Saturday, February 29, 2020

On the Big Screen: THE TRAITOR (Il traditore, 2019)

At age eighty, and after more than fifty years of filmmaking Marco Bellocchio is arguably the elder statesman of Italian cinema. In the 21st century he's become an intermittent chronicler of Italy's 20th century. His latest film is a companion piece with his 2009 Mussolini film Vincere and his 2003 Aldo Moro-Red Brigades picture Good Morning Night. The "traitor" of this one is Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Pavino), Italy's answer to Joe Valachi: the first man who spilled the beans on organized crime in his country in a major way. This happened in the 1980s, after Buscetta, a career criminal and ex-con, decided to leave the business and move to Brazil, where he had done "business" before. Relatives who remain in Italy, including two sons, are killed in a Mafia war, while the Brazilian government accuses him of drug trafficking. The Brazilian government of the day didn't play around; they try to force a confession by threatening to throw Tommaso's wife (Maria Fernanda Candido) from a helicopter into the ocean. Whether he had anything to confess or not, Buscetta ends up back in Italy, where he decides that he has actual stuff to confess to crusading prosecutor and eventual martyr Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). He becomes the star witness at the so-called Maxi Trial, which becomes the film's central spectacle. For non-Italians, the unusual trial procedures stand out, particularly allowing defendants to cross-examine witnesses. This makes possible dramatic confrontations between Buscetta and his former colleagues, who naturally call him a liar when they aren't heckling him as a cuckold from their cages in the rear of the vast courtroom. Buscetta holds his own in these encounters -- though he fares less well later when he lobs accusations at politicians who clearly can afford better lawyers than mafiosi can -- but he hardly can enjoy his victories when the bosses are convicted. He knows all too well that the Mafia's reach and memory are long. Exiled in an American witness-protection program, he retreats from New Hampshire to Colorado after a restaurant singer in a Santa costume serenades him in Sicilian dialect as if he were the coward Robert Ford. To the day of his peaceful demise he has to remain on guard, because he knows the Mafia like he knows himself....

Accustomed as U.S. audiences have become to expansive, seemingly comprehensive Scorsese-style chronicles of crime, Il Traditore can't help seeming incomplete no matter how well made and performed it mostly is. We're likely to become conscious of gaps or omissions as Buscetta clarifies his motives for informing. He tells Falcone and the judges at the Maxi Trial that he still considers himself a "man of honor" but that his peers, particular Salvatore Riina (Nicola Cali) were the true traitors to the traditional values of La Cosa Nostra by going all in on the heroin trade, regardless of its cost to their own families. Something can't help but seem missing when Buscetta repeatedly reiterates how Riina has ruined La Cosa Nostra, yet Riina has a relatively minimal presence in the film and we see very little of the "golden age" Buscetta idealizes -- which we definitely would see in a Scorsese epic -- before Riina took over. Rather than show this idealized past, Bellocchio challenges us to take Bruscetta's word for it or question his actual motivation. The director presents the past in non-linear fashion rather than giving us a conventional rise-and-fall narrative. The film's flashbacks aren't self-consciously narrated by Bruscetta, but arrive more like unfiltered memories, though one important reminiscence midway through the picture is interrupted and only taken up again at the very end.  An exception to the general rule is a flashback to the murder of Buscetta's sons, based on the testimony of a new informer who took part in the killing. This scene, and Buscetta's reaction to the testimony, suggest guilt over abandoning his children to almost certain death as the his ultimate motive, since his indifference to whether they joined him in Brazil belies his claim that his real family ultimately mattered more to him than the Mafia family. In the end, I think, Bellocchio is too careful to offer a perfect "Rosebud" explanation for Buscetta's "treason." He keeps a certain distance from his subject that is arguably European if only by comparison to Hollywood's insistence on definitive answers. Overall, I rather like Favino's performance for its comparative understatement. He makes Buscetta seem like a real person rather than an archetype. I don't know if Favino and Bellocchio have given us the "real" Buscetta -- alternate presentations seem possible -- but they did make me want to know more about the man, and that should count as some kind of success.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Too Much TV: BATWOMAN (2019 - ?)

Speaking of superheroes, the CW's newest DC Comics show has predictably been renewed for a second season. The bad news is that Batwoman doesn't emulate Black Lightning in departing from Greg Berlanti formulae, often looking like an utterly generic Berlanti CW show. The character is a natural for Berlanti, I suppose, since the modern version of Batwoman was heralded from her introduction in 2006 as DC Comics' first openly-gay superhero. The Batwoman show hasn't gone out of its way to make homophobia its big bad (apart from its inescapable contribution to the character's origin story) the way Supergirl has constantly battled sexism and other forms of bigotry. Instead, it takes inspiration from the most successful storyline from the Batwoman comics, pitting protagonist Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) against her twin sister Beth (Rachel Skarsten), who has come back from seeming death as the Lewis Carroll-obsessed Alice, a psychopathic gang leader. How Beth became Alice differs depending on whether you read comics or watch TV, but the differences don't really matter that much and need not be described here. What really matters is that in comics the Batwoman creative team finished up with Alice and moved on, while there's no sign yet that the TV team plans to do likewise. That's because the idea of an antagonist who is also family is right up the CW's alley, and not something they're likely to let go of right away. One difference between comics and TV worth emphasizing is that, in comics, the reveal of Alice as Beth comes at the last moment before Alice's apparent demise, while on TV the reveal comes very early. The TV writers want the family thing to complicate Batwoman's battle constantly, just as drama involving other family members -- her dad runs a private army that has taken over much of Gotham City's policing, while her stepmother was involved in shady dealings before Alice killed her, and her stepsister resents Kate's obsession with Alice -- takes up much of the show's time. Like nearly all TV, Batwoman uses "family" as a shortcut to profundity, but the family angle with Alice also underscores the larger issue of how to deal with criminals in general that runs through all the Berlanti shows.

