Sunday, October 27, 2019

On the Big Screen: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

The sophomore jinx has hit Robert Eggers, whose feature-film debut was the rightly-acclaimed The Witch from 2015. His new film is another piece of period Americana, this time taking place in 19th century New England. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrive on an island for a four-week stint as keepers of its lighthouse. Wake is a vulgar, flatulent, superstitious drunk who drives Winslow relentlessly and tries to goad the apparent teetotaler into imbibing with him at dinnertime. On top of that, he forbids Winslow from entering the light of the lighthouse itself. Ephraim has issues of his own. A scrimshaw mermaid inspires him to masturbate frequently, while one particular seagull seems to make a point of getting in his way all the time. He's warned not to harm the bird -- Wake believes that seagulls harbor the souls of drowned sailors -- but the enraged Winslow finally takes the gull in hand and dashes him to pieces on a rock. As if by coincidence, a severe storm indefinitely delays the arrival of their replacements. If Wake had been somewhat mad before, Winslow quickly catches up with him....

The Lighthouse has no real subject other than madness, and madness as an end unto itself isn't firm ground to plant a film on. While in The Witch Eggers arguably was saying something about Puritanism, patriarchy, family, etc., in his new film the director (co-writing with his brother) seems more interested in evoking mood or genre. It may be wrong to ask what the point is, but viewers can hardly help doing so. The real problem may be that, at 110 minutes, the film is too long for its own good. The length tempts the Eggers brothers into too many self-indulgent twists as their characters struggle for dominance and deteriorate further into insanity. At one moment Wake is challenging Winslow's (and our) sense of reality by contradicting a version of recent events that we saw play out on screen as if it were objective truth. Not long afterward, Winslow has beaten Wake into such canine submission that he will walk, on a leash, into an open grave. But then Wake recalls himself and charges back inside for a perhaps-climactic attack. By this point both men have become so repellent that no rooting interest in either man is likely. No rooting interest is strictly necessary, to be fair, but by this point most viewers have probably lost hope at getting to the bottom of the whole situation. There seems to be no point to the exercise, or to the excellent black-and-white cinematography and production design, other than to have Dafoe and Pattinson act crazy. Dafoe is an old hand at this, but more eyes will be on Pattinson, whom we find at a pivotal point in his career. He is our next cinematic Batman, and by coincidence will have a high-profile role in Christopher Nolan's next film. By two years from now the ghost of Edward Cullen may be exorcised for good and Pattinson's real movie-star career will have begun. Will he be a respected actor by then? Some may argue that his work for David Cronenberg already should have earned him respect, but for most people the jury is still out or the memory of Twilight is still too strong. Can we see the future Pattinson here? He has deglamorized himself with an old-school moustache, several layers of grime and a slightly erratic character voice, while what might ungenerously have been called cow eyes a few years back are now capable of a penetrating gaze. Beyond that, it's hard to judge his interpretation of a character of whom his own author seems to lack a clear conception. We learn that Ephraim Winslow isn't what he initially introduced himself as, and the pressures of his situation further assail his sense of self, but neither Pattinson nor the Eggers brothers ultimately can give him the kind of empathetic reality that even characters in psychological horror films require. The problem isn't that we don't care what happens to him, but that we lose interest in the all too-protracted process.

While Eggers fails as a writer this time, he retains a strong directorial eye. Some of the best scenes are relatively simple but well-shot bits of Winslow struggling through his daily chores. If The Lighthouse feels ungrounded in other respects, it does feel grounded in a particular time and place. Strange as it may be to say, while panning this film I left it with the feeling that Eggers, with his firm sense of period and a visceral sensibility, might be the person to bring Cormac McCarthy's horrific western epic Blood Meridian to the screen. In other words, Lighthouse isn't the sort of disaster that exposes its auteur as some sort of fraud or one-trick pony. Instead, it's a failure that leaves much of Eggers' potential as a filmmaker intact, while leaving us hoping he'll find more critical collaborators next time.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Der Fluch der grünen Augen, 1964)

Hungarian director Akos Rathonyi filmed this German-Yugoslav production featuring a mostly German cast, along with African-American expatriate John Kitzmiller, who ends up being the most interesting thing about the film. Known as "The Curse of the Green Eyes" in its original language, the movie follows an Interpol inspector (Adrian Hoven) into a village where a serial killer seems to be at work. There's a lot of superstitious suspicion about the deaths of several young women, but the local doctor dismisses the twin puncture marks on the most recent victim's neck as "superficial scratches." The local witch tells a different story, urging Inspector Dorin to carry protection against vampirism. We soon find ourselves in a whoisit as a number of candidates for the role of the killer emerge, including the reclusive professor (Wolfgang Preiss) conducting blood experiments in an old castle, his lovely assistant, his black servant (Kitzmiller) and a belligerent deaf-mute (Emmerich Schrenk) -- and you can throw the aggressively skeptical doctor in, too, if you're in an expansive mood. Meanwhile, Dorin sleeps through a failed vampire attack thanks to the power of the cross, while a persistently disappearing corpse finally separates the doctor from his skepticism.

 Unfortunately for anyone expecting suspense, the perpetrator's true identity isn't that hard to guess, and that lack of suspense only underscores the picture's overall lack of thrills or scares. That leaves only the admirable black and white cinematography by Hrvoje Saric and the subplot involving Kitzmiller's character to admire. It's unusual if not unique for a European vampire film to go off on a tangent about racism, but that's what Rathonyi and his co-writer do here. John, the black servant, serves as sort of a red herring for a while, if only because of his color. He faces in-you-face hatred from the mute, who tosses him out of a tavern despite the innkeeper's own tolearance, and even the witch, otherwise treated as a benign character, mistakes him for a monster when he happens to look into her window one night. The film tries a tricky balancing act, since John is thisclose to being the stereotypical scaredy-cat black servant, but it also shows us that John has real reason to worry, though not so much about the supernatural. This subplot could have been better integrated into the main story; the witch's prejudice might have undermined her credibility with the more cosmopolitan inspector, for instance, maybe making him less likely to adopt her safeguards. As it is it seems all too easy to vanquish the vampires once their lair and leader are identified, but I get the impression that the filmmakers may have seen all the undead stuff as a Macguffin enabling them to say something more interesting about small-town Mitteleuropa. Their message comes across as muddled or muffled, but it's hard to say whether the English dub accurately represents what the creators actually wanted to say. But since the U.S. release was sure to maximize the film's scare quotient, the lack of real scares in that version is pretty damning. Cave isn't a bad film to look at, but I wouldn't make it a high priority when you're scheduling horror movies for Halloween season.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

DVR Diary: THE VALIANT (1929)

Future Oscar-winner Paul Muni made his movie debut in William K. Howard's Fox Film production, adapting a Broadway play. Watching it at the time, you might not have predicted an award in Muni's future. It's not that he's bad in the lead role, but that everyone speaks their lines in that stilted early-talking fashion exemplified by the legendary  "take him ... for ... a ride" from The Lights of New York. No one, it seems, can speak a full sentence without at least one pause, pregnant or otherwise. The artificial cadences are bad enough, but the implausible situation makes things worse. The Valiant is an exercise in the pathos of renunciation that thrilled Twenties audiences. The idea here is that our protagonist, a confessed and convicted murderer who's kept his real identity secret since turning himself in, will not identify himself to his sister when she visits Death Row, their aged, ailing mother suspecting from photos that "James Dyke" (he took his pseudonym from a commercial calendar at the precinct station) is the son she hasn't seen since before the Great War. He's stuck with the Dyke name despite the cops immediately recognizing the fakery in order to avoid disgracing his family, and thinks that his people will be better off believing he'd died long ago rather than say a real goodbye to a murderer. The title tells you what the filmmakers think of this. All of this sets up the centerpiece scene when the sister (Marguerite Churchill) interrogates the prisoner, hoping that he'll betray some memory of their shared youth. Instead, Dyke contrives a story of witnessing her brother's heroic death in the war as a comrade-in-arms. Believing that her boy died a decade ago supposedly will make the old lady feel better than knowing that her daughter got to see and talk to him. That's the psychology at work here, in a time when popular fiction was committed to concepts of honor that seem alien from the almost a century's distance.  Muni can't do much with the material and was clearly still learning how to act for the screen; a few years would pass before he fully figured it out. The film itself is dull and stagebound except for the opening sequence. After the Muni character kills his man offscreen, he staggers onto the street, already remorseful. He looks for a cop to arrest him, wandering through several slices of city life with adults and children going about their business or play with Brueghelian indifference to the protagonist's torment. Ironically, it's in these essentially silent bits that Muni shows promise as a film actor and Howard shows some skill as a director. The rest of the picture has that obsolete quality that doomed so many early talkies to actual oblivion.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

THE GOLEM (2018)

As portrayed by German actor Paul Wegener, the Golem was the first cinematic horror icon. Compared to other iconic monsters, there have been relatively few Golem films, the most notable in English being the 1967 film It! Now an Israeli film, with Doron and Yaov Paz directing Ariel Cohen's script, revives the legend, linking the lore of 17th century Prague with more modern concerns. In this account, a young girl witnesses the destruction of the Prague golem (and its creator) after it had massacred the congregation it was supposed to protect. A generation later, the girl has grown into a midwife and all-around wise woman in an embattled Jewish community in Lithuania. In this same village, Hanna (Hani Furstenburg), has a Yentl-like ambition to learn the Kabbala, volumes of which are smuggled to her in baskets. Hanna's son drowned some years ago and she's been barren ever since -- or so it seems. She's actually taking treatments to suppress pregnancy, but when nearby gentiles blame the Jews for a plague, and their leader threatens the midwife and the village with death if they fail to heal his daughter, Hanna suggests creating a golem for community defense. Against everyone's advice, she performs the ritual herself, but instead of the hulking entity Wegener played, or the shape we saw in the Prague sequence, her golem takes the fleshy form of a young boy, triggering a dangerous maternal instinct in his creator.

Cohen and the Paz brothers reshape the golem myth to fit their thematic concerns and genre ambitions. Hanna develops an empathetic relationship with her golem, feeling the pain it doesn't when it's attacked, while he turns his fury on people, both Jew and gentile, Hanna perceives as threats. When she's unconscious (or preoccupied with sex) the boy golem's own defense instincts kick in. Though the golem looks like a child, it remains a super-strong force of destruction, enabling some cheap and sometimes laughable gore effects. Since the filmmakers didn't have the means to show the boy fighting his enemies, those unfortunates usually get torn to pieces off-screen, their bloody limbs flying across the screen. Better still, this golem is a scanner, causing his foes' heads to explode without touching them. Meanwhile, Hanna goes through the "my precious boy can't be evil" denial arc before the golem's inevitable, indiscriminate attack on villagers and gentile attackers alike forces her to do the necessary thing. That undermines whatever feminist message or other commentary the filmmakers intended while reducing the golem legend to all-too-common horror tropes. The awkward mix of thematic ambition and genre crassness renders this golem film a disappointment and leaves this reader wishing that someone with real ambition and genius would put Marge Piercy's great golem novel (crosscut with science fiction) He, She and It on the big screen. Until then, however, there aren't so many golem movies that people shouldn't try again.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

On the Big Screen: JOKER (2019)

This year's winner of the Golden Lion of Venice, directed by the maker of the Hangover films, probably impressed festival judges more as an homage to Martin Scorsese than as anything else. Its acknowledgment of King of Comedy is most obvious, down to the role-reversal stunt casting of Rupert Pupkin himself, Robert De Niro, as the late night talk show host on whose show the current film's title character (Joaquin Phoenix) longs to appear. But Todd Phillips' Joker is as much Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle as he is Rupert Pupkin, ironically beginning his career of murder as a sort of vigilante and lurking at the fringes of a political movement. The film is even set in a Scorsesean epoch, sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. It's less about the DC Universe, though the protagonist's fate is linked to that of Bruce Wayne's family, than it is about society in decline, as seen in the Seventies or today. Its ultimate concern, however, is with the perception of society and people in general as unbearably cruel and whether that perception is a rational or at least comprehensible response to verifiable injustice or an irrational reaction of hopeless, useless people. Failure to distinguish between these perceptions, and the fact that proto-Joker Arthur Fleck is presented as a pathetic victim for the first half of the film, leads some to worry that moviegoers will take the new Joker as a role model to emulate, even though he proves to be a profoundly sick and fundamentally vicious individual who disavows politics and any idea of justice. People may well empathize with Fleck early on, but the star and filmmakers strive to alienate audiences from the protagonist and appear to succeed. Their success, however, depends on an assumption that audiences are rational, and between the belief that society is made up mostly of bullies and the belief that life is just a big joke, maybe that assumption can't be taken for granted.

