Friday, June 23, 2017

ARES (2016)

There's something almost quaintly old-fashioned about the dystopia imagined by writer-director Jean-Patrick Benes in Ares. His dark future has nothing to do with French politics or demographics, haunted by neither a Muslim underclass nor the National Front. Instead, as was widely anticipated in the late 20th century, the corporations have taken over, with more widespread poverty and the further debasement of French culture as a result -- the latter signified by the death of Le Monde, France's answer to the New York Times. The rabble, as ever, are preoccupied by circuses if not also with bread. Cage fighting has become the leading spectator sport, made available for free on big screens hung from the country's cultural monuments. Fighters are openly sponsored by pharmaceutical companies whose stock value depends on their success in the cage. The competitors are injected with each corporation's proprietary serums in the open before each bout and sometimes between rounds.


Reda Kowalski (Ola Rapace) is about a decade past his prime, ranked #266 in France as the story begins. He fights under the ring name "Ares" when he isn't working as a private-security goon pounding on street protesters, who include his own relatives. His sister is some sort of investigative reporter or hacker who ends up getting arrested in an obvious frame-up. To raise bail money for her, Reda agrees to test a dangerous new super-fighter serum in the cage. It turns out that he's one of the lucky few who can take the drug without dying almost instantly, and there's no guarantee that he'll survive the comedown from his initial high. The stuff works well enough for Ares to score a major upset in the first round of the latest European tournament, and once Reda wakes up after fainting with no ill effects, stock in the company skyrockets. Having bet the farm on himself by proxy, Reda can now spring his sister, but learns that she was killed in prison. C'est la vie.


Reda smells a set-up and soon learns the terrible truth. He knows that he is "patient zero" for the new drug, the first test subject to survive, but thanks to some hackers who were friends with his sister he discovers that the corporation had killed 30,000 people with the stuff before they found him. He takes his revenge by twisting one of the ancient tropes of the fight-game genre and throwing his next fight in the tournament, causing the corporate stock to tank. He's too valuable for them to let him walk away, so their goons take his sister's kids hostage to bring him back in line. Suspecting that he'd refused to take the drug before the last fight, they want to continue experimenting with him, but they've underestimated the cunning of Reda's new friends and how far Reda himself will go to deny them what they want....


For a dystopian film Ares ends rather optimistically with its hero the hero of a presumably successful mass uprising against the corporate regime. It's nice that Benes and his co-writers believe that the masses would be aroused by Reda's story, but it also demonstrates the limits of their dystopian imagination. That aside, Ares is a modestly entertaining cyberpunk variation on oldtime boxing movies. It's clearly limited by a budget that doesn't allow the cage fights to play out before masses of extras in an arena. I'm not sure if the sport would catch on as the filmmakers claim it did without the enthusiasm of a live crowd for TV audiences to respond to, but I suppose you could call it a live version of any fighting-tournament video game, none of which need audiences to get over. The fighting itself is nothing special, but I suppose it doesn't need to be, since Ares is more film noir than martial arts movie in the final analysis. The plot is more compelling than the action, but not compelling enough to hide the datedness of its dystopia. The same film could have been made a quarter-century ago, and while I certainly don't mean to disparage anyone's fear of corporations taking over the world, I do doubt whether that's the subject for any really ambitious dystopian film in our own, already somewhat dystopian time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Too Much TV: AMERICAN GODS (2017-?)

It surprises me sometimes, when I read what other people think of TV shows I like, to see them say, "It starts out slow, but then it gets good." I've seen that said about shows that had me after the first hour. What was "slow" about them? I've been tempted to say that good shows start "slow" only for impatient viewers who don't get what a show is trying to do -- or in the case of The 100, viewers who need time to let the show overcome prejudice against the network the program airs on. But it probably won't surprise you now to see me say that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel starts out slow, but then gets good. What was "slow" about it? First, the first two episodes were deliberately confusing and alienating, probably as a matter of necessity, as the ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky "Lincoln from The 100" Whittle) is abruptly immersed in an unfathomable underworld of conflicting cosmic forces. Second, Whittle's own performance took a while coming to life. The Wikipedia page for the novel (which I haven't read) describes Shadow as "taciturn," and on top of that he starts the series benumbed by the sudden death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning) in a car accident, not to mention the revelation that she was having an affair while he was in jail with his best friend, and was engaged in, er, a lewd act with him when the accident happened. A show like this needs more of a "WTF" sort of point-of-view character than Whittle's Shadow is at first, but he came around eventually. Third, as if Shadow's disorienting adventures and visions aren't enough, the first few episodes include tangental flashbacks to the arrival in America of various old gods, or their worshipers, as well as the alarming exploits of Bilquis (Yeltide Badaki), a wandering love goddess who sucks people in (not that way!!) so they don't come back. In short, for the first couple of hours, American Gods looked like a random collection of crazy shit happening without many clues to what it all meant, or why we should care. But then it got good.

After a violent encounter with what may be the world's tallest leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber), Shadow hires out as the "man" of the amiable grifter Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane in Peter Falk mode). It probably doesn't help the show that anyone who knows folklore can guess who Wednesday really is while Shadow remains clueless until the season finale, but it becomes clear enough to our hero that Wednesday is more influential than he looks. He definitely has a lot of odd friends, and some very dangerous enemies. Shadow drives him around the country as he recruits some of those friends for some sort of showdown he wants to stage in Wisconsin. Being Wednesday's man gets Shadow in trouble not just with the law but with characters who are supposed to be the new gods of the U.S.A. One, a malevolent nerd (Bruce Langley) represents computers or technology in general. Another (Gillian Anderson) represents the media and incarnates as various 20th century female celebrities. Still another, Mr. World (Crispin Glover) possibly represents the impending singularity in his desire to incorporate the old gods into a new global pantheon. Wednesday, at least, isn't having it. He and his allies intend to make a stand for their essential individuality, hoping against the odds to regain worshipers so they can exist on their own terms. Meanwhile, some old gods side with the new -- the Roman Vulcan becomes a god of firearms with a factory town full of crypto-fascist worshipers -- while others like Bilquis are co-opted into serving the modern agenda. How or why exactly entities like "technology" or "the media" incarnate as self-conscious gods is something I hope we'll learn in subsequent seasons, if I don't just read the book first, but even if the assault of the new gods doesn't fully make sense to me, the characters, particularly McShane's Wednesday, have me interested in the impending conflict.

It also helps that we've been given a strong subplot that illustrates both the fantastic potential of the gods and the collateral damage their struggle inflicts. While Shadow and Wednesday wend their way toward Wisconsin, Shadow's wife Laura is on their trail, attended by Mad Sweeney, the big leprechaun. "Dead Wife," as the leprechaun calls her, was reanimated when Shadow placed one of Sweeney's gold coins on her grave. Sweeney can drop coins like Harpo Marx could drop stolen silverware, but this was a special coin, the one that gave the leprechaun his legendary luck. It can restore Laura's consciousness and mobility, and endows her with superhuman strength, she remains a conspicuously rotting corpse, despite a touch-up from a mortician who is also the god Anubis (Chris Obi), though not in any way that really mars her beauty. She's drawn to Shadow because power radiates from him in some unique way, while Wednesday, we learn, is determined to keep Shadow away from her, having gone to the trouble of  having Sweeney use his bad-luck power to kill her in that car accident so that Shadow would leave prison unattached. Her interplay with Sweeney, who despises her despite her guilt-inducing resemblance to a long-lost love of his, and with a Muslim cab driver (Omid Abtahi) on his own quest to find a jinn with whom he'd had a one-night stand, grounds the show in more conventional and sympathetic experiences while Shadow continues to struggle with all his discoveries.

By the time the eight-episode season hit the homestretch, the vignettes that seemed merely whimsical earlier all worked to enhance our understanding of Wednesday's world. The writers could even get away with making most of the penultimate episode a flashback to Sweeney's past. Once American Gods really gets rolling it gives you the sense of a universe constantly opening out, a feeling comparable to what The Magicians gives you of a world where anything can happen and probably will. The show's most underrated element may be its music, credited to Brian Reitzell. It has a uniquely jazzy score, appropriately matching America's music to a new American (or Anglo-American) myth, that works even when it plays over flashbacks to 18th century Ireland. The acting has been pretty good overall, once Whittle found his footing, though Gillian Anderson is decidedly hit-or-miss when impersonating Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and (almost unrecognizably) Judy Garland. I'm still not convinced that the show really makes sense, even on a metamythological level, but after an all-too-short first year that leaves the characters in Kentucky for a comparatively understated cliffhanger, I'm willing to give the producers another chance to convince me.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: GIRL OF THE PORT (1930)

There have been lots of great World War I battle scenes in movies from Wings to Wonder Woman, but most of them are missing a little extra something: flamethrowers! They're just about all the battle scene from Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port has going for it, but Glennon makes a lot of a little. He's concerned with the psychological terror of the war while he's there, and the post-traumatic consequences beyond. Jim (Reginald Sharland) is introduced in close-up, anxiously waiting for the battle to start, but he doesn't expect how it does start, with a wave of German troops dispensing "liquid fire." We see a few of them coming, and we see them get Jim's buddy in a trench, and that's all we and Jim need to see. The horror of it reduces him to screaming terror, and leaves him a broken man after the war. Like many broken men of the time, he winds up in the South Pacific, specifically in Suva, Fiji, as a barfly at McDougal's. At this same dive arrives Josie (Sally O'Neil), who must have responded to a want-ad in the Pre-Code version of Craigslist. Josie is here to tend bar and crack wise, telling the regulars that as the daughter of a bouncer and a lady lion tamer, she was "raised on raw meat and red pepper." She befriends a native menial, Kalita, aka "The Corporal" (legendary Olympic swimmer and surfing hero Duke Kahanamoku), a war veteran who's smarter than he sounds and bristles at the insults regularly sent his way by the bar's resident racist, McEwen (Mitchell Lewis). McEwen's bigotry earns him the contempt of English tourists, and for a moment it looks like Girl of the Port is going to make a precocious anti-racist statement for its era. Actually, it does and it doesn't, revealing quickly that McEwen protests too much because he's what they used to call a "half-caste" and asserting that those "touched with the tar brush" tend to be more bigoted than anyone else. McEwen is a bully as well as a bigot, lording it over the wretched Jim, who has to sing "Whiskey Johnny" for drinks. Jim still has some backbone, though, standing up for Josie when she stands up for him. When McEwen calls her a "tabby," Jim can't let the insult stand. He provokes McEwen by calling him a half-caste and lays him out in short order, despite his condition. But when a fire breaks out during the general melee, he has a panic attack, and we learn that he's become a rummy because only booze can calm his terror.  Josie decides to cure him, and a title card notes the irony of her working as a bartender while keeping Jim, whom she tenderly dubs "Bozo," bone dry.

Josie keeps "Bozo" locked up in her cabin despite Kalita's warning that it's "Bad for Missy to take white man in cabin. People say Missy not nice." Jim -- he initially introduces himself to Josie as Jameson, only for her to answer, "I've seen that name on bottles" -- is under lockdown to protect him not only from Demon Rum but from the wrath of McEwen, who warns the couple that half-castes "don't run out like nasty, dirty white trash." Instead, he vows to ruin Jim until he's "lower than any bug-eating bushman." Jim explains his fear of fire in vivid terms. "Whatever it touched it burned," he says of the liquid fire, "Flesh and bone -- and brains." Life coach Josie admonishes him, "You've got to take it on the chin and like it," and urges him to "Cut out the bar varnish for keeps."

Eight weeks later Jim is virtually clean and sober and Josie is oddly trying to distance herself from him. She flinches at his praise, warning him not to "get all Jolson about it," and explains that she doesn't want to be thought of as a gold-digger. This is all very sentimental but there'd be no story left if Bozo stayed on the wagon. All this while, McEwen has been waiting for his chance, and he finally takes it, kidnapping Jim to his private island and getting him freshly drunk. Like a classic melodrama villain, he offers Josie the choice worse than death: he'll release Jim if she'll submit to him and be his "tidy little housekeeper" to make his home more presentable to the tourists. Josie agrees, but takes no chances. She makes McEwen swear on the fetish he wears around his neck. "Swear on this Hindu hocus pocus," she demands, "That'll hold a Malay."

Kalita, who by right would be the head man on the island if not for McEwen, lets Jim know what's gone down and chews him out as eloquently as his pidgin English will allow: "God no want you, man no want you ... fire no want you. Dirt. Coward."  As it happens, the islanders have a firewalking ritual that they perform for the tourists. McEwen actually speaks admiringly of their "spunk," though he's still careful to differentiate himself from the savage natives. No white man, he tells the English, is capable of such a feat, but I say! Isn't that a white man marching through the flames and hot coals right there? And isn't that Sir James, the fellow we're looking for who disappeared six months ago? It certainly is. To prove his manhood to Kalita, Josie and everyone else, Jim walks through the fire to "burn out dirt" and proceeds to give McEwen the flogging he's long deserved before taking Josie away with him to English luxury, having proved himself "the whitest man of you all."

Girl of the Port is an embarrassment of Pre-Code riches or, if you prefer, richly embarrassing to watch. It may still be racist by today's anti-racist standards, but Duke Kahanamoku's authoritative performance belies a lot of the race rhetoric. As Josie, Sally O'Neil takes some getting used to, coming across initially somewhat like Betty Boop playing Sadie Thompson, and then like oldschool Harley Quinn as an AA counselor, but her irreverent earnestness definitely adds to the entertainment value and makes the film almost endlessly quotable. She almost singlehandedly drags the picture across the line dividing the politically incorrect from harmless, hilarious camp. As Jim, Sharland doesn't have much to do but yell "Don't let the fire get me!" every so often, but in the end it's O'Neil's picture, not his. It's the sort of picture that has to be a guilty pleasure, but if you don't feel too guilty about it, it definitely can be a pleasure of some sort.

Friday, June 16, 2017

THREE (2016)

The Chinese director Johnnie To is one of today's best crafters of crime thrillers, but his latest genre exercise sacrifices his talent to technology. Three starts strong enough but goes badly off the rails in an overindulgent final act. The title presumably refers to the lowest score possible on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep if not irreversible unconsciousness, as explained by the neurosurgeons in whose hospital ward most of the action takes place. Like an old all-star-cast medical melodrama, Three introduces us to several patients in the ward, including a childish old man who serves as comedy relief and a patient who angrily discovers that he's partially paralyzed after emergency surgery. His anger is aimed at Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), who has several crises of confidence and conscience as the film goes on. Her newest patient is Shun (Wallace Chung), a gangster who was shot in the head by a cop during an interrogation. Detectives led by Ken (Louis Koo) hover over him at all times, waiting to whisk him to jail once he recovers from surgery. But there's the rub. Shun has suffered a lucky hit that leaves him fully conscious and alert even though the bullet remains lodged dangerously in his brain. Erudite and philosophical in classic movie-villain fashion, he refuses surgery, against Tong's advice, on the assumption that so long as he remains a patient in critical condition, he can't be taken to jail. He's gambling that his gang can work up a plan to break him out of the hospital, while Ken, taking such a plan for granted, prepares his defense. For Tong, their chess match is a frustrating if not terrifying experience, understanding as she does the risk Shun is taking and the dread consequences of any medical error.



So far, so okay, even if Wallace Chung lays the taunting-genius-villain act on a bit thick. Working with admirable economy -- the film is under 90 minutes long -- To deftly sets us the inevitable showdown only to botch it completely. My opinion may just be a matter of taste, however. I happen to think that a good aesthetic principle for thrillers is "less is more." Pacing, achieved through editing, matters more here than in any other genre. But for Three's climax To decides to do without editing entirely. For some inscrutable reason he chooses to shoot most of the attack by Shun's gang on the neurological ward in a single CGI-enhanced take, dialing the speed of the action up and down and making the scene look more like a Zack Snyder ripoff or a scene with that speedy kid from one of the recent X-Men movies, or a video game, than anything dramatic or suspenseful. Of course, it's all set to some sappy pop tune.



Once To finally tears himself away from this spectacle, things don't really get any better. As Shun and Ken dangle unconvincingly from a hospital window, chaos spills into the hospital as a whole while the angry paralyzed guy wheels himself toward a grand stairway in an apparent suicide bid. So out of touch has Johnnie To suddenly become with the basics of thriller filmmaking that he wastes a perfectly good "Odessa steps" situation in a way that should make Brian De Palma want to smack him. More in keeping with medical-melodrama tradition, this poor idiot goes tumbling wheels over head all the way down the stairs only to pick himself up and announce that he is cured and can walk again. Will someone please tell me that Three was a tongue-in-cheek exercise in camp? Whether it was meant that way or not, tongue-in-cheek may be the only way to appreciate this trainwreck of a thriller.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WAR MACHINE (2017)

David Michod's film for Netflix is a fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings' The Operators, itself an expansion of the Rolling Stone magazine expose that led to the fall of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in 2010. In real life McChrystal was ruined by Hastings' revelations of hard drinking by his staff, including the now-more-disgraced Gen. Michael Flynn, and open contempt for the Obama administration. All of this plays out, with the names changed, in War Machine, but the film fails to answer the main question it raises on its own: what has all of this to do with the film's main character, or, more pointedly, what does he have to do with the scandal or the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan.


The fictionalized McChrystal, Gen. Glen McMahon, is played by Brad Pitt, a producer of the film. Pitt is in character-actor mode here, less interested in being a leading man than in making a character, or at least a performance, out of odd postures and a funny voice. McMahon's right hands is often contorted into a kind of claw, while he jogs with a lumbering stride, with his arms hanging almost limp. Michod and Pitt clearly consider the physicality of the actor's portrayal important to the story, showing McMahon shamble through army bases and European cities, but it's hard to figure out what exactly this illustrates apart from Pitt's commitment to the role. Likewise, McMahon's burly burr of a voice sticks out among the generally more naturalistic performances, but not in a good way. It makes McMahon sound like a cartoon character -- at times I thought it might be Pitt's impersonation of George Clooney playing a general in a Coen Bros. film -- when no one else does, except arguably for Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's apoplectic right-hand man, the Gen. Flynn analogue. I don't know whether Pitt arrived at this performance from studying Stanley McChrystal, following Michod's direction or by making it up himself, but it's a huge distraction, and something is terribly wrong with a movie if you start to think of its star performance as a distraction.


It seems like a distraction because Michod appears to be trying to explain both the fall of the real general and the American failure to secure Afghanistan, but nothing in Pitt's performance really helps explain these things. In part that's a major failing on Michod's own part as the screenwriter, since despite the advantage of dramatic license the script fails to make his fictional general either exceptional (except for Pitt's eccentricities) or explanatory. McMahon himself doesn't really seem like a bad guy. He doesn't share in the excesses of his staff and he makes conscientious efforts both to understand the war from the grunt point of view and to be courteous toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president (Ben Kingsley). His main problem seems to be that he sees the war through a haze of organizational jargon and management theory that convinces him that there must be a way to win the war, when others recognize that Afghans will never acquiesce to foreign occupation, no matter what theory you apply to it. In short, for all his apparent virtues McMahon is clueless, but so what? It's not as if he started the war, and it's not as if he was in command long enough to make a difference one way or another, and because of Pitt's mannered performance it's hard to say whether he's a representative U.S. military man. For all I know, Pitt may have made his performance more eccentric than it needed to be because he realized that if he didn't do something to stick out the character of the general would be exposed as a void on screen.


While War Machine has a hollow center it's not a total debacle. When we finally get to see some war, Michod wisely takes the focus off Pitt and gives us a tense battle from the grunt's perspective, climaxing in a soldier's anguished realization that he called a strike on the wrong target. Even Pitt isn't a total loss. After two scenes I decided I'd rather see a two-hander consisting only of Pitt's general and Kingsley's Karzai interacting with each other. In late life Kingsley has become a king of character actors, -- dare I say a mandarin? -- and Pitt raises his game with that kind of partner, as he does during a press-conference showdown with Tilda Swinton as a persistent German critic. Those good scenes, however, expose War Machine as a fragmented collection of vignettes that never really coheres into a compelling story or a distinctive statement on America's Afghan war.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Too Much TV: A note on Adam West

You may have seen a news story the other day reporting that Batman had asked Catwoman to marry him in the latest issue of his comic book. Like a lot of things having to do with comic book heroes -- or, arguably, everything in non-print popular culture having to do with comic book heroes -- that probably doesn't happen without the Batman TV show starring Adam West, who died this weekend at the age of 88. You probably wouldn't be hearing or talking about all these comic-book movies being made today without that show, so credit it or blame it as you please. Batman, itself inspired by some sincere but incompetent movie serials from the 1940s, provoked an ongoing dialectic in which superhero media, with the defiant exception of The Lego Batman Movie, defines itself as the antithesis of the 1966-8 series. For all that the Marvel movies in particular promise the sort of "fun" their DC competition has struggled or refused to provide, it's all "laugh with" fun rather than the "laugh at" fun that made Batman contemptible for generations of comic-book fans. But is that distinction justified? A few days ago I saw a documentary about superheroes in which some talking head testified that, as a child, he took Batman in deadly earnest, impatient between episodes to know how the hero would escape the latest death trap. If comics fans resented reminders of the old show as time went on, it was more because superhero comics had grown more ambitious (or pretentious), and the fans had become proportionately less tolerant of disrespect, than because Batman itself was a mockery of the superhero genre as it was in 1966, when Stan Lee's written narration on the pages of the supposedly more progressive Marvel Comics was not so different in its self-conscious pomposity from William Dozier's spoken narration on the TV show.

West's career probably suffered from the resentment of comics readers who grew up to become filmmakers, while the wider culture, perhaps never sure whether the show was the way it was on purpose or not, judged West a bad actor. Having seen a fair share of his other work, from early TV appearances on westerns to his acclaimed supporting role in Michael Tolkin's The New Age (1994), I can't say that West was a great actor, but Batman transformed his limitations into strengths, while his interaction with Julie Newmar as Catwoman in particular revealed a gift for comic timing that any unprejudiced observer will acknowledge, while sparking what had always been potential between the two characters since their first encounter in 1940 into a lit fuse that has burned intermittently for half a century. In Batman West achieved something genuinely great that he either couldn't do or wasn't allowed to do again. His most obvious limitation was an inability to reinvent himself the way William Shatner, on the opposite side of the same coin, has done. Shatner transformed himself into an almost folkloric figure by taking on the persona of a mountebank ham actor, so that the limitations of his performances as Captain Kirk became extensions of the barnstorming Shatner personality, an entertainment in its own right. But Adam West's futile lobbying for inclusion in Batman movies only made him look pathetic, and he never really became more than a nostalgia act, though some saw his final return to his one great role to voice a cartoon movie last year as a vindication. For in fact, while some comics-shop denizens no doubt still resent the old show, a recent backlash against the "grimdark" tendencies expressed most obnoxiously, to many observers,  in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, points toward a fresh appreciation of West's achievement. Nostalgia, no doubt, will work wonders also. Someday a new generation may watch Adam West as Batman without resentment or contempt, and then history will decide how good he really was.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Too Much TV: THE WHITE PRINCESS (2017)

After the BBC decided against filming novelist Philippa Gregory's sequel to The White Queen, the Starz channel, which broadcast Queen in the U.S., decided to do it themselves, with the help of Queen's main writer, Emma Frost. Though the title might sound like a prequel The White Princess follows immediately after the end of the White Queen series, which means that Richard III is dead and Henry Tudor has become Henry VII, the founder of a new dynasty. All but one of the actors whose characters survived Queen have been replaced, mainly so the characters will look more like their ages at the opening of Princess than the original actors did, the one actor retained already being elderly. The title princess is known to history as Elizabeth of York, and to the show as Lizzie (Jodie Comer). Daughter of "White Queen" Elizabeth Woodville (Essie Davis) and the late Edward IV, Lizzie had a scandalous fling with her uncle, the late Richard, before the king's overthrow. She is now to be married to Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy) to give the new dynasty an extra degree of legitimacy. Lizzie's mother gradually becomes her enemy, since Elizabeth would rather see her own son on the throne now than a grandson later. According to history and legend, Elizabeth's two sons are dead already, killed in the Tower of London by Richard or someone else. According to the show, and apparently according to Philippa Gregory's own belief, Elizabeth managed to have one of her boys smuggled out of the Tower and replaced with a "changeling" who died with the other son. The boy who lived grows up to be Perkin Warbeck (Patrick Gregory), the leader or figurehead of the major challenge to Henry VII's reign and an impostor according to most historians. Perkin is sponsored by his theoretical aunt, and Richard III's vengeful sister, the Grand Duchess of Burgundy, and by an opportunistic king of Scotland who arranges a marriage for Perkin with a girl from the local aristocracy. Regarded as a usurper, Henry finds it difficult to get foreign support for his cause. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain will not consent to a marriage between their daughter and Henry and Lizzie's firstborn son Arthur until the English have eliminated all pretenders. That means not just Warbeck but the potential pretender Edward Plantagenet, aka "Teddy" or "King Warwick," Lizzie's dimwit cousin and the son of mad Prince George from White Queen. Teddy is kept in the Tower while his sister Maggie (Rebecca Benson) becomes part of Lizzie's household and the White Princess's earnest, anxious little conscience.

Perkin Warbeck's invasion of England is the central event of the series, which exploits the pretender for all he's worth and then some, making him a threat to Henry even while imprisoned and reduced to servitude after his humiliating flight from the battlefield. Warbeck is inflated as a threat because Princess probably wouldn't have enough drama even for its modest eight episodes otherwise. His presence underscores Henry's almost paranoid insecurity while forcing Lizzie onto the path she abhorred when her own mother took it and despised when Henry's mother did likewise. Queens (or virtual queens in the case of Henry's mom) often find themselves having to choose between their sons and other relations, not to mention all conventional morals and ethics. Elizabeth would happily ruin Lizzie's life by destroying her husband and sons to put her own boy on the throne, while the fearsome Margaret Beaufort/Tudor (Michelle Fairley) consented to child murder -- the killing of Elizabeth's other son and the changeling -- to clear Henry's path to the throne. The whole point, dramatically, of making Perkin Warbeck exactly what he claims to be is to force on Lizzie a similar choice between her sons -- the younger one will become Henry VIII -- and her brother. In other words, Princess shares Queen's bleak view of power and family, a view common enough to historical fiction, if perhaps more bleak this time than history itself, to make the genre George R. R. Martin's inspiration for his particularly bleak fantasy novels.

