Monday, October 16, 2017

DVR Diary: GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959)

Starting in the late 1950s the horror genre exploded into a bold new world of color. Japan's answer to Fisher, Bava and Corman was Nobuo Nakagawa, who brought an oft-filmed 1825 kabuki play to livid life at the end of the decade. It's a simple story of greed and its supernatural comeuppance that wouldn't be entirely out of place in an American EC comic of the time. An ambitious ronin, Iemon (Shigeru Amachi) wants to marry Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi) won't take no for an answer when her dad. apparently a good judge of character, turns him down. Encouraged by his mephistophelean minion Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi), Iemon kills the old man, and a few others, covering his trail so Oiwa is none the wiser. Married life proves less comfortable than Iemon hoped for, as he's quickly reduced to walking the streets as the Japanese equivalent of those guys who wore sandwich boards in old American movies, advertising that wonder remedy, "Dutch medicine." When an opportunity arises to marry into more wealth, Iemon decides that it's time to move on and leave no loose ends behind. Resourceful Naosuke provides him with some European poison to mix into Oiwa's face cream to ensure a painful, disfiguring demise, but Iemon's taking no chances. He recruits the hapless Takuetsu (Jun Otomo) to seduce Oiwa so the aggrieved hubby can rush in, in a cruel variant on the old badger game, and exercise his conjugal prerogative by killing his adulterous wife. Takuetsu quickly loses his enthusiasm for the project when Oiwa applies the face cream and is, as planned, painfully disfigured. Deranged by pain, she tries to kill Takuetsu but ends up impaling herself on a knife. Not to worry: Iemon promptly arrives to make sure Takuetsu doesn't tell the truth. We learn that Iemon's prerogative extends to nailing the "adulterers" to shingles and cutting them in half, but he's content to dump their bodies in a swamp.

The problem for quickly-remarried Iemon is that Oiwa died cursing him, and in Tokugawa Japan you can't write that stuff off as mere delirium. She and Takuetsu have a bad habit of turning up on intimate occasions, while Iemon has the worse habit of trying to kill ghosts with a sword. Worse still, his aim is pretty accurate, but there usually are living people -- temporarily living people, that is -- standing where he sees the ghosts.  In short, Iemon goes Sword of Doom on his new family. Meanwhile, his old family isn't done with him. Oiwa's brother, whom he and Naosuke had thrown down a waterfall earlier in the picture, reappears as a living, angry avenger. He teams up with both a live sister and, indirectly, a dead sister to mete out samurai justice to the villain. In many respects Yotsuya is basically a samurai film or the cynical, debunking variety with supernatural trappings, but some of the spooky stuff is quite effective, particularly the surprise reveal of Oiwa's ghost crawling on Iemon's ceiling. The best scene from the horror standpoint is Iemon's out-of-control rampage, which has you fearing helplessly for innocent people once you realize that whenever he starts waving his sword at a ghost, somebody real is going to die. Tadashi Nishimoto's cinematography strikes a stylish balance between natural locations and expressionistic set lighting, but overall Nakagawa's work in color here is a dry run for his real calling-card effort in Jigoku the following year.Yotsuya is still a nicely done film in its own right that did much, in retrospect, to put Japan on the global horror film map.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

AIR HAWKS (1935)

Someone said once that the problem with socialism is socialism, while the problem with capitalism was capitalists. In other words, while socialism is an inherently flawed economic system, capitalism's credibility is undermined by capitalists who don't live up to the system's ideals. Popular fiction and cinema seemed to confirm this. Through the period of Code Enforcement and even through the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s, you hardly saw a film featuring competing businesses in which one of the competitors didn't cheat. A compact case in point is Albert Rogell's pulpy little programmer for Columbia.


Air Hawks is the film for those of you who think the only thing glaringly missing from Only Angels Have Wings was a death ray. We're still in the early days of commercial aviation here, with Independent Transcontinental Lines trying to earn a niche in the high-speed air-mail market. Since Barry Eldon (Ralph Bellamy) can't secure any more bank loans, he and his scrappy team of pilots have to prove themselves in the air. The established firm, Consolidated Airlines, appears to have all the advantages, but highly-connected casino owner Victor Arnold (the inevitably evil Douglas Dumbrille) advises Consolidated not to take chances. He has just the thing to end the competition: renegade scientist Schulter (Edward "Dr. Van Helsing" Van Sloan), who has perfected, on a small scale, a device to transmit a high-temperature current on a beam of light. In short, Arnold is suggesting that Consolidated hire a mad scientist to blast its competitors' planes out of the sky with a death ray. Consolidated likes the idea.


What more need I say? Van Sloan, gleefully playing for the other side, merrily incinerates a number of ITL pilots, the company's stock plummets, and Barry has to tell some Shirley Temple wannabe in a baby flight suit that Daddy will be flying another route for the foreseeable future. Air Hawks tugs at the heart strings, showing the scorched, mutilated baby doll Daddy was going to give to his daughter for her birthday, and in an extra macabre touch shows us that Barry has kept that grim memento in his desk until the poor tyke randomly finds it. Meanwhile, Barry's reporter pal manages to find and escape from Schulter's lair, while Barry tells the press that he'll personally set a speed record on the next high-altitude mail flight to prove ITL's viability.

 Slade Wilson's grandpa (Wiley Post) suits up for a Republic serial, but  Air Hawks wraps up in one long chapter.

Into the middle of this wanders real-life celebrity aviator Wiley Post, playing himself months before his fatal flight with Will Rogers. Tragic as Post's demise was, it probably didn't cost him further film opportunities, as his few mumbling minutes of screen time in Air Hawks proved him one of the most hopeless actors ever to recite lines before a camera. He volunteers to make the real mail flight, giving ITL added publicity, while Barry lures Arnold into his plane and takes him into the danger zone. The climax is a land-air battle as Barry dodges Schulter's mobile death ray while throwing bombs at the machine. The explosive climax comes complete with a dummy, presumably representing poor Schulter, blown out of the truck and flopping onto the dirt. It's all pure exhilarating idiocy carried out with succinct panache, and it's always fun to see Ralph Bellamy, at a point when he was already becoming the archetypal "Ralph Bellamy" who always loses the girl in romantic comedies, play the sort of two-fisted he-man he'd been more often in Pre-Code days. You can enjoy it as unpretentious camp with a dash of madness, and assure yourself that it's too silly to be subversive -- but was it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Too Much TV: THE VIETNAM WAR (2017)

Donald Trump will most likely be the last President of the United States to have been old enough for military service during the Vietnam War. Should that be the case, no President will have been a combat veteran of that war, though the American people have had a few chances to elect one. For what it's worth, John McCain and John Kerry are conspicuously absent as present-day talking heads in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ten-part documentary, though they receive appropriate attention for their adventures during the conflict. The filmmakers focus more on the ordinary grunt experience of the war, though a disproportionate number of witnesses, American and Vietnamese, went on to write eloquently about the war. None of them becomes the sort of "Shelby Foote" character people may still expect in Burns's documentaries, but they more than compensate in lived experience for what Foote contributed in folksy oracular insight. The Vietnam War presents an admirably broad array of perspectives on the Vietnam ordeal, yet somehow, for me at least, President Trump loomed over the series like the gaping mouth of a new tunnel, if only because the controversy over whether or not athletes should stand for the national anthem escalated while the series rolled out on PBS. Especially once the war came home in the form of mass protests and conservative backlash, you could see the first sketches of the battle lines of Trump's America. It was fifty years ago, approximately, when Americans in large numbers first dared "break faith" with the troops by demanding an immediate end to the war the troops were fighting -- unless you count the 1863 Draft Riots, reviewed by Burns long ago, as the original moment or original sin. The country has been torn ever since by the conflicting imperatives of individual conscience and national solidarity, among other things, and the Burns/Novick Vietnam is probably most instructive by showing us how we started then on the road to today.

