Wednesday, May 27, 2015

THE LIBERATOR (Libertador, 2013)

Alberto Alvero's biopic may not be the first film about Simon Bolivar, but it may be the first Bolivarian Bolivar movie. This aspiring epic in many ways reflects the viewpoint of the "Bolivarian Revolution" that has dominated Venezuela since the advent of Hugo Chavez, who may well have seen himself as a modern-day Bolivar but didn't live to see this film. Aimed at the global market, Liberator was written by Timothy J. Sexton, a co-writer of Children of Men and otherwise a mostly political filmmaker, and is performed partly in English to accommodate guest American Danny Huston and the actors playing Bolivar's Irish brigade. Its major asset, indisputably, is Edgar Ramirez in the title role. Ramirez exploded on the global film scene as the star terrorist of Olivier Assayas's epic miniseries Carlos, but had not done anything on a similar scale until this picture, for which he gets an Executive Producer credit. His charisma is necessary to carry us through a film that often seems, at just under two hours, like a digest (or perhaps digestible) version of a necessarily more detailed and complex life story. Experts can debate the picture's historical accuracy; I was fascinated by its alternate vision of revolution, in often stark contrast to Bolivar's own American model.


In typical modern fashion, the movie opens in medias res, showing the mature Bolivar as an embattled revolutionary racing to escape a conspiratorial trap. It then takes us back to his beginnings as just another son of South American wealth taking the Grand Tour of Europe and bringing home a bride who proves too vulnerable to his homeland's harsh environment. Broken in spirit by her early death, he returns to Europe and lives a wastrel's life until an old teacher reminds him of the need to liberate the continent from Spanish rule. Simon puts himself at the service of a General Miranda, but finds his tactics too conservative. Relegated to a backwater, he finally finds something worth fighting for passionately when someone steals his boots. He chases the culprit to a swampland shanty, where an abject mother begs him to spare her boy's life. Bolivar seems to notice poverty in all its wretchedness for the first time. As a plantation owner he had seen slavery but had considered it none of his business when another planter treated slaves badly. Now he realizes that if the revolution is to be worth anything it must be for the good of the poor. The scene may remind American viewers that their own revolution is never portrayed this way, and for good reason. Our revolution was all about middle-class aspirations frustrated by imperial trade policy, and the revolutions in Latin America were probably similarly motivated to a great extent, but the added imperative to improve the lives of poor people whose poverty is blamed directly on oppression, and who this film's Bolivar believes should get something from the revolution, makes for a very different history and a very different sort of film.


From this point forward, Bolivar is pitted constantly against ostensible allies who are ultimately only out for themselves, or whose interests are purely parochial. They resist his vision of a united continent liberated by people's war. Liberator credits Bolivar's victories to the leader's vision and the people's will. It shows a ragtag army of all races and both sexes, including foreign friends like the anti-colonial Irishmen, on a long march through the Andes, explicitly compared to Hannibal in the Alps but also implicitly comparable to Mao in China, culminating in a human-wave attack, with our hero in the lead, that proves successful against the odds. Alvero shifts from godlike views of the armies from directly above to close-up mayhem as Bolivar's host forces the Spaniards onto a bridge and the battle becomes a kind of rugby scrum with bayonets.

 
Bolivar makes the professional soldiers uncomfortable,
and feels most at home at the head of an inclusive people's army


Triumph turns to tragedy as Bolivar's allies mostly reject his vision of a united continent. The way he and his opponents talk past each other is telling. They fear that his united republic will give too much power to one man, namely Bolivar, and protest that they didn't fight the King of Spain only to have a dictator take over. Bolivar never bothers to refute the dictator charge. What matters to him is that the revolution and the republic are for the people, and that vested interests and local powers have no place in the new order. It appears to be an irreconcilable clash of priorities, and the Liberator's morale briefly falters before his most loyal friends urge him to stand firm and preserve his vision of union by force if necessary. In a historically questionable climax, the film implies that Bolivar was murdered by his enemies, thus thwarting the people's destiny of unity and republican equality for generations to come. But it hints that the torch will be carried on when Bolivar, before his final betrayal, meets a poor young fisherman who happens to share his name.


If Carlos the Jackal was a classic Scorsesean antihero, Ramirez's Simon Bolivar is a classic epic hero, and the actor delivers the charismatic bombast necessary for the role. Alvero and Sexton would have us see Bolivar as an epic lover as well, often draping their hero with glamorous if not gratuitous female nudity; we rarely see that sort of thing in American Revolution films, either. Maybe it comes with the territory. If it sometimes seems like a vanity project for Ramirez, that's probably because no other character in the film is developed extensively. We get to know them enough to know whether they're for or against the Liberator, or we know them until they turn against him. That tends to make Bolivar's debates with his various antagonists rather one-sided. While the film is willing to show Bolivar in moments of weakness or self-doubt, it refuses to consider that he may want too much power, and it takes for granted that those who oppose him are selfish, greedy, and indifferent to the poor. The failure of his vision is in no way his fault in this version of his story. As a film this version is interesting to the extent that its story is novel to audiences, and the filmmaking is effective without being really visionary. As history, it will be most successful if it inspires or provokes us to find out more about Bolivar on our own. As it happens, I have a biography on the shelf that I intend to pull out now, so on that level The Liberator is a success. If it wanted to be all you needed to know, or all someone wanted you to know about Simon Bolivar, that's another story.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Too Much TV: THE FLASH (2014-present)

