Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Too Much TV: UNDERGROUND (2016-?)

My local cable provider picked up WGN America just in time for the first season -- it has earned a second -- of Misha Green and Joe Popski's series, the first event in a new wave of slavesploitation that will include a remake of Roots and a new Birth of A Nation movie taking the Nat Turner rebellion as its subject. While any slavery show is inescapably a commentary on American race relations, Underground can be enjoyed as a short-season series in the modern mold, full of plot twists, complicated characters and various degrees of darkness, along with some decent action. The plot is simplicity itself; we witness the planning and execution of a mass escape of slaves from a Georgia plantation, though the execution, predictably enough given the twists and complications, doesn't go quite as planned. The opening episode does one thing right above all; it introduces most of the major slave characters in one sequence as two of the escape plotters determine who can be useful or dependable. Characters are identified by name, assigned skills and character traits. It might seem like convenient exposition by some dramatic standards but I'd bet that TV viewers would like more such exposition than they normally get. By giving us a diverse cast of slave characters the creators can have things both ways in their portrayal of slavery. They can give us a crowd-pleasing narrative of resistance while showing the diversity, moral as well as vocational, of slave experience. Inevitably in an ambitious modern TV series you can't have a cast comprised entirely of innocents and moral exemplars, since you want to keep the possibility of betrayal in the air. The best case of this among the slaves is Cato (Alano Miller), trusted enough by the master to be promoted to overseer, self-interested and cunning enough to be a constant threat to the conspirators, yet also the person who starts the breakout ahead of schedule, for reasons of his own, almost immediately after his promotion. With him in the group, solidarity among the "Macon 7" can never be taken for granted. More ambiguous still is Ernestine (Amirah Vann), a privileged house slave and lover of the married master (Reed Diamond), whose daughter -- theirs, in fact -- unexpectedly joins the runaways. Underground is brave enough to show that real passion exists between slave and master and may contribute to self-loathing on both their parts. It's part of a complex brew that makes Ernestine an amoral yet sympathetic character, one willing to murder a fellow slave, who was in on the plot, in order to save her daughter from recapture, and finally willing to murder her lover/master with the comment that they're both going to Hell, only he'll get there first. You can identify a few of the Macon 7 as good guys, but ultimately none of them are squeaky-clean by the end of the season.

Underground hedges its bets a little by foregrounding its white characters early on, but they mostly recede to their more proportionate place as the season progresses. Along with Tom Hakes, the master, we're introduced to his brother John (Marc Blucas), who's become a lawyer in the north and is summoned back south to become Tom's campaign manager (whatever that means in the antebellum era) in an upcoming election. Tom doesn't know that John and his wife Elizabeth (Jessica DeGouw) are abolitionists who will turn their new home into a station on the Underground Railroad. The preservation of their secret is the constant subplot of the first season, while we wait for members of the Macon 7 to show up at their doorstep. This subplot gets mighty melodramatic if not soap-operatic at times, as when a U.S. Marshall finds out the secret but promises silence in return for sex from Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, we learn that John's hands are not exactly clean; he'd once provided legal services for a slave auction, as we learn when a violent escapee whose wife was sold on that occasion shows up suddenly to take the Hawkeses hostage. The point of all this isn't to reduce everything to shades of gray, however, since on a show like Underground there's very little uncertainty about who the good guys and bad guys are, even after all their flaws or redeeming qualities are taken into account. The one exception to that may be the slave-hunter August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), who seems simply to be too much of a badass to be dismissed as a villain, though the idea that he does his thing for economic reasons (as opposed to anyone else?) doesn't really add much depth to him. I expected to see him dead by the end of the season but he seems to be unkillable, though many have tried. Thankfully Underground hasn't been killed, and I've tried and given up on enough shows this season to appreciate its virtues. If not a true top-tier series, I'd still put it in the top ten of the new shows I've watched this season.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN? (1931)

Released mere days after his Cimarron won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1930-31, Are These Our Children? was intended as the debut of Wesley Ruggles, superstar auteur. The opening title gives Ruggles, director of Cimarron, a formidable "By" credit. Subsequent cards clarify that Ruggles came up with the film's story, while Howard Estabrook, who won an Oscar for Cimarron, did the "Adaptation and Dialogue." In some ways Children, a pet project of Ruggles' dating back to silent days, is more ambitious, or at least more pretentious, than the mostly plodding Cimarron, a film most likely on everyone's bottom ten of Oscar winners. Ruggles uses animated special effects throughout the picture, from an opening halo of romantic idealism surrounding protagonist Eddie Brand (Eric Linden) and his sweetheart Mary (Rochelle Hudson) to solar or cosmic imagery symbolizing Eddie's ups and downs. There's also something more going on than the juvenile-delinquency cautionary tale the title advertises. Eddie Brand is sort of an American Raskolnikov, though Ruggles soft-pedals the kid's megalomania until late in the picture, and does without any repentance until the last possible moment, and Children works better as an individual character study than as a snapshot of American youth.

