Monday, May 21, 2018

"DEADPOOL 2" TO DIE FOR



          The hilarious saga continues.
          Packed with action--and a whole lot more, wink wink--Deadpool 2 is the The Godfather: Part II of Deadpools.
          Little known fact: This film combines not only the best parts of Citizen Kane but also The Magnificent Ambersons into one masterful masterpiece referred to by insiders as Citizen Magnificent Deadpool. True story.
          Remaining painstakingly vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say, 1.) Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad (oops!) and, 2.) it's not all that different from the first one.
          Which is exactly what we want. All your old Deadpool friends are back, plus loads more, here all but two to remain nameless. (See paragraph above.)
          It's a family film, like The Godfather, except with a Terminator-y time traveling guy called Cable (Brolin), plus a plus-size mutant teen named Firefist (Dennison).
          Indelicate though it may seem, as soon as Cable meets Deadpool, right away he tries to rub him out. That came out wrong. Or...did it?
          It's a story about revenge. And family. And trying to make more money than the last time. So yeah, this time, it's personal.
          And who exactly is the wise-cracking, self-regenerating R-rated admixture of Spider-Man and Wolverine known only to the world variously as either Wade Wilson, Deadpool, or any combination of sulphurous epithets? Too hard to pin down, really. Sort of an anti-hero. Carries swords, shoots guns. Wears a mask because he looks like a pineapple. Good with Crayons.
          From the James Bond-esque opening credits eschewing lots of scantily-clad babes in favor of lots of Deadpools assuming compromising positions, to everything else that happens, Deadpool 2 is a great big fat juicy slice of Post Modern pie. This means he looks directly into the camera a lot and refers to the fact he's in the movie. A hard thing to pull off? Yes, but it comes in handy.
          Not since Betty Hutton sang while jumping on a trampoline for Cecil B. DeMille has the silver screen exploded with such sheer joy and body parts.
          Like a katana-wielding undying human Cuisinart, Ryan Reynolds has singlehandedly carved for himself with a sword in either hand a nice soft spot in the collective filmgoing heart. And this time, he co-wrote it.
          Not to compare apples and oranges, which is a fruitless task because they're both so yummy, but this movie beats the crap out of Avengers: Infinity War.
          If all this sounds like a long way to go to give a sense of the movie by flawlessly imitating its voice and style without ruining its many surprises, so be it. A quick Google search of Betty Hutton and The Magnificent Ambersons will also give away nothing. (Cue any song from The Breakfast Club or St. Elmo's Fire.) Like this review itself--impetuous, yes, yet aglow with a sense of childlike wonder big as the great outdoors--Deadpool 2 breaks all the rules, plus every bone in the human body.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Friday, May 18, 2018

"INVISIBLE MAN" VISIONARY



          Clearly excellent.
          James Whale, as every schoolchild knows, made a terrific film when he directed the 1931 Frankenstein. However, the movie bears scant resemblance to the novel by Mary Shelley (referred to in the credits as "Mrs. Percy B. Shelley"). Two years later, he directed the film version of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and this movie surpasses Frankenstein because it is closer to the source material, and perhaps closer to the filmmaker's heart.
          The 1998 film Gods and Monsters focuses on Whale's sexual orientation decades after the completion of his most famous work, but it is reasonable to assume that in 1933 he was himself an invisible man of sorts.
          Arguably, Wells' 1897 book is the first mad scientist story. Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll aren't insane. Frankenstein is repulsed by and fears his creation; Jekyll merely releases his bad side. Neither is Wells' Dr. Moreau. insane. All he does is experiment with genetics. But the Invisible Man is a scientist whose experiments physically alter him and, particularly so in the film, specifically cause insanity. To this extent The Invisible Man, both as book and film, appropriates a character akin to that associated with the best works of Edgar A. Poe.
          It's the story of a man named Griffin desperate at first to find a way back to normalcy, who then eventually changes this plan and decides to teach people a lesson and ultimately rule the world.
          What makes the movie visionary is the lack of anything pre-existing on which Whale could draw. Frankenstein lifts bits and pieces from Paul Wegener's The Golem (1920)--makeup artist Jack Pierce got his inspiration for the monster's look largely from a sketch by Goya--and Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) plunders movie graves including The Magician (1926) and Metropolis (1927).
          Probably second only to King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man also boasts the best special effects of any film from the 1930s, a time when filmmakers prized their secrets, and could not rely on the all-purpose magic of computer animation to do their work for them. 
          On one level, it's also the story of a guy having an absolutely fabulous time taking off his clothes in front of other men. Quoth Griffin to a dirty little coward named Kemp: "If you raise a finger against me, you're a dead man. I'm strong, and I'll strangle you."
          Look carefully and you can see the film is packed with invisible men of all kinds. From a player piano which seems to operate by unseen hands, to the omnipresent voice of authority conveyed by radio, to Christian crosses built into the windows and doors of a drawing room laboratory referencing the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit, Whale's film revels in superlative cinema. The Invisible Man even subtly touches on gender issues by showing the women of the story shunted to a separate room to drink their beer invisibly.
          To achieve notoriety by being invisible is automatically an interesting premise. The appearance of the enigmatically bandaged stranger in the boarding house pub of the English village of Iping as portrayed by the inimitable Claude Rains in his first film role, relying primarily on the sheer power of his voice, only further compounds the film's intrigue.
          Looming imperceptibly over the entire affair, the vast shadow of Nikola Tesla. The greatest inventor--indeed, the greatest genius--the world has ever known inspired one of the world's most formidable literary minds. The cinematic effect of which remains undiminished to this day.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and 
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"FORT APACHE" CUIRASSIER AND CUIRASSIER



          Just when it seems there's nothing left to watch, and all hope for a great movie is lost...here comes the cavalry!
          Directed by John Ford, Fort Apache (1948) stars Henry Fonda as a colonel named Thursday assigned to command a remote Arizona Territory cavalry fort. Though Thursday finds the detail ignominious, and resents being "shunted to a ten-penny post," he shows his military mettle maintaining regulations way on out in the wide-open spaces sloppy with enlisted men named O'Rourke and a big ol' mess o' mesas towering in the distance. 
          Loaded with loaded Irish-Americans, fiery, unforgettable dialogue, and black-and-white shots of Monument Valley worthy of Ansel Adams, Fort Apache is funny as hell and boasts fantastic action.
          "Who goes there?"
          "It's your new commanding officer." 
          "Holy Moses!"
          "No, it's your new commanding officer."
          Thursday's daughter, played by Shirley Temple circa age 20, finds herself upon arrival immediately interested in movie newcomer John Agar. Agar's father is played by John Ford stock character actor Ward Bond, but it's that other staple Ford Western veteran Victor McGlaglin who steals every scene. Quoth ex-boxer McGlaglin, addressing green recruits:
          "Is there any man here from County Sligo?"
          "Yessir!"
          "Now we don't want to show any favoritism about this, but you're now an acting corporal."
          McGlaglin plays a character named Festus seven years before the TV show "Gunsmoke" was created by Charles Marquis Warren, himself a WWII Navy commander. Ken Curtis, who played an entirely different character on the show years later named Festus, happened to be John Ford's son-in-law.
          Ford would later make two more "frontier pictures," She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956), each featuring the iconic Western presence whom he made a star, John Wayne. Depending on one's aesthetic, Fort Apache may well hold Wayne's most likable role. As Kirby York, Wayne shows deference to his commanding officer, but stands up to Fonda when it comes to paying respect to the Apaches and their chief. 
          "Colonel Thursday, I gave my word to Cochise. No man is gonna make a liar out of me, sir."
          The film is about as realistic a depiction of the West as Disney's Frontierland, and every bit as fun. It also seems to have directly influenced director Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) both visually and thematically.
          An interesting cinematic side note: the co-producer to Fort Apache, Merian C. Cooper, not only co-wrote and co-produced King Kong (1933), he also flew fighter planes for both the US and Poland, actively served in both world wars, and was eventually promoted to brigadier general. 
          Fort Apache also promotes some movie mistruths. Half the time we see officers and enlisted alike of Irish ancestry seeking to avail themselves of hard spirits. And this is nothing but a dirty lie, when in fact the seeking to avail would go non-stop. 
          At the big dance, everybody brings a bottle to spike the punch. As one guy says addressing the crowd, "The food is exquisite...and the punch, WOW!"
          In 99% of Hollywood's Westerns, the depiction of Native Americans is staggeringly abysmal. If the Indians get any lines, they're usually played by white guys. The clothes they wear look like they came from the Sears catalog. And they're just nothing like Indians at all. Here however, although the Native American presence does not figure prominently enough, and we certainly don't get to see through Apache eyes, the due respect paid cannot be denied. As Wayne's Kirby says of Cochise, "Six campaigns, he's out-generaled us, outfought us, and outrun us."
          Corny as anything and a real hoot, this rousing Western is almost impossible to watch without wanting to stop everything and join the Apaches--or at least the cavalry.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT 
and
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Thursday, May 10, 2018

