Sunday, April 15, 2018

Too Much TV: COUNTERPART (2018 - ?)

Starz's newest dramatic series, created by Justin Marks, is a showcase for Academy Award winning character actor and insurance pitchman J. K. Simmons. The former J. Jonah Jameson and present-day Commissioner Gordon gets to play a dual role in this high-concept sci-fi show. He plays Howard Silk, a mild-mannered Berlin-based UN bureaucrat going through a grave crisis. His wife Emily (Olivia Williams) is in a coma following a traffic accident, and her relatives' lawyer is badgering Howard to have her moved to a British facility. He faces a whole new crisis when his superiors bring him face to face with himself. Howard learns that sometime in the 1980s a portal to an alternate universe opened in East Berlin; that his office has been responsible for monitoring traffic between the universes; and that people on "the other side" are physically identical to their "prime" selves, but otherwise very different. The other Howard Silk, despite looking as much a chinless wonder as the first one, is an arrogant badass who works at a higher level for the equivalent agency to our Howard's. He's here against protocol to warn of an assassination attempt against comatose Emily. He thwarts the attempt, but the assassin, a tomboyish woman known as Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), escapes to kill another day, albeit scarred by a bullet through her right cheek. In drips and drabs, our Howard, suddenly promoted and sent to the other side to impersonate his other self, learns of a long-simmering conspiracy to infiltrate other-side sleeper agents, changelings in effect, in place of disappeared civilians, the better to carry out terrorist attacks. You see, the two universes have evolved different histories: 9/11 never happened on the other side, but the world was devastated by a plague that many there blame on our side. The other Howard is trying to thwart the conspiracy of vengeance, and so is another important figure in their intelligence bureaucracy: the other Emily, whose husband had said was dead. We learn eventually that our Emily was involved as well, and was targeted for vehicular assassination for that reason. Despite their clashing personalities, the two Howards must work in concert, if not really together, in spite of compromised bureaucracies on both sides, to stop the sleeper agents from carrying out their vengeance agenda.

The best and simplest praise I can give Simmons is that you can always tell which Howard you're dealing with thanks to their different styles of dialogue and other details of body language. The actor deserves still more credit because the differences between the Howards can't be reduced to any obvious "mirror universe" dichotomy. If you must make Star Trek comparisons, than Counterpart puts me more in mind of the episode where Captain Kirk is split into two people, each an imperfect version of his true self, one dangerously passive, the other violently aggressive. The two Howards don't differ in the same way, but you can see that each has qualities the other lacks, for better or worse. This is best illustrated as our Howard befriends the other Emily and meets a daughter who doesn't exist in his world, both unsurprisingly estranged from their Howard -- who, we learn, was corresponding with our Emily before the "accident," and who indignantly discovers her affair with another man. It tells us a lot about the two Howards that the other Howard throws this in our Howard's face the first chance he gets -- only to be told that our Howard knew but forgave Emily -- but has not yet told our Howard by season's end that our Emily is waking from her coma. For that matter, he'd at first told our Howard that his own wife, the other Emily, was dead. For all that, there's no problem accepting the other Howard as a good guy, or at least that he's on the right side, since there's no sympathy to be had for the sleeper conspiracy. The most we get is a closer look at one sleeper who's murdered and replaced her counterpart, the wife (Nazanin Boniadi) of a high-ranking figure in Howard's agency (Harry Lloyd), whose child she's borne. Neither is really very sympathetic, so one can view their subplot with relative objectivity. Meanwhile, the show's focus on Baldwin often seems like a distraction from the main story. We learn that her counterpart in our world was a concert violinist who gets killed during an attempt to take out Baldwin herself, while Baldwin enters a lesbian relationship with the violinist's close friend who discovers the truth implausibly late. It will all seem a waste if Serraiocco leaves the show as the season-finale suggests, but I suspect the writers have more in store for her unless the actress has gotten another gig already. But if the point of Baldwin is ultimately elusive, it matters little since Counterpart remains The J.K. Simmons Show despite strong performances from Williams, Lloyd, Boniadi and others, including an effetely malevolent Stephen Rea as an other-side spymaster. It's very rare for someone like Simmons to get an opportunity like this and he definitely makes the most of it. He makes such a strong impression here that  not only will I be back to watch the second season, but I'll be calling the guy in the Farmers commercials "Howard" for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

On the Big Screen: READY PLAYER ONE (2018)

For better or worse, Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg's Battle Royale. While those to whom that sentence might mean something figure it out for themselves, let me add that this adaptation of Ernest Cline's latter-day cyberpunk novel, co-written by the author, reminded me a little of Around the World in 80 Days -- the 1956 Oscar winner, that is, -- in that people may be more interested in scrutinizing each frame for some cameo by a pop-culture character than in the actual plot of the film. When this hits home video it'll probably have the slowest playback of any movie as completists strive to catch 'em all, and that's excusable, since the plot is basic stuff. In Dystopia 2045 nearly everyone escapes from the misery of everyday life by partaking of the Oasis, a VR multiverse created by geek genius James Halliday (current Spielberg alter ego/good luck charm Mark Rylance). The late Halliday has promised effective ownership and creative control over the place to whoever can complete a series of challenges and acquire the keys to the virtual kingdom. Among the favorites on this quest are Parzival, aka Wade Watts of Columbus OH (Tye Sheridan), and Art3mis, aka Samantha Cook of parts unknown (Olivia Cooke), who is as much interested in denying victory to the debt-peon hordes working for the IOI corporation as in winning the quest herself. At IOI, toady turned tycoon Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) hopes that victory in the quest will allow maximum commercialization of the Oasis, which we the audience are meant to see as an evil innovation -- which is rich considering how thoroughly infested the place is already with people using copyrighted cartoon, comics and movie characters as their avatars. In short, it's a treasure hunt with riddles, and Wade/Parzival's extensive scholarship in the minutiae of Halliday's exhaustively chronicled or recreated existence has an intellectual advantage over the competition, or at least the good luck to have insights tying the clues to  that are absolutely correct. Assisted by some friendly ethnic types -- a black woman whose avatar is some sort of male cyborg orc and two Asians who take quite predictable forms -- our heroes remain mostly a step ahead of the plodding Sorrento, an unimaginative character who can't remember his passwords and whose avatar looks like the idiot spawn of Superman and Captain Sternn (see, I can do it too!), and his real and virtual henchmen, until the corporate boob gets the upper hand for the sake of drama. Then it's time to rally the hosts for an epic battle of the memes that becomes less epic -- perhaps deliberately so -- when Spielberg peeks behind the curtain to show us the common people of Columbus doing their part by holding a mass conniption fit in the streets. Have you never yet shaken the suspicion that the person striding ahead of you chattering away on his or her Bluetooth is actually just a good old-fashioned paranoid schizophrenic? If so, then this fleeting moment may be the most frightening or the funniest in the whole film.

I suppose I sound mean, but this is still a Spielberg film in the old style and the old man can still stage entertaining action and does so with some extra relish now that he can play with so many licensed properties at once. Ready Player One is crowd-pleasing light entertainment on that level, but otherwise it's pretty dumb if not stupidly fatalistic in its ultimate acquiescence in dystopia. Sure, the world has gone to shit, though apparently not in any way that actually motivates people to change society itself, but we damn well can't let that bad old corporation turn our privately-held virtual commons to shit, now that there's a new boss as opposed to the old boss who was too much of a dweeb to be truly evil. The film's ultimate revolution consists of shutting down the Oasis two days a week so that boys can meet girls the way Halliday never could manage. Huzzah! Meanwhile, our hero is a cypher and his allies, dispersed across the globe though they may be, can appear by his side almost instantly in the real world, dystopia having not at all affected communications and transportation. They're cyphers too, pretty much -- but oh! One of them is a woman pretending to be male, and another is an 11 year old pretending to be an adult, played by an actor pretending to be a child, on the evidence I saw and heard. What of it? The film's fatal flaw is that it lacks the sort of "welcome to the desert of the real" moment that makes The Matrix potent, however silly I thought that was, to the present day. In fact, despite often heroic efforts by Spielberg's most loyal sidekick, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, it's alarmingly hard sometimes -- most damningly in what should be one of the film's most dramatic scenes, when corporate drones blow up the trailer-tower where Wade's aunt and uncle live -- to tell the real from the virtual world.

Scratch that. The film's real fatal flaw is that Eighties bullshit. Apparently the novel is like that, too, and if Cline explained it there -- like maybe it's because everyone emulates Halliday, who grew up back then -- he didn't translate it into his screenplay. It's as if the dystopian event that made Wade's world happened around 1999 rather than in the 2020s. There's precious little evidence in the picture that the 21st century actually took place, while one of our heroic quintet is chided for never having watched The Shining, as if 80% of teens today have seen the Kubrick film. Rationalize this as ye may, but I call it just another excuse to sell a nostalgic soundtrack album alongside Alan Silvestri's John Williams pastiche of a score, called into being presumably because the old master can't keep up with Spielberg any longer. The implausibility of this omnipresent nostalgia pretty much took me out of the picture, since it sounded like no future any sensible person might imagine, and none of the heroic characters had enough gravitas to draw me back in. Best in show goes to Mendelsohn, who between this and Rogue One may become the go-to organization-man loser villain of our time. And to be fair once more, even if the story and overall concept here are shallow if not cynical, but not satirical enough for their own good, Steven Spielberg is still a master of eye-candy spectacle and despite all I've said, I'm geek enough myself to have had some fun spotting all the pop-culture characters running around. If that sounds like fun to you, and if you don't expect anything deep, you probably won't be disappointed.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Too Much TV: THE ALIENIST (2018)

It hasn't been widely reported that Caleb Carr gave an interview effectively repudiating TNT'S adaptation of his blockbuster 1994 novel shortly before it began airing back in January. Carr is credited as a "consulting producer" despite wanting his name removed, and had only seen the first two episodes of the ten-part miniseries at the time of the interview. He singled out Brian Geraghty's performance as police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt as one of several bad decisions the producers made. In fact, Geraghty is pretty bad, but I think I understand why. On the screen, the energetic, charismatic Roosevelt would be more likely to upstage Carr's fictional protagonists than he was in print. The writers clearly meant to tone Teddy down, but I think there's still enough awareness of what the man was like for people to notice something wrong with Geraghty's glum, almost introverted performance. This can only ever be a minor complaint, however, because The Alienist isn't primarily about Roosevelt.

In the story, the hands-on reforming commissioner facilitates the formation of a team of investigators to track down a serial killer preying on boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. The team itself consists of artist/journalist John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans), pioneer police woman Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), high-tech crime fighters Marcus and Lucas Isaacson  (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) and the title character, proto-psychologist Lazlo Kreizler  (Daniel Bruehl), whose entourage of patients-turned-servants also helps out. They face resistance from corrupt and vested interests all around, from Roosevelt's political enemies in the police department to members of the proverbial 400 at the top levels of society as they combine early forensic techniques with Kreizler's innovative attempts at psychological profiling. The mystery is basically a procedural on a massive scale, filmed at highly-publicized expense with Budapest playing the role of Old New York quite impressively. It's been more than twenty years since I read the novel so I remembered little about it to compare the miniseries with, at least as far as the plot was concerned. I ended up more impressed with the show's queasy detailing of the sordid underbelly of the 1890s metropolis than with the solving of the mystery.

If the miniseries has a major weakness, it's that it's probably too long for the material and grows repetitive in its clichéd interviews with vintage madmen, among other things. Apart from that, Geraghty's wasn't the only performance lacking something. While Evans fairly effortlessly made himself a man of the time, Fanning seemed to struggle uncomfortably with her character, who is progressive in practice but isn't written like the archetypally spunky or sassy progressive female heroine. Sara is often grimly straitlaced, and Fanning sometimes reminded me of the rugged he-men in old movies itching to tear off the monkey suits forced on them by formal occasions. That might be the correct impression to leave, but I somehow didn't think it deliberate. As for our Alienist, Bruehl is handicapped by having to play a deeply introverted, self-repressing  character, trapped by the trope that will force Kreizler to come to terms with his own traumatic past. The German actor had already shown in Captain America:Civil War that he had difficulty investing characters with strong emotions in English, and he's little better here, often appearing preoccupied, furtive or sulky in a manner unbecoming the protagonist of the story. Despite the sometimes questionable performances there was a lot worth looking at in this spectacular production, even if the actual mystery didn't enthrall you. Carr published a sequel in 1997 and a long-awaited third novel will appear later this year, but my hunch is that this is the one chance you'll get to see Carr's New York on screen anytime soon.  The least I can say is that most viewers should get something entertaining out of it, though your results may vary.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