It's probably most infuriating, in a healthy way, in its relentless illustration of cynicism and moral cowardice on the part of American politicians. The Vietnam War makes clear that few if any American leaders ever believed that the war could be won through the elimination of the Viet Cong or the forcing of North Vietnamese acquiescence in the independence of the South. Yet successive leaders escalated American commitment to a South Vietnamese regime that apparently never was viable out of fear of losing elections for being "soft on Communism." Burns and Novick actually should have gone into more detail on the emotional and intellectual basis of American (and South Vietnamese) anti-communism, to account for the compulsive aspect of our involvement with Indochina, just as they should have told us more about Vietnamese culture before French colonialism, on my assumption that older history might tell us something about underlying class or regional conflicts in that old country.  I don't think the filmmakers can be accused of being soft on communism themselves -- I recall such a charge being made against the 1980s Vietnam: A Television History, after which PBS aired a right-wing rebuttal documentary -- since the North Vietnamese leader Le Duan, something like the Stalin to Ho Chi Minh's Lenin, only without the cult of personality, is as much a villain in his harebrained wasting of lives, during the Tet offensive and other occasions, as Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. This series makes all too clear that there were no good options for the ordinary people of Vietnam, whose choices were Leninist terror, U.S. mass destruction, or a South Vietnamese ruling clique that too often seemed implacably hostile, on religious or other grounds, to their own constituents. On this last point the series undercuts somewhat its efforts to put across the tragic mood of veterans who regard our abandonment of South Vietnam after 1973 as treacherous, since the leaders of South Vietnam most likely surrendered viewers' sympathies long before then. It's hard to find any politician, American or Vietnamese, who emerges from the Burns/Novick narrative with honor, and that may be why the series has no time for veterans who became politicians.

The Vietnam War is Ken Burns documentary dependent entirely on living participants in actual events. As a result, it will look like a Ken Burns film to those whose expectations are still defined by The Civil War. Nor does it sound as a Burns show normally sounds; there's no "Ashokan Farewell" here to capture the national imagination, but the same old oldies trotted out for period pieces, interlarded with comparatively imperceptible incidental music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You could have made up a Vietnam War drinking game for the occasion: create a list of 100 or so Sixties or early Seventies classics, distribute the titles at random to your buddies, and have each person drink when one of their songs is played. It would have given new meaning to binge-viewing. That carping aside, the key Burns strategy of a long-term cast of talking heads still helps structure an immense narrative while giving it a sort of subjective coherence. His cleverest trick this time was introducing "Mogie" Crocker of Saratoga Springs NY, a gung-ho kid determined to enlist over all family opposition . Since you never saw a 2017 Crocker talk to the camera you could guess that Mogie was doomed, and in fact he lived only long enough to grow profoundly disillusioned before getting KIA'd in 1966. But Mogie's story was really the means to introduce his sister Carol as a major character the series would follow through her collegiate involvement in the antiwar movement and her eventual pilgrimage to the memorial wall in Washington D.C. That sort of connection quite literally ties the foreign and domestic threads of the story together, but you get a similar effect when some of our POV soldiers come home and get involved in the antiwar movement themselves, sometimes very conflictedly. Overall, I think Burns and Novick did justice to the ambiguities of the U.S. "Vietnam experience," though I suppose some may still complain about the absence of anyone willing to say the war was a righteous cause and we deserved to win.

For me, the series hit its emotional climax in episode eight, which itself climaxed with the Kent State killings in 1970. Out of the whole "Vietnam experience," the shooting of four students by National Guardsmen may be the "loss of innocence" moment of no return for people still living today. Many of Burns's witnesses definitely portray it that way. For many observers it was awful enough to see college students breaking faith with the troops, but for many others there was a different kind of breaking faith when the troops started killing white college kids. If some today still find the echoes of student protest repugnant, others find the possibility of another Kent State all too plausible in the current sociopolitical environment. For me, again, The Vietnam War's treatment of Kent State was saddening in yet another way. I DVR'd the series and watched one episode every couple of days, between the other shows I record. By the time I got to episode eight, the Las Vegas massacre had happened. When I watched it, the really heartbreaking thing was how traumatized everyone in the U.S. of 1970 was by the deaths of only four people. If Kent State and the war experience as a whole was a loss of innocence, there was still plenty of innocence to lose afterward. The Vietnam War's great virtue is that it allows you to see and feel that original loss of innocence -- presuming that you presume America innocent at any time in its history -- almost as if it was happening live before your eyes.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) in SPOILERVISION

Once the mystery plot of Denis Villeneuve's film began moving, I had a bad feeling about where it would end up. But when it didn't end up there, I still felt disappointed, since it was now clear that the writers, including a contributor to the 1982 Blade Runner film, were just playing with the audience -- or else they realized sometime during the production that the most cliched of plot twists probably would have sullied a revered brand name. Whatever they thought, they had Villeneuve, who after last year's Arrival was poised to become dean of sci-fi filmmakers if 2049 hit big, plod ponderously toward a revelation anticipated even by the protagonist, only to leave audiences possibly wondering why, after all, we were supposed to be interested in a protagonist who turns out to be just another replicant. Of course, all replicants are supposed to be more human than human, and when given a chance Ryan Gosling, playing the replicant blade runner with the Kafkaesque nickname "K," did all right portraying the yearning introspection of a genuine artificial intelligence. The problem with 2049 is that while there arguably was a viable film idea in returning to the world Ridley Scott had extrapolated from Philip K. Dick's very different dystopian vision and following a new character, there was no point commercially to making a new Blade Runner film without catching up with fugitive recluse Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) thirty years of so after his romantic, violent heyday. Whatever the writers wanted to do with K, it had to connect at some point with the Deckard saga. As noted already, the film threatened to link them in the most hackneyed, tiresome way, but perhaps I should elaborate a bit.

So K. is a replicant blade runner, not really respected by his human police colleagues but also condemned as a traitor by his victims, such as Sapper Morton (for more on Dave Bautista's character, see one of the short subjects released online to promote the feature). Off duty, he leads a seemingly sad life, his only companionship coming from his personal Joi (Ana de Armas), who is basically Alexa with a holographic body. In the brief early scenes of his domestic life I thought the new film actually came slightly closer to the actual existence of the protagonist of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But before 2049 becomes an enhanced version of Her K has to follow up on a grisly discovery on Sapper's property. The now-retired replicant at some point buried a skeleton under a tree. The skeleton belonged to a woman who had been pregnant and may have died during childbirth, but closer examination reveals a serial number identifying the corpse as a replicant -- a replicant, that is, that indisputably gave birth, according to the forensic evidence. If the child of this dead replicant (you can guess who it was) is alive, that could revolutionize the expanding extra-global economy. The idea of reproducing replicants appeals greatly to Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the tycoon who acquired the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation some years ago, because organic reproduction would be less expensive than mechanical production, while making available the large innately unfree workforce Wallace believes essential to humanity's further expansion across space. K's police boss (Robin Wright) sees replicant reproduction as a threat to human supremacy and sanctions K to find the child and retire it. The problem with this, from K's vantage, is that he has cause to suspect strongly that he is the child.

K. lies to the police, claiming to have found and killed the child. He's lucky he wasn't asked to produce a body, but the Wallace Corporation, spearheaded by replicant enforcer Luv (Syliva Hoeks) isn't fooled. They feel certain that K. continuing on his quest, will lead them to the child. Almost as good, he leads them to the long-missing Deckard, who's been hanging out in a recently irradiated Las Vegas with a whisky-swilling dog. Knowing of Deckard's relationship with Rachel the replicant (Sean Young appears in clips and apparently did some mo-cap and/or voice work for a 2049 vintage Rachel doppelganger), the Wallace crew thinks Deckard can point them to the child, so they overpower K, snatch Decker, and inexplicably leave K laying rather than retiring him or bringing him along -- didn't they suspect that he might be the mystery kid? This miscue proves costly, for Luv if not for Wallace himself, as K is retrieved by a replicant underground that tells him the presumably straight story of Rachel's pregnancy. This reduces K, even as he races to Deckard's rescue, to a facilitator of the actual father-child reunion while he, having little left to live for, has little time to live....

Blade Runner 2049 is too long and slow to work as the sort of sci-fi thriller the original film was. In choosing Villeneuve to direct, the producers, including Ridley Scott in an "executive" capacity, opted for mood over momentum, but for all his proven virtues the director isn't really the man for the sort of popcorn film 2049 has to be. It's stylish as hell, thanks largely to cinematography by Roger Deakins, and I appreciate they way the production design doubled down on the original film's vision of a corporate future in spite of the so-called "Blade Runner curse" that befell many of the companies advertising in the old film's cityscapes. There's not much new to those cityscapes, however, while the most striking scenes are set in the quasi-pornographic ruins of Vegas, which apparently has worse in store for it than last weekend's massacre. While the new film can recreate the original's architectural effects, the abandonment, for the most part, of the older film's neon-noir atmosphere somewhat undermines the effort to identify sequel with precursor. As for the actors, Gosling tried hard but is undercut as soon as Ford puts in his belated appearance. The older actor's performance is pretty much an ego trip, as the elderly Deckard is shown still to be a two-fisted he-man capable of beating up the presumably human goons Wallace has conveniently sent along with Luv to collect him. As the corporate baddie Jared Leto orates like a comic-book villain, apparently making up for the speeches he didn't get to make in Suicide Squad. As the top cop, Robin Wright may have finalized her new typecasting, following Wonder Woman, as a mature female authority figure. In sum, 2049 is far from terrible -- using a relevant benchmark, it's better than The Force Awakens --  but the fact that it's merely underwhelming is more disappointing, in a way, than if it had laughably bad.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

THE BAD BATCH (2017)

How many times have we heard this one? A hotshot indy auteur impresses critics with a modestly budgeted yet creatively audacious picture that becomes a sort of sleeper hit. Some studio throws money at the auteur for a more ambitious project, perhaps equally audacious, that bombs. Playing the familiar role of the auteur is Ana Lily Amirpour, whose sleeper success was the Farsi-language dystopian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The admirable Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures backed Amirpour's new English-language project and no doubt helped her hire name actors, including that new embodiment of indy edginess -- I'm not kidding, either! -- Keanu Reeves. It might tell you something about the character of the project that Jim Carrey, of all people, was cast as a mute. It's really one of his better performances.


What remains from A Girl Walks Home, along with skateboards, is an arid dystopian environment, now located somewhere in the neighborhood of Texas. At an unspecified near-future time the place is a dumping ground for all sorts of undesirables who are known collectively as the Bad Batch. It's never quite clear how Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) qualifies, but we follow her into this bad new world, where she's promptly captured by cannibals who live in a vast auto graveyard/trailer park. The cannibals aren't greedy; they butcher Arlen one limb at a time, but once she's down to one arm and one leg she tires of her new role and perpetrates an improbable escape.


She ends up in the relatively civilized colony of Comfort, where she acquires a prosthetic leg, but encounters more cannibals while exploring a vast dump. Killing one, Arlen inherits her(?) child, whom she takes to Comfort. The girl is lured into the household of the apparent ruler or guru of the place (Reeves) while Arlen wanders back into the desert on a drug trip, drugs being the principal cuisine of Comfort. Meanwhile, the girl's father(?), a tattooed Cuban cannibal sketch artist (Jason Momoa), hunts for the child. Finding Arlen, who denies known the her, he demands nonetheless that she return to Comfort and retrieve the girl. Why he can't go in himself remains unclear, but the point becomes moot when one of the many marauders riding around shoots the Cuban and brings Arlen to Comfort on his own initiative.


Finding the girl in the guru's entourage, Arlen insinuates herself into his presence. "The Dream" has a harem of gun-toting women, many of whom are pregnant by him. Comfort is his garden; he feeds it, he says, so it will feed him. Whatever he means by this -- simply that he reaps the benefit of their servitude or that he eats the babies -- it repels Arlen, who has smuggled a gun into his compound inside her prosthetic foot and uses it to take a hostage first, and then the Cuban's little girl. Back in the desert, she reunites with the Cuban, who's recovered with help from Carrey's hermit, and resolves to stay with him and his daughter.


Let me cut to the chase and call The Bad Batch Amirpour's Brave New World. In the end, Arlen chooses savage liberty over somatic subjugation in Comfort. The freedom she chooses will come at a more terrible price than most people in the movie audience could imagine paying -- symbolized at the end when the Cuban slaughters his daughter's pet bunny to satisfy her Comfort-cultivated appetite -- but wouldn't anything be preferable to life under Keanu Reeves' thumb, or some other body part of his? Whether we're to understand that Arlen has made the right choice, or simply the best of bad choices, is, like much of Amirpour's dystopia, unclear. What's clear enough is that submission for the sake of small-c comfort is not an option, and probably never was for many in the Bad Batch, or else they wouldn't be part of that group in the first place. What's significantly missing is the other option, the world from which Arlen and the others have been exiled, that has designated them misfits. By what standard? Are all the Bad Batch people really misfits, or has mainstream society judged them unfairly? We don't know enough about the dystopia as a whole to judge whether Arlen presumably adopting a predatory lifestyle as the Cuban's consort can be left as an acceptable outcome or whether that outcome defines The Bad Batch as a horror film. It's not a horrible film, at least. Amirpour has a good directorial eye, strongly enhanced by Lyle Vincent's cinematography, and on some level the very limited range of options she leaves her characters is to the film's credit. On the other hand, Arlen is never much more than a cypher, unoriginal even in her mutilation (see also Charlie Theron in Mad Max:Fury Road and Rose McGowan in Planet Terror), while Jason Momoa is what he is: someone who looks like he should be a fascinating badass, if not a fantasy book cover come to life, yet invariably a charisma vacuum. If the name means anything to you, think of him as the Roman Reigns of actors. This is actually one of his better performances, but he's still more sculpture than actor, and that hurts a movie that wants to present his character, in all his viciousness, as possibly the most human being of the Bad Batch. Of course, a dystopian story doesn't really require very well-rounded characters, so the limitations of Momoa and Waterhouse aren't fatal to the film. Overall I think it was a worthwhile endeavor that will, with luck, prove a useful experience for Amirpour as she moves on to better projects, as long as she isn't exiled to some cinematic Bad Batch for this sophomore stumble.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Too Much TV: THE DEFENDERS (2017)

Geoff Johns, the chief creative officer of DC Comics, gave an interview last week announcing that, following the success of Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. would focus on standalone superhero movies with a loose continuity rather than making every film part of a single master narrative. Cynics pounced on his statement, seeing it as preemptive damage control, an early indication that next month's long-awaited Justice League movie would be a stinker that should not, Johns hoped, be held against future DC-based movies. But he could just as easily have just finished watching The Defenders and seen it as a cautionary tale. The eight-part Netflix series is the culmination of a Marvel Studios program that began with the debut of Daredevil in 2015. From the beginning, it was understood that Daredevil and its companion shows -- Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist -- were steps leading up to the formation of the Defenders, Netflix's street-level counterpart to the big-screen Avengers. Counting the pre-production time for Daredevil, Marvel had three years to develop a Defenders story, yet the finished product looks like the writers threw something together a week before shooting started.

Defenders is a substitute for a third season of Daredevil, produced and mostly written by the creative team from that show's second season, where many of the concepts at play here were introduced. The main concept is the threat of The Hand, the evil martial-arts cult created by Frank Miller during his landmark run on Daredevil at the turn of the 1980s. The Hand was also a major force in the Iron Fist show, so all the writers have to do is find some way for alcoholic superhuman detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and nigh-invulnerable incarcerated Harlem do-gooder Luke Cage (Mike Colter) involved. Jessica's trail starts when she investigates the disappearance of an architect who turns out to have developed a mad plan to blow up one of his recent buildings. Meanwhile, a freshly exonerated Luke goes after a new drug dealer in Harlem, his surviving antagonists from his own show being conspicuously absent (as are Iron Fist's corporate pals) from a show thick with supporting players from other shows. Luke's new crusade crosses paths with Danny Rand's (Finn Jones) vendetta against the Hand, one of whose Fingers is Luke's new enemy. Danny and sword-wielding sidekick Colleen Wing's (Jessica Henwick) brutal approach to anyone associated with The Hand raises Luke's ire when their targets are young black men, and so, naturally enough in the Marvel Universe, when two heroes meet, they fight. By contrast, Jessica and her new, unsolicited attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) don't fight, but they don't quite trust each other either. Jessica wonders why the blind lawyer is nosing around her business -- and how he happens to have super-ninja skills when he thinks Jessica isn't looking -- while Matt, being Daredevil, knows that Jessica, her violent reputation notwithstanding, is wandering into dangerous territory, since the building her architect wanted to destroy has been built on the site of that perhaps-bottomless pit Daredevil discovered some time ago, which means it all has to do with The Hand. After that Nick Fury of Netflix, freelance night nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), imposes a time-out on Luke and Danny, and as Matt continues to tail Jessica, all four heroes end up that the aforementioned building, where Danny hopes to at last confront the leader of The Hand.

That's where everything starts to fall apart, though the seeds of destruction really were planted as soon as Sigourney Weaver appeared as Alexandra in the first episode. First among equal Fingers of the Hand, which also includes Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho, Daredevil/Iron Fist) and Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez, Iron Fist), Alexandra is feared and/or resented by her colleagues, all of them exiles from the magical land of K'un L'un, but fears for her own life. Virtually immortal, she has grown mortally ill at a time when the Fingers have run out of the mysterious "substance" that has sustained them for centuries. A fresh supply apparently can be found in New York City, presumably at the bottom of that pit under Alexandra's building, but getting at it requires setting off a few tremors that briefly terrorize the city, as well as the services of the Black Sky, aka Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), Matt Murdock's psycho-ninja girlfriend of old -- and, for reasons that remain vague until nearly the end, the Iron Fist of K'un L'un. The problem with all this is that it's often unclear exactly what Alexandra wants to do, or what the consequences will be. The early earthquakes are meant to make us anticipate a cataclysm, but the show never really follows up on that threat, and the ultimate revelation that The Hand simply wants to harvest dragon bones to get more "substance" seems awfully mundane for something that sounds fantastic on paper. Worse, as Thumb or Index Finger -- they never specify -- Alexandra should be the ultimate boss of the series, the villain it takes all four Defenders to fight -- but she never displays any truly menacing powers, or any powers at all, to be honest. All the Fingers of the Hand should be super badass martial artists with virtually magical chi abilities, but only Mme. Gao lives up to that expectation, while Bakuto is unceremoniously eliminated by one of the auxiliary, Colleen, in a wrap-up to their Iron Fist subplot, and another Finger seems to have only the power to speak Japanese. Alexandra ought to have the powers given to Gao, but Weaver most likely was uninterested in doing any superhero fighting, or else the Alexandra character was introduced only as a Macguffin, an excuse to hire a big-name actor. You get the feeling that they could have told the same story without Alexandra, especially since the writers' endgame is to make Elektra the big bad, though her agenda is, if anything, even more vague than Alexandra's

At eight episodes, Defenders is the shortest of Netflix's Marvel shows, but it seems the most padded of them, as well as the worst written. The four stars do the best they can and are the best things about the project -- though I wouldn't mind a Defenders Auxiliary of supporting players dealing with more modest threats -- but they're put into the sort of petty bickering scenarios that supposedly typified the inferior storytelling of The CW's "Berlantiverse" superhero shows. Charlie Cox probably comes off the worst of the four, since Daredevil goes through many of the most tired tropes. He doesn't want to unmask in front of Luke and Danny -- he's borrowed Jessica's scarf and she's already made Matt as the Devil of Hell's Kitchen -- and then he wants to work alone because The Hand is dangerous and he doesn't want to be responsible for more people getting killed -- and then he goes into business for himself desperately trying to talk Elektra into rehabilitating. By the time Defenders was done, people were comparing it unfavorably to the lesser seasons of the CW shows. The Netflix shows' reputation for superior action scenes did not redeem this one. The set pieces have grown redundant, and the typical stuntman-concealing darkness of them has grown especially tiresome to this reviewer. Worse, our heroes lacked interesting styles and powers to fight against, while Elektra's power level was all over the place. I get that the Black Sky is supposed to be getting stronger constantly, but it still seems implausible for a ninja, however superfied, to hold her own against the truly superhuman likes of Luke and Jessica, much less the irresistible Iron Fist. The pacing of everything seemed off, as if eight episodes weren't enough for writers accustomed to thirteen, or else they lacked story enough for eight and had to pad everything out with evasions and poses. 

I'll cite one annoying moment to represent the whole. During episode four Jessica tires of all the bickering and mumbo-jumbo and leaves to check in on her clients. After rescuing them from Hand harassment, she makes a dramatic return to the Chinese restaurant where the others are hiding, driving through the front display window to run over Elektra. As she exits the car we see a groggy Elektra on the floor. I'd expect Jessica to kick a menace like that while she's down, but instead she marches over to join the guys in a heroic-standoff pose to end the episode. That pose exemplifies nearly everything that was bad about Defenders, which accelerates a declining thread for Marvel/Netflix apparent since the second half of Luke Cage. The experience left me wanting just the sort of assurance Geoff Johns is offering now, since I'd like to see more of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones especially, but I'd hate to think that it might all lead to Defenders Season Two.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

AMRAPALI (1966)

I'm not familiar enough with vintage "Bollywood" cinema to have any idea whether Lekh Tandon's historical epic is typical of its time or exceptional. Wikipedia reports that Amrapali "wasn't a commercial success" but later "started being seen as a classic." It's certainly a lavish film, reminiscent for an American viewer of Cecil B. DeMille's work, yet with a culturally distinct Buddhist spin at the end that makes me reluctant to describe the story as a tragedy. In many respects that's exactly what Amrapali is: a tale of star-crossed lovers who were contemporaries of Siddhartha Gautama. In those days, the republic of Vaishali is menaced by the kingdom of Magadha and its aggressive ruler, Ajaat Shatru (Sunil Dutt, left in the screencap below). His army is state-of-the-art for its time, including war elephants, but the first major battle with Vaishali proves inconclusive at best. In fact, the king goes missing, leading the Vaishali people to proclaim victory.


Ajaat Shatru has been wounded and has gotten himself lost in a delirium. He finds himself in the care of Amrapali (Vyjayanthimala), a patriotic Vashali woman who has mistaken him for a soldier of her own country. Losing his well-known beard helps him stay incognito in the heart of the enemy camp, but a network of his own spies recognizes him and allows him to maintain contact with home, all unbeknownst to Amrapali, who starts falling hard for the unknown soldier after he rescues her from a falling, burning effigy of himself during a victory celebration.


Amrapali is moving up in the world. She's appointed the state courtesan, which apparently amounts to the entertainer-in-chief of the republic, after winning a dance-off with a rival whose misperformance of a traditional dance she publicly criticizes. She gets a statue made of herself by a soldier-sculptor who's been crushing on her the whole picture, and when she commissions a statue of her new soldier boyfriend, the sculptor recognizes him as the evil emperor and sculpts him as such. Realizing now how she's been tricked, Amrapali slices the statue in half and repudiates Ajaat Shatru, but refuses to denounce him. That gets her in trouble when the Vaishali authorities announce that they've captured the enemy leader in their midst. It's actually a lookalike the Magadha spies have provided in case of an emergency, but poor Amrapali doesn't know that. As far as she knows, the man she loved is dead, and she's in prison for treason.


Ajaat Shatru had already tarried too long in Vaishali and didn't get to say goodbye to his beloved dying mother, so he's already in a funk when he learns of Amrapali's arrest. That drives him berserk, and at this point Amrapali diverges from the path a western counterpart would have taken. In short, the Magadha monarch brings a mighty host down on Vaishali and utterly destroys it, sparing Amrapali but slaughtering virtually everyone else. He doesn't really comprehend why his beloved isn't happy to be liberated, and at this point you might expect the story to go fully tragic, western style, with Amrapali killing the king and then maybe herself. Again, no. Instead, Amrapali ditches Ajaat Shatru and heads into the forest, where mass chanting indicates that the Buddha is preaching. He's filmed in something like the old Jesus style, visible only from a distance. The noise of the chanting allows Ajaat Shatru to track Amrapali down, but when he hears the typical Buddhist message -- desire leads to fear, which leads to suffering -- he breaks his sword in a gesture of apparent renunciation. And that's it. The resolution isn't the couple living happily ever after, because Buddhism doesn't believe in that the way we do, nor the couple killing each other, for what would that prove? The only hope for either person in the tragedy, as for everyone according to Buddhism, lies in renunciation. The ending is a hopeful note, presumably, for its native audience -- though Buddhism has always been a bigger thing further east than in its native country -- while for many a westerner, Amrapali simply skids to a halt.


While Sunil Dutt was a legendary star in his own right, Amrapali is pretty much a one-woman show -- or a two-woman show if you give credit where due to the Marni Nixon of India, Lata Mangeshkar, who does Vyjayanthimala's singing. Surprisingly, Amrapali is the only character who gets to sing in the picture, and the film actually makes a fairly subtle transition to musical mode. The first "number" of any sort is the big victory celebration, which features a lot of festive dancing until the effigy collapses. Later comes the big dance-off for the Courtesanship, highlighting the star's putative versatility as a dancer, which I as an outsider to traditional Indian dance am not qualified to judge. Finally we get Amrapali expressing her moods privately in songs that are not public performances, but rather just the sort of numbers we expect in Hollywood musicals. These intrusions may make the film more campy than it really is in some eyes, but their main effect is to make the title character, appropriately enough, the absolute center of the picture. She's far from the only attraction, however, Dutt does a good job portraying the wild swings of Ajaat Shatru's personality, and the film's production design is mostly more impressive than you might expect from a 1960s India film. The big exception to that is the work of the film's armorers. While the battles scenes have the numbers (and elephants) to impress, and the director and editor Pran Mehra do a fine job reducing the final battle to an impressionistic montage, the armor and weapons often look suspect, and Ajaat Shatru breaks his sword far too easily at the end. Overall, taking cultural differences into account, Amrapali is an entertaining example of what the world's largest film industry was capable of fifty years go.

Monday, September 25, 2017

DVR Diary: THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970)

In many respects, Stuart Hagmann's film is inescapably an artifact of its time, but it reminded me of more modern movies in two ways. First, Hagmann himself was given an important project as a first-time feature film director after working in TV. Second, I'm sure that part of the idea behind filming James S. Kunen's memoir of student protest was to make money off a soundtrack album. The recording artists included in the picture receive prominent mention in the opening credits, and to a great extent the Strawberry Statement soundtrack sounds much like what you'd probably get today whenever someone makes a film set in the same time-period. All that aside, Statement was a notorious box-office flop, part of a double-whammy for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, along with the more-ambitious Michelangelo Antonioni youth epic Zabriskie Point, that seemed to belie young moviegoers' presumed hunger for radical subject matter. Posterity may grow kinder toward these and other turn-of-the-decade pictures, forgotten precursors to canonical Seventies cinema, for their audacity in imagining a here-and-now dystopia for American youth. At this specific moment in American history, films like Statement may get more sympathetic viewings from people who expect the worst from the Trump administration or its supporters and expect it to look somewhat like Statement's climax.

If the film is actually memorable at all, it's for that bravura closing sequence, in which California college students -- Kunen's story took place at Columbia in New York City -- occupy a building and await a police attack. Audience anticipation builds as the students, including the romantic leads played by Bruce Davison and Kim Darby, sit down in circles and chant John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," keeping time by thumping on the hardwood floor. Hagmann milks the suspense for all it's worth, cutting back and forth from the students inside to the convergence of forces and anxious spectators outside. Finally the cops attack. charging in with tear gas guns that look like futuristic nightmare weapons before systematically dragging the kids outside and clubbing the most recalcitrant. Hagmann and his editors let the scene take its time, giving it an air of semi-documentary authenticity that makes up for the relative lack of drama -- and probably makes the film more startling now than then -- but they err at the end by simply letting it stop -- literally freezing the action -- at the brink of a truly climactic moment, when Davison's semi-radicalized jock dives onto a group of cops who are clobbering the Darby character. It's as if they want to tease an all-out doomsday finish a la Easy Rider (or Beneath the Planet of the Apes) without really having one. That finish also shows a disinterest in resolving any character arcs still in play that probably makes any emotional investment in the main characters seem wasted. If the message is "These are the sort of kids who are getting beaten down (or worse) by the police," then I suppose the point is made, but Statement had seemed more character-driven, if episodic, than that until the climax. 

If the romantic plot seems like a dead end in retrospect, the film still has good or interesting moments throughout. There's a nice bit of cynical comedy when Davison goes to a corner grocery said to give away free stuff to student radicals, and learns that the grocer (James Coco) does this so he can claim insurance after reporting robberies. There's also a nice refusal to idealize the student cause or its adherents compared to other films of the period. In one scene, Davison and Darby are chilling in a park only to discover that they've trespassed on a black gang's turf. Fortunately, they get away with only Davison having a camera smashed, but the randomness of the encounter and the character's rage afterward ring true. In the end, though, Statement will more likely endure as a period artifact than as a work of art. Parts like the climax are ideal for anthologies or documentaries of proto-Seventies cinema, but the whole is definitely less than the sum of the parts. Statement may never become a lost film, but it'll most likely survive only in fragments in film lovers' collective memory.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: FROM HEADQUARTERS (1933)

Historical note: this ad from a Pittsburgh paper references a high-profile Chicago murder case of the time

William Dieterle's early police procedural hardly runs longer than an episode of a modern TV police drama. It could almost serve as a prototype for how to do such stories in an hourlong format. Some might also see it as a prototype for multiple-POV films like Rashomon, except that no two characters involved in the killing of dissolute curio collector and part-time blackmailer Gordon Bates (Kenneth Thomson) describe the exact same events. Each is an individual puzzle piece to the mystery, arriving at the Bates department at a different time. The detectives don't have to choose between stories, since they rely on forensic evidence and other modern methods to narrow down the suspect list. With a stolid George Brent in the lead, Headquarters is a showcase for Warner Bros.' stock company of character actors, from Eugene Pallette as a thuggish detective too quick to jump to conclusions to Hobart Cavanaugh in a typically weaselly role as a safecracker, only a little more hard-boiled than usual, to Hugh Herbert in comedy relief as an aggressive bail-bondsman, to the always-watchable Robert Barrat as both villain and red herring simultaneously. Despite the film's brisk pace, Dieterle finds time to develop the melodramatic angle that a female suspect (Margaret Lindsay) is the Brent character's girlfriend, and to indulge in the semi-documentary spectacle of modern police work. The actual story doesn't even get underway until after a plotless tour of the overnight lock-up emphasizing the casual rapport of cops and crooks (not to mention the reporters who infest the station) and the practical jokes the former sometimes play on the latter. We see the wonders of a pre-computer card-sorting system that allows the cops to narrow their searches down to specialized profile; the thrill of guns being fired into wads of cotton so the markings on the bullets can be matched with those found on the murder victim; etc. etc. -- plus a rather creepy medical examiner. In true procedural fashion, the story keeps introducing new data to keep the audience guessing, though it may have overplayed its hand by having the Barrat character overreact to the Cavanaugh character recognizing him. That moment clears up one particularly mystifying aspect of the mystery, but what Barratt does afterward seems disproportionate to his actual involvement in the original crime. Of course, the writers want you to think he's more involved than he actually was, since they're saving a final twist for the end. There's something brazen and almost arrogant about that twist, because it brings a movie that until then had emphasized its ultramodernity to its close with one of the hoariest old cliches of whodunit fiction. Headquarters carries it straightfacedly enough to take itself almost to the realm of camp, but I suppose it was all just showmanship. Films as self-consciously modern as this one often make the best windows into our past as they age, but whether Headquarters serves that purpose for you or not, it's still an easy way to waste an hour without regret.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