"TRIUMPH" SWILL


          Of all the movies about Hitler and the Nazis, the one most revealing, the one most damning, is the one Hitler himself demanded be made. 
          The trumpery of the only Nazi propaganda film anyone even remembers, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, begins with a blank black screen and soaring trumpet music building anticipation until...ta da! we see the image of a majestic eagle perched atop a broken cross, an ancient symbol of the sun which the National Socialist German Workers Party called the swastika. 
          The name of the party itself was trumped up because the Nazis weren't socialist but in fact fascist. Adolf Hitler patterned his dictatorship on that of Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was another not-so-bright little guy who used to strut around in front of crowds at rallies making stupid faces in lieu of presenting sound suggestions. Eventually, Il Duce's once-rabid base strung up his corpse by the heels and whaled away on it with sticks. Not long thereafter, Hitler hid in an underground bunker and was forced to commit suicide in order to avoid facing up to his crimes. 
          Prior to being tapped as Hitler's go-to propaganda director, Leni Riefenstahl had made a couple of "mountain pictures"--films featuring German mountain climbers climbing German mountains. Would that she had stuck with this. The 32 year-old director didn't have to help Hitler. When Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels tried to enlist film heavyweight Fritz Lang on the payroll, Fritz Lang left.
          Triumph of the Will is a movie without a story. "Commissioned by order of the Fuhrer," it documents in a highly stylized fashion Hitler's trip to Nuremberg "to review his faithful followers." 
          From inside an airplane high above the clouds the camera descends over the beautiful old city littered with banners of swastikas, the shadow of the plane falling ominously over the geometric lines of dutiful followers waiting below. When the plane lands, the crowds scream adoringly, hands upraised in obedient salute. In time, the reactions of the people to the sight of the Leader would not be so adoring. But in 1934, the long lines of admirers reveling in regional pride ecstatically greeted what they took to be the Teutonic tonic to narcissism wounded on a national scale after the unjust reparations of WWI. 
          Except he wasn't Teutonic at all. Hitler wasn't even born in Germany. He wasn't blonde, he wasn't tall, he wasn't muscular, and he wasn't Aryan. 
          Waa-waaaa.
          In fact, the one sort of person he resembled most was...Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp. Not just because of copying Chaplin's tiny mustache, either. The two were born only four days apart. In April, 1889. Chaplin first. 
          The film isn't shot chronologically. It jumps around from torch-lit nighttime rallies to sunny German Youth camp fun where the lads have a jolly time roasting their weenies and scrubbing each other. Here Riefenstahl stages close-ups of boys told to look at the camera and joyously, dutifully laugh, laugh, so we can see how happy they are forming the necessary bonds required to ensure military group efficiency. 
          In his major speech Hitler claims that the state does not order the people, but rather the people order the state. Prrffft. As balanced and fair as this lie sounds, in fact Hitler required that both his S.A. and S.S. troops take an Oath of Fealty not to Germany, but to him. And the suckers did it.
          Even the name of the film is an egregious error. Hitler wanted to identify himself with true German greatness. The greatness of Beethoven, Goethe, Alexander Von Humboldt. And perhaps the greatest of all philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, upon whose posthumous fame Hitler so very cheaply leeched...having clearly never read a word. 
          This was in keeping with Nietzsche's sister, herself an ignorant virulent old racist who gladly handed Adolf a problematic manuscript which the philosopher himself had specifically abandoned as a failed project. It was called The Will To Power, and the mere title alone was enough for parasitic appeal. 
          In reality, Nietzsche would have lambasted the Nazis. He wasn't anti-Semitic. Far from it. In the last letter Nietzsche ever wrote he said he was having all anti-Semites shot. And he signed it Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, also called Liber, which is the root word of Liberty.
          If more Germans had read Nietzsche's work, they might have known what to expect from allowing a hateful little mind like Hitler's into power. But Hitler's Germany was afraid of books. And so they did not see.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and 
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Saturday, May 5, 2018