Everything seems to be looking up for Eddie at the start of the picture, but his ego is built on a fragile foundation. The slightest setback demoralizes him. Seeing himself as an aspiring orator, Eddie is so humiliated when he flops (offscreen) at an interscholastic debate contest that he wants to quit school altogether despite the entreaties of his grandma (the long-suffering Beryl Mercer) and her friend Heinie the shopkeeper (William Orlamond). Eddie grows self-indulgent, hanging out with questionable cronies at The Orient, a BYOB dance club run by a happily unstereotyped Asian family, and cheating on Mary with Flo (Arline Judge). Restless and undisciplined, Eddie bounces from job to job and turns with his buddies to petty crime. Their criminal career climaxes with a cab ride to Jamaica, Queens, -- they call the driver "Amos" in a nod to the blackface cab driver of the radio --  where the boys break into Heinie's delicatessen in search of free hooch. Heinie defends his bottle to the death, which comes from Eddie's gun.

The boys think they're in the clear without reckoning on the cab driver, whose presence outside one of their hangouts is the only tipoff that the gang is drunkenly dancing into a police trap one merry night. The cabbie will be a star witness at the trial, where a contemptuous Eddie refuses his defense attorney's suggestion to plea to a lesser charge. He seems mainly to want the show to go on, having won the celebrity he craved all along. He uses photo ops to pontificate on current events in a "you don't understand me because you're stupid" way that may explain his failure at the debate contest. Yet just when you think he's throwing his life away by overruling his attorney and taking over the questioning the prosecution witnesses himself, Eddie shows that he had formidable forensic talent all along. Piece by piece he begins destroying the prosecution case, exploiting the Oriental proprietor's Fifth Amendment reticence about his hours of operation to keep his alibi alive, then annihilating the cabbie's credibility on a hunch that the man can't remember which prosecution lawyer had questioned him just the day before. It's worth noting that Ruggles also directed Mae West's epic courtroom self-defense in I'm No Angel, so maybe courtroom drama was the man's true calling. But back to our story: Eddie decides to cinch his acquittal by getting his co-defendants to take the stand and perjure themselves to establish their alibi -- but he doesn't reckon on one pal's (Ben Alexander) toxic mix of guilty conscience, fear for his own life, and jealousy over Eddie taking his girl. His triumph is snuffed out in an instant when his "pal" rats him out on the witness stand. All that follows -- Eddie's pathetic Death Row farewells to grandma, Mary and his kid brother -- is anticlimax. But when Are These Our Children? is going on all cylinders it's often queasily exhilarating as Eddie's mania (fueled by Eric Linden's fierce performance) carries you almost giddily along his road to ruin. While Ruggles is at his best in the courtroom and the clubs and apartments where the kids party their lives away, he's also good at changing the mood with quiet moments like Eddie's recurring solicitude for a stray puppy in front of his apartment building that remind you of his humanity even in his worst moments. Not everything works here -- those symbolic images are pure pointless pretentiousness -- but if you only know Ruggles from Cimarron, Are These Our Children? will help you believe that he actually could make a decent movie.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: HAVANA WIDOWS (1933)

"How many times do I have to tell you, find out who a guy is before you slug him."
- Joan Blondell to Glenda Farrell 
Contemporary movie reporters for local newspapers, presumably guided by studio publicity, treated Ray Enright's comedy as a kind of prose sequel to Busby Berkeley's musicals of 1933, which made gold diggers a hotter topic than ever as well as revolutionizing film choreography. Joan Blondell had appeared in two of the Berkeley musicals, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. Havana Widows marked the formation of the greatest female comedy team of the era when Blondell joined forces with Glenda Farrell. Not yet dubbed the "Gimme Girls," they more or less earn that epithet here. Widows establishes the template for future Blondell-Farrell films with Glenda as the more hard-boiled and mercenary of the two and Joan as more of a softie and a romantic. They're usually indistinguishably hard-boiled at the start of a story, as they are here as showgirls down on their luck. Glenda has been fined five bucks, a big chunk of her weekly pay, for scratching her itchy back on stage. Joan has been suspended without pay for a week because she wouldn't go to a "smoker" in Passaic and "show them something." The wolf, or at least the landlady is at the door -- but the old lady isn't after the rent today. Instead, she announces that a former co-worker has come to see the girls. They fear the worst, that their old colleague has come to touch them for money they can't spare. They're shocked to find she's struck it rich by going to Cuba and luring a rich American tourist into a breach-of-promise trap with the help of a trusty shyster. Naturally our girls see that the road to riches goes through Havana, but they need a grubstake. They decide to put the touch on their old pal at her hotel, but when they see a long line of showgirls with the same thought in mind they decide to seek alternate financing. Fortunately, Glenda's dolt of a boyfriend (Allen Jenkins) is the bodyguard and good-luck charm of a local gangster. The girls convince Jenkins to come up with the $1,500 to set themselves up in Cuba as the titular widows, albeit by telling him that Joan has to pay for a relative's operation in Kansas; he comes up with it by borrowing from his boss. Jenkins can't lay off the roulette wheel, however, and promptly loses all the money. Luckily, insurance salesman Hobart Bosworth has alternate financing for Jenkins: if the dumb lug will take out a life insurance policy, Bosworth will kick him back $1,500 out of the big commission he'll earn. Jenkins delivers the money but sees a newspaper headline about a notorious forger and starts to worry.

