Saturday, February 18, 2017

Too Much TV: THE YOUNG POPE (2016 - ?)

HBO calls The Young Pope a limited series, implying that the "The End" we see at the close of the tenth episode is pretty definitive, but Wikipedia reports that the show's production company is planning a second season, which leaves us with quite the cliffhanger and a lot of questions about the show's future direction. It's the brainchild of Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director of Il Divo, The Great Beauty, Youth, etc. On a TV budget and schedule Sorrentino can't be as consistently "visionary" here as he's been with his more recent pictures, but overall you'll recognize it as the director's characteristic work. I couldn't help wondering whether Sorrentino originally envisioned a young Italian Pope, but with HBO investing, and with Sorrentino having worked in English before an American Pope may well have been the idea from the start. But as is often the case with American television, the American Pope Pius XIII, born Lenny Belardo, comes from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Putting on an American voice, Jude Law's delivery reminded me of Bill Murray for some reason -- perhaps because Lenny/Pius has Murray's air of aloof smugness despite an avowed seriousness of moral purpose.

Chosen as a compromise candidate to thwart Lenny's supposedly more reactionary mentor (an envious James Cromwell), Pius proves quite the rabid conservative in some respects, and as a supposedly underqualified, abrasive boor he's been seen in some quarters as a prophecy (the series was filmed in 2015) of President Donald Trump. Some people will see Trump everywhere for the next little while. Anyway, the homophobic new pope is determined to purge all gay priests from the clergy, even those genuinely celibate. He enters into tough negotiations to strengthen the Vatican's position vis-a-vis the Italian government. His most provocative idea, however, is to turn himself into a kind of anti-celebrity. Believing that many of the most fascinating artists of modern time were recluses, e.g. J. D. Salinger and Stanley Kubrick -- and a series set in Italy might have been expected to mention Elena Ferrante -- Pius thinks that he can increase the glamor and mystery of the Catholic church by making a mystery of himself. Departing from the standard set by John Paul II, the young Pope shuns public appearances and refuses to authorize the usually-lucrative marketing of the pontiff's image. When he addresses the crowds in St. Peter's Square, he stays in shadow. On other occasions, he remains invisible while speaking over a public-address system.

Part of his idea is that Catholicism should be more difficult for people, that they should have to earn the right to see the Pope, and that more disciplined and positively fanatic Catholics will result from his strictures. But the true plot of the series shows us that Pius' authoritarian reticence also has much to do with Lenny Belardo's uncertain sense of self. He's an orphan, having been abandoned by his hippie parents for reasons that remain unknown and raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who becomes an important, worried adviser for the new Pope. There's more orphan bonding in this show than we've seen since The Dark Knight Rises; Pius even uses the "orphan sense" explained dubiously in that picture to deduce that Sister Mary herself is an orphan. Another of her charges, and Lenny Belardo's closest childhood friend, has also risen high in the church, but Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) doesn't share Pius' fanatic preoccupations. He's actually lived a fairly carnal life in Honduras that will come back to haunt him, and for that reason, perhaps, he objects to Pius raising the bar for priesthood to a nearly-impossible high level of celibacy that drives a spurned would-be priest to suicide. Few in the Vatican hierarchy share Pius's alienating vision; fearing the consequences for Catholic congregations and Vatican revenues, the Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) soon begins conspiring against the young Pope, sometimes with the conflicted cooperation of Sister Mary. His enemies try to lure Pius into an affair, but instead he gets credited for making a barren wife he'd befriended miraculously pregnant. One of the tricky elements of the series is that Lenny Belardo really does seem to have some sort of supernatural power. As a boy, he healed a terminally ill woman with prayer, and as Pope he will intercede with God to have an evil nun in Africa struck dead. Sister Mary sees Pius as a living saint but can't help also seeing him both as a surrogate son and as a threat to the future of the Church. Her response is a kind of psychological warfare, teasing Pius with the prospect of reuniting with his still-living parents in the hope of calming his turbulence and distracting him so that Voiello can slip through some modifications to the strict new church policies.  Pius sees through this pretty quickly, but over time he comes to see the personal consequences of his imperious attitudes, some of which strike pretty close to home, and proves himself capable of moderation. He entrusts an investigation of a powerful U.S. archbishop, an alleged pedophile with potential blackmail material on Lenny Belardo, to a homosexual priest (Javier Camara) whom he eventually names his personal secretary despite knowing his sexuality.

On a deeper personal level, there seems to be some linkage between an understanding that his parents, if living, probably don't want to make themselves known to him and a brightening of his attitude demonstrated in his first open-air homily, which just happens to be punctuated by a cliffhanger heart-attack. The moral of that story may be simply that Lenny Belardo smokes too much, but given the supernatural potential of the story the Pope's seizure could have much more significance. Of course, the show itself warns us almost every week not to vest too much significance in its fantasy. To an instrumental of "All Along the Watchtower," Pius marches through a gallery of sacred paintings, each of which is ignited by a passing meteor. At the close of this tour the Young Pope winks at us and the meteor escapes from one last painting to knock over a statue of John Paul II. The wink probably means, "It's just a show" more than "It's all a joke," but it may also mean that it's about both more and less than it seems on the surface -- less about theology and more about fame, family, etc. I'm actually glad to learn that there's going to be more, not because I'm sure it'll be great but because it felt incomplete and abrupt in its current conclusion. If everyone's coming back for more, then Young Pope still has a chance to live up to people's hopes for all the talent involved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

THE INNOCENTS (Los Inocentes, 2015)

Not to be confused with the Hollywood ghost story adapted from Henry James, Mauricio Brunetti's film puts a supernatural spin on the slavesploitation subgenre and is ultimately more effective as a horror film than a slavery expose. Argentina managed to abolish slavery without civil war in the 1850s, but Los Inocentes, like a miniature echo of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, shows a generation paying in blood for the blood drawn by the lash.


The screenplay by Brunetti, Natacha Caravia and Andres Gelos is flashbacky in a manner appropriate for a film haunted by curses. The main story, set in 1871, sees Rodrigo (Ludovico Di Santo) return to his father's plantation with his pregnant bride Bianca. The plantation is pure South American gothic, with Rodrigo's mother Mercedes, after whom the place is named, a madwoman whose moaning is muted only in the Madonna's presence, while the old man (Lito Cruz) is a brutal boor dripping with contempt for his son. Some of the old slaves have stayed on as servants, despite the plantation's horrific history. The flashbacks show how Rodrigo's childhood slave playmate was hanged for daring to play on a swing, and how a slave woman was burned at the stake for the double offense of getting raped by the planter and burying a statue of the Blessed Virgin in a superstitious attempt to end the drought that the planter blames on persistent slave paganism. These dead haunt the present but seem to target Rodrigo and Bianca more than the old man.


Los Inocentes isn't EC Comics-style American horror in which the dead avenge themselves on the truly guilty. It's more effective as a horror movie for having its curse reach out indiscriminately at the plantation family. The suffering of innocents is precisely what should be horrible about a curse, but to the extent that Americans expect the guilty to suffer, or assume that those who suffer are guilty of something -- like all those teenagers Jason Voorhees supposedly punished for premarital sex -- those who watch the Argentine film on Netflix may be taken effectively and shockingly by surprise by the direction it takes toward the end.


The picture benefits from Hugo Colace's moody cinematography and a cast whose costumes and performances fit the period nicely. Lito Cruz's vicious patriarch is especially impressive, a secular horror of privileged vice in his own right. You feel he's done a good job destroying his family before the ghosts even get started, and his lustful attention to Bianca is nearly as scary as whatever the ghosts have in store for her. There's something inscrutably blank about his expression when we last see him, facing the ultimate fulfillment of the curse, that makes you wonder whether he understands what's happened and why. We know and wonder why he, of all people, is left standing, but it should be clear to viewers that he hasn't exactly gone unpunished.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

FRANCOFONIA (2015)

Alexander Sokurov has become quite the cosmopolitan since his 2002 one-take epic Russian Ark made him an art-house star. Since then his subjects have included the American occupation of Japan and the German Faust legend, while his latest film is a sort of critical sequel to Ark, taking the Louvre museum in France. Francofonia strikes me as a sort of homage to Jean-Luc Godard in its mix of scripted scenes, essayistic narration and other meta elements, and while it's an homage to French cinema to that extent it also shows that you can take the boy out of Russia, but you can't always take Russia out of the boy. The nearest thing to a plot in the piece is the relationship between Jacques Jaujard, the French national museum director (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Franz von Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the German official in charge of preserving occupied France's cultural heritage. Jaujard had already evacuated most of the Louvre's contents to auxiliary chataeux by the time Wolff-Metternich arrived, but as it turned out the German took his cultural preservation mandate more seriously than his Nazi masters probably intended, eventually earning the French Legion of Honor for his trouble. Their story, punctuated for some quasi-Godardian reason with a visible soundtrack, is interlarded with a Russian Ark-style tour of the Louvre, Sokurov's Skype (?) chats with someone transporting precious art by stormy sea on a freighter, and comments on the museum's history. The museum tour is reminiscent of Sokurov's earlier triumph not in its lack of editing but by the appearance of a historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth). He haunts the Louvre, childishly pointing out paintings of himself and explaining that much of the museum's classical collection was plundered by him from the Middle East. The museum has another resident spirit, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), France's counterpart to Uncle Sam. She frolics about in her liberty cap shouting the French Revolutionary buzzwords, "liberty, equality, fraternity," but in a telling moment the tour narrator urges her to get rid of the obnoxious Napoleon after he's grasped her hand, but neither she nor we can shake the Little Corporal.