"INFINITY" INFANTILE


          This latest Avengers movie, even if it rakes in all the money in the world, marks a Marvel misfire.
          In spite of frequent funny moments due mostly to the presence of the Guardians of the Galaxy, an overwhelming preponderance of negative aspects override the good in the long-hyped Avengers: Infinity War.
          It's a mistake of Wagnerian proportions to make Iron Man the substitute father-figure of Peter Parker. This relationship is not in keeping with the original Marvel Comics source material, and more importantly plays poorly. There's no reason to downgrade Spider-Man into Tony Stark's squeaky little assistant. Anyone who knows anything about Spider-Man remembers that he's an ace science whiz who devises his own costume and web-shooters. Spider-Man doesn't use nanotechnology, doesn't have anything handed to him on a silver rich boy platter--and even if that did happen in some new woo-hoo graphic novel, it wouldn't mean anything because that's not the real material. 
          Boom.
          The conflict in this episode arrives in the form of a giant computer-generated yawn called Thanos. Remember Ultron? Somebody somewhere keeps getting stuck on the lame idea that what the world needs now is a cartoon Bad Guy going for the Best Actor Oscar, and it's an embarrassing display to witness. Not simply because it's done poorly with the CGI equivalent of "acting to the camera," but because the all-too-obvious race for the computer-performance acting trophy is as inherently flawed a premise as a comic book movie version of Hamlet with hordes of moody Danish princes flying around with space ray guns.
          But wait, there's more.
          The film requires that viewers accept too many ridiculous premises, not least of which being that the Big Bang generated six incredibly tacky-looking trinkets called the Infinity Stones which Thanos wants adorning his Michael Jackson-esque glove. If he can collect 'em all, then he will be the one with the big, big power. Who knows, maybe the next Marvel movie will incorporate nuclear arms-bearing Teletubbies into the story.
          Also, viewers are yet again expected to accept that Thor, a Norse god, speaks with a prestige British dialect instead of sounding--wait for it--Norse. Golll-ly, might as well have him do hillbilly talk. Or start rapping in Chinese.
          Nor should officious interstellar aliens in the service of Thanos or anybody else speak in prestige British, on account they never was hatched in Buckingham Palace.
          All of which (plus plenty of problems unworthy of deliberation) could probably have been generously overlooked were it not for an irresponsible and annoying ending. Remaining intentionally vague for no good reason, suffice to say, at the end of the day, comic book movies are for children. Sacha Baron Cohen makes challenging films. So does Michael Moore. But this thing's just gimmicky and decidedly unheroic. Toying with children's superheroes, for purposes of making sales or desensitizing the masses, no matter how proud Minister of Propaganda Goebbels may well have been to see it, isn't simply a turnoff, it's a dirty rotten trick.


Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Friday, April 27, 2018

"METROPOLIS" TOWERS


The Silent Greats of the 1920s worked with the language of faces and bodies, the language of light and shadow, telling stories by showing them with moving pictures. The passage of time now seems to indicate the novelty of computer animation, in spite of the ability to often fool the eye, in fact impairs filmmaking, impairs storytelling inventiveness. Computer-generated effects may be likened to anabolic steroids, which initially seem a powerful aid, but which inevitably lead to dependency and depletion.

Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang, reminds us it is better to create a financially unsuccessful masterpiece than to churn financially successful schlock. A film far ahead of its time, Metropolis went effectively unrecognized by the public for years, yet it tops a short list of the most influential movies ever made.

From The Bride of Frankenstein to The Terminator, Modern Times to Blade Runner, Star Wars to V For Vendetta, the vast cinematic shadow cast by Metropolis uniquely inspires movie images and themes spanning nearly a century.

It's a story about haves and have nots, the minority rich and the majority poor. It's a story about humanity in the industrial future told at the dawn of fascism. 

The story of Metropolis also concerns the now-timely issue of robots replacing workers. It is not, however, the first great film to deal with the subject of artificial life. That distinction belongs to another German filmmaker, Paul Wegener, who wrote, directed, and starred in The Golem: How He Came Into Being (1920). 

Ostensibly created in order to defend the Jewish quarter in Medieval Prague (the very word "robot" is Czech for "worker slave"), the real function of the Golem is to usurp from women the power of giving birth. This was not Wegener's first film featuring the character from Jewish legend. Two less-polished works made during WWI precede.

Wegener's early Expressionist movie influenced other German filmmakers--notably Fritz Lang--and also Hollywood. Often mistakenly called a "Jewish Frankenstein" story, actually James Whale's 1931 film starring Boris Karloff is closer to a Hollywood version of The Golem. Which accounts for Whale's work bearing so little resemblance to the novel by Mary Shelley.

Author Thea Von Harbou, who penned all of Fritz Lang's scripts during his most productive period for over a dozen years, wrote about the disconnect between the Head which devises automated advancements and the Hands which operate such systems. Technological efficiency alone is not itself progress. Between the two there must be mediation, and this Von Harbou calls Heart.