The girls promptly blow their roll on clothes and a fancy hotel room while they hunt for men. They're plagued by a drunk who keeps coming into their suite to use their door latch as a bottle opener. This lush turns out to be Duffy the shyster (Frank McHugh), who when functional helps the girls entrap a suspicious Guy Kibbee, even as Joan falls for Kibbee's son (Lyle Talbot). Time is running out, however, since Jenkins has figured out where the girls have actually gone, following them to Cuba so he can get his money back to repay his boss, who follows Jenkins to the island in turn. This sets up a would-be farcical slapstick finish -- highlighted by Kibbee's infantile panic at the prospect of a "Frame-up!!" -- but Havana Widows isn't really that perfectly plotted. Intended as a showcase for almost the entire comedy division of the Warner Bros. stock company (Hugh Herbert is conspicuously missing, though some might not miss him) as well as launching the Blondell-Farrell team, it has a few too many characters to juggle and not enough motivation to keep all the balls in the air. What makes it worth watching is the comic chemistry of the Gimme Girls. Here are two actresses who did not benefit from the supposed female empowerment, as described by David Denby in his recent New Yorker essay, that allegedly came with Code Enforcement and the rise of the romantic comedy. Blondell and Farrell may not be feminist role models in their capacity as gold diggers, but their main job was to be funny together, and in that capacity they're outstanding. For what it's worth, like many a Depression film Widows is grounded in economic reality and the struggle to get by, if not get ahead. It might have been more admirable in retrospect if the girls decided to start a business for themselves instead of gold digging, but they're characters in a comedy and the idea was to make people laugh at the lengths other people might take to find economic security and some comfort in their lives. The Gimme Girls have no less spunk or sand for trying to land a sugar daddy (though neither does in the end) than if they'd tried something more honorable, and their way is simply funnier in a way their audience appreciated.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

RATTLE THE CAGE (Zinzana, 2015)

For the first time in a long while I've created a new country label. Majid al-Ansari's thriller apparently is the first widely circulated movie, thanks to Netflix, produced in the United Arab Emirates. Many observers are impressed by the novelty of a crime thriller from that source. What they seem to be impressed by, and what actually depresses me somewhat, is that al-Ansari and his writers have made a slickly generic picture that could have been made just about anywhere on Earth. Zinzana is a rather familiar seeming Tarantinian chamber piece in the manner of Reservoir Dogs, featuring violence and badassery in a single location. This time it's a small-town police station in an unnamed Middle Eastern country -- apparently a still-secular one with female police officers in modern dress. The story is pulp simple: a prisoner is being transferred to this small-town station, but his brother (Ali Suliman), apparently a bigger, badder, crazier criminal, plans to free him by taking over the place and impersonating the sherif, thus taking custody of his kin without a struggle -- after killing the sherif beforehand, that is.


Something complicates the master plan: somebody actually gets arrested. Talal (Saleh Bakri), trying to salvage his marriage, got into a fight at a hotel and was nabbed for drunk and disorderly. It takes him forever to get the sherif to let him make a phone call, only to have his estranged wife refuse to speak to him. Soon afterward Dabaan, the master criminal, arrives and stabs the sherif to death through the ear. Since it would be too much trouble to kill Talal, Dabaan tries to get him to cooperate, or at least to not make waves. He gains leverage over Talal in two ways. First, he uses the landline phone's callback feature to learn the identity of Talal's wife. Second, another officer, the asthmatic, out-of-shape, good-natured Aida (Yasa), reports for secretarial duty. To his credit, Dabaan doesn't instantly try to kill her. Instead, he goes out of his way, and over the top, to flatter and flirt with her, to distract her from any questions about his identity. Yet his ability to kill her at any time is an inducement for Talal to cooperate, however passively. Realistically, however, Talal knows that this madman will have to cover his trail in a way that leaves no one alive. In particular, he knows he doesn't stand a chance, since Dabaan's endgame is to burn the station down with Talal inside, to let investigators assume that the charred body in the cell is Dabaan's brother. To prevent further killing, not to mention save himself, Talal will somehow have to free himself from the maniac holding the key to his cell.