This Berlanti preoccupation was most obvious on Sunday nights last fall when both Batwoman and Supergirl had storylines involving criminals who were family. On Supergirl we learned that the Martian Manhunter's brother had gone over to the bad Martians back in the day because his family had cast him out, fearing a unique mental power he possessed. He appeared on Earth and became a menace to J'onn J'onnz and his friends until the Manhunter pacified him. Doing this required J'onn to come to terms with his own guilt in having wiped the brother out of his own and his father's memory out of fear, and to perform a risky act of submission -- or atonement, if you prefer -- to the aggrieved brother. All of this worked, of course, and the brother hasn't been a threat since then. Similarly, the Kane family have to deal with Beth/Alice's grievance against their having "abandoned" her, after a long, obsessive search, while she was the captive of a mad doctor. Kate herself always felt that her dad gave up the search too soon, and both she and her dad feel the guilts after learning that stepmom had created fake evidence of Beth's death to help them move on, as it were. The larger point here, it seems, is that Berlanti and his writers want society to recognize some role in the creation of seemingly evil people rather than treating them as inherently irredeemable bad seeds. They're not consistent about this, since some villains (e.g. Damian Darhk) are portrayed as cartoonishly, disposably evil, while the great exception that seems to prove the overall rule was Andy Diggle, the brother of Arrow sidekick John Diggle and henchman to the aforementioned Darhk, who defied all efforts at redemption and finally goaded his virtuous sibling to shoot him down in a fit of rage. His persistent viciousness actually made Andy a breath of fresh air in Berlanti-land, but the writers seem to see him as an experiment not to be repeated again. I suspect that Berlanti doesn't believe that anyone rally deserves death for the things they do. There's nothing wrong with that as a real-world political philosophy, but it does limit one's options in creating a dramatic fantasy world, and it also means that Batwoman probably will be hobbled for some time to come by its constant back-and-forth over what to do with Alice.

A little while ago, after Alice poisoned her stepmom, it seemed as if Kate had given up on trying to save her sister. But then the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover happened and Batwoman received fresh indoctrination from the literal Paragon of Hope, Kara Zor-El, on not giving up on people. That pretty much assures us of more frustratingly repetitive dialogues between hero and villain and contrivances to keep Alice free, while the writers retain their option to make Alice's sidekick, the master of disguise called Mouse, the real big bad so Beth can be redeemed after all -- as, I'm compelled to admit, she eventually was in the comics, though by a different writer than her creator. It may be that a significant part of the DC/CW audience responds to this sort of drama the way Berlanti wants, but others may feel that the Alice story has gone on past its proper expiration date but has been sustained artificially to no good effect.  The writers may feel vindicated by the show's renewal, however inevitable that may have been, but they shouldn't think themselves truly successful until they prove they can envision a future for Batwoman beyond Alice. To be fair, the Batwoman comic hasn't had much future beyond her -- the first series was canceled after the key creators quit over an editorial veto of Kate's marriage to another woman, based not on homophobia but on a dogmatic notion that superheroes should not be happy in their personal lives, and a second series was sadly short-lived -- so it's entirely possible that the TV show will give us the definitive Batwoman. To do so, it will have to move beyond where the comics have gone, but there's no sign yet that the writers are ready to do that.

Saturday, February 8, 2020


"I'm telling it all wrong!" Harley Quinn confesses well into her new film, and when the film itself admits this, what more can I say? This, I guess: any half hour of the Harley Quinn cartoon on the DC Universe streaming service is more entertaining than this sputtering too-late spinoff of the already-awful Suicide Squad. If its purpose was to make a franchise out of Margot Robbie's supporting cast then it has to be judged one of the most abject failures of recent times. If its purpose, however, was to make Jared Leto's Joker look worthy of comparison to Nicholson, Ledger and Phoenix in retrospect by inviting a more favorable comparison with Ewan McGregor's vacuous performance as Black Mask, then it's probably some sort of success -- presuming, of course, that anyone remembers Leto's Joker now. In all other respects the new film falls on its face, and early reports indicate that it won't even have the popular mandate Suicide Squad somehow enjoyed. Maybe people see it as a vanity project, fairly or not, and are steering clear, or maybe Harley Quinn's moment as a cultural phenomenon is already over. Maybe Warner Bros.' desire to treat her as DC's Deadpool is more desperately obvious now, or at least as obvious as the inability of anyone involved in the project to do a Deadpool. But incompetence isn't Birds of Prey's sin as much as indifference is. The story, to the extent that I remember it after a few hours -- something to do with a diamond somebody swallowed -- is just the inescapable something, the bare minimum the film has to have to get from one action scene to the next. The action scenes themselves are okay at best but way too choppy by the standard set by John Wick and Atomic Blonde without as many sight gags as an ostensible comedy-action film should have. You can't help feeling that more talented filmmakers could have done much more with the same characters and story -- a more linear approach would have helped, for starters -- but weren't considered necessary for something so seemingly pre-sold as a Harley Quinn movie. Joke's on them, it seems -- but at least Warner Bros. may be able to console themselves at the Oscars tomorrow.  Maybe they can start fresh with Harley in a Joker sequel ....