With the debut of Arrow in 2012, DC Comics stole a march on Marvel Comics in the kingdom of TV. DC held its ground in 2013 when Marvel launched Agents of SHIELD, a show handicapped in its first months by storylines dependent on a movie not yet released and a dull cast, while Arrow topped itself on the strength of Slade Wilson's mirakuru-enhanced villainy. While Marvel surprisingly stumbled out of the gate, DC expanded rapidly in 2014, with mixed results. Gotham only seemed to get worse as the season wore on, but remained a ratings success, while Constantine, better than just about anyone expected, withered on the vine of Friday night. Most importantly, Greg Berlanti, the creator of Arrow, expanded his domain in every sense with The Flash, a success with both the crucial target demographics and many TV critics. Berlanti has his own universe within DC's multimedia universe; it will expand in the coming season, definitely with Legends of Tomorrow, on CW along with his other shows, and possibly with Supergirl on CBS. For Berlanti, Flash was a crucial evolutionary step from the relatively grim grit of Arrow -- now imitated with greater self-importance to greater acclaim by Marvel on Netflix -- to a full-scale comic-book superhero universe. While Marvel TV has seemed minor-league in its initial focus on spies, though SHIELD has been world-building aggressively more recently, with Flash DC has introduced all the potential of superpowers to the small screen while nearly perfecting the CW formula of heroism complicated by relationships, which is basically the Marvel Comics formula of "super heroes with problems" from fifty years ago.

As Flash acknowledges in its stunt-casting of John Wesley Shipp as its hero's father, the current show is TV's second try at DC's Scarlet Speedster. Shipp played Barry Allen in 1990's one-season series, a disappointment following the phenomenal success of Tim Burton's Batman movie the year before. The new show has honored the old show in other ways, from recasting Mark Hamill as a new version of his Trickster villain to the nearly mind-boggling casting of Amanda Pays as virtually the same character, down to the name, from1990. The modern Flash emulates the old show by giving Barry Allen a motivating personal issue that comic-book Barry Allen didn't need back in 1956. The founding character of the "Silver Age" of superhero comics, Barry Allen was a model of disinterested benevolence of the sort that modern readers and viewers are bored by or distrust. In more recent comics, Allen's origin was retconned to motivate him with a murdered mother, and so it is here. We first saw the new Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) on two second-season episodes of Arrow, in which the young Central City police scientist came to Oliver Queen's Starling City to investigate possible "metahuman" activity. This was an obsession of Barry's because he remembered something, or someone, superhuman involved in the crime for which his father was convicted. Nothing came of the lead, though Barry flirted a little with Felicity Smoak and designed an adhesive mask for Ollie before returning home to be fried in his lab by the explosion of STAR Labs' particle accelerator. His own show began with Barry waking from a months-long coma, reuniting with his surrogate family, discovering his speed, and making new scientist friends. A rump operation at STAR is being conducted by Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh), assisted by young prodigies Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlyn Snow (Danielle Panabaker). These last two aroused instant interest among comics fans because their names suggested that they were destined to become superheroes or villains themselves, while Wells was initially more mysterious. On the personal front, Barry returned home to police detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) and his daughter Iris (Candice Patton), on whom Barry has an understandable longterm crush, but who has hooked up during his coma with Joe's protege Eddie Thawne (Rick Cosnett). Eddie's last name also rang bells with comics readers. It marked him as an ancestor of Eobard Thawne, the "Reverse Flash" of the future and an arch-enemy of Barry Allen, if not the man himself.

The particle-accelerator explosion affected others besides Barry, giving them powers that mostly were used for evil. The STAR staff helped Barry fight these new menaces while learning to use his speed to maximum effect. At an early point Joe West learned Barry's secret and began collaborating with the STAR team, notwithstanding their extra-legal confinement of super-powered villains in containment cells at the facility, but in classic CW fashion he ordered Barry not to tell Iris, an aspiring journalist already interested in the "streak," about his powers and activities. In time Eddie Thawne, sometimes resentful of Barry as an enduring rival for Iris, was let in on the secret and became a reliable collaborator, if also a more reluctant keeper of the great secret from Iris. The CW lives on these secrets and their consequences, but Flash handled this storyline with more understated credibility than Arrow, where this season everyone had to keep Detective Quentin Lance from learning that his daughter Sara had been murdered, out of fear that the shock would stop his weak heart. While that seemed like archaic melodrama, Flash's dilemma seemed more plausible and its resolution was taken care of quickly with a relative minimum of sturm und drang. The show got enough of that elsewhere.

From episode to episode, Flash's model was Smallville, where Kryptonian radiation created a generation of "meteor freaks" for young Clark Kent to deal with. Strangely, it was on Arrow where we first encountered an authentic metahuman whose origin could not be traced to the Central City particle accelerator incident -- a necessary event if Berlanti's universe is to be worth exploring beyond its two principal cities. Some of Flash's own antagonists weren't dependent on the explosion, from the old incarcerated Trickster and his modern imitator to the malevolent tech whiz Leonard "Captain Cold" Snart (Wentworth Miller) and his firebug sidekick "Heat Wave" (Dominic Purcell). The names usually aren't the villains' own ideas; genre geek Cisco gets to dub them in a weekly ritual. In comics, Flash has a rogues' gallery to rival Batman's or Spider-Man's, and after one season the show still has plenty to try out. They are a fantastic lot, from a man who can turn himself into a poison mist to the gorilla Grodd, experimented upon to develop near-human intelligence and super-human telepathy. All finally were overshadowed by the slowly revealed villainy of Harrison Wells, who became the show's most intriguing character. We knew something was up with him early on when he went into a secret chamber and consulted a hologram that appeared to be a newspaper from the year 2024, reporting the disappearance of the famous hero The Flash during some mysterious crisis (a Pavlovian trigger word for DC fans). Wells checked the paper frequently, apparently to confirm that history was still on a track that led to this crisis and disappearance, while mentoring Barry. Was it his job to train Barry for a necessary role in that crisis? Or was he the Reverse Flash from the future -- but if so, why encourage and help Barry? Since CW is taking the now-unusual step of repeating the entire season this summer, I won't spoil every detail, but Tom Cavanagh deserves a ton of credit here and now for crafting one of the best, most subtle supervillains in live-action media. Suffice it to say that he is a man from the future who has to stay in his past, our present, for a long time to carry out a longterm agenda that is ultimately selfish and ruthless. Yet he cannot live his life among us on this day to day, year by year basis without  living largely according to the needs of the day. The remarkable thing about Wells is how he can engage, objectively if not disinterestedly, in each episode's problem-solving, even occasionally sacrificing his own agenda for the greater good of the moment. Whether he wanted to or not, he can't help but be a man of the present, and arguably to a great extent a good man, even as he furthers a longterm evil agenda. The show's writers deserve much of the credit for conceiving this character, but Cavanagh really sells it with a great poker face and an overall smooth demeanor befitting a man who's always working on several levels of strategy at once.

Cavanagh may have been Best in Show this season, but Flash has been blessed with a strong ensemble cast, all of whom succeeded in deepening and enriching their characters over the course of the year. Grant Gustin is younger than the classic Barry Allen and sometimes seems more like a Peter Parker type, but he handles the material with easy conviction and does probably the best job possible within the modern "I'm learning this as I go along" paradigm. Carlos Valdes brightens the show with comedy relief that doesn't require him to be an idiot, since in fact he's a genius inventor with a possible metahuman destiny of his own, darkened by a vision of his own death that actually happened, only to be relegated to an alternate timeline. Jesse L. Martin's Joe West puts all the cops on Gotham to shame, and that's before he really gets good as Barry's primary father figure and Iris's overprotective parent. As Iris, Candace Patton could have been a hated character as the show's mundane focus for shipping, but the character developed agency of her own as a reporter and now that she (like just about everyone else!) knows Barry's secret she'll be more team player than token romantic interest next season. As the third figure in the standard CW triangle, Rick Cosnett really took off in the later episodes once Eddie became a trusted part of Team Flash and had to deal with what was supposed to be his destiny, unless he had something to say about it. Some of the weekly villains were weaker than others, but there really was no weak link in the main cast. Add to the mix nearly unprecedented special effects for television and Flash has just about realized what comics fans had hoped for over generations: a superhero show with an authentic comic book feel within a rapidly expanding comic book universe in all its dimensions of potential. The one real risk it faces moving forward is that Berlanti's creative team may overstretch itself as more shows go into production. The overall weakness of Arrow's third season may be a warning sign, but to have produced Arrow in the first place and now Flash after the debacle of the Green Lantern movie proves that Greg Berlanti learns from his mistakes. In any event, Flash is the kind of show that inspires optimism, in bright contrast to the gloomy perspective of other shows, so I leave behind season one confident if not impatient for season two.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DVR Diary: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966)

As major directors take more time between pictures, Orson Welles's record doesn't look so bad. From 1941 until his death in 1985 he released twelve finished films, not counting the little-seen documentary Filming Othello. That's one film in less than every four years, which is more than some modern masters can boast. Of course we know all too well that there could have been much more, and his overall rate of productivity only got worse after Chimes at Midnight came out. Yet the difficulties in getting financial backing that only grew more insurmountable from the Seventies forward had already scarred Welles, and they inform his last finished Shakespeare film in a way that makes Chimes a little prophetic and even more tragic than the big man intended.

Welles returned repeatedly throughout his career to the idea of a Shakespearean compilation film, bringing together material from several of the history plays in a creatively condensed chronicle of 14th-15th century England. He'd seen himself as Falstaff ever since his first try, an ambitious 1939 stage production that died of technical difficulties and haphazard cutting. This first version was called Four Kings, but by the time he put a leaner version on stage in 1960 it was Chimes at Midnight. So it would remain, though the few Americans who saw the film knew it as Falstaff, to stress still more what was obvious. Once again Welles had to scramble to keep the money flowing and couldn't keep all his actors in one place the whole shoot. Filming in Spain, he cast actors like Fernando Rey as Englishmen, only to overdub their accented voices later. The biggest names in the cast were John Gielgud as Henry IV, Margaret "Miss Marple" Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and Welles himself. It typified Welles's late style, favoring rapid cutting over long takes and sweeping camera movements. It suffered his late handicap of over-reliance on post-dubbing, which hurts his own performance more than anyone else's. For a Shakespearean he mutters and mumbles too much, especially in the early scenes. But his performance does grow on you until the final scenes have the desired tragic effect.