You may have recalled by now that Bonaparte was a great enemy of Russia, perhaps second only to Hitler, but it's in Sokurov's discussion of what his people call the Great Patriotic War, particularly the treatment of the Louvre and Paris compared to the treatment of Leningrad and the Hermitage museum -- the setting of Russian Ark -- that particularly Russian hurt feelings come to the surface. You get the impression that Sokurov holds it against France that Paris didn't suffer the devastation that Leningrad endured. Never mind that France had surrendered before the Germans had to consider bombing Paris, while Leningrad became a symbol of continued Russian resistance to the Nazi war machine. What really bugs Sokurov, it seems, is the idea that Paris and the Louvre were spared because on some level Germans like Wolff-Metternich saw France as part of European civilization, but didn't extend Russia the same courtesy. I suspect that Sokurov suspects that that wasn't just because of Nazi anti-communism, though that clearly had something to do with it, and to do with why he closes the film with a loud, discordant version of the Soviet national anthem. Francofonia is subtitled An Elegy for Europe, but the overall tone isn't really elegiac. It use of Napoleon links France and Germany together in a culture of imperialistic aggression against the East, in the name of a Europe defined by its exclusion of Russia. You may not like or agree with that message but at least it shows that Sokurov hasn't sold out by returning to his museum motif. This newest film isn't as good as Russian Ark or Faust, but it still proves Sokurov one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

NEXT TIME I'LL AIM AT THE HEART (La prochaine fois je viserai le coeur, 2014)

Cedric Anger's film is based on an actual crime spree in 1970s France perpetrated by a gendarme who took part in the investigation of his own crimes. The fictionalized movie murderer likes to kill with his car, either running women down or taking them on joyrides, shooting them and dumping them on the side of the road. The real-life killer lives today, having been deemed psychologically unfit to stand trial. La prochaine fois seems to challenge that verdict; at least it left me questioning it. Franck (Guillaume Canet) struggles with his impulse to kill, mortifying his flesh with barbed wire among other measures, but can't stop himself -- with one important exception. He falls in love with a woman named Sophie (Ann Girardot), or as near to love as he can get, only to learn that she's already married with no plans to leave her husband. He never kills or even attacks her. Maybe she's become too much of a distinct individual, or maybe his motives for killing have nothing to do with the anger he presumably feels toward Sophie. But you're left with the fact that he does not attack the one person he might have some reason to lash out at. For all that the film provokes empathy for the torment Franck puts himself through, even as you're repulsed by his crimes, his treatment of Sophie could convince you that the fictional killer, at least, had some capacity for self-control, at least, that makes him responsible for the crimes he did commit.



Canet was nominated for a Cesar award for his work as Franck and I'd say he deserved it. The film as a whole is pretty bleak, playing out in a blank landscape of empty roads and parking lots, with a sense of inevitable comeuppance for Franck compounding the dread you might feel every time he takes a woman for a drive. You could find yourself rooting for Franck. against your better instincts, to avoid capture during the film's big car chase, or cheering for him when he outwits the gendarme assigned with him to an all-night stakeout of his own getaway car. At the very least you feel his anxiety, his fear of getting caught as well as whatever he really feels about killing people. La prochaine fois is one of the more successful efforts I've seen lately at getting inside a serial killer's head without vicarious or voyeuristic intentions. It's a more modest and more convincing portrait of evil than many more sensational pictures.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

SARAJEVO (Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914, 2014)

The U.S. will soon observe the centennial of its entry into World War I. With that in mind, Netflix is currently streaming Andreas Prochaska's Austro-Czech TV film, which looks to be the JFK of World War I movies. It's about the investigation by Austrian authorities in Sarajevo, the capital of Austrian-ruled Bosnia, of the assassination there of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The Archduke and his wife were killed on the second try that day by Serbian nationalists. Holding the Kingdom of Serbia responsible for their action, Austria issued an ultimatum most observers feel was designed to be rejected so that the Hapsburg empire, backed by Germany, could invade Serbia. Historians are certain that rogue elements within the Serbian government, if not the government itself, supported the conspiracy, but the assassination, given its world-historical consequences, has been an overdue target for more creative conspiracy theorists. Why, they might ask, was the Archduke allowed back on the street after the first assassination attempt, a bombing, failed? Why did the second motorcade seem to stop right in front of Gavrilo Princip, the gunman who succeeded where the bomber failed? And why would any Serbians carry out a conspiracy that amounted to national suicide?

