Mackenzie's battle scene has been compared. There's no denying, after all, that in the context of this film that fight was necessary.
I wonder how self-consciously Mackenzie and his co-writers strove to make their film "Not Braveheart." Not having William Wallace as a character is probably the most obvious way to make clear that this is going to be a different kind of story. More interesting is their attempt to make the Prince of Wales, later Edward II (Billy Howle) as the main antagonist, with his dad remaining in the background until he dies, ahistorically, en route to Loudon Hill. Outlaw King reimagines Edward II as a Messala-type character who once was Robert's buddy but becomes his most dogged enemy for reasons of state. Ironically, in light of what Gore Vidal often said about his conception of the Messala character in Ben-Hur, the new film goes out of its way to avoid anything that could be interpreted as homophobic (as in Braveheart) in its presentation of Edward II, to the point that the casual viewer would have no idea that he was reputedly homosexual. On the other hand, Edward's sexuality has nothing to do with his or his father's policy toward Scotland, so there really isn't any need to address it here, and it's arguably a fair hit on Braveheart that it's treatment of the character was gratuitous. Both films take huge liberties with history, including Outlaw King's placement of Edward II, king before his actual time, in command of the English troops at Loudon Hill and engaged in single combat with Robert at its close. That scene really hurts the film, since the writers take too many and not enough liberties at the same time. If you're going to have the English king fight the Scots king on the field of battle, and have Robert disarm and decisively defeat Edward -- which obviously didn't happen -- why not go all the way and have Robert take Edward prisoner and force the liberation of Scotland ahead of schedule. It looks stupid to just let him go, especially if the writers' excuse is "well, he wasn't captured historically." That aside, Outlaw King is a decent historical drama, though lacking much of Braveheart's primal passion, especially in Pine's relatively dispassionate but conventionally stalwart performance. I'll give him and the film credit for one thing, though. The standard before-the-battle speech is quite nicely done here because it boils down to: I don't care why you're fighting with me as long as we win. Whether you find it better or worse than Braveheart, or don't believe in comparisons, at least it's a legitimate change of pace.
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Probably because Evans is more interested in the fantastic horrors to be revealed later, Apostle makes it hard to believe that Malcolm's cult could attract as many people as it seems to. As Malcolm, Sheen simply isn't that charismatic, and we see pretty much nothing to explain the cult's appeal. Evans himself seems to realize the limitations of the Malcolm character, since about midway through he builds up Malcolm's second-in-command, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) into the real villain of the piece. Quinn disapproves beyond all reason of his daughter's romance with the son of another cult leader, finally killing the girl, framing the boy for the crime and executing him with a gruesome machine that bores a hole through the back of his head. By this point Quinn has gone over the edge entirely, determined to overthrow Malcolm and take the leader's daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) -- as well as Thomas's sister (Elen Rhys) -- as a broodmare sex slave.
While Malcolm is at best a half-baked conception of a cult leader, Quinn proves a villain worthy of an Edwardian horror story. By this point in the picture we've learned that the cult leaders had some time before captured a sort of earth goddess (Sharon Morgan) who subsists on human blood. By sacrificing to her, the cultists initially enjoyed good harvests. But just as she seemed ready to die when they found her, so she seems reluctant to go on living on the diet they offer her. It's bad enough that Malcolm sheds his own blood to force-feed her and has others do the same. Quinn quite explicitly wants to treat the goddess like a machine, hoping to jump-start her power by gorging her with full-scale human sacrifice. That rings true as a particularly 19th century (or so) form of villainy or industrial-strength hubris combined with control-freak patriarchal insanity. Jones runs with the idea and his over-the-top villainy pretty much saves the picture.