John Falstaff is supposed to be some embodiment of the English spirit, so much so that Mistress Quickly can say of the dead man that he rests in King Arthur's bosom if anyone does. Yet Welles introduces us to a Falstaff who seems like little more than a bum, thanks in part to the mumbling. You wonder what Price Hal (Keith Baxter), the future Henry V, sees in the man. Falstaff is a robber, a coward and a liar. But I suppose what he is more than any of these is a free spirit, which is something a Prince of Wales with such a stuffy dad (Gielgud) can appreciate. But throughout the picture you can see the ways "Jack" is starting to piss Hal off, especially when, after hanging back -- very understandably, as Welles illustrates -- from the Battle of Shrewsbury, Falstaff tries to take credit for killing Hal's great rival and victim Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Even after this, though, Hal can always go back to Jack when he wants to have fun and blow off steam. Falstaff is a guy whom, having robbed pilgrims in the forest, can be robbed himself by a disguised Hal and forgive him afterward. Things change when the king's health fails and when Hal is caught mistaking him for dead and trying on his crown. Hal is haunted by his father before the old man is actually dead, and H4's stern ante-mortem lecture resolves H5 to be a morally upright monarch. But when Falstaff hears of the old king's death he thinks it's party time. He strolls in during a procession fully expecting to be made a counselor of state or something similarly great or lucrative, only to be cut dead by the new king's famous "I know thee not, old man" speech. H5's need to make a fresh start for himself looks reasonable, but it breaks Falstaff's heart, and really kills him within a day.

It'd be interesting to see Welles's 1939 Falstaff because it simply could not have been informed by all the disappointments and rejections that inform his 1965 performance. When Falstaff celebrates his buddy's ascension it's as if one of Welles's own cronies had come into money, which could only mean that Orson Welles was going to make a movie! Of course, this time Welles was making a movie, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to make Falstaff, if not the audience, feel his pain. Those in the audience who were his fans surely did feel it, and they probably feel it worse in retrospect, knowing that things would get no better for him. This is probably Welles's most transparent and, sometimes in spite of himself, his most moving performance.

Chimes at Midnight is more than a play for pathos. Welles again displays his knack for making the most of found locations and the overall art direction is wiry and stark. He may have had to compromise in dialogue scenes when one or more actors were absent and characters had to be shot from behind, but his uncompromised compositions are things of beauty. Chimes owes a lot to Sergei Eisenstein's history films in the way Welles arrays armed men behind foregrounded protagonists against a wide-open sky, but in the Battle of Shrewsbury he sheds the Russian's influence. It's a quite different affair from Eisenstein's battle in Alexander Nevsky, less self-consciously epic and less partisan. Welles doesn't gloat over the defeat of Hotspur's army as the soldiers go down in the mud the way Eisenstein gloats over the Teutonic Knights falling through the ice. Welles's battle is chaotic, bewildering and overwhelming, ultimately vindicating Falstaff's decision to watch from a safe distance, had we thought to deplore his apparent cowardice. Who wouldn't prefer his little world of a tavern, as for a while Hal seems to? The really impressive thing about Chimes is the way Welles initially seems, both intentionally and arguably not, to stack the deck against Falstaff, only to win you over to his side. I won't go as far as some fans who call it Welles's best film, but it's at least his best Shakespearean film, and a great film by any director's standard.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

On the Big Screen: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

The word apocalypse comes from an ancient Greek word literally translated as "unveiling," which is why the New Testament book called the Apocalypse of John is identified in English as "Revelation." So while George Miller's Mad Max movies are routinely identified as post-apocalyptic movies, that's really a misnomer. They are apocalypses unto themselves, and the latest picture, finished thirty years after the last one, is no exception. Mel Gibson is too old to play Max now but Miller isn't too old to direct Mad Max movies. Like Kenji Fukasaku directing Battle Royale at age 70, Miller hasn't mellowed with age. To the contrary, Fury Road is like a second coming -- or a fourth, if you insist -- of a style of action, if not an entire style of filmmaking, that has too often in our time seemed smothered by CGI or other conventions that most likely make Miller's film look stranger to audiences today, who apparently prefer anything from Avengers 2 to Pitch Perfect 2. There's a lot going for action movies today, but Fury Road blows its contemporaries away, in great part because it self-evidently is not the kind of action-movie comfort food that prevails today, whether in Marvel movies, Fast and Furious films or the pixellated fantasyland of Peter Jackson. It does not come swaddled in jokes and relationships. A new Mad Max movie is not a family reunion of any sort, as Mel Gibson's absence makes clear. No fan service from George Miller, unless you count as an in-joke the new film's villain being played by the same actor who played the villain of the original movie. Instead, Miller believes in the old-fashioned sort of fan service, which consists of delivering the goods.