The assassin's creed: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.


Prochaska and writer Martin Ambrosch go for the solution that probably seems most obvious to the modern conspiracist. Since Austria's ultimatum seemed to show that they were spoiling for war, might they not have tried to create a pretext for war themselves? Franz Ferdinand was a controversial figure thought to desire greater rights for the empire's ethnic minorities; that would make him expendable, presumably, to some in the Hapsburg establishment. But according to Ambrosch the ultimate motive is more venal. Investors wanted to build a railroad linking Germany to the farther reaches of the Ottoman Empire, reaching from Berlin to Bagdad. To be feasible the road would have to go through Serbia. Better than if Serbia were subject to the German powers in Berlin and Vienna. Serbs had reasons of their own to lash out at Austria -- they resented the perceived subjugation of fellow Serbs through the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1908 -- but given how obvious it now seems that Austria would punish Serbia with war, the Serbs can only seem patsies furthering what looks like an Austrian or German agenda.


A mere functionary like Leo Pfeffer can be told what to think; he has less luck convincing others.


So it comes to seem to Leo Pfeffer (Florian Teichtmeister), the magistrate put in charge of the initial investigation. He comes under increasing pressure to produce a report blaming the Serbian government as soon as possible, as if a timetable had already been determined. But as Pfeffer sees the apparent implausibilities in the events as they played out, and as he falls in love with the daughter of a Serbian industrialist who has fallen under suspicion, he begins to stall for time to get at the truths that his superiors seem increasingly uninterested in learning. As he keeps raising questions, and keeps pressuring Princip and the other Serb prisoners to tell all they know, he is made more conscious of his outsider status as a Jew who's in love with a Serb. Pfeffer was a real person who isn't highly thought of by historians who see him as an underqualified provincial. Das Attentat imagines a more conscientious Pfeffer who's forced to sign the required indictment of Serbia -- his motive here is to secure his lover's release from prison -- while continuing his own dogged quest for the truth to universal indifference. The filmmakers can change the historical Pfeffer, but their more heroic Pfeffer still can't change history. Teichtmeister gives a good slow-burn performance that permits some sympathetic suspension of disbelief as you hope he'll find something that might stop the war in its tracks. Inevitably Das Attentat must take the form of tragedy, and that tone seems appropriate to the tragic truth of the Great War, even if the filmmakers' historiography is unsound.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Too Much TV: LUKE CAGE (2016 - ?)

The Marvel shows on Netflix are meant to bring superheroes to the small screen without the "cheesiness" of the DC shows on The CW. They appeal to the readership of "gritty" comics with a pretense of urban realism and a disdain for the humane idealism of traditional superhero comics. The ideal is an illusion of real life at street level, combined with the usual fantasies of superhuman strength or other impossible abilities. If that's the mandate, then Luke Cage fulfills it better than any Marvel show to date. At it's best, it's good because it's a good crime show more than it is a superhero show. It pits Luke (Mike Colter, perfectly haunted yet stoic), to whom Netflix viewers were introduced during the Jessica Jones show, against a Harlem crime family with tentacles in the worlds of politics and entertainment. The Paradise nightclub is the headquarters of Cornell Stokes, aka "Cottonmouth" (Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali in the first strike of his one-two breakout punch in 2016). He's the local kingpin,while his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) is a city councilwoman. The subtext of almost-sibling rivalry between these two, Cornell proving to have been a reluctant heir to gangsterdom, Mariah proving a ruthless replacement, almost overshadows Luke's interventions, which escalate after beloved barber Pop, for whom Luke works as sweeper, is mowed down as collateral damage. Corruption at every level of government permits Cottonmouth to flourish, while Luke's own criminal past -- born Carl Lucas, he was framed, convicted and subject to experiments giving him almost-invulnerable skin before escaping prison -- puts him in danger as the hoodie-wearing vigilante becomes a public hero. He gains allies in righteous cop Misty Knight (Simone Messick, who must have wondered why some viewers hoped to see her character lose an arm) and Netflix mascot Claire Temple, the "night nurse" (Rosario Dawson), but gains more powerful enemies as Cottonmouth seeks the means to take down a superhero.