It helps, too, that the latter half of the film has more action, allowing Evans to show off his real strengths as a filmmaker. The two big scenes are Thomas's fight with a "Gimp"-like henchman who operates a human-sized meat grinder for Quinn and his final battle, assisted by his sister and Andrea, with a nearly indestructible Quinn. Jones has been such a despicable villain that Quinn's gruesome demise is the picture's indisputable highlight. Unfortunately, Apostle still has to resolve Thomas's character arc. He lost his faith, you see, when his church was burned and friends were killed in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Were this a different sort of film, you might expect his struggle against real evil to revive his faith, but faith doesn't come into it, since he instead encounters, for all intents and purposes, a real god. Better still, he gets to become a real god by the end of the picture as the old goddess passes her mojo on to him. Is this a good thing? Much of the cult village has been burnt down by this point, but Malcom is still wandering around and gets to see Thomas's transfiguration. Does that mean the cult gets to start over again, only better this time? It's probably better not to ask. Apostle adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but there is genuine horror in it, just enough to justify its presence on Netflix over the past Halloween season, and maybe enough to justify a look at other times of the year.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (1970 - 2018)
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead.
It's interesting that Welles brings up Hemingway in this picture, since it reminded me of some things Hemingway said. Hemingway said of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon that the it was no masterpiece in the making, but that it showed that Fitzgerald had just enough skill to keep publishers interested enough to advance him more money. Of a Norman Mailer novel -- The Deer Park, if I recall right -- Hemingway said that the author had blown the whistle on himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles portrays his director protagonist (John Huston) as a Hemingway type, if not more obviously a darker version of himself. Wind, however, is an attempt at what Hemingway, describing his own efforts, called a bank shot, touching several thematic bases at once. It's a work of self-criticism to an extent but also a satire of the whole cult of the director, almost as contemptuous toward "cineastes" (a repeated sneer-word here) as those filmmakers of the generation before Welles who hated (or affected to hate) analyzing their careers. It could be seen equally as an indictment of the creative bankruptcy of auteurism or a confession of Welles's own creative bankruptcy.
The way he tells the story clearly interests Welles more than the story he tells. That story, based on what Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich and others have salvaged from the surviving footage, attempts to account for the creative exhaustion of the Huston character, Jake Hannaford, who's showing excerpts of his in-progress production "The Other Side of the Wind" at a birthday party in the hope of raising the funds needed to finish the project -- much as Welles himself screened scenes at his AFI lifetime achievement award ceremony. The film within the film is both to some extent a parody of Zabriskie Point and a way for Welles to show what he can do visually in color and widescreen. A man stalks and courts a mysterious woman (who may be a terrorist) who goes about naked a lot (Oja Kodar) and torments the man in many ways. They wander through an old move backlot before she meets such fate as she has in the desert. As a commercial project it seems hopeless, but what's specifically stalled it is Hannaford's falling out with his neophyte star, Johnny Dale (Bob Random). The director made a project of the young man, apparently a drifter, after rescuing him from an apparent suicide attempt, but became suspicious of his authenticity. Dale turned out to be a boarding-school dropout involved in some sort of homosexual scandal. Hannaford tormented him on the set of the movie until Dale stormed off, buck naked, after a scene that teased his castration. His departure, and a failure of funding, has let the film a confused jumble, and it's unclear that any amount of money, in the absence of the original inspiration, can solve its problems.