For the first time since Gravity I opted to see a film in 3D and this was a good choice. Miller gives us the old fashioned pleasure of objects being hurled out of the screen, albeit from nearly every conceivable direction and with more menacing speed than normal. He filmed at mountainous locations and massive sets that give Fury Road an epic if not biblical feel. If some shots hint at what Lawrence of Arabia would have looked like in 3D, the early scenes at Immortan Joe's citadel look like something Cecil B. DeMille would have done in 3D. Joe has made a mountain into his temple and the fount of his thralls' survival thanks to his control of an underground reservoir. He lets the water flow a few minutes at a time while the wretches fight for their portion, warning them not to get attached to the stuff, or else they'll resent its absence. Joe, a broken-down old man who covers a ruined mouth with a skull mask, but also an excellent driver, rules over whitefaced War Boys whom he fills with dreams of Valhalla and the blood of healthy victims to replace their diseased vital fluids. Max (Tom Hardy), found as usual in a bad way, finds himself reduced to the status of "blood bag" and hood ornament of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy eager to prove himself and prove to himself that he is "awaited" in Joe's Valhalla. Hardy is either a profound ironist or simply accursed, for here is his next opportunity to put himself over with the multiplex audience after The Dark Knight Rises and again he's stuck with a mask, though only for the first third of the film this time. But if there's something weirdly self-effacing about Hardy, the mask is actually a smart way for Miller to ease the transition; it allows us to more gradually accustom ourselves to a Max who isn't Gibson. With the mask on, the man on the screen is neither Gibson nor Hardy but Mad Max in nearly ideal form.

The mask also forms part of the argument that Max, or Hardy, is eclipsed intentionally by the film's co-hero, the renegade Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Furiosa has been the focus of some preposterous speculation or conspiracy mongering, with at least one website earning a lot of publicity for itself by accusing Miller of reviving his franchise only to force a feminist agenda down moviegoers' throats. Hearing about this before seeing the film, you might expect Fury Road to be a war of the sexes, with Max presumably a traitor to his. Rest easy, folks. Yes, Immortan Joe has multiple wives whom he treates as slaves and broodmares. But even this marks him as a sexist or misogynist when he can also make Furiosa, also an excellent driver, a trusted lieutenant with important responsibilities, though this proves to be a mistake. If anything, Theron's performance is a weak link of the film. She's a strong figure, certainly, but perhaps because Miller sees her as the film's co-hero Furiosa isn't as flamboyant a figure as the other denizens of the citadel and environs. Theron plays her as a laconic, understated figure, much as Hardy plays Max, with few if any of the eccentricities that seem otherwise to follow from civilization's collapse. The problem, I think, is that we meet her at the point of betraying Joe, liberating his wives, and redeeming herself, when she might have been a more compelling figure had we seen her actively collaborating with Joe -- if we saw why she feels a need to redeem herself. But that would require a separate picture -- which some have asked for -- without Max at its center. Beyond this, there's arguably some feminist agenda in the concept of the Green Place, a matriarchy from which Furiosa was taken as a child and to which she hopes to return with Joe's women, but if anything the film tells us that such a utopia is just as much a dead end as any other, and we need not assume that Miller recommends matriarchy as the future for Max's world.

As for who's the real hero, the answer's pretty simple. When during a point of despair Furiosa opts for escapism, lighting out for the territory through the desert, as far away from the citadel as possible, in the hope of finding something better at the other side, it's Max who tells her that "Hope is a mistake" if it leads you to run away from the problem in front of you. If Max has been a commitment-phobic figure throughout his series -- and here he seems more haunted than ever by horrific hallucinations of his lost family -- he's still the one who tells Furiosa to commit, to chose fight over flight. He points her toward the only practical solution: revolution. Joe has overextended his forces pursuing Furiosa and left his citadel undefended. If Furiosa's team -- which now includes a reformed Nux, disillusioned by failure and separation like a lone Borg -- makes a surprise end run back the way she came, through Joe's lines, she might capture the citadel almost singlehandedly.

If Fury Road has a theme, it's that civilization can be redeemed only by our giving freely of ourselves to others. At a crucial moment Max, formerly an involuntary bloodbag, offers his blood freely to a wounded comrade, while Nux, previously a parasite on Max's blood, is inspired to make a considerable sacrifice of his own. Furiosa finally becomes a full hero once convinced by Max to liberate the citadel rather than fend for herself in the desert.

But who needs a theme for Fury Road? The film needn't have a thought in its head to be one of the greatest action films ever. Here is a film that almost literally reinvents the wheel in spectacular fashion, restoring the action film to a gritty, visceral life that has been rendered away in recent years. No luddite, Miller has exploited CGI to amplify his typical effects, but the car and stunt based reality of it all is still obvious, as is the series' inventively idiosyncratic weirdness. Joe's fleet rolls to its own live soundtrack, complete with a monstrous speaker system on wheels with a flamethrowing guitar soloist whose final fate gives the film one of its funnies 3D gags. Miller has had ample time to imagine the road wars of his world and the weapons that might evolve. So now we see War Boys harpooning cars with explosive-tipped spears, and pole-mounted warriors who flank their quarry and plunge down to snatch captives or plunder before bouncing back upright. The visualization, the execution and editing are impeccable. If Buster Keaton had imagined an apocalypse, this is what it might have looked like. If the action film follows directly from Keaton's large-scale stunt films like The General, Fury Road honors that lineage and builds upon it. If in many ways it reminds me of something old, it also manages to make something new, an imagined future, look like something real -- or definitely more real than most movies. At the same time it feels more like a movie than most action movies have lately. And I don't know how long it's been since I've seen something as exhilarating on the big screen. I get it if some of you absolutely had to do Pitch Perfect this weekend, but if you love movies you owe it to yourself to see Fury Road on a big screen, if not in 3D, while you have a chance.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Too Much TV: WOLF HALL (2015)