So here is a new Joker, little more than a decade after Heath Ledger's instantly-legendary portrayal, thirty years removed from Jack Nicholson's once-definitive performance, and not much further removed from Alan Moore's Joker-origin graphic novel The Killing Joke. I don't notice any complaints about yet another Joker reboot, perhaps because Jared Leto's interpretation in Suicide Squad is viewed as a failure. The idea, encouraged by Ledger's telling multiple tales in The Dark Knight, that there never can be a definitive origin story, may help build audience tolerance for each new attempt. There's more creative license to mold a Joker for any given historic moment than there is for comparatively canonical comics characters, and Warner Bros' retreat from their commitment to a universal continuity uniting all DC films since the catastrophe of Justice League created an opportunity for Phillips and his collaborators to do their own thing even as Matt Reeves works on the latest reboot of Batman and his rogues' gallery. All that being said, Joker isn't especially original in its approach. It echoes some of the pathos of The Killing Joke, without committing to Moore's "one bad day" account of the origin, while Phoenix's interpretation of the character is very reminiscent of his titanic performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, stripped of that character's redemptive cynicism. What the creators do well is to invite empathy for the downtrodden, bullied Fleck until showing the audience that Fleck himself is incapable of empathy. The crucial moment that makes him a criminal comes when Fleck becomes aware of his mother's belief that billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is Arthur's father. Fleck visits Wayne Manor, only to learn that his mother (Frances Conroy) was insane, delusional and not his birth mother. After a visit to Arkham State Hospital confirms Alfred the butler's story, Arthur kills his mom and becomes a full-time murderer. I can't imagine anyone cheering for Joker after this point, though I guess you never can tell about some people.

Joker boasts impressive cinematography by Lawrence Sher, an appropriately ominous score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and plenty of Scorsesean shots by the admiring director. It grows increasingly horrific as it plumbs deeper into the protagonist's unmedicated madness, but bogs down in the homestretch with an overlong confrontation on DeNiro's show, followed by the common problem of multiple endings. The film could have ended neatly with Phoenix dancing ecstatically amid scenes of fire and riot, but presses on to a final chat between an imprisoned Joker and a psychologist. This bit may exist only because Phillips wanted a gag with Joker leaving bloody footprints in a hallway, but the final image of security chasing Joker through the halls was too reminiscent of old cartoons for its own good. Maybe that was the desired effect, but it's a weak finish for a film that otherwise hits most of the notes it aims for. Heath Ledger probably will remain the definitive Joker for our time, but Joaquin Phoenix demonstrates that the Clown Prince of Crime is the sort of folkloric character that many actors can share.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Too Much TV: The Wednesday Night War

Professional wrestling is poised to make yet another comeback in American popular culture. It's been on television virtually from the beginning, of course, but it's been nearly twenty years since its last period of mass popularity. That was during the so-called Monday Night Wars, when World Championship Wrestling, the last survivor of the World Wrestling Federation's bid for nationwide dominance, made its ultimate assault on Vince McMahon's empire. Fueled by the rise of the NWO, a faction of former WWF stars joined by 80s superhero-turned-villain Hulk Hogan, WCW's Nitro program defeated the WWF's Monday Night Raw in the ratings for more than a year before a combination on WCW inmates taking over the asylum and the fortuitous emergence of such seminal WWF superstars as Stone Cold Steve Austin and future film idol Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson turned the tide. By the end of 2001 the WWF -- now World Wrestling Entertainment -- stood alone. Since then, small-scale alternatives have emerged and some, like Sinclair Broadcasting-owned Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling, have persisted, while the overall audience for wrestling -- or as McMahon prefers, "sports entertainment," -- has withered away. Ratings for Monday Night Raw in 2019 are a sad fraction of its typical rating at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, Fox is paying WWE a huge amount of money to bring its Smackdown show to prime-time network television, starting Friday, October 4, while TNT, the long-ago home of Nitro, is hosting a brand-new wrestling company. A popular explanation for this is that wrestling is less expensive than scripted shows and never subjects its audience to reruns. The hope is that these higher-profile platforms may restore wrestling to something close to its fin-de-siecle glory, while the appearance of a new challenger to WWE raises big questions about how wrestling can be popular and buzzworthy again long after it was nearly universally acknowledged that the thing is fake. This was already widely known during the Monday Night Wars, but as wrestling slid from that peak more persistent fans asked more often how others could be made to care about pretend fighting. Those fans divide into two main schools of thought. One group emphasizes the reality at the heart of the fakery: the vastly-increased athleticism of the wrestlers. The best performers, by this standard, can pull off incredible feats of aerial acrobatics to thrill their fans. The other group, treating wrestling as essentially another scripted program, considers stories and personalities to be key. These groups' debates can be acrimonious. The "workrate" fans (wrestlers being "workers") often find the outrageous storylines and over-the-top characters favored by the other group cringeworthy, while that group sometimes finds today's heightened athleticism monotonous and meaningless without compelling stories and characters.