INVASION 1897 (2014)

How much should you hold limited resources against an ambitious filmmaker? If his resources aren't adequate to the requirements of his vision, or to conventional standards of verisimilitude, should he even bother with the project? To put it differently, is there any way to discuss the possible artistic merits of Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen's patriotic epic without bringing up his hilariously horrendous costuming of his 19th century British soldiers? Imasuen is a typically prolific "Nollywood" director from a national film industry now increasingly represented in the Netflix streaming library. IMDB hasn't been able to keep up with his output; looking there, you'd think Invasion 1897 had killed his career. An unforgiving eye would think that just desserts. Imasuen wants to show the last stand of the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) against British imperialism, describing its ruler (Mike Omoregbee) inaccurately (the Negus of Ethiopia says hello) as "the last African king." Were he a director in an authoritarian country, he might have gotten the resources -- money, costumes, extras -- such a story requires, but Nollywood directors are largely on their own, as far as I can tell. Authentic uniforms or authentic-looking Britons were beyond his reach. He appears to have rented the next best things -- to uniforms, that is -- from some costume store, with no regard possible for how they fit his white "actors," none of whom, as a matter of grooming, looks remotely like a 19th century British soldier. Worst of all, the costumes clearly weren't meant to help anyone pass for a soldier. The blatant, apparently irremovable "Anarchy" patches (complete with circle-A logo) suggest that they were made for some rock or punk band, if not simply for goofy parties. Is it possible to take Invasion seriously with this glaring handicap constantly recurring?

Note Anarchy patch on the soldier in white, amid the spectacle of British headquarters,
including a portable radio in 1897!

The best answer is maybe, if Imasuen were as ambitious in form as he is in content and could make genuinely creative use of anachronism. Unfortunately, he's extremely conventional in some ways and a vulgar sensationalist in others. I was about to write that he begins Invasion in most conventional fashion, with a framing sequence, but then I remembered that the film actually begins with an absolutely gratuitous beheading scene, highlighted with a lingering shot of blood spurting from the decapitated neck. Then we get the framing sequence, set in modern London, where Igie (Charles Venn) studies African history and learns that the famous Benin art treasures captured by the British were the kingdom's way of recording its history. This realization inspires him to break into a museum in a failed attempt to confiscate some of the bronzes and other sculptures. He pleads not guilty to attempted theft at his trial, daring the court to prove that the treasures had been sold or freely given to the museum by their original owners. These purely modern scenes are easily the most competently shot, and for what it's worth, they allow Imasuen to disclaim racial animus by giving Igie a sympathetic white girlfriend (Annika Alfoti).


The main body of the film is Igie's evidence for the theft of the Benin treasures. Benin is suffering hard times before the British get aggressive, as people seem to be dropping dead en masse while the king (or Oba) seems increasingly detached from reality. The Oba is as much a spiritual figure as a temporal ruler, and the film shows him and his inner circle experiencing a portentous vision, as a long-departed elder predicts doom for the kingdom. Meanwhile, the British show increasing disrespect to the Oba, finally provoking the massacre of a small unit that provides the pretext for a full-scale invasion.


To be fair, Imasuen makes good use of the one impressive prop he had, a gunboat that looks appropriately menacing, packed with Britons and native auxiliaries (in better looking uniforms) as it motors into Benin territory. He gets even better service out of it in the best single shot of the picture, a long take of the deposed Oba orating about the transience of victory and the mortality of all men as the boat takes him into exile. The rest of it is an ill-paced, overlong mess at less than two hours, turgidly punctuated with meandering dialogue scenes in which the Oba's retainers react with great deliberation to his latest utterances or the latest bad news from the front lines. Worse still are any scenes requiring British soldiers to talk to each other. Interlarded throughout are battle scenes showing superior British firepower -- illustrated with bargain-basement CGI explosions and flames -- occasionally outmatched by Bini mastery of native terrain. The sporadic mayhem keeps things somewhat lively, especially when the Binis get to use edged weapons, but the only real momentum comes from the Oba's seeming spiral into madness. Almost as an afterthought, British soldiers are shown stuffing the art treasures into sacks. If any flaw of many here can be singled out as fatal, it's probably Imasuen's failure to develop any character into a proper hero on whom we can focus our attention. Maybe there was none, and maybe it's to Imasuen's credit that for all his clear cultural patriotism, he doesn't really idealize Benin. But his rough approach to the subject leaves it little more than a bunch of bad stuff that happened, with the added moral that white men back then had a bad habit of going where they weren't wanted.


Returning at last to modern times, we learn that Igie's narrative, for which the main body of the film stands in, was enough to get the judge to drop the charges against him and advise him to contact the International Court of Justice. As his supporters celebrate his freedom, including his gone-native girlfriend, one can't help wondering whether simply having Igie tell the story in the courtroom would have been a better movie.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Too Much TV: MANHUNT: UNAMBOMBER (2017)

For most of my life I've lived near Schenectady NY, and for a couple of years I actually lived in the Electric City. Naturally enough, when Theodore Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 on suspicion of being the Unabomer, the big story on our local news was the crucial role his brother David, then a Schenectady resident, played in cracking the case. David became an almost tragic hero, feeling compelled to turn in his brother, having recognized similarities between "F.C.'s" correspondence and Ted's letters, despite his fear, both as a sibling and a principled opponent of capital punishment, that Ted would be put to death. National media told pretty much the same story, and one of the last scenes of the Discovery Channel's eight-part miniseries shows David (Mark Duplass) being fawned over by reporters after Ted (Paul Bettany) pleads guilty to the attacks. The message of Manhunt: Unabomber, however, is that the media had lionized the wrong man -- not because David didn't do a very important thing, but because David's information might well have proved meaningless had not another man provided the theoretical framework for cracking the case. That man, seen departing the court house almost sulkily, ignored by the clueless press, was James "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), for all intents and purposes the inventor of the field of linguistic forensics. His great contribution to the investigation was to emphasize the fundamental importance of UNABOM's writings, culminating in the manifesto "Industrial Society and its Future," in identifying the man who had killed or maimed two dozen people in his criminal career. Fitzgerald's theory was crucial, so the miniseries shows, in convincing a judge to issue the search warrant that enabled investigators to find more decisively incriminating material evidence in Ted Kaczynski's cabin in the Montana woods. For all this Fitzgerald earned little glory, after an ordeal that left him nearly as alienated against institutions, if not society in general, as his murderous quarry.

Conceived by Andrew Sodroski, directed by Greg Yaitanes, and loaded with producer credits including Fitzgerald himself and Kevin Spacey, Manhunt: Unabomber focuses on Fitz's role in the investigation. In interviews, Fitzgerald has described the miniseries as 80% accurate, while describing the onscreen Fitz as a composite character. In other words, onscreen Fitz does some important things that Fitzgerald never did. The writers, for instance, totally made up an early framing device that shows Fitz being summoned from almost-Kaczynskian isolation to try to persuade Kaczynski himself to plead guilty and thus avoid a trial that could prove embarrassing in more ways than one. These scenes are the some of the weakest in the whole miniseries because they're obviously intended to evoke a Lecter-Starling relationship between Kaczynski and Fitz, toying with the idea that Fitz agrees with some of Ted's ideas to a more than healthy extent. Taken as a whole, the earliest episodes are the worst because they also depend on the cliche of the insightful agent to whom no one will listen, apparently because everyone in the FBI hierarchy is an idiot. Fitz's superiors focus unimaginatively on physical evidence and a half-baked profile that infers the bomber's identity entirely from his choice of targets. Presented with the bomber's typewritten threatening letters, they want to know what sort of typewriter he used, but couldn't care less about what the letters actually say. Fitz believes that something more important can be learned from the letter writer's quirks of spelling and vocabulary, his idioms and the way he structures his texts. But no one will believe him! Oh, the fools!