On the Big Screen: THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017)

Russia banned Armando Iannucci's burlesque of Soviet history shortly before its scheduled release in the former U.S.S.R. The country's culture ministry describes it as an incitement to ethnic hatred and an insult to those who lived through the Soviet Union and apparently liked it. The Russians protest that Ianucci and his co-writers, adapting a French graphic novel, sought to brainwash moviegoers so that "the thought of the 1950s Soviet Union [would make] people feel only terror and disgust." A westerner's inevitable rejoinder might be, "what else was there to feel?" but we should never underestimate the persistence and virulence of "my country right or wrong" thinking anywhere, or the legitimate pride Soviet citizens may have felt or still feel about the nation's technological achievements, particularly in space exploration. Also, to the extent that Russia was a different culture before Stalinism arguably warped it further, patriotic Russians today, from the president on down, may simply disagree with the admittedly reflexive western assessment that Stalinist terror -- the killing of actual and (mostly) suspected political enemies -- disqualifies Josef Stalin's every other achievement, from the decisive battles against Nazi Germany to ... well, whatever Russians think he achieved. The irony of Russian outrage, no doubt exacerbated by their resentment of the persistent vilification of their country since the ascent of Vladimir Putin, is that The Death of Stalin may well offend people who have the polar opposite view of Stalin and his collaborators. Iannucci's burlesque treatment of the power struggle following the tyrant's demise will no doubt appear to trivialize the cruelty of Stalin's despotism by making it an occasion for black comedy.

Imagine the Coen brothers (or Martin Scorsese in comic mood) directing the Three Stooges in one of those wartime propaganda pictures in which Moe Howard played Hitler and you'll get close to the flavor of this film. Stalin's inner circle are portrayed as thuggish clowns -- which probably is unfair, to the extent to which they were committed ideologues with an ideal of the common good that just happened to be incompatible with liberal democracy, but isn't exactly inconsistent with the way Stalin himself treated them during his long late-night bull sessions. Their sophomoric antics on such an evening are juxtaposed with both a final wave of arrests and the farcical doings at a Radio Moscow studio when the dictator requests a transcript of that evening's concert, forcing the idiot managers to restage it since they'd forgotten to record the performance. The unvarnished brutality of the roundup is intercut with comedy on the level of, "You'd better do as I say, or off with your head!" It reminds you that despotism has always been the stuff of slapstick comedy, tapping into shared destructive fantasies. A thread runs from this scene through the rest of the picture as the featured pianist (Olga Kuryenko in the nearest thing to a sympathetic role), who holds out for a huge bribe before reprising her performance, sends a nasty message to Stalin that becomes part of the later power struggle.

Inevitably the story gets going as Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and spends a fatal night on his office floor marinating in his own pee, because the guards outside are too scared to investigate the loud thump they heard. Finally his henchmen are summoned to the scene, setting up the funniest scene in the picture as they compete to express grief and collaborate to move the still-living leader despite their great disgust at his urine-soaked clothes. It becomes clear that while the dim-witted Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, way too old yet ideally expressing the character's lumbering incompetence) is Stalin's heir-apparent, real power will be seized either by longtime security chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) or the Moscow party boss Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Beria would seem to have all the advantages, including a vicious streak that has him, on film at least, still personally torturing suspects, but everyone else's fear or hatred of Beria ultimately works to Khrushchev's advantage. The film leaves the impression that the result made little difference, since each man was committed to a degree of liberalization, if only to gain popularity. The film is even more insistent, however, about each man being out only for himself, while their Politburo colleagues are too dumb -- or too damaged in the case of longtime foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) -- to show any initiative.

From one perspective this approach indisputably trivializes history, but Iannucci's perspective and purpose are bluntly iconoclastic. He was disturbed to see Stalin portraits shamelessly on display in Moscow hotels, finding that equivalent to Germans displaying portraits of Hitler. While Russians might answer that Hitler helps explain why they see Stalin as a good guy, Iannucci presumably sees both men as tyrants and gangsters equally deserving of repudiation from their people. His film suffers from his conflicting desires to lampoon and condemn as it swings from the pitch-black comedy of the title event to the more dramatically brutal resolution of the Khrushchev-Beria feud. There's little funny about Beria's end, apart from Jason Isaacs's over-the-top portrayal of Marshal Zhukov as a two-fisted Russian cowboy -- as Khrushchev has his rival shot in the head and burnt in a courtyard -- in a compression of events that played out over several months -- and in fairness to Iannucci's intentions little is meant to be. To reinforce his point that all Stalin's men were gangsters -- hence, presumably, the casting of Buscemi in the first place -- he ends the movie like a gangster picture, apart from an epilogue that uses title cards to skim through future Khrushchev power struggles that might have made for a full-scale sequel. Ultimately The Death of Stalin is grimly entertaining despite some tonal incoherence, and with Russophobia at a new fever pitch in the west, the nebulous attitude of the President of the United States notwithstanding, the picture probably has found an ideal moment to open wide in the U.S. Since Iannucci has next to nothing to say about communism as an economic or political system, Russians today are probably right to guess that his film's ultimate message will be that Russians have always been thugs and always will be. Since they take a tit-for-tat attitude about such slights, perhaps we'll soon see something in Russian about British or American scandals or atrocities, maybe something that makes Churchill or Reagan look like an idiot -- and if we did see such a picture here I suppose that would prove a point.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK (1933)

It may have been impossible not to romanticize World War I in the air, but John Monk Saunders did his damndest. He was the go-to-guy for air war pictures, whether original screenplays or adaptions of his prose stories, and his popularity in that role tells you something about what people thought of the Great War not so long after its end. Stuart Walker's Eagle and the Hawk is an adaptation in which Saunders himself, as far as I know, didn't participate, but inevitably his dark tone shadows the picture, and in hindsight the picture foreshadows his dark destiny. This may be the darkest of all Saunders' stories, following three American pilots, only two of whom will survive the picture. Walker uses admirable pictorial shorthand to establish the characters, using the actors' title cards to illustrate their social class. Jerry Young (Frederic March) is one of the idle rich, shown playing polo. Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) is shown supervising some construction project, which defines him as a worker and a more practical sort than Young. Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) has no obvious occupation; his characteristic moment is getting a coin-op fortune, predicting great danger, as he exits a restaurant. And sure enough, we dissolve to "Slug" in France, where he's become Jerry's best buddy. Jerry and Crocker don't get along at all. Crocker isn't a very good pilot and nearly gets both men killed when their plane ends upside down on the landing field. Crocker is relegated to the status of "observer," which means that he mans the machine gun, standing upright in the open in the rear of a two-seat plane. While he resents the seeming demotion, the work suits his ruthless attitude toward war. He commits the sort of atrocities the Germans were accused of, mowing down a helpless Hun who's bailed out of an observation balloon (in some of the footage this film borrows from Wings). That's tantamount to murder as far as Jerry's concerned, but to Crocker the point of war is to wipe out the enemy as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Jerry isn't seeing the point of the war they way he used to. Losing five observers in a matter of weeks will do that to you. And Crocker getting Slug Richards killed because he wanted to stay in the air to kill more Germans won't help, either. The breaking point comes when Jerry goes up with a rookie observer making his first flight. Of course the kid gets shot -- some rookies didn't even make it into the air because the Germans bombed their headquarters -- and of course the poor wretch plunges from the plane to a still more horrific finish when Jerry loops the loop to evade German pursuit. But the very last straw comes when Jerry actually brings down the German, learns that it's one of the top enemy aces, but only sees the face of a youth hardly older than the doomed kid who went up with him. And for that Jerry gets another medal! For that he's the toast of the base yet again, but he answers their toasts with a drunken tirade against war. Initially contemptuous, Crocker grows more concerned as he sees Jerry crack. But there's nothing he can do -- nothing to save Jerry's sanity or life, that is. Yet there's one thing he can do to save his frenemy's reputation, although that hardly matters to Jerry himself by the end.

This is a war film that ends with the hero killing himself, though technically the denouement comes when Crocker takes the corpse up for the last flight so he can blast its skull with machine-gun fire to make it appear, for whoever might care at the base or back home, that Jerry died nobly in combat. I guess that makes it a Pre-Code war film, though there are other touches that date it that way, like Slug teaching a French waitress English using A Night in a Turkish Harem as a textbook. Speaking of Jack Oakie, you've got to admire a film that slaughters its comedy-relief character, and you've got to admire Oakie for really being more of a character actor here, as he would be later in The Texas Rangers (where he also dies) and Call of the Wild. He may have been the only Thirties comic able to pull that sort of trick off. Meanwhile, its a bracing surprise to see Cary Grant, still just an up-and-comer here, playing a bloodthirsty asshole, though ultimately he's just a straight man for Frederic March's manic-depressive pyrotechnics. I like the way the screenwriters actually didn't stress the class differences among the characters illustrated in the credits, allowing you to speculate subtextually on how Jerry and Crocker's different social status may have contributed to their conflicts without forcing an explanation on you. The three lead actors in this nearly all-male picture -- Carole Lombard shows up for one scene as "The Beautiful Lady" -- bounce off each other to nice effect throughout, and their performances probably made Eagle and the Hawk worthwhile for audiences otherwise put off by its war-is-miserable message. As for John Monk Saunders, Code Enforcement led to tamer films like West Point of the Air, and before he could have his say on the next war, he hung himself.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: LAUGHING BOY (1934)

Of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's silent leading men inexorably struck down after the coming of sound, Ramon Novarro held out the longest. Despite a Mexican accent that didn't disqualify him from "Latin lover" status, Novarro found a singing voice that promised him a musical future. When that didn't pan out, he became an all-purpose ethnic, playing Europeans, Hindus, Chinese and Arabs. Finally, if not inevitably, he played a Navajo Indian in his penultimate M-G-M film. Laughing Boy was a prestige picture of a sort, adapted from Oliver LaFarge's Pulitzer-winning novel and entrusted to Metro's ethnographic entertainment expert, W.S. Van Dyke. But Novarro looks wrong for the part, wearing a heavy layer of makeup as if still in a silent movie and more pale than the other Native American characters. He doesn't quite sound right, either, saddled like compatriot co-star Lupe Velez with dialogue punctuated with that stock clause of the pulp Mexican, "I theenk." For 1934 Metro remembered Novarro's musical talent; his other picture of the year was a big part-Technicolor operetta, The Cat and the Fiddle, and in the actual novel Laughing Boy is described often singing to his gods. But Novarro's singing sounds more like what he was up to back in The Pagan than any Native song I've heard. His overall performance isn't really bad, but he ends up upstaged by possibly career-best work from Velez, liberated from her usual "spitfire" shtick, as the hero's more complex and conflicted love interest.

Laughing Boy is meant as a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans in a white-dominated world, and the film gives us a wider range of Indian personalities than most films of the period. In an implicit commentary on Natives' fractured identity, both hero and heroine have multiple names. Neither is known by their birth name, and Slim Girl (Velez) calls herself Lily in the big city, while our hero is not only "Laughing Boy" -- an ironic naming, perhaps, since the movie character isn't much of a jokester -- but also "Grandfather" in a more obvious comment from fellow Navajo on his traditional ways, and "Wrestler," for the prowess that lets him win a double-or-nothing bet after losing his horse in a race. He falls in love with Slim Girl despite his initial aversion to her American-influenced ways, e.g. dancing too close. A mutual ambivalence persists past marriage, as Slim Girl is torn between the attractions of city life, where she is often a kept woman, and a desire for more rooted existence, even though her American education has unfitted her for the rigors or reservation life. Slim Girl will automatically get the modern audience's sympathy, if she didn't already have the 1934 audience's sympathy, because of her profound alienation from both worlds. People will most likely be on her side from the scene back in the city where she tosses candy over a fence to treat the next generation of Natives going through the American educational mill and gets into a screaming match with her old repressive teacher. Yet her life with Laughing Boy's people is just as demoralizing. Our hero may be a nice guy, but he comes with the west's worst in-laws, utterly unfiltered in their disdain for anything American and modern, including Slim Girl. She tries her best and actually weaves a decent rug without realizing it, only to be told that her design is unfeminine somehow. But she finally draws the line at slaughtering goats for dinner; once she hears the animal bleat she can't go through with it, making herself hopeless in the in-laws' eyes. There's nothing Laughing Boy can do about it; he's condemned in turn for furnishing his hogan with such modern conveniences as a chair, a bed and a phonograph and is accused of being too ambitious a sheepman for his own good.

Something obviously has to give once Slim Girl moves back to the city to make money by selling Laughing Boy's silver crafts and hooking up again with an old American boyfriend. The marriage begins to look like the sort of role-reversal we've seen in other Depression films where the wife becomes the breadwinner, and even though Laughing Boy appears to be successful in his own right, at least in material terms, the old suspicion of the wife in the workplace rears its head. Unexpected, Laughing Boy shows up in the city to eat popcorn and check on his woman. Finding her with the American, he goes instantly into kill mode, though his target is the American rather than his offending spouse.  I found it odd that our hero went for his bow and arrow instead of a knife, but I guess the tragic choreography demanded this, since the maneuver gives the cowardly American time to use Slim Girl as a human shield. The white man gets away, of course, while husband and wife make their apologetic farewells. The film closes with Novarro performing an aria of mourning after burying Slim Girl on his land, giving her a home at last. The ending is inescapably sappy and word of mouth may have contributed to the film flopping and most likely sealing Novarro's fate with Metro. But Lupe Velez's performance and an unusually complex portrait of Native American life make Laughing Boy worth a look regardless of its consequences for its star's career.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Too Much TV: WACO (2018)

Religious cults and their leaders scandalize the American mind more, perhaps, than they do any other culture. Cults may be the ultimate abuse of the sacred American prerogatives of freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly, wasting both on voluntary submission to leaders who are undeserving almost by definition. Liberal culture distrusts the religious visionary just as it distrusts most polticial visionaries,  on the assumption that such people are out for themselves, interested more in receiving the submission of the gullible than in anything else, unless they happen to be authentically insane, when they might be even more dangerous. The Dowdle brothers' six-part miniseries about the fatal 1993 government siege of the Branch Davidian community in Texas may scandalize audiences most through its efforts to humanize Davidian leader David Koresh. As played by Taylor "John Carter" Kitsch,  Koresh is often quite a mundane figure, seen early going out for a jog with his son and playing with a rock band in a bar. It's only when discussing religion that a certain madness emerges; David believes that he's the lamb of God who will open the seven seals of Revelation, after which his children shall be judges over the earth. With great responsibility comes great privilege: David claims the right -- he sees it as his duty -- to take multiple wives while the other Davidian men remain celibate. For all that, things don't seem so awful at his compound, apart maybe from the stockpiling of weapons that attracts the attention of the ATF. 

According to the miniseries it's only under pressure from the government, once he believes that he has only a short time to complete his prophetic work, does David become something like the demonic figure the feds took him to be all along, holding dozens of innocents hostage to his ambition. The immolation of the compound thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a liberal government that fears the implicit tyranny of cults,  but even then Waco, based partly on a survivor's memoir, takes pains to show that Koresh wasn't directly responsible for his followers' deaths, except insofar as he blundered by trapping them in a bunker without realizing how easily a tear-gas assault can turn into an inferno.

From the other side, Waco follows the account of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon in a rare good-guy role), who came to Texas after bringing the Ruby Ridge siege to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout, Noesner's main concern is saving lives, which infuriates his colleague Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), whose own concern for the children in the compound is eclipsed by his impatient contempt for Koresh.  Mitch becomes the real bad guy of the piece, but in a way that implicates an audience likely to share his impatience with Noesner's seeming  coddling (at taxpayers' expense) of a despicable villain's stall tactics. He gets a sort of moral comeuppance at the end when, after the final assault goes to hell, he makes an agonized single-handed effort to rescue Rachel Koresh  (Melissa "Supergirl" Benoist) from a compacted escape hatch. The scene sums up the tragedy of Waco, at least as the Dowdles see it, by underscoring Mitch's sincere desire to rescue innocents (however complicit Rachel may have been as David's primary wife) while showing how his own bullying tactics sabotaged his best impulses.

The show as a whole will no doubt please those who see the Waco siege as Exhibit A of big-government intrusiveness against people's right to live as they please, but by now I don't think anyone doubts that the government went too far there, nor do I think that saying so implies any endorsement of religious cults. Some may wonder whether Waco goes too far in portraying Koresh as a tragic antihero as late in the game as the end of episode five when, defying Mitch's psy-op tactics, David performs an impromptu rock concert, but that's inevitably a matter of subjective perception. The miniseries for all its virtues doesn't change my view that the Waco story was a double tragedy, most obviously in the way it ended, but also because cults like Koresh's are a human tragedy in the first place.