Hilary Mantel's trilogy of novels, still incomplete, has already conquered all media. The two novels published so far, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were both bestsellers and Booker Prize winners. A two-part, six-hour stage adaptation currently reigns on Broadway and has been nominated for Tony awards. The BBC's six-part, six-hour TV adaptation has just finished its run on PBS in the U.S. People who've seen both the stage and tele plays say the TV version is better. Playing on PBS, it probably got less ratings than it could have elsewhere on American TV. The ratings were definitely strong for PBS, but I don't know how they compare to Downton Abbey or Sherlock. There's definitely a big audience for this sort of thing. The Thomas Cromwell trilogy, for want of a better label, is, after all, a revisionist fairy tale, with the added kick of being revisionist history.

The fairy tale it revises is Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons, best known as Fred Zinnemann's Oscar-winning film from 1966. In Peter Straughan's teleplay for Wolf Hall, Cromwell (Mark Rylance), the chief minister of Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), practically prophesies the Bolt play. He imagines Thomas More (Anton Lesser) writing a play ensuring that More will have the better of their disputes, not to mention the best lines, forever after. On the evidence of the teleplay, Mantel may once have believed in the More legend, as propagated by Bolt, only to learn later that it was a big lie. Her portrayal of More, predictably, is the most controversial aspect of Wolf Hall in all media. Bolt's More, a hero for the Cold War era, takes his stand against absolute, arbitrary power and dies a martyr. Mantel's More is virtually an English Torquemada, a Catholic fanatic dedicated to the destruction and torture of heresy, who dies for a point of fanaticism rather than a point of conscience. Like much revisionism, Mantel's revisionist take on More has provoked a backlash, as well of charges of anti-Catholic bigotry. I can't comment on claims that Mantel's account is historically inaccurate, but the charge of bias seems unfair given how sympathetically she portrays Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), Cromwell's mentor, who is hounded to death for failing to facilitate Henry's first change of wives to the king's satisfaction. Mantel's More is presumably more a portrait of generic fanaticism than particular Catholic evil. It's the sort of thing we should expect to see in a revisionist fairy tale, the debunking of a hero who may have seemed all along to some too good to be true.

In a revisionist fairy tale we should also expect to see a villain rehabilitated, or at least explained, since our age rebels against the monotonous depiction of some figures, at least, as irredeemably evil. Thomas Cromwell is a villain when More is a hero, and some would dub him a historical villain for his role in consolidating Henry's despotic absolutism. Mantel's Cromwell is the protagonist, if not a hero, and so he must have his reasons. He is a man abruptly detached from most of the joys of life following the sudden death from illness of his wife and two daughters in one day. Estranged from his brutish blacksmith father, he sees Wolsey as more of a father figure, arguably, and resents the suffering inflicted on him by Henry and his cronies. He seems to resent the most a petty satire staged after Wolsey's death in which noblemen play demons dragging the cardinal to Hell. The king may be as much to blame as anyone for Wolsey's fall, but if Cromwell truly seeks vengeance against Wolsey's tormenters, he must leave Henry standing as the instrument to destroy the others. Until the end of the miniseries, when he most explicitly orchestrates the fall of Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), for whose sake Wolsey fell, Cromwell is less conspirator than facilitator. He is most often shown modestly observing the story's grotesque egomaniacs, letting them rage and insult him yet keeping score for the future. Everyone confides in him, to their peril, presumably because they find him too contemptible, due to his common birth, to be taken seriously as anything but a stooge of the king or the Boleyn family. He takes their abuse stoically and hardly revels in his revenge. He grows passionate only twice, once raging against More both for his onetime friend's atrocities of thought and deed and for his foolhardy refusal to save his life with mere words, then waxing retributive as he compels the young men who mocked Wolsey in death to denounce Anne and themselves.

Toward Anne Cromwell is more ambivalent. I really haven't seen many Tudor tales -- I missed the more salacious Showtime series entirely -- so I can't say if Anne Boleyn has ever been portrayed as such a vicious bitch as Claire Foy portrays her. For much of the series she looks like the main villain, spitting contempt at the man whose name she insists on pronouncing with what I assume is a French accent ("Crum-weycch" is my best approximation) while reminding him that he is but a creature made by the king (or by her) and thus can be unmade in an instant. Near the end, after another such reminder, phrased in general terms about any arriviste, Cromwell says, "I entirely agree," thinking of Anne herself. Yet he seems to take no satisfaction in her ruin as she goes the way of Henry's first wife, only more violently, for the same offense of failing to give the king a son. In fact, the teleplay ends with awful emphasis on how hollow a victory, if he even sees it as one, Cromwell's is over Anne. We linger over the execution scene as Anne makes a pathetic speech blessing the king, some observers assuming she still expects a last-minute reprieve. We see her blindfolded, trembling and struggling to suppress sobs as the executioner makes his eccentric preparations and Cromwell asks whether she'll suffer from the swordstroke. We hear him stage-whispering to her not to move her head so the end will come quickly and painlessly. We're spared the actual blow -- a great thing about Wolf Hall is that it gives us all the intensity and intrigue of today's great TV shows with very little of the violence -- but we see her ladies-in-waiting, who've never been afraid to talk back to her and gossip about her, collect her head and body like valkyries while warning the crowd that they'll not let male hands touch her anymore. There's too little, or rather too much, to gloat over here; miraculously the show has left us pitying Anne. And from that scene Cromwell has to go to the king, who waits for him arms outstretched for a celebratory hug, as if he's won another jousting tournament, that Cromwell accepts as if it's a devil taking him to Hell, and that's the end ... for now. History tells us, of course, that Cromwell's turn is coming.