Manhunt rights itself once it abandons the early non-linear format and goes into procedural mode. It gains momentum as the investigation gains momentum, as Fitz's colleagues slowly warm to his ideas and the letters provided by an initially reluctant David Kaczynski provide the key to the door Fitz posited. Fitz is shown traveling to Schenectady to cajole David into giving up the letters, after the younger Kaczynski had been assured by another agent -- on dubious grounds -- that Ted could not be F.C. I get the impression that that meeting never happened, but what else is new? For the sake of narrative economy, TV and movies often show one hero doing the actual work of many people, and I suppose you could argue for a certain thematic authenticity to the meeting that justifies the artistic license.

Before the arrest, Manhunt backtracks to finally showcase Paul Bettany in an episode recounting Ted Kaczynski's spiral into lethal alienation. While young Ted has a legitimate grievance against a Harvard mentor who subjected him to government-funded brainwashing experiments, he is shown to be hopelessly alienated from society for most-likely deeper reasons. He's capable of casually befriending fellow library patrons in his Montana community, but can't bring himself to accept an invitation to a birthday party for a teenage boy he'd been informally tutoring. If you, like some people, sympathize with Kaczynski's anti-institutional thinking, you might find this flashback episode one big ad hominem argument, but most people probably will see it as a misfit blaming society for his alienation when the causes are more likely irreducibly personal. I'm sure many people like to think that they could get along with others more easily if society were ordered differently, or if all societal rules were overturned, but my suspicion (as a relatively alienated person myself) is that blaming society for personal alienation is to put the cart before the horse. In any event, Bettany, taking a break from his main gig as The Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, does a decent job talking American and a better one portraying Kaczynski's alienation and ultimate weakness in the face of stronger personalities. Determined to make a stand in defense of his principles rather than accept an insanity defense, he folds under mental intimidation from both Fitz and his own defense attorney (a swiftly devastating Rebecca Henderson), who tells Ted that if he isn't insane, she wouldn't know who is. Having hoped for a Hitler-like opportunity to turn public opinion in his favor, Ted's pre-sentencing statement sputters to a pathetic halt.

While Jim Fitzgerald was one among many producers of Manhunt, its ultimate portrait of Fitz is fairly unflattering. The idea that Fitz might feel any affinity for Ted as a victim, in his own mind, of institutional thinking only makes Fitz looks like a self-pitying jerk. While that may be an accidental impression, there's no mistaking the miniseries' intention to portray Fitz as a tunnel-visioned narcissist whose obsession with the case, and his desire to win credit for cracking it, ruins his relationships with women, including his wife, a sympathetic colleague and a potential new love interest. I don't know whether Fitzgerald signed off on that, but I don't know either whether it's a personal reflection on the actual man or just the cliched presentation of the obsessively flawed hero. While Manhunt freely invents encounters that never happened, it can't avoid the facts that render its conclusion anticlimactic. The early framing device and Kaczynski's post-arrest brainstorming have set up the idea that he will challenge the credibility of Fitz's linguistic forensics in an effort to  the quash the search warrant on which all other evidence depends. If this were pure fiction, the payoff would be Fitz on the witness stand vindicating his ideas and effectively closing the case against Ted, perhaps under cross-examination by Ted himself, but the judge in the case rejects the challenge to the search warrant with almost arbitrary decisiveness, leaving Ted to plead insanity or plead guilty and denying Fitz the moment that could have vindicated him as the hero of the whole story. Oddly, anticlimax suits this series. It seems right, at least, that the Kaczynski case ends with (an almost literal) whimper rather than a bang. If you can get past the first two lousy episodes, I'd recommend the whole thing -- with the archetypal grain of salt, that is.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

OPERATION MEKONG (2016)

This "based on true events" Chinese action film has an oldschool energy to it befitting its relatively oldschool director, Dante Lam. He's been making movies since the 1990s, the heyday of Hong Kong action cinema, and Mekong is pretty much a Nineties action picture with a tech upgrade. The true event at the heart of the film is a 2011 massacre of two Chinese cargo ship crews by drug traffickers in the infamous "Golden Triangle" near the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Public outcry in China led to the creation of an international task force and the deployment of Chinese investigators throughout the region. The film's ensemble of heroes are too many for all of them to have distinctive personalities, but this is the sort of film that doesn't depend on character development. We know them primarily by their nicknames -- they're named after Chinese gods in the original, while the English subtitles translate those to Olympian deities, including "Panoptes" (for Argus Panoptes) for the guy who operates the drone and "Aphrodite" for the team's only woman. That seems a bad fit because the film admirably refrains from sexualizing her in any way; "Athena" might have been a better fit. And there's a dog who gets perhaps the film's most startling or simply implausible moment. Used as a landmine detector, the animal dashes through a minefield and is simply too fast to be caught in the explosions he triggers. After that the poor creature gets shot -- the film makes sure to show us the mortal wound -- and its death proves one of Mekong's most sentimental scenes.  Like some Asian films, it has a sometimes uncomfortable mix of mawkishness and brutality that's probably genuinely foreign to many American viewers. The head drug lord has a cohort of child soldiers, high on his supply and already hopelessly vicious. We're introduced to them during a casual game of Russian roulette, and we see one of them lose. Later, one of them carries out a suicide bombing. Still another has to be shot in the back by one of our heroes to keep him from slaughtering people during one of the film's big action scenes. This element of the story will no doubt make some U.S. viewers squeamish, as violence against children in any context is still somewhat taboo here, but it's definitely effective in putting the film's villains over as amoral monsters. Despite those downer moments, Mekong is a giddy spree of mayhem, the controversial aspects of which -- the Thai government is touchy about the role of its nationals in the whole business -- won't matter to viewers outside Southeast Asia. The action scenes, if not outstanding, are at least energetic, especially one sequence that climaxes with a car chase inside a shopping mall. For those unlikely to shudder at its treatment of children, Mekong ought to be lightweight fun as well as an interesting exception to the CGI-driven action fantasies we usually get from China.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BORN TO LOVE (1931)

The cynicism of Pre-Code cinema often is taken for granted, but film buffs and critics usually have the up-front themes and personalities of characters in mind. Hard times made cynical people, the thinking goes. But for real cynicism on the part of filmmakers you might not find a better example than Paul L. Stein's film of Ernest Pascal's screenplay.  Their cynicism takes the form of ruthless melodrama. Their story is of an American Red Cross nurse (Constance Bennett) who has a brief fling with an American flier (Joel McCrea) in London before he returns to the front, goes missing and is presumed dead. When it turns out that that fling got her pregnant, Sir Wilfred (Paul Cavanagh) steps in, offering to marry Doris and make her child legal. Predictably, the end of the war -- Born to Love is padded with a disproportionate Armistice Day celebration scene that's practically a standalone experiment in art cinema -- brings the real father, the flier, back from a POW camp. Sir Wilfred feels betrayed when Doris rekindles her romance with Barry Craig. He divorces Doris and claims custody of her child, practically daring her to challenge his right in court and have her boy dubbed a bastard. Instead, she acquiesces in a tragic accommodation, gaining limited visitation rights in return for renouncing Barry forever.

