Quick Review: The Highwaymen

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This little NetFlick represents the third time Kevin Costner has played an historical lawman up against a famous criminal. In 1987, he did the Hollywood version of Elliot Ness, playing a bright-eyed young crusader forced to get rough to take down Al Capone. In 1994, he did the opposite of that, giving us the grim dirty reality of Wyatt Earp as a thoughtful counterpoint to the previous year’s Tombstone. 

Both of these roles depend to a certain degree on Costner’s trademark flintiness. One of my favorite moments in The Untouchables is when Ness, having been suckered by a bum tip on his first bust, cuts out the headline “Crusader Cop Busts Out”, and pins it to the corkboard behind his desk, then turns around and stares down the rest of the Chicago PD squadroom, a sea of hostile faces silently watching him. His face says “You wanna laugh at me? Go ahead, laugh. I haven’t even started yet.” Underneath the law-and-order, square-jaw good intentions is a quiet fury, which will break loose over the course of the film and throw men off of buildings. He gets his knuckles dirty, because that’s the Chicago Way, and that’s how you get Capone.

Wyatt Earp takes this theme to extreme. The film spends a good hour giving us Earp’s failed first life as a young husband and businessman, who loses his mind when his wife dies, and heads west a jump ahead of a possy, never to return to the land of his birth. Something in him died, the film tells us, and this made him precisely the kind of iron man needed to impose order on the chaos of Dodge City and Tombstone. There is no sign of the killer with the heart of gold, as in True Grit, or even the man haunted by his sins, as in Unforgiven. Wyatt Earp feels neither joy nor remorse in violence. He does what must be done. He’s as cold as a pistol in the rain, and the film is relentless in telling us that by men such as this, and no other, was the wilderness tamed.

In The Highwaymen, the theme encounters variations. First of all, in the story of Bonnie & Clyde, the men who caught them are virtually unknown to the public at large. Frank Hamer has never had a movie or a radio show about his exploits, and previous Bonnie & Clyde films have had the law as a faceless entity, a nemesis that catches up with the romantic pair as it eventually must. Much of The Highwaymen is a reversal of this trend. In fact, we hardly see Bonnie or Clyde in the film, and when we do, we tend not to see their faces. In this film, they are the shadowy enemy, the thing that strikes unseen. Instead, we see Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (an excellent Woody Harrellson), two old Texas Rangers in an era that has ceased to appreciate them even as they make a desperate call for their skills learned, occupying center stage.

On one level, Frank Hamer is as storied a lawman as Wyatt Earp or Elliot Ness, and as feared for his toughness (he’s credited with saving 15 Blacks from lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan). But there’s a reversal here. Hamer is hard on the outside, but inside has moments of vulnerability and understanding. His conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father in particular is a moment of confession and of near-empathy. But he does what must be done.

As with the 1967 Bonnie & Clyde, the film leads up to the young criminals death by bushwacking, and does not spare the audience the reality of that shooting. But if Bonnie & Clyde was all “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the bright Rebel Yell of the New Hollywood, this film is as dour in tone as its protagonists, and seems to take as its soundtrack Johnny Cash’s “Someday God is Gonna Cut You Down”. We recognize the humanity of Bonnie & Clyde even as we know they’ve got it coming, and we feel a certain horror at the men who gunned them down even as we appreciate their efforts. Nothing is ever as neat and clean as we want, which is why sometimes containing evil requires methods extraordinary.

Quick Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

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People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.

-Bill Watterson

Modern art is good for nothing so much as the joy you experience in hating it. A trip through MoMA in New York is a wonderful opportunity to sneer, and it is a merited sneering, because most people not in the modern art scene have intuited that the singular mood of that scene is one of sneering at them. Whether modern art has any aesthetic merit is a separate question. The bulk of it doesn’t, as it is driven by the sneering to produce anti-art more than anything else.

There is thus something disturbingly satisfying to the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, which inflicts horror-movie tropes upon art-scene stereotypes. Horror is largely a genre of Judgement, and one of its unspoken messages is that the victims deserve their fate because of their ignorance. The drunk girl who swims out into the night ocean at the beginning of Jaws is a fool tempting fate, and fate devours her. To see this applied to the brokers and curators and critics, to see them killed, as all of them are, by Art, cannot but evoke a knowing nod of the head.

And yet, it doesn’t quite work. The other unspoken rule of Horror is that the Dread Thing, the Monster, have clear rules, thereby giving characters an opportunity to escape. At some point, late in the second act, it is traditional for some Outsider possessing knowledge of the Monster to explain to our protagonists how to avoid it. This never fully happens in Velvet Buzzsaw (some underdone investigating occurs), consequently, the Monster is never fully seen, and can pretty much do whatever it wants whenever it wants. The film thus devolves to an indie version of Final Destination; Death comes when it needs to, for no particular reason.

Probably there are two many characters in the narