Saturday, April 2, 2016

Fearless Satire: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

(Spoiler alert: This article discusses plot details that The Manchurian Candidate keeps hidden until quite late in the narrative. Though they are quite famous, if you don’t know them you might prefer to see the movie first and encounter the revelations with all the suspense and surprise that the 1962 audience would have experienced.)

Political conspiracy thrillers flourished during the early days of the Cold War and especially during the Korean War. Generally their heroes were pure-hearted Federal agents who succeeded in stemming the insidious behavior of Communist infiltrators, icy devils with no more dimensions than the Nazis bad guys Hollywood had featured just a few years earlier. The exception was Leo McCarey’s notorious and distasteful 1952 My Son John, in which the Commie is a young American man (Robert Walker) who comes home to give the commencement speech at his old high school and alarms his mother (Helen Hayes) by mocking his parents’ patriotism and refusing to attend church with them. He is also clearly gay, though the movie doesn’t say so explicitly; you deduce it from the flourishes in Walker’s performance, which are recycled from the truly splendid one he gave the year before in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. The idea seems to be some debased version of the Renaissance notion about the clustering of vices in a corrupted personality. In the great Jacobean tragedy The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, when the husband of the protagonist realizes she’s a murderess and her partner in crime calls her a whore, the husband replies, “It could not choose but follow.” More specifically in My Son John, the un-American elements in John’s behavior – cynicism, atheism, homosexuality – all point to his being under the influence of a foreign power.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Estranged: Schitt's Creek and Baskets

Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, Eugene Levy, and Daniel Levy in Schitt's Creek.

Schitt’s Creek (stylized as Schitt$ Creek), a CBC sitcom airing in the U.S. on the Pop network, is in its second season; Baskets, on FX, has just ended its first. Both are comedies of estrangement centering on dysfunctional families, and both show a desire to dig – patiently, obliquely, as if with a jailhouse spoon – toward the human parts of obtuse or abrasive characters. Despite being resistant to quick affinity or effortless love, each has been renewed for another year. That’s a fine thing: there are audiences out here for them, and everyone deserves a chance to find each other.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Neglected Gem # 91 – Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who hadn’t seen her mother in seven years. She was forced to dress in iron clothes and was told, ‘When you wear out these clothes, you can go back to your mother.’”
Contrary to this line from the film, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is neither about iron clothes nor mothers – at least, not literally anyway. This 1999 animated feature takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood (here identified, apropos of the setting, as the Brothers Grimm’s "Rotkäppchen") and applies its motifs and simple morality to a winding tale of political allegiances in an alternate-history version of Japan. A brief intro before the opening title card sets the stage for us. It’s the 1950s; Japan was taken over by Nazi Germany in the wake of WWII and is now struggling to maintain political stability as the occupying German troops leave the country after a decade of oppression. The people rebel against their fledgling government. Protests are frequent and often violent, requiring special police forces and paramilitary groups to manage to the chaos. Enter the iconic, gas-mask wearing, red-eyed Kerberos Panzer Cops, an elite anti-terror unit charged with keeping the peace at all costs. In Jin-Roh’s Japan, the Kerberos Cops are as controversial as they are deadly and presently at risk of being disbanded.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Man Who Talked Too Much: Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show

Garry Shandling with Sharon Stone on The Larry Sanders Show in 1994. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Johnny Carson’s annual “anniversary” specials were usually clip shows that featured only Johnny, his faithful sidekicks, the announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, and their memories. But in 1988, Carson shook up the formula a little by making room for three guest comedians, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Garry Shandling. Over the course of the evening, each of them came out individually to perform and pay tribute to their host, and as Dave, Jay, and Garry prepared to take his leave, Carson would lean in close to assure each of them that, confidentially, he was Johnny’s favorite. It was an inside joke that everyone in the national television audience was in on. Letterman (b. 1947), Leno (b. 1950), and Shandling (b. 1949) had all filled in for Carson as guest hosts of The Tonight Show, and were seen as potential heirs to his throne whenever the great man deigned to retire. (Letterman, who had been hosting his own late, late night show in the slot following Carson’s since 1982, made his Tonight Show debut in 1978 and guest-hosted for the first time in 1979.) When Carson finally stepped down in 1992 and NBC snubbed Letterman by choosing Leno as their new late night masthead, it set off a battle to define the TV face of the aging Baby Boomer generation that mirrored the generational political fight to define true Boomer legacy that began that same year, when Bill Clinton handed George W. Bush’s dad his pipe and slippers, along with some pamphlets suggesting how to make the most of one’s golden years. (The late-night wars came to an end last year, when Letterman joined Leno in retirement. The political Boomer wars are still ongoing, though the Clinton-Bush feud took a hit earlier this year, when Jeb!’s silver rocket to the stars quietly imploded on the launch pad.)
Shandling, who died last week of a massive heart attack, first appeared on the Carson show as an unknown standup in March 1981, and would go on to guest host seven times in 1986 and 1987. There’s a fluky little moment in his debut appearance that, in hindsight, has the weight of prophecy. After Carson has called him out, saying that it’s an auspicious night for a young comedian to be on the show because the studio audience is in such a receptive mood, Shandling does his act and backs towards the wings, acknowledging the crowd’s applause. The camera cuts to Carson, who appears to be trying to wave Shandling over to join him at his desk. In 1981, anyone who was enough of a show business insider to obtain a copy of TV Guide knew that it was the ultimate dream of any comedian to receive an unscheduled invitation from Carson to sit down and chat after doing his act for the first time on The Tonight Show; comedians whose names no one remembers now could often be seen ending their sets by casting a hopeful look in Carson’s direction, just in case he has a flare in each hand and is eagerly trying to guide them in to sit on his lap.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