At first, it seemed like All Elite Wrestling's challenge to WWE would be a showdown between these competing philosophies of sports entertainment. Backed by the billionaire family that also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, AEW is largely the brainchild of Cody Runnels, the son of Southern wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes and brother to former WWE superstar Goldust. Runnels spent time in WWE as "Stardust" but really made his name in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, where a generation of American talent circulated through a faction known as Bullet Club. Until AEW, New Japan was seen as the most viable alternative to WWE, but Runnels took with him the Japanese company's most popular American talent, including their former champion Kenny Omega and tag-team brothers The Young Bucks, the latter being Cody's main creative partners in the new company. New Japan's "strong style" emphasized athleticism while downplaying without entirely dispensing with the angles and "heat" that define American wrestling. Fans who had grown bored with WWE during the John Cena era, finding the McMahon product hopelessly diluted by marketing impreatives, regarded Omega, who could go 60 relentless minutes at a time with his Japanese opponents, as the best wrestler on Earth. Cody has never enjoyed that sort of acclaim -- many regard him as a mediocre worker -- but he enjoys underdog appeal as someone typically underutilized by the increasingly stodgy WWE. Before the premiere of AEW Dynamite on October 2, the new promotion held several pay-per-view events while Omega and the Young Bucks promoted themselves on YouTube's "Being the Elite" series. AEW thus arrived with a built-in audience, though its true dimensions were uncertain until this week.

But if AEW was meant to be an anti-WWE, McMahon met the indirect challenge --  Dynamite doesn't go head-to-head with Raw or Smackdown's new Friday night time slot --  by fighting fire with fire. WWE has its own anti-WWE in the form of NXT,  previously a staple of the federation's streaming service. Originally conceived as a developmental company for new talent with a game-show TV format, NXT is run by McMahon's son-in-law and creative heir apparent, Paul "Triple H" Levesque. He turned NXT into the jewel in the WWE crown, in some eyes, by stressing athleticism and bringing in top talent from independent U.S. promotions and Japanese outfits. Critics argue that by appealing to "smarks" -- the pejorative for those who value workrate over everything else in wrestling -- Triple H has lost sight of the original goal of preparing talent for the main WWE roster. Raw and Smackdown have a larger proportion of more casual fans, so the argument goes, who need something more than in-ring action to hold their attention, while the regular NXT audience are like those aficionados who enthuse over instrumental solos while others just want a catchy tune. For every NXT talent who has succeeded in WWE, there's at least one other that has failed to catch on, their failures usually being blamed, by NXT fans, on McMahon's failure to understand their inherent appeal, and by NXT critics on their failure to develop interesting "larger than life" characters or speak (i.e. "cut promos") in a compelling manner. Ironically, in light of what was to come, NXT's promo class used to be taught by Dusty Rhodes. That aside, McMahon calculated that NXT's established appeal among hardcore wrestling fans would cut into AEW's potential audience. At the same time, bringing NXT to the USA Network would make up somewhat for taking Smackdown from them. While NXT's weekly show on the streaming service was a pre-recorded hour, it's a two-hour live broadcast on USA, to match Dynamite's running time.  For the first week of head-to-head competition, at least, the advantage lies with AEW, which easily outdrew NXT. It should be noted, however, that the combined audiences for the two shows is roughly equal to the average audience for recent Smackdown episodes on USA. There's no indication that either show has brought new eyes to professional wrestling. If that's going to happen, it'll be on Fridays on Fox.

In any event, and in a further irony, competing with NXT makes AEW look more like the WWE. That happens without AEW compromising its founders' workrate standards, though NXT arguably had the better workrate on October 2. To some extent, however, critics of both could argue with reason that the workrate grew repetitive as the same stunts (e.g. "suicide dives" out of the ring) recurred from match to match. The big difference between the two shows, really, was Dynamite's stronger focus on generating heat with traditional villainy. NXT has plenty of bad guys on its roster, but its heels often win without blatant cheating, though there was some outside interference in the tag-team championship match that ended the show. By contrast, there were clearly defined heels in every AEW match, and by the time the show was over an overarching heel faction had formed, led by their world champion Chris Jericho. Another former star of both WCW and WWE, as well as a rock band frontman and popular podcaster, the 49 year-old Jericho can be depended on to draw heat with words and deeds and share it with younger talent who have a shot at stardom. Not all AEW heels are affiliated with Jericho, but every match on the show was meant to create heat, on the obvious assumption that viewers will keep watching to see the bad guys get their comeuppances. On the other hand, NXT did a better job of making its several championship matches look and feel dramatic, with devices as simple as dimming the lights and spotlighting the wrestlers during their introductions, but as some have noted already it'll be a challenge to maintain that intensity from week to week, while Dynamite can only escalate its feuds from this beginning point. In short, both shows were good this week, but Dynamite seems more likely to improve as it goes forward. Whether the new rivals, along with Smackdown on Fox, can elevate wrestling back into pop prominence remains to be seen.