Rylance and Foy are extraordinary, while Damian Lewis deserves a lot of credit for a more thankless role playing the king as a bit of a jock and a bit of a twit with the power of life and death over people. Lesser's More (was he cast so reviewers could write that?) gives a repellently effective performance that has no doubt exacerbated the controversy over Mantel's accuracy of bias. I also should acknowledge Bernard Hill of Lord of the Rings fame for his relatively small but showy role as Anne's thuggish uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. The six hours are a slow burn that breaks out on schedule into a purging fire, after an early crescendo during the fall of More, but after delivering what we expect it leaves us with a gut punch that reminds us of the truth of the era, that there was no justice then, only arbitrary power. That's a theme that appeals to us today -- and it's worth noting here that George R. R. Martin has said that his Game of Thrones novels owe more to historical fiction of this grim sort than they do to generic fantasy.  Wolf Hall may be as close to Game of Thrones as PBS gets -- and it's actually pretty close.

Monday, May 11, 2015

ENTER THE NINJA (1981)


 
Every time the conversation turns to ninja movies I have to remind people of the moment in You Only Live Twice when Tiger Tanaka introduces James Bond to his modern ninjas. On a firing range we see these ninjas firing machine guns, throwing hand grenades, and so on. Pretty cool. The film is from 1967, and cinematic ninja have grown only less modern since then. What the hell? Well, what happened, obviously, was the rise of martial-arts cinema as a global genre. These appealed to a romantic if not atavistic sentiment of their time, inspiring fantasies of ancient wisdom and personal discipline overcoming oppressive technological modernity. Archetypally speaking, there's not much difference between a ninja -- a good ninja, I mean -- and an Ewok. So by the end of the Seventies we had Eric von Lustbader's novels, Frank Miller's comics, The Octagon, and finally Enter the Ninja, a film that bestrides two eras. It looks forward to the Eighties as the work of two of that decade's defining genre producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and an early showcase for the movie ninja of the decade, Sho Kosugi. But it looks to the past in its casting of Franco Nero as its hero. The implausibility of casting has never stopped Nero. If he can be a western gunslinger and a singing knight of Camelot, he can damn well be a ninja.

I'm told that there are versions of Menahem Golan's film in which Nero, as he reportedly prefers, speaks his own English dialogue, but Netflix isn't streaming that version. If anything, the superimposition of an alien voice only exacerbates what I see as Nero's visible discomfort with the project. Nevertheless, he plays Cole, whom we learn was once a mercenary fighting wars in Africa -- virtually a modern ninja already -- who for reasons never made clear quit the business in order to learn, in Japan, how to be a traditional ninja. The film opens with his final exam. Cole's white-clad bulk crashes through the woods, slaughtering all in his path, until he confronts and decapitates an old master. The master, head attached, promptly reappears for the graduation ceremony. All the mayhem and gore we'd seen were fake, the master's erstwhile head merely papier-mache. Cole has to recite the nine principles of ninjistu in order to graduate and nails them. But bigoted Hasegawa (Kusugi) protests that no foreigner can be a true ninja. Fortunately, his opinion counts for crap with the sensei and Cole is sent out into the world to follow the ninja way of helping the helpless and oppressed. But how will his bleeding-heart-liberal ninjitsu stand up to the rage of raw capitalism?


Cole heads to the Philippines, where his old mercenary pal Frank Landers -- Alex Courtney plays him like a hastily drawn and drunken-voiced cartoon of James Caan -- runs a plantation with his English wife Mary Ann (Susan George). Nero may as well be back in the Old West. Here, as there, an evil financier (Christopher George, no relation to Susan) covets the good people's land. The sinister Mr. Venarius, who keeps synchronized swimmers in his deluxe pool as a "living mobile," has sent a goon squad to the outskirts of Manila to drive the Landers' workers off the farm and the Landers off their land. The goon squad is led by Siegfried Schultz (Zachi Noy), a Teutonic leperchaun with a hook hand who is duly humiliated when Cole defends his friends. Our hero rips Schultzie's hook clean off, which helps convince Venarius that he needs a better class of goon. After Cole and another new buddy, the transplanted old codger "Dollars" (Will Hare) ruin Venarius's attempt to negotiate a sale at gunpoint, our villain learns that the Landers' protector is a ninja. "I want a ninja!" he demands -- I paraphrase -- "I want a ninja now!"

 
The forces of evil converge ...