The film proper is kaleidoscopic, showing Hannaford surrounded by fans, sycophants, critics and parasites, many of whom are shooting their own documentary or home-movie footage of the film party. The fatal flaw of the film as a whole is Welles's belief that diversity of film stocks could substitute for diversity of character. None of the characters feels genuinely fleshed-out; you get the sense that Welles knows more about them than the footage used here actually shows, but you also get the suspicion that he knew more about them than he could or cared to show. Many are probably analogues for cronies of Welles himself, and Bogdanovich definitely and almost masochistically -- taking over for an absconding Rich Little -- plays a version of himself as a pushy superfan with ambitions of surpassing the master. The mock-festive setting reminds me of a truly amateur movie of the same period, Norman Mailer's Maidstone -- and Welles' raving about improvisational filmmaking, captured in the accompanying documentary, suggests at minimum a coincidence of his thinking and Mailer's -- while the flailing experimentation anticipates a similar work of what we could call neo-amateurism, Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again. Unfortunately, Wind lacks any sense of spontaneity, mainly because of Welles's late-career choppy style of editing together shots taken months or possibly years apart, and probably because his control-freak auterism had overcome his interest in improvisation at some point in the production. You get one shot of a character talking, and then we cut to a shot of the next character talking, when what's arguably needed is the more naturalistic overlapping dialogue of Robert Altmann's films. To be fair, Welles may have meant to mix the sound differently -- and for that matter I think I would rather have seen the film without a music score in the absence of any Wellsian input on the selections -- but there's no way to know that for certain. What seems inescapable is a sense of exhaustion with storytelling even as Welles remains fascinated by the possibilities of editing and composition. In simplest terms, the ultimate subject of this film may be not the death of cinema, but the inevitable if not necessary demise of a certain kind of filmmaking, with the far more lively F for Fake showing the way ahead. The really sad thing about Wind is that, as the documentary makes clear, much of it was filmed after Fake, as if Welles hadn't realized, or wouldn't admit, that the project was a creative dead end.
Demoralizing as it may be, The Other Side of the Wind probably should be mandatory viewing for movie fans, if only for the unexpected encores it provides for so many long-gone character actors, from Mercedes McCambridge to Cameron Mitchell, from Edmond O'Brien -- bloated and roughened to the point that he resembles Lon Chaney Jr. -- to Angelo Rossitto. One would have liked the film to have proved a buried masterpiece, but contrary to what the film itself may suggest, even the ambitious failures of an auteur like Welles can reward watching, as cautionary tales or tragic hints of what could have been. As a work of art it isn't much, but like any Welles film it has many memorable moments of pictorial power. As a historical document, I highly recommend it.
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Too Much TV: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018)
To turn most novels into ten-part TV shows, liberties must be taken. Extraordinary liberties have been taken to turn Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House into Mike Flanagan's Netflix series, but the results for the most part worked on their own terms, though one of the greatest strengths of Flanagan's adaptation proved ultimately a weakness. People who binged their way through it quicker than I did have already noted its structural resemblance to This Is Us, a critically-acclaimed multigenerational non-linear family drama. Hill House travels back and forth in time from the present to 1992, reimagining the paranormal investigators of Jackson's novel as a family unit, and the house itself as a fixer-upper that the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas, with Timothy Hutton taking over for the present-day scenes) hope to renovate for a huge profit. We see each of the five damaged children as a troubled adult, and we see how the ordeal of Hill House contributed to their individual and collective dysfunctions. Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) turned his experience into a dubious best-seller, earning the ire of most of his siblings. Despite making himself a specialist in haunted-house tales, he doesn't really believe in the supernatural. Blaming the family tragedy on hereditary madness, he had a vasectomy to keep from having insane kids, compromising his marriage in the process by keeping that detail secret from his wife. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is an obsessive-compulsive mortician who especially resents Steven's book and sees any family who took the royalties he offered as a traitor. Theo (Kate Siegel), the show's obligatory lesbian, is a child psychologist whose tactile sensitivity to the paranormal leaves her abrasively reluctant to maintain emotional connections with people. The fraternal twins Nelly (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are the youngest and most traumatized by the Hill House experience, Luke becoming a heroin addict, while further tragedies in her life drive Nelly to kill herself at the old house. Her death reunites the family and opens old wounds as the legacy of Hill House threatens to draw them all back so the house can finish what it started long ago.
Hill House enhances the non-linear formula by adding a layer of premonition that ties present and past even closer together. In the most horrific instance, Nelly has been haunted since her time at Hill House by visions of "the bent-neck lady." When she hangs herself, more driven by the house to do so than willing her own demise, she realizes in her final moments of life that she was the bent-neck lady. At Hill House, the mother, Olivia, is terrified by premonitions of the terrible fates awaiting her youngest children, though it takes her a little bit to recognize the actors we know as grown-up Luke and Nelly as her babies. The moment when Nelly, done up mortuary style for her wake in the present, tears the stitches from her mouth and cries out, "Mommy!' is probably the next most horrific moment. Overall, the show is more horrific than scary, though there are plenty of jumpy moments for scare fans. The family drama underscores the long-term horror of Hill House, and the effort given to flesh out the Crain family pays off thanks to terrific ensemble acting. At the end, however, the series becomes too much about family for its own good.