At this point Pascal has painted himself into a corner. Wilfred would be too good to be true if he renounced his rights and allowed a reunion of the child and his natural parents, and the lovers certainly aren't going to steal the child and flee to America. The best option, from a romantic standpoint, might have been for Doris to give up on the boy -- think of the pathos! -- and start over again with Barry, but I suppose audiences might have rebelled against an ending that left the kid to be raised by a spoilsport who was no blood kin. Somehow it was presumed more satisfactory to kill the boy. It's his birthday and Doris, living in modest circumstances (on settlement money from Wilfred?) has bought him a present. She's allowed to go to Wilfred's house to see the boy, after a very awkward exchange of pleasantries with her former husband that ends with him warning her not to go upstairs to the child's room. There's no stopping Doris, however, before she enters the room and finds (unseen to us) a little corpse. There's been no set-up for this, no discussion that I can recall of the kid's frailty. He just up and died because he was an inconvenient obstacle to the lovers' reunion. And of course, no sooner has Doris fled the place in raging despair ("Don't touch me!" she shrieks at Wilfred's pathetic attempt at consolation) that she finds Barry waiting in her flat, having been unable to walk away from her as she had urged. She breaks down sobbing in his arms, and it's a happy ending because you know they're going to be together now. These last scenes are awful in their contrivances -- why on Earth doesn't Wilfred tell Doris about the tragedy the moment she comes through his door? -- and show sharply why Constance Bennett, here a tragedienne, was better off in light comedy. She is quite bad here, especially when Doris gets to screaming at Wilfred, but no one's really good, though the film might be noteworthy for the most straightfaced performance ever given by Frederick Kerr, James Whale's irascible Baron Frankenstein, as the aristocrat hosting Doris for the duration. Wikipedia tells me that Born to Love was a modest hit despite mixed reviews. What that tells us about Pre-Code audiences is unclear, though for all I know the movie's Gordian Knot approach to Doris's dilemma may have appealed to Depression audiences impatient for similarly drastic solutions to the troubles from which Born to Love was a momentary, peculiar escape.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

DVR Diary: POLICE PYTHON 357 (1976)

A quarter-century before Alain Corneau's cop thriller came out, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret may have been the hottest couple in entertainment, at least in Europe. The Robbins and Sarandon of their day in their advocacy of left-wing causes, Montand was a pop singer turned actor who gained global cachet in The Wages of Fear, while Signoret was a major movie star on the strength of a string of art-house hits culminating in Diabolique. By the end of the 1950s both were doing high-profile work in English -- Signoret actually had started doing so at the start of the decade in Frank Tuttle's Euro-noir Gunman in the Streets -- she winning an Oscar for Room at the Top, he as an on-and-offscreen consort for Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love. They worked together occasionally, intriguingly in a French-language version of The Crucible and for the last time in Police Python 357. The years had not been kind to Signoret, nor had the cinematic double-standard that permitted Montand, looking by now almost like a gallic Walter Matthau, to be the onscreen lover of a woman 25 years his junior, while she, long since grown chunky, was reduced to playing his bedridden confidante. I'm probably reading real life into the movie, but I assumed that their characters -- he's a police detective, she's his superior's wife -- had had a romantic relationship in the past. In any event, he can talk freely with her about his current affair with the same woman (Stefania Sandrelli) his boss (Francois Perier) is sleeping with. This triangle grows unsustainable as the Montand character pressures her (with a slap) to commit to him, while she tries to goad the other man into pressing his claim more manfully.  Goaded too far, he finally presses his claim with a heavy ashtray, at which point Police Python becomes a cop-film version of The Big Clock, with Montand assigned to an investigation likely to incriminate himself.

Montand makes it through, despite a breakdown that sees him disfigure himself in an effort to throw off witnesses, but his victory seems quite pyrrhic. Corneau and cowriter Daniel Boulanger leave the impression that their protagonist can only destroy everything he touches, as lover, boss and confidante all end up dead. Montand's flic seems at heart to be a fighter, not a lover. Corneau sets the tone with a contrapuntal montage that plays over Georges Delerue's ominous theme, intercutting the making of breakfast with the making of bullets. Montand's proficiency on the firing range is pointedly contrasted with his deteriorating personal life. After all those disasters, Corneau closes the film with a climactic action scene in which Montand gets to play hero in reckless fashion, rescuing some cop buddies pinned down in an airport standoff by ramming his car into the bad guys.  He takes a bullet in the process but seems likely to survive, while one of the buddies tending to him discovers a clue that could implicate him all over again. The final implication, however, is that the grateful buddy is going to cover up for him. He's too good a cop to waste, but one can't help wondering what damage he may cause civilians once he's back on his feet.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Too Much TV: GLOW (2017 - ?)

Professional wrestling traditionally has been a puzzle for other media. Even at a point when most ordinary people realized that wrestling was fake -- the self-evident athleticism involved notwithstanding, outcomes are predetermined by the promoter -- movies or TV episodes often worked from the premise that it all was real. That probably was because writers and producers were most interested in the dramatic (or comic) potential of the action in the ring. Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's Netflix series takes a different approach, as any attempt at a longform series about wrestling must do. GLOW is more of a "let's put on a show!" concept in which the results of matches count less than the overall success of a TV pilot and the success stories of individual characters who spend most of their lives outside the ring. It's based loosely on the actual GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) show that ran for four seasons in the late 1980s and a promotion that has never actually died. I've always had some interest in pro wrestling, though I've never been a full-on fan, and I remember the GLOW show as embarrassing to watch. To their credit, Flahive and Mensch don't exaggerate their characters' wrestling ability; by the standards of actual wrestling fans, even the climactic bout in the first-season finale was a mediocre affair. The creators don't really need to get over with wrestling fans, of course, but they do need to get their characters over and they do that pretty well. Our main characters are the aspiring and somewhat pretentious actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her friend, onetime soap star Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin). Ruth is just about desperate enough to try anything, include a new women's-wrestling promotion produced by schlock film director Sam Sylvia (Marc Marron's character is inspired by real-life GLOW director Matt Cimber).  Debbie gets involved by accident when she tracks Ruth to the training facility after learning that her friend was sleeping with her husband. When she gets into the ring to attack Ruth, Sam recognizes Debbie's charismatic potential, while the real-life heat between the two women guarantees Ruth a place in the promotion after Sam had already fired her.

While the show takes time to establish many of the other aspiring wrestlers as personalities in their own right, beyond their cartoonish gimmicks, the frenmity of Ruth and Debbie is the first season's main event. Ruth proves a natural heel, i.e. a bad guy, but needs just the right babyface to get her Soviet villain character "Zoya the Destroyer" over. Everyone realizes that Debbie has to be the face, but it's not until she crushes on a babyface male wrestler that Debbie, whose marriage is failing, warms to the idea. While Ruth remains our nearest thing to a consistent point-of-view character, Debbie has the meatier storyline, increasingly torn between her ambition to perform and her needy, jealous husband. GLOW keeps us in suspense until almost the end over whether Debbie will stick with her fellow wrestlers, who are depending on her patriotic hero gimmick to get the whole promotion over, or stand by her man is dull domesticity.

As a Netflix series, GLOW can be edgier in many ways than a broadcast or basic-cable show. It can be more provocative in its presentation of gimmicks based on ethnic stereotypes, most notably when a black wrestler (real-life wrestling veteran Kia Stevens) takes on the character of Food Stamp-flaunting, Reagan-hating "Welfare Queen." In wrestling terms Welfare Queen is a tweener, sometimes playing the heel (as in the season finale) but definitely the face when she and another black wrestler fight a tag team in Klan robes. Somehow I doubt that the real GLOW could have gotten away with her gimmick (or the Klan wrestlers) on TV then or now, but in the meta-reality of GLOW it stands as a commentary on the perceived attitudes of the Reagan era. On another front, the alcoholic, drug-addicted Sam edges toward a relationship with a protege (Britt Baron) without realizing until almost too late that it also borders on incest. Over ten episodes the show does a decent job balancing the harsher material with the broader comedy so that it ends up fairly light fare. It's knowledgeable enough about the business to not make a wrestling fan squirm, yet not too obsessive about it to make the non-fan squirm. Overall, I think the writers make a good use of wrestling to highlight and exaggerate character traits and conflicts that might otherwise look all too ordinary. By wrestling's own standards, it got over enough with Netflix to get a second season, and who can argue with success? I see no reason to.