While nearly four years passed between the initial broadcast of White Queen and the debut of White Princess, I'd only finished watching Queen a week before Princess began. That made it jarring to see so many familiar characters suddenly look so different, with the producers sometimes making no effort at continuity. The Earl of Stanley, Margaret Beaufort's equally cunning husband, was fully bearded when last seen in Queen, for instance, but in Princess Richard Dillaine plays him clean-shaven. The most jarring transformation, however, was the switch from Amanda Hale to Michelle Fairley as Margaret Tudor. Not only is Fairley considerably older than Hale, but their interpretations of the character are dramatically different. Hale's Margaret is cunning but hysterically fanatical,  with a constant air of flop sweat around her and a habit of breaking into anachronistic cries like, "Whoa whoa whoa!" when things go wrong. Fairley's is more like an archetypal wicked stepmother -- or mother-in-law, in this case -- cold, arrogant and imperious in her new position as The King's Mother until her murderous past threatens to catch up with her, forcing her to fresh murder to keep her once-beloved Jasper Tudor from exposing her past crimes. She gets found out anyway, because White Princess is very much a "nobody wins" sort of show. Henry and Lizzie may be secure on the throne at the end, but they hardly seem happy, and they have a curse to worry about, placed by Elizabeth on the killers of her sons. There's not really much drama left in the life of Elizabeth of York after this point, but the fact that Princess didn't end with a title card telling us when she died, I suspect that Starz or the show's producers may still hope to go back to the Tudor well. I suspect that the show already has drawn from Gregory's next novel, in which Maggie Plantagenet/Pole is the central character, and the story could be carried forward all the way to Gregory's already-filmed The Other Boleyn Girl. While I felt that Princess went a little far bending history to its dramatic purposes, I liked the drama enough on its own terms that I wouldn't mind seeing more of English history through Gregory's or Emma Frost's eyes.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE (1932)

There's a special place in my Pre-Code heart for those films that are packed with Pre-Codedness in the first place, yet take it to another level of creative madness. I'm thinking of moments like in Dr. X when the true villain reveals himself while babbling about "synthetic flesh," or the pygmy village sequence in Tarzan the Ape Man when that giant whatsis beats the bejeezus out of Cheetah, or the grand unleashing of Cecil B. DeMille's id in the arena scenes of The Sign of the Cross. Any Pre-Code fan can name more moments of similar escalation, and now I can name the second half of A. Edward Sutherland's 58-minute quickie for RKO. Secrets is based on a series of articles that appeared in The American Weekly, a Sunday-supplement that ran in the Hearst newspapers and was well enough known to be shown during the opening credits. The Weekly seems to have been something between a pulp magazine and a supermarket tabloid, and the "Secrets" series that inspired the movie seems to have split the difference. I have no idea whether screenwriters Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker adapted any specific articles from the magazine series. Whether they did or not, the first surprise of the picture is that it's an early move version of the Anastasia legend. Well, that may be the second thing after the failure of a film called Secrets of the French Police to include apache dancers. In any event, here's the story of an immigrant waif promoted by a slick con man as the Romanov princess who miraculously survived the massacre of her royal family by the Bolsheviks. In many tellings the story is a fairy tale in which the pretender actually is the princess. Not this time. Instead, poor orphaned Eugenie the flower girl (Gwili Andre) is the dupe of a would-be Svengali, a cut-throat hypnotist who turns her into his glittering puppet while murdering anyone who might tell the truth about her, including the girl's father. Somehow General Maloff is not played by Bela Lugosi, though the character seems tailor-made for the great man. Instead, Gregory Ratoff, who later would sort of direct Orson Welles' performance as the mesmerist Cagliostro, gets the role and can't help sounding as if coached to do a Lugosi impersonation, only without the hand gestures.What Ratoff lacks in diabolical charisma, his character makes up for in ever more outlandish evil. Did the big presentation of "Princess Anastasia" to the Grand Duke not go over well? Not to worry; Maloff just plants a forged endorsement letter on the Duke and has him killed so that he can't deny the fakery. And he can't just kill a Grand Duke in any ordinary fashion. He makes the Duke's driver fall for a large-screen movie of a car (or was it an airplane) coming right for him, so that the hapless lackey drives the limo off the road.

It might have been a good idea for Maloff to have his Asiatic minions dismantle the projection apparatus as soon as possible, but nobody's perfect. The French Police, led by an unlikely yet commanding Frank Morgan, who gets to do a mean Lionel Barrymore impersonation while disguised as a drunk early on, and aided by Eugenie's boyfriend, a patriotic pickpocket (John Warburton) who never steals from a fellow Frenchmen, quickly figure out that something's just a little off about the Grand Duke's death-by-cinema, and General Maloff quickly becomes suspect number one. The general's dreams quickly begin falling apart, but he hopes to escape justice by disposing of the evidence. The evidence, in this case, is Eugenie, and his proven method is to shoot her full of formaldehyde and turn her into a plaster-covered statue. He does that with all the girls, it seems. But Eugenie's boyfriend the thief comes to the rescue, only to get captured himself and threatened with some Strickfadean electrothanasia before the French Police show up to set things right. At the last moment, a handcuffed Maloff makes a break for it and embraces his own electrothanasia device. To be honest, I'm not sure whether he meant to electrocute himself or he hoped that the voltage would burn off his cuffs, but I'm guessing either alternative was better than the guillotine.