DC’s Doomsday – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I felt so, so bad for the five- or six-year-old boy sitting with his family in the row ahead of me for my screening of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He got up from his seat several times and capered about through the aisle, barely paying attention to the noise blaring around him, and when he did, asking pointed and, I thought, very excellent questions like, “Who is that?” and “Mommy, why does Batman hate Superman?” His parents shushed him each time, but I wanted to high-five the poor kid. What a tragedy it is that these people brought him to this film, thinking he would have a fun time watching his heroes on the big screen. What cruelty for Zack Snyder and Warner Bros to have done what they did to these characters, and by extension, to him. When Batman v Superman isn’t a violent, grim, tedious slog, it’s an unforgivable corruption of some of comicdom’s most beloved characters, who are twisted to serve a ten-year marketing plan and Snyder’s galaxy-sized ego. It’s one of, if not the single most unpleasant and incoherent comic book movies ever made. And all I can do for that kid is be grateful that the Marvel movies and shows are still there to remind him how this shit is supposed to be done.

Monday, March 28, 2016

New Work from Steve Martin and Kenneth Lonergan

Paul Alexander Nolan and Carmen Cusack in Bright Star, by Steve Martin & Edie Bricknell. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The Renaissance man Steve Martin reinvents himself again as co-composer (with lyricist Edie Brickell) and book writer of the new bluegrass musical Bright Star, which has opened in New York after a premiere production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. The show continues Martin’s collaboration with Brickell, which began with the 2013 studio album Love Has Come for You. (A couple of the songs from Bright Star appear on that collection; roughly half of their 2015 album, So Familiar, consists of take-aways from the show.)

Steve Martin’s fans are sure to consider Bright Star an oddity: it does contain some humor but with one significant exception – one of the key dramatic scenes, a revelatory flashback, transpires while one of the ancillary characters is wading in a pond, hunting frogs for dinner – it’s surprisingly lacking in his trademark irony. The musical, set in North Carolina during two time periods (the mid-1920s and the era following the Second World War), tells the stories of a returning soldier in his early twenties, Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), who’s trying to become a fiction writer and, two decades earlier, the travails of Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), the woman who ends up mentoring him at an Asheville literary journal. As a young woman, Alice is a renegade in a strict Christian farm town who becomes involved with a rich boy, Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), over the objections of his father, the mayor (Michael Mulheren). Though there’s considerable freshness in the storytelling in the first act, the plot itself, which Martin and Brickell devised together, is a melodrama with depressingly familiar tropes. When one character tells another late in act two, just before unearthing the secret of the plot, “I knew this day would come,” I muttered under my breath, “So did I.”

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XVII

It's not a surprising irony in the late Sixties and early Seventies, just as many Americans were feeling like unwitting spiritual exiles and no longer wishing to be part of their own country, that many movie-makers began impassioned quests to find it. The results could be as powerfully masochistic as Easy Rider (1969) with its strain of pop religiosity which featured its hippie heroes romantically doomed to crucifixion by the power structure. The outcome could be as ambivalent as John Schlesinger's 1969 Midnight Cowboy (which loved its lost heroes but strangely shared no empathy for the country that produced them). The sojourn could also have the operatic sweep and depth of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) which embraced the tidal pull of the nation along with the very elements that would come to corrupt it. Regardless of the quality of films – from Alice's Restaurant to Nashville – movies were committed to taking the pulse of a country in decline and in distress. 

In the epic striving of Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), recently released by the Criterion Collection in their full Swedish versions and immaculately restored on Blu-ray, the director takes in America as an untested promise, or a fever dream that brings forth deliverance. Based on Vilhelm Moberg's epic four-volume novels which account the long journey of Swedish farming families to settlements in Minnesota in 1850, Troell captures in a largely naturalistic style for over six hours both the cost and renewal of that promise without embellishing the hopes of those making the quest, or romanticizing the claims of the new land (which the farmers discover is stolen land from the Sioux). Troell, who shoots, edits and directs his own movies, removes our awareness of film language as if the camera were a portal in which to comprehend a lost period of realism. When he focuses on the life and marriage of Karl Oskar (Max Von Sydow) and Kristina (Liv Ullmann), featuring two actors whose iconic definitions through their work with Ingmar Bergman couldn't be more recognizable, Troell clears a path for both performers to shed that skin and to embellish their work with fresh character etchings. Those nuances not only reveal how the arduous journey tests that marriage, but also the many ways it fulfills it. The marriage between the settlers and their environment, where nature is both unforgiving and inviting, is equally a test of endurance and purpose. That Jan Troell has been an invisible giant on the cinematic landscape – despite the enduring depth of later works like Flight of the Eagle (1982), Hamsun (1996), As White as in Snow (2001) and Everlasting Moments (2008) – may well be due to his gift of letting the story dictate the style rather than imposing his style on it.