Suliman sinks the film for me with his bombastic, cartoonish performance as Dabaan. Al-Ansari indulges Suliman to ridiculous extremes while indulging himself with pompous overhead shots of the villain in full arms-outstretched crowing glory. To make the Tarantino influence even more obvious, al-Ansari even has Suliman dance menacingly to pop music on the radio a la Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. And then he goes to another camp level by staging a comic dance number with an unctuous Suliman and a ponderous Yasa. If anyone was hoping for a realistic portrait of crime and law enforcement in the Arab world, that scene tramples their hopes once and for all. I suppose there's a method to the director and actor's madness, however, since it does make you increasingly eager for Talal to turn the tables on Dabaan as violently as possible. It is satisfying to see Talal take the offensive, simply because Dabaan had become so insufferable, and I was happily surprised to see the film end on an anticlimactic note when I was expecting it to end Die Hard style with Yasa in the Reginald VelJohnson role of last-second rescuer. Ultimately, alas, Rattle the Cage is less dumb fun than just dumb, and not even dumb in any redemptively unique, culturally particular way. You could remake a story like this anywhere, or you could believe it was a remake of a story from elsewhere.  That's not a good impression for an aspiring national cinema to make.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Too Much TV: JESSICA JONES (2015 -?) and SUPERGIRL (2015 -?)

There is a civil war among comic book fans deeper than the partisanship of Marvel and DC readers or the "who's stronger?" debates within each company's fandom. It sometimes seems like nothing less than a battle for the soul of superhero comics. On one side are arrayed longtime readers dissatisfied with just about every trend in comics over the last generation or two, and on the other are those who rather like what's happened. One side is aesthetically conservative but often self-consciously progressive in their politics, while the other simply knows what it likes. Go to some comic-book news or fan sites and you'll see what I mean. It's kind of a one-sided war, with a vocal minority convinced that it represents a hidden majority of potential readers who'd like comics to be what they were five or ten or thirty years ago. These are the lifers: people who've continued their comics reading into adulthood out of love for characters and the sensations of superpowered action. They've read comics for a very long time, and happened to come of age as fans during a period when both Marvel and DC were committed to intensive continuity that included the evolution of longterm relationships between established characters. This was the era when Superman actually married Lois Lane, and when Spider-Man actually married Mary Jane Watson, among other events. All of this was going on at the same time that Frank Miller and Alan Moore, among others, had transformed the wider public's idea of what comics were and could be. The authors of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are among the founders of what the lifers sneeringly call "grimdark," a sensibility of constant apocalypse favoring worst-case scenarios and extreme responses, where perseverance in spite of pessimism and the picking of psychic scabs prevails. For some time, grimdark coexisted with an older mindset that saw the flourishing of multigenerational superhero families and virtual families as cause for optimism for humanity outside comic book pages. But in the early 21st century something went awry in the comic book business. At Marvel, a story changed history so that Spidey and MJ had never married. At DC, the entire comic-book multiverse was effectively rebooted in 2011 so that Lois and Clark had never married. Continuities and fictional legacies were abruptly purged in other ways that left longtime readers feeling violated and betrayed, especially when new storylines and continuities at both major companies seemed grimmer and darker than ever.

Arguably this was the ultimate consequence of the unintentional self-ghettoization of the comic-book audience at specialty stores where freedom from the old censorious Comics Code was supposed to liberate comics into a wider expressiveness on all levels, but only reinforced the preferences of certain subcultures of adolescent and post-adolescent males. Many lifers presumably went to the same stores, but for whatever reasons they developed expectations from comics that went increasingly against the cultural and corporate grain. Their own preferences may seem old-fashioned or naive to many more recent readers, or to the people currently writing comics, but as noted earlier lifers often see themselves as progressives in most other respects. They may be the sort of people who are dismissed by the new mainstream of comics fans as SJWs ("social justice warriors"). Their desire for optimistic, idealistic comics founded on longterm "ships" includes an openness to greater representation in comics for women as well as homosexuals and other minorities. They are the people who protest against "fridging" female characters -- killing them, often in gruesome fashion, simply to give male heroes something to react to and emote about, named after a scene in a story in which a female victim was stuffed in a refrigerator -- and against the "bury your gays" trope in all media. You could call them "politically correct" to the extent that they want comics to be a sort of "safe space" in which diversity is welcomed unconditionally and all kinds of people are shown to be equally capable of heroism. It's harder to say what the other side wants since they aren't, in my experience, as articulate or dogmatic about their preferences. Many of them, most likely, simply want comics to be cool or badass or extreme, depending on what those terms mean to them. I don't get the feeling that they're as judgmental about the comics the lifers like as vice versa, apart from some contempt for an ideal of heroism some describe in terms of Superman rescuing kittens from trees in the 1978 movie. By comparison, the lifers -- as a matter of disclosure, I consider myself a lifer who has gotten over himself -- seem convinced that there is something wrong with the comics the other side likes, morally as well as aesthetically, and maybe something wrong with the people who like them as well.

Wasn't I supposed to be reviewing some TV shows? Well, wait no longer, because by coincidence two shows with strong female leads, which in theory should be equally popular with the lifers for that reason and may be, nonetheless come as close to representing the opposite extremes of superhero comics as any two shows or movies out today.

Greg Berlanti's Supergirl, in particular, often seems consciously in opposition to grimdark. It's a show that takes to heart the concept from the movie Man of Steel that the "S" on the Superman shield is a symbol of hope, even though Supergirl says it represents the motto, "Stronger Together." As lifers and other enemies of grimdark want comics and superheroes to inspire hope, so Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) literally saves the world in her first-season finale by an appeal to hope. I mean literally: she actually reads a speech urging people under mind control to think hopeful thoughts, and it works. As an expansion of the Berlanti multiverse into Big Three network territory, Supergirl aims for a broader audience than his CW shows while retaining their preoccupation, deeply annoying to fans seeking more badass extremism, with romantic shipping. It comes closer to the camp quality of older superhero shows than Arrow or Flash, though it has its own grimdark moments. It's a free adaptation of the already much-mutated Supergirl comic book mythos, throwing in such new elements as an adoptive human sister for Kara Danvers, nee Zor-El, who also happens to be a badass agent of the DEO, the government agency dedicated to surveillance and control of aliens and metahumans on Earth. Its main organizing concept is that Kara, sent as a babysitter for Kal-El in a separate escape pod, reached Earth late, after Kal had grown up to be Superman (who maintains a quasi-presence on the show as a body without a face or the sender of text messages), and around the same time as a vast Kryptonian-built prison ship whose crash releases a host of alien criminals, along with their hardened Kryptonian keepers, on an unsuspecting world.The warden of the prison ship, now dedicated to conquering Earth, is Kara's aunt Astra. While the DEO keeps its hunt for hostile aliens secret, even from Superman, Kara herself, once she reveals her powers to the world, becomes the target of xenophobic suspicion, stirred up mostly by genius industrialist and Luthor-wannabe Maxwell Lord. In another irony, the head of the DEO, Hank Henshaw, is actually a benign shape-shifting Martian Manhunter who gradually reveals his secret to the Danvers sisters, whose father (former Superman Dean Cain) befriended J'onn J'onzz before a death (at the hands of the real, evil Henshaw) that may not be as fatal as people first thought. Many lessons are taught about tolerance and many messages sent, particularly by media mogul Cat Grant (Callista Flockhart), for whom Kara works in civilian life, about the importance of a superheroine as a female role model and inspirational figure. As a Berlanti show, Supergirl inevitably tangles Kara in a romantic polygon. Her main romantic interest is former Daily Planet photographer James Olsen, who has been reimagined as both black and, more controversially, a stud rather than the archetypal dweeb. Olsen, however, is torn between Kara and old flame Lucy Lane, Lois's sister, who careens between careers as a JAG and a legal counsel for Cat Grant. Meanwhile, another Catco worker, Win Schott, son of the notorious Toyman, pines for Kara and struggles with jealousy of Olsen, just as Olsen, in one hilarious episode, sulks jealously while Supergirl (he knows her secret) pals around with The Flash, who has blundered into the CBS universe (one of many universes, as established on his own show) by running too fast. Inevitably in a "girl power" show like this one the guys end up behaving like the female romantic interests that so many fans of the other Berlanti shows despise. In short, the Berlanti DNA is unmistakable, but despite many violent tragedies the positive is accentuated as often as possible, the idea affirmed more than his other shows dare that heroes exist to inspire and thus empower the rest of us to be and do our best. Supergirl thus has a layer of preachy artifice, largely missing from Berlanti's other shows, that's resented by comics fans who don't like messages (feminism, tolerance, hope) "shoved down their throats" but admired, presumably, by oldschool fans who feel that this, however campy or cheesy it may sound, is what superhero stories should do.

Conveniently, the concept of mind control gives us a point of direct comparison between Supergirl and Marvel's Jessica Jones. On Supergirl the evil Kryptonians have activated a device that puts almost everyone is National City under mind control in an attempt to achieve utopian unity at the expense of individuality, which Supergirl reawakens through her appeal to hope. Over on Netflix, Jessica Jones's antagonist throughout her first season is Killgrave (David Tennant), the twisted result of experimentation who controls minds merely by making eye contact and speaking. In comics his power was explained by his unique purple skin, but the show wisely neglects that detail. Anyway, Killgrave knows no other way to interact with people than by dominating their minds so that they fulfill his every whim. He's not above making people kill themselves to get his way, or to stop Jessica (Krysten Ritter), a woman with unmeasured superhuman strength and other powers, from taking him in and making him confess to making one of her friends kill her parents. Jessica is constantly thwarted by having to save people Killgrave throws into jeopardy, not to mention all the shit that happens randomly in her catastrophe of a life. But as a heroine she prevails in the end, by snapping Killgrave's neck. Until then, Jessica Jones had been an infuriating show in the best possible way, Killgrave's every lucky or unfair escape increasing your eagerness to see him dealt with once and for all, as opposed to shows that infuriate you by having the heroes act stupidly in order to keep a season-long storyline going. Another example of the benefits of shorter seasons at thirteen episodes, Jones represents another twist in the struggle between Marvel/Disney and DC/Time Warner for all-media dominance. While Marvel Studios dominates cinema currently and faces no imminent threat after the critical drubbing given  to Batman v. Superman, DC has the advantage in direct-to-video animation and on television thanks to Berlanti. Instead of sending reinforcements on the conventional TV front, Marvel staked new territory on Netflix beginning with Daredevil and instantly won acclaim for programming that was darker, grittier and less annoying in some ways than the Berlanti DC shows, but also darker and grittier in many ways than the Marvel Cinematic Universe whose advantage over DC's movies was thought to be its lighter, more personable tone. I found Daredevil to be more hype than fact, praised inordinately for its derivative first-season plot mainly for having more visceral violence and less shipping than Berlanti's shows. But Jessica Jones really does live up to the Marvel/Netflix mandate of more mature and truly darker, grittier content. It's basically a superhero noir, right down to Jones working as a private eye in Hell's Kitchen, but also noir for the 21st century without the fetishistic aesthetics you might associate with this particular n-word. Jessica is guilt-haunted after having killed a woman with one punch under Killgrave's control (she's grown immune to him by the time of the show), drinks like a fish and has casual sex with bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who is at once another superhuman (his skin is impervious) and the husband of the woman Jessica killed. If the Avengers cavort at the figurative and literal heights, Jessica's milieu is the lower depths, where hope is a joke and heroism is a matter of muddling through. Platitudes don't offer easy answers here; it may be as much of a contrivance that Jessica has to kill Killgrave as it was in Man of Steel that Superman had to kill General Zod, but there's an honesty to the contrivance on Jessica Jones that doesn't feel like a betrayal of the superhero genre -- I should note that it isn't a bad thing to imagine people capable of solving the worst problems without killing -- because the integrity of the story on its own terms transcends superhero convention. At the same time, Jones doesn't neglect the work of world-building as part of a sequence of shows destined to climax in a Defenders team-up. It remains essentially a comic-book show, but it shows that that label can encompass comfortably much more than those who hate grimdark would allow. Jessica Jones is superior not only to Supergirl but also to Daredevil, and its title character may be the most fully and convincingly developed small-screen superhero to date. Yet I can understand why some people might like Supergirl better for the messages it sends and its pure fantasy of almost limitless power to do good. You could argue that Supergirl and Jessica Jones are two sides of the same coin; perhaps it's Two-Face's old two-headed coin with Jessica the scarred side. I'd like to think that any comics fan could appreciate each show's virtues while preferring one to the other for aesthetic rather than ideological reasons, and that a genre that includes both extremes is actually pretty healthy in its flexibility. Some people feel that there are too many superhero movies and shows already, while others feel that there are too many of certain kinds, but I dare say that the genre is still only beginning to show its range, and I still look forward to better things to come.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) in SPOILERVISION


When we last left the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after the end credits of Ant-Man, Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, was a prisoner of Captain America and the Falcon. I remember thinking that Marvel must have jettisoned their original idea for the third Captain America movie, which from the evidence of the previous picture looked to be a hunt for Bucky, in order to do their variation on the parent comic book company's popular Civil War series. As it turned out, Marvel has gone non-linear on us in its effort to cram nearly three movies into one. The post-credits scene from Ant-Man is reprised in the Russo brothers' Captain America: Civil War, but it takes place approximately halfway through the movie. It was somewhat jarring to realize that scene hadn't happened yet, once we learn that Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is still at large and implicated in fresh acts of terrorism. Bucky is sort of a Macguffin this time, and the film as a whole is an ambitious exercise in misdirection and anticlimax, all to conceal that while Civil War is often wildly entertaining and in many ways the superior of its crazy cousin Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the whole of it doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts and actually shares some of the insanely more-hated movie's flaws.

As the film opens, Bucky's on Cap's backburner as the Avengers address the continuing repercussions of their last misadventure in the obnoxious land of Sokovia, where there apparently was a lot more collateral damage than Avengers: Age of Ultron let on. Things only get worse for Earth's Mightiest Heroes (this time missing their mightiest, Thor and the Hulk) when their Sokovian recruit Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) bungles an attempt to get a human bomb out of harm's way and gets a bunch of Kenyans killed. Worse, some of the victims were Wakandans, residents of the reclusive but technologically advanced African monarchy whose ruler takes the lead in promoting the Sokovia Accords, an international initiative to bring the Avengers and other "enhanced humans" under some kind of supervision. The team is split over whether to sign the Accords themselves, despite pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, returning to the franchise eight years after The Incredible Hulk). Career military man James "War Machine" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is all for it, and so, surprisingly, is his pal and mentor, the eternal rebel Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who was just guilt-tripped by the mother of an American killed in Sokovia into a new appreciation, if that's the right word, of the heroes' irresponsibility. Just as he opposed SHIELD's extreme surveillance tools in his last picture, Cap opposes the Accords, and his opposition seems just as arbitrary a narrative device as before. I understand that Captain America should represent what we consider the best of America now, which includes considerable distrust of government regulation, but Steve Rogers, as a product of his more idealistic and trusting time, shouldn't necessarily share our time's libertarian paranoia. He says of himself that he's been on his own for the last 70+ years but Captain America: The First Avenger shows that to be patently untrue, unless Steve refers only to his time in the ice. You could just as easily think of Steve Rogers as the ultimate organization man, while Tony Stark seems the one more likely to be the libertarian bomb-thrower. But you see, in the original Civil War comics, to which this movie bears little more resemblance than Age of Ultron did to the comics of that name, Stark was the aggressor promoting regulation and registration while Steve, who in comics had seen a lot more of the modern world by that time than his movie counterpart has, led the opposition -- and that much of the original story Marvel Studios felt it had to keep.

It's all just talk, however, until the Winter Soldier appears to re-emerge and perpetrate a terror attack at a UN conference intended to ratify the Accords, killing the Wakandan king among other victims. Now there's a shoot-on-sight order out for Barnes, but Steve can't stomach the thought of his old buddy from Brooklyn, who he knows to have been mind-controlled by Hydra for all the time he was an assassin, being killed. Part of this, I suppose, is because with the offscreen death (natural causes) of the legendary Peggy Carter Bucky's his last link to his old life, but part of it is also the inescapable tendency of superheroes and genre heroes in general to make everything personal, and to make the personal trump the greater good in the utilitarian sense of the term. While the movie lets us know that Steve is right to want Bucky spared, because it shows us enough to make us certain that Barnes is being framed for this latest atrocity, Steve himself doesn't know this until much later. The only thing he knows for certain is that Bucky Must Not Be Killed. Personal loyalty puts his protege from the last picture, Sam "The Falcon" Wilson (Anthony Mackie), along with Wanda and later both retired Avenger Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and bewildered recruit Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) on Cap's side, while logical but conscientious android The Vision (Paul Bettany) takes Stark's side and Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) appears to straddle the fence while leaning Stark's way. Complicating things further is the lone-wolf intervention of the new Wakandan king T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who has taken on the ceremonia mantle and weapons of The Black Panther while vowing to avenge his father by killing the Winter Soldier. Since the Wakandans were big promoters of the Accords T'Challa joins Stark's team but seems unlikely to accept Tony's leadership. Stark has at least one more card up his sleeve to reveal before the teams run at one another at the airport, as we've all seen happen too often....

I was a little unfair to Marvel Studios in my defense of Dawn of Justice, because it was my feeling then that Zack Snyder was trying deliberately to make difficult what Marvel had made almost too easy. Civil War proves that sometimes too easy is a good thing, because most of its action sequences are effortlessly superior than the often ponderous goings on in Snyder's film. There's a fluency of visual invention and action choreography that's most absent in Dawn of Justice, perhaps because the disproportion of power between Superman and Batman makes fight choreography difficult in ways Batman's countermeasures can't compensate for. If anything, the early action scenes in Nairobi and Bucharest are more exciting than the big airport scrum, though that climactic battle finally builds momentum once it transcends the gee-whizziness of certain characters meeting for the first time while fighting. The Nairobi fight, which climaxes with a return match between Cap and Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo) and Wanda's disastrous mistake, is like the Mexico City sequence in Spectre, setting an almost impossible benchmark for the subsequent action to surpass while needlessly wasting a freshly impressive badass villain. The airport fight is stalled by its effort to imitate the quippiness of authentic comic-book fight scenes but never fails to be ingeniously inventive, especially after Ant-Man shows off his formidable new growing power. If the airport fight has a major weakness, it's the same weakness that brings the film to a screeching halt just when everything seemed to have been set up for the big fight. I had better make myself clear now: I enjoyed Tom Holland's performance as a truly youthful Peter "Spider-Man" Parker and am looking forward to his solo debut next year, but the painful shoehorning of his presence in Civil War never ceases to be glaringly obvious. The interminable sequence in which Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit Parker while flirting with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is the exact equivalent of the much-reviled momentum-breaking moment in Dawn of Justice when Wonder Woman watches videos of future Justice Leaguers in hazily recorded action. Overall, Spider-Man is this film's Wonder Woman, introduced with the drunk enthusiasm or a late-night card player throwing down his trump or his straight flush. But if anything Civil War has less room for Spider-Man than Dawn of Justice had for Wonder Woman; he seems superfluous to the Marvel movie in a way Wonder Woman never did in the DC film, and more obviously something imposed at the corporate rather than the creative level. If this film is three in one as I suggest, then Meet Peter Parker is one too many after The Hunt for Bucky and Civil War proper.

Civil War admirably takes a chance in ratcheting the action down significantly at the end, trusting that Cap vs. Iron Man go toe to toe (if not strictly mano a mano) did not need the enhancement of a giant object falling from the sky. It's even more daring to make the real villain of the piece such an ultimate nothing, even as everyone recognizes that if any superhero story can do without a villain it would be this one. It turns out that everyone was being manipulated by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) who in comics is another of Captain America's very longstanding foes. He lures Cap and Bucky to Siberia, confident that Iron Man, now tipped off that Bucky was framed will follow. Bucky fears that Zemo will reactivate a new cadre of Winter Soldiers created in the final days of the Soviet Union (apparently also infiltrated by Hydra), apparently with chemicals seized by the original Winter Soldier in a 1991 hit. Zemo, however, is less interested in unleashing a small unstoppable army on the world than in dropping an emotional bomb on Stark: surveillance footage revealing that brainwashed Bucky had killed Stark's parents in order to grab the chemicals. Everything Zemo has done was meant to set up this moment, on the assumption that the revelation would provoke Stark into killing Bucky and force Cap to fight Iron Man to protect his naughty buddy yet again. That's a really big gamble, but who would know better than a genre character how predictable a genre character can be? But why, Zemo, why? The answer, depressingly, is Sokovia. Instead of a second-generation Nazi, this film's Zemo is yet another disgruntled Sokovian, having expended great mental and material resources to make the Avengers fight each other as if that'll make up for everything that was actually the stupid robot's fault. Say what you will about Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, but Brühl's Zemo is a black hole of a villain who shrinks to insignificance before our eyes. The good thing about Civil War is that it can survive this implosion, but Iron Man's rampage and Stark's entire character arc leave you wondering what the film's moral actually is. Are we to assume that Tony is wrong about the Accords because everyone rushed to judgment about a known serial assassin? Or because the government actually dared to imprison the Avengers (plus Ant-Man) captured at the airport? Or because he flew off the handle in a fit of vengeance that simultaneously diverts the Black Panther from Bucky to Zemo? If anything, his own moment of mania should have cemented his belief that people like him need to be supervised if not controlled. But if anything at all, this film only reinforced Tony Stark's essential flightiness, since by the end he's ready to give the government (or at least Secretary Ross) the finger again as he did in Iron Man 2. This flightiness seems to be a universal condition among costumed heroes, since Black Panther, the most hardcore advocate of the Accords, ends up harboring a bunch of super-powered fugitives from international law. I suppose all of this can be seen as an endorsement of Steve Rogers's position in favor of maximum freedom of action for conscientious heroes, but I could see people leaving the theater doubting that proposition, if they bother thinking about it. Captain America: Civil War is a wildly entertaining film, but it probably is better if you don't think about its message too much. Think of it as just another superfluous element of a movie bursting at the seams with far more than enough stuff to make a terrific film, whose makers simply didn't know when to quit.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2015)

Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing is deliberately less spectacular because it shows the perpetrators of Indonesia's anti-communist massacres of 1965-6, in which hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered on often slight pretenses, in less boastful circumstances. While the earlier documentary, which famously presented the perpetrators' cliched, hagiographic and surreal dramatizations of their dirty work, attempted to encompass the entirety of the slaughter, The Look of Silence takes place on the micro level, focusing on one village, one family and one event. At the same time, a certain artsiness persists, only at the narrative rather than the visual level.

For the most part, the new film is about the act of killing one person, a young man named Ramli. Two of the killers remember him well, or at least claim to. These two knuckleheads will remind you them most of the previous film as they narrate how they dragged people to the killing field, one playing the killer, the other the victim, both in apparent good humor. After almost fifty years they remember specifically how they killed Ramli, though they treat his execution like another day at the office.


Meanwhile, Ramli's brother Adi (to the right in the picture on top), born after Ramli's death, returns to the community as an eye doctor. Because Oppenheimer understandably has kept most information about his collaborators secret, I don't know whether this was Adi's real work or whether it's a ponderously symbolic device to illustrate the different degrees of blindness among the people Adi interviews. In any event, while he tests prescriptions on their eyes softspoken Adi goads his patients toward admissions of responsibility for the slaughter of mostly if not entirely blameless people. Some claim to know nothing about the killing, though some had told Oppenheimer otherwise on camera. Some insist chillingly that everyone would be better off forgetting the past if they don't want it repeated. When you hear these subtle and not-so-subtle threats you see the true face of the Indonesian repression and you understand, despite the country's democratization, why so many credits at the end go to "Anonymous."


The big irony that has little to do with the politics of Indonesia is that while Adi, who never knew his brother, is determined to get some accounting for him by his persecutors, his father, senile and mostly crippled, has forgotten his older son. In one sad scene the old man's long-suffering wife tries to remind him of Ramli, but while he can sing some pop tune from memory he can't hold on to Ramli's name or the idea that he had a son who was murdered, from one sentence to the next. There's something slightly unsettling about Oppenheimer's denial of any dignity to the old-timer, last scene scuttling around on hands and butt in a panic, convinced that he's wandered into someone else's house and will get beaten for it, but maybe he sees some tragedy in the old man's madness, as compared to the forgetting that the perpetrators, who still remember things well, seem to require of the families of their victims. They'd like to see everyone forget the Ramlis of long ago like his father has, while Adi and Oppenheimer are battling them for the Ramlis' place in history, beyond memory. While The Look of Silence is less of a stunt than The Act of Killing, and will never yield as many compelling screencaps as its predecessors, it's in many ways, especially by documentary standards, the better film for capturing that dangerous collision of memory and history.