Secrets' turn to outright horror, after a detour into dodgy sci-fi, really took me by surprise, and I like that in a Pre-Code film. Even if Ratoff is no Lugosi, his relative lack of charisma probably makes Maloff a more purely hissable villain, while Morgan and Warburton interact nicely as the heroes and Gwili Andre is always easy on the eyes. We can always imagine a more perfect cast and crew but considering all the pulp madness this film delivers in just under an hour, I'm definitely not complaining.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

WONDER WOMAN (2017) in SPOILERVISION

Let's get the pedantry out of the way. Erich Ludendorff survived World War I with evil yet to do. In 1923 he marched alongside Adolf Hitler during the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, though the old general is thought to have later regretted his early sponsorship of the young Nazi leader. I don't like it when movies kill historical characters before their time for crowd-pleasing purposes or, in the case of Patty Jenkins' new film, shock value, when screenwriter Allan Heinberg could just as easily have invented an entirely fictional German general to be a villain. That being said, the filmmakers' Ludendorff scans relatively well, apart from his murder of most of the General Staff and his imbibing a super-soldier serum invented on the fly by his personal mad scientist, with the historical general, who by 1918 had become a virtual dictator of Germany and something of a madman in the eyes of his peers. As Ludendorff, Danny Huston has it both ways, at once a genuine villain in his own right and a red herring, and he's definitely better utilized than his sidekick, the disfigured Isabel "Dr. Poison" Maru (Elena Araya), who left me wondering why she never considered taking her own strength potion. Wonder Woman could have used a big brawl between the title character and a super-powered female villain, but most reviewers seem to be happy with the picture as it is -- and it's hard to blame them.

Critically reviled despite the popularity of its first three pictures, the DC Comics Extended Universe is now fully in business, and has stolen a march on the Marvel Cinematic Universe in classic tortoise-vs-hare fashion. Marvel has had since roughly 2010 to make a movie with a female lead, but hasn't done so despite already having one of the most popular actresses on Earth identified with a role she's now played five times as an ensemble character. There are many theories as to why, in their infinite wisdom, the Marvel people have not yet made a Black Widow movie, but in the end I suppose it's appropriate that Wonder Woman take her bow first. She's not the first female superhero but she's stood the test of time better than any other, being one of the few superheroes of either sex to be published without interruption from the 1940s until the 1980s, when a brief hiatus allowed for a reboot that's kept the character in business to the present day.Thanks to the 1970s TV show Wonder Woman remains the best known female superhero, and while her 2017 showcase has made Marvel suddenly look flat-footed many fans have been asking why it took so long for a character who in comics is considered the equal of the much-filmed Superman and Batman. I have neither an answer nor a theory, but once Warner Bros. decided to exploit its DC property on Marvel's "universe" model we were going to get a Wonder Woman movie sooner rather than later. It must be gratifying to her fans that she was given the heroic task of rescuing the DC franchise and met the challenge. That success is credited to the new film's stark contrast with the grimdark preoccupations of Zack Snyder's films, and it tells you something about the widespread hostility to Snyder's vision that a World War I movie in which the heroine murders someone in a case of mistaken identity and her love interest kills himself is welcomed as a ray of sunshine and a breath of fresh air.

For a moment, Wonder Woman is arguably more grim and dark than either of Snyder's doom-and-gloom exercises, but let's step back and set up the moment. Most people know the Wonder Woman origin story, I think, and Heinberg and Jenkins don't deviate from the folk version any more than DC Comics themselves have in recent years. Suffice it to say that on an island paradise live the Amazons, an all-female race apparently drawn from the sea to spread love to mankind, but driven to learn combat to protect themselves and humanity as a whole from the Ares, the rebel son of Zeus who drives men to make war on one another. Perhaps to avoid resemblances to Marvel's Thor movies, just as the time of the main story has been moved back to World War I from World War II to avoid resemblances to Captain America, all the Olympian gods sacrificed themselves to subdue Ares, against whose return the Amazons are to be ever-vigilant despite their isolation from the rest of the world. They are entrusted with a god-killing weapon to deal with Ares and have kept in training for the last few millennia until the average Amazon is a superhuman warrior. Princess Diana grows up as the only child on an island of immortal woman, apparently a sort of Pygmalion clay sculpture -- or a golem, if you prefer -- given life to satisfy the craving of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) for a daughter to nurture. This daughter grows up into Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and by then has developed into a super-Amazon. A nice feature of the film as a whole is the way Diana spends the whole film discovering just how powerful she is; there are times when she literally doesn't know her own strength. Inevitably the American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) shows up in his crashing plane. Unlike other versions of this story, in this one Steve is pursued by German marines who storm the forbidden island only to be massacred, despite their firearms -- which do take a toll -- by a band of mounted archers. Steve explains -- thankfully, this comic book movie lets everyone from Amazons to Germans speak English instead of forcing subtitles on us -- that he, flying for British Intelligence, has to deliver proof that General Ludendorff and "Dr. Poison" have developed a new, more lethal poison gas for a major offensive the general plans to launch despite ongoing armistice negotiations. From this evidence it's apparent to Diana that Ares must be backing the Germans in the war, and she'll later deduce that Ludendorff himself is Ares in human form. To her it's a matter of Amazon duty to go back to Europe with Trevor and confront the war god, despite her mother's very strong reluctance to have her meet, much less fight Ares.