Venarius's faithful flunky Mr. Carter (Constantine Gregory) dutifully flies to Tokyo and does what anyone would do to find a ninja: he goes to a talent agency. Miraculously, Carter ends up at Cole's old school, where he explains to the sensei, without naming names, that a bad man is terrorizing Mr. Venarius's business concerns. This looks like a job for Hasegawa, whose idea of defending the oppressed includes slitting Frank Landers' throat, kidnapping Mary Ann, burning down the farmhouses and cackling evilly. I'm not sure sensei would approve, and I know Cole doesn't. He happened to be out on a lark with Dollars, raiding Venarius's corporate headquarters and leaving his guards in compromising positions, as all this went down, receiving only Hasegawa's selfie film of a recent kill as a warning of what's to come.

 
Above, Mr. Carter's, "I think I've been hurt, sir," is my favorite line of the film.
 
Below: Senator McCain, this is human cockfighting.


To save Mary Ann, Cole must face another gang of useless guards and eliminate Venarius himself before confronting Hasegawa in a cockfighting arena. You might think that since Nero's ninja costume makes it very easy for a stuntman to replace him in all but the close-ups that this formal finale would be a truly climactic battle, but you'd be wrong. Kosugi and his stunt-opponent may be talented, but the fight choreography and direction lumber along as if Nero himself were fighting in his big white jammies. It doesn't help that our good ninja suddenly starts fighting dirty, blowing chalk into poor Hasegawa's face to get an early advantage. But I guess a ninja's gotta do what a ninja's gotta do, especially when the woman he now loves -- Frank having disqualified himself before death by drinking himself into impotence, and Mary Ann having seduced Cole in his guest room -- is in danger. After one of the clumsiest finishes to a swordfight I've seen, good triumphs, while Hasegawa gets the consolation prize of a genuine decapitation. But it was Sho Kosugi who'd live to fight another day, and another, and plenty more after that for Golan-Globus and others. while Nero never made another martial arts movie. That leaves Enter the Ninja looking like a rough draft of ninja films to come, but as the wellspring from which they flowed it still has a lot to answer for.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

THE SNITCH CARTEL (El Cartel de los Sapos, 2011)

Carlos Moreno's film is based on a based-on-true-events miniseries that was a big hit on Colombian TV. Moreno and his screenwriters presumably opened the story up considerably with extensive location work and some impressive action sequences. Whatever its basis in Colombia's violent history of drug trafficking, the story follows a recognizable Scorsesean rise-and-fall pattern, only here the protagonist never gets high on his own supply. Martin, aka El Fresita (Manolo Cardona) seems rather straitlaced for a drug dealer. He's really a romantic, pining after his dream girl Sofia (Juana Acosta) since childhood. He has a mildly Pescian sidekick, the impulsive, motormouthed Pepe (Diego Cadavid), whose family ties to a Cali cartel don give him and Martin a fast track to the top echelons of crime. On a more Coppolesque note, the film opens with Pepe's wedding, complete with a gun-toting dwarf in a gift package. He's just a joke, actually, but the joke goes sour when the dwarf gets hit with real bullets and the wedding comes under attack.


The pragmatic Fresita and the entrepreneurial Pepe -- he can spew out the math proving how the cartel will profit from his schemes -- ship cocaine to Mexico and later directly to the U.S., dealing dangerously with Mexican gangster Modesto (Pedro Armendariz jr in one of his last roles). While they make money up north, things fall apart at home. The destruction of Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel only results in the Cali leaders turning on one another. All the while, the DEA (represented by guest American Tom Sizemore) encourages cartel members to turn "sapo" and inform on each other. Once Pepe's uncle is killed, the odious Cabo (Robinson Diaz) takes power, resenting Fresita for past slights despite his moneymaking ability. While Pepe becomes little more than Cabo's flunky, Fresita is targeted for death despite turning down an offer to join the so-called snitch cartel. Barely escaping a Mexico City hit, Fresita finally turns informer to save his life. He also hopes the DEA will protect Sofia, who having married him will be Target Number One for Cabo's revenge. However, Sofia has gradually plumbed the depths of Fresita's life, having followed him to New York to see him blow away a would-be hijacker, and now wants no part of his Miami safe house and his seven-figure bank account. The film is open-ended, suggesting that Martin still hopes to win Sofia back after his abbreviated prison stay. I don't know if this single film adapted both El Cartel TV series, but one way of another there hasn't been a cinematic sequel that I know of.




Cartel de los Sapos has a charismatic cast and is slickly shot with a genre consciousness and film-buff sensibility that can throw a Third Man homage, among possible others, into the mix. There's arguably nothing original to it, apart from the setting for someone unfamiliar with South American cinema, but the picture is effectively entertaining and the climactic running gunfight between Fresita and Cabo's gang is very well done. Cardona makes a good tragic antihero, complemented by the unforgiving Acosta, and Cadavid as Pepe gives an interesting performance as someone who proves to be less than you expect in every regard. Pepe's dwindling away to relative insignificance, except for a spiteful late attack on Fresita when both are in prison, may seem like a weakness in a script that had built him up so much, but it convincingly conveys, if that was the intention, Pepe's essential weakness, the hollow core of his bluster. As the pig-loving Cabo, the massively moustachioed Diaz looks the perfect villain, if also a moron, and his performance lives up to his visual. Everything falls together to make Snitch Cartel worth recommending to fans of global crime cinema.