In Flanagan's imagining, Hill House seems less evil than monstrously overprotective. It wants to keep the people it acquires and seduces the most overprotective member of the family, the mother, with a promise to protect her children, the twins especially, by "waking" them from the "nightmare" that will be their adult lives. To wake them, Olivia tries to kill the twins by feeding them tea laced with rat poison, and ends up actually murdering the caretakers' daughter who just happened to tag along. Conveniently, the caretakers were homeschoolers who had hidden their girl from the outside world. Traumatized by the tragedy but consoled by the appearance of their little girl as a ghost, they agree to cover up Olivia's murder of the girl as long as her husband backs off from his plan to burn the house down. The show ultimately goes too far in portraying the house as an actual comfort, albeit one most people should reject. Olivia and then Nelly seem not to be extensions of the house but autonomous spirits that can feud with earlier generations of spirits or fight off its attempts to claim the rest of the family. Finally, present-day Hugh makes a deal with Olivia and/or the house, sacrificing himself while the rest of the children go free. In an unconvincing epilogue, this final ordeal appears to have cured the surviving Crains of their hang-ups. Steven reconciles with his wife, Shirley with her husband, whom she'd accused of an affair with Theo; Theo commits to a steady girlfriend and Luke is clean for two years and counting at the very end. This seems like a betrayal of the tragic complexity of the lives shown us earlier, unless you really believe, as Flanagan seems to, that all of it was Hill House's fault. Family ends up being not just the real subject of Hill House but its feel-good rallying point, yet any horror project that seeks to make audiences feel good at the end, for the sake of "family" or any reason, is suspect. I'm not saying I wanted Hill House to wipe out the Crain family, but I'd like to think that any viewer will find its conclusion too neat in a way that undermines a project that until then was working fine as both a spook show and a psychological horror. I'll still recommend it, since at it's best it's nearly great, but unless "family" gives you the unconditional "feels" you may share my disappointment at something so good failing to stick the landing.
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
KOMMISSAR X: THREE GOLDEN CATS (1966)
Behind the Golden Cats, we learn toward the end, is a mad scientist who wanted ransom money to finance the biological warfare projects that got him thrown out of the U.S. This Bondish sort of villain exists mostly to put some of the protagonists in a death trap and is completely eclipsed, by the Cats' head karate killer, King (former Hercules Dan Vadis). This may be Vadis's finest hour on film. Bald and mustachioed and coolly glowering, making a fetish of donning a headband before a kill, King has an indisputable menacing charisma that upstages the ostensible stars on every occasion. Vadis and Harris staged their own fight scenes -- Rowland is also a karate expert -- and did many of their own stunts in this action-packed picture. They make it look more like a precocious martial-arts movie than a Eurospy film -- the training sequence involving scantily clad Sri Lankan policewomen definitely doesn't defuse that impression -- and their final showdown in the Cats' temple is a bravura blend of camp theatrics and succinct brutality from two plausible looking bruisers.
You also get an acid attack in a shower, an assistant assassin who specializes in nitro capsules, a cool boat chase with our heroes pursued by a futuristic vehicle through an exploding swamp and a climactic collision between a speeding car and an airplane on the tarmac. You also get ladies' man Walker getting kissed by an elephant and getting dumped at the end by the heiress, an equally capable Sri Lankan heroine (Michele Mahaut) and the elephant at the same time.
Kendall's horndog antics date the picture to its time, but Harris and Vadis's commitment to pure action make Three Golden Cats feel more like a contemporary action film than may of its actual contemporaries. Judged by the standard of any time period, it's an enjoyable piece of unrepentant pop trash that inspires confidence in the rest of the series.