During all the crowd-pleasing fish-out-of-water bits set in London, Diana believes that she can end the Great War with a decapitation strike. As she and Steve return to the mainland, having acquired the motley band of helpers shown in an old photograph in Dawn of Justice, you begin to believe that she could well win the war singlehandedly. In an instantly iconic sequence, made more epic by the incongruity of a colorfully but scantily clad woman striding alone into the killing ground of All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory, she charges through No Man's Land and liberates a town, punctuating her victory with an overkill attack on a German sniper in a church tower. Inexorably she closes in on Ludendorff and finally confronts him. The general's super-soldier formula only buys him a few minutes; he is fatally out of his league, but Diana credits her victory to her god-killing sword. Here's where things go grimdark, if only in contrast to Diana's naivete. She is genuinely stunned, horrified even, not to mention disgusted, to see war preparations continue around her as Steve's buddies. fight to stop a plane from delivering Dr. Poison's gas. Here, also, is where Heinberg's script transcends the pre-knowledge people are likely to have about the story. I doubt I was the only person in the audience who knew, from having read about the casting of Ares, that Diana had killed the wrong man. Working from that knowledge, you might think that the movie is saying that Diana just needs to kill the right man, who conveniently shows up a few minutes later. Steve Trevor knows better, however. Still sort of skeptical about the whole Ares thing despite everything he's seen, he tries to set the princess straight about human nature. The brutal truth the film tells -- and which Ares himself confirms -- is that men don't need a god to make them fight and kill each other. Ares sees himself as only a facilitator of that self-destructive, vicious nature that led him, Iblis style, to deny respect to humanity in his primal act of rebellion against Zeus. Diana is tempted to share Ares' misanthropy, almost persuaded that mankind is unworthy of her protection, but Steve persuades her, by words and example, that men are just as capable of redemptive love as of war and destruction. It may be corny but it comes with a sincere earnestness in its philosophical commitment to heroism that we haven't really seen in any of the modern superhero films up to this point. Wonder Woman promises a light at the end of the grimdark tunnel that arguably justifies the trip.

People seem to like Wonder Woman for supposedly old-fashioned qualities, comparing it more often to Richard Donner's Superman than to more recent superhero movies. It has that enigmatic element of "fun" that people require of superhero movies, Snyder's films being resented for its perceived absence. Thankfully, Wonder Woman is fun without the increasingly forced glibness of the most recent Marvel productions. It isn't self-conscious about being "fun," but just happens to have a tremendously likable, guileless performance by Gal Gadot, who achieves the small miracle of sentencing Ludendorff to death "in the name of all that is good" with a straight face without making the audience snicker. Gadot is not a true unknown, but she is unfamiliar enough to be accepted entirely as Wonder Woman, rather than as a performance of Wonder Woman. In support, Chris Pine at last becomes more than "that fool who thinks he's Kirk." While the advertising threatened to make Steve Trevor look snarky by emphasizing some of his comic lines, the actual character comes across as a genuine good guy with something of the modesty and reticence we might expect from a man of 1918. I especially liked his byplay with Gadot over their sleeping arrangements on a sailboat, which segues into a surprisingly tasteful exploration of Amazon sexuality, at least as taught in books. Going further, if, despite the relocation of the story to an earlier war, Wonder Woman bears an inescapable resemblance to Captain America; The First Avenger, one respect in which it easily surpasses its predecessor is the attention given to its whole supporting cast. One of the few gripes I have about the Cap movies is that the first film didn't really do enough with Bucky Barnes to make his reappearance in Winter Soldier feel as important as Marvel wanted, while First Avenger's introduction of a version of the Howling Commandos was little more than perfunctory. By comparison, the three original characters who tag along with Diana and Steve, played by Eugene Brave Rock, Ewen Bremner and Said Taghmaoui are much more developed and interesting, while Steve Trevor, of course, is sort of Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter combined in one person -- he even gets something like Bucky's traditional death scene. Finally, the more I think about it the more I think the World War I setting is a stroke of genius. The Great War may still be the most cinematic of wars, perhaps because it took place as cinema came of age and discovered its full narrative and expressive power. World War I movies like All Quiet arguably still have the purest renditions of combat on screen, and it was a truly inspired move to have a superheroine run rampant in the midst of it without really trivializing the particular horrors of that conflict. Cinematographer Matthew Jensen deserves a lot of credit for those war scenes, while Jenkins, as the director of Monster, clearly has a knack for showcasing womanly wrath. I have to agree with those who found the final fight with a scrap-metal Ares somewhat wanting, but it's not really as bad or anticlimactic as those say who for some reason dislike superhero movies ending with superpowered combat. Jenkins has done a great job, not as a woman achieving any number of milestones, but as a filmmaker overcoming heavy odds, not to mention reviewers with knives practically drawn, to make a modern superhero movie that all audiences may enjoy.