Brigitte Helm, who had minimal movie experience before being cast as the star of the film, plays more characters in Metropolis than Peter Sellers does in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and plays all of them exceptionally well. The most visually striking character she plays is that of the Machine-Man. (Though it is called a man, it resembles a woman.) 

The product of an inventor named Rotwang, the Machine-Man is made to resemble Maria (Helm), the leader of a (literally) underground rebellion for one sole purpose: to trick the majority working poor, like a ringer from the inside, and destroy all hope for mediation. 

The artificial Maria, who looks exactly like the real thing but acts nothing like her, excites the suckered masses and whips them into a frenzy specifically to "let those in the depths use force and do wrong" in order to in turn justify the authoritarian use of force against them.

At times the masterpiece of German Expressionist film reads like a playbook of 21st-Century politics.

Depending on one's aesthetic, Metropolis may well be the most visually striking movie ever made. The restored version on DVD is jaw-droppingly clear, pristine, simply incredible to behold. Packed with fantastically imaginative architecture monumental in every respect, Metropolis amazes the senses with pure inventive filmmaking.

The monocle-capped eye of the visionary filmmaker, like a camera lens growing out of Lang's head, created the indelible images of a non-verbal experience essential to greatness in the medium. That today this art is largely lost due to the focus on CG effects for the sake of CG effects should be a matter of some concern.




Stewart Kirby writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and 
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE



Friday, April 20, 2018

BURNS' "TWAIN" HITS MARK







































America's greatest writer used to have red hair. With his piercing eyes indicating the keenest of wits and a lovably cantankerous nature, he cut an instantly recognizable figure. He held many jobs, wrote for multiple newspapers, and was spectacularly inept at business. A natural-born storyteller and genius with words, he wrote constantly: articles, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and books featuring tall tales and a strong sense of place.

Mark Twain, however, lost the fortune he married into on endless get-richer-quicker schemes. His wife's father made millions cornering the coal market during the Civil War. Twain had an opportunity to invest in Bell Telephone. Instead, he frittered it away on inventions such as a clamp for keeping children's bedsheets down at night.

In this fascinating documentary directed by Ken Burns, we learn that Samuel Langhorne Clemens (his pseudonym is riverboat pilot-ese marking the division between safe and unsafe water) was at various times not only a pilot but a printer's assistant, a civil servant, and a prospector who never struck gold. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army--never once fighting a battle due to beating a hasty retreat and heading out West. And, having reached Nevada, in order to avoid facing a guy in a pistol duel, continued on further into California. 

His boyhood experiences in Hannibal, Missouri, provided in later life a seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of material. He and his friends enjoyed an idyllic existence smoking corncob pipes, and playing hooky down at the river and in the forests where they plotted pranks against the innocent town. One such friend, Tom Blankenship, a smart, uneducated kid envied by all who knew him, served as the inspiration for the title character in what would become Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Following the format he perfected with his breakthrough documentary The Civil War, Burns uses primarily still photos from the life of the man who was once the most famous writer in the world, beloved for his ability to make people laugh.

"I never tried to cultivate the cultivated classes," said Twain. "I always went for bigger game: the masses."

He was a writer read by everyday folks. The People's Writer, who made the way we talk something to be admired, has long since been co-opted by Ivory Tower scholars hanging onto, if not his coattails precisely, then certainly the brim of his proverbial hog's head hat. As actor Hal Holbrook observes, "The European language was supposed to be the ideal, but he idolized the American language."

Unencumbered by a college education, Twain wrote as though he invented writing, frequently announcing his acceptance of this premise, and even daring to further it: "I'm not an American, I'm the American!"

In the words of playwright Arthur Miller, "You read any page of his, and you know that there's a poet who's crafting all those lines."

Covering his bases, the poet chucked hardballs at the Palaces of the Gilded Age (a term he coined) even as he was stepping into a palace of his own. Financial worries tolerably eased subsequent to marrying the millionaire's daughter, Twain gloried in lavish luxuries for years. In his beloved Hartford House he doted on his daughters (his favorite being the one who started writing a biography about him) and spent long hours fondly recalling the unfettered independence of happy boyhood days when he could really dream of being rich. 

While the array of experts on the subject could stand to be a deal wider--it's pretty much just Miller, Holbrook, Dick Gregory, a historian from The Civil War, and a handful of unknown writers--it's the most thorough documentary yet on the dude who made writin' like regular folks talk a downright liberation of literature.



Stewart Kirby, who writes articles, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and books featuring tall tales and a strong sense of place, also writes for
THE INDEPENDENT
and
TWO RIVERS TRIBUNE