Regains is probably the right word, since the man with the special bullets that can hurt Cage is Willis Stryker, aka Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), Carl Lucas's ever-resentful half-brother and the man who framed him. In the second half of the series Diamondback -- did you know that Marvel Comics has a "Serpent Society" filled with snake-themed villains? -- becomes the big bad, and the show suffers a little for that. While Cottonmouth evolved into a tragic figure, Diamondback is all about simplistic family issues, and is finally offered up as a sort of square-up for viewers who wanted to see Luke fight a costumed supervillain. Fortunately, Woodard's Mariah and her henchman Shades (Theo Rossi), inherited from Cottonmouth, remain cold constants, maddeningly adept at working the system and exploiting every mistake by the good guys. Part of the whole "gritty" thing is a profound skepticism (that often escalates into "grimdark" horror) toward heroes' ability to overcome pervasive corruption. In keeping with that, Luke Cage has no happy ending, though viewers' dismay or frustration with the outcome will be eased by the knowledge that Luke is schedule to return in Fall 2017 as one of The Defenders. The show's biggest success is its creation (credit is due here to mastermind Cheo Hodari Coker) of a milieu in which the outcome seems all too correct. It's dark but happily not humorless; the show can find time to make fun of Luke's original comic-book costume, for instance, which makes Colter look like a "damn fool." But like all the Netflix shows, the humor is toned down considerably from the quipping imperative of Marvel's movies.

I'm not going to get into a flame war over whether Marvel/Netflix or DC/CW is superior; they are different enough in intentions to make them almost like apples and oranges. But while quality control in the Berlantiverse remains erratic, the Defenders project has maintained a consistent level of quality. It's a point in their favor when you can still say that Daredevil season one, their very first production, is their weakest product. While Daredevil inevitably veers into outright fantasy (most of which derives from Frank Miller's vision, despite his grim/gritty reputation) and Jessica Jones is almost Dostoevskian in its preoccupation with personal wretchedness, Cage sets the standard for quasi-realistic superhero television that others will have to meet -- if they care to, that is.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE (2016)

In the Chinese original, the title of Raymond Yip's picture is something like "Fascination of the Devil." At least that's what Google Translate gives me. So the film can be forgiven for opening with a multitude of spooks to beg the question, "Shouldn't that be Phantoms of the Theatre?" Eventually, however, something close to a traditional Phantom figure emerges, first masked, then revealed as disfigured. He's promoting the career of a movie actress, Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin) who happens to be making a picture in the theater he haunts, which will also host the film's premiere. The premiere will be a private one for a warlord (Simon Yam), whose son Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) directed the film. Father and son have issues, the most profound being that the warlord has swooped in to take Meng Sifan away from the director. Both are being manipulated, reluctantly, by the actress as part of the "Phantom's" revenge plot. Father and son, you see, were in the audience when the Phantom's acrobat troupe botched their big Shanghai debut, the lead female being distracted by the warlord's horndog attentions. That night, a fire gutted the backstage area, killing all but two of the acrobat family: the disfigured Phantom and, as we learn eventually, the young Meng Sifan, who was outside shoplifting at the crucial moment. Our Phantom blames the warlord and intends to see him burn for his old sins, as others who've entered the haunted theater have burned since the start of the picture.


Past and present converge in a haunted Shanghai theater


Phantom is a film in love with the glamor of old movies, be they Chinese, French (the young director studied in Paris) or Hollywood. It's as much about how a filmmaker can cast a spell on himself as it is about the Phantom's quasi-supernatural revenge plot. The supernatural aspect of it, highlighted by special effects, apparently can be written off as figments of suggestible imaginations, since the director's platonic lady doctor friend (Huang Hung in a role reminiscent of Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo) figures out a natural cause for victims' deaths by internal combustion. Nevertheless, Phantom is haunted by the supernatural at the level of myth. The director falls in love as much with the character Meng Sifan plays on screen, a ghostly beauty in a tragic romance, as he does with what he thinks is the real woman. His tragic romance redeems what's largely a conventional melodrama with little to really scare audiences.


The film within the film poignantly parallels the heroine's character arc. In Gu Weibang's story, the ghost must eventually cut ties with the living by drinking a special brew. In Raymond Yip's film Meng Sifan must finally cut ties with her tragic past, but that extends to cutting ties with the director and stepping back out into the world to start a life of her own at last. There, rather than with the murder mystery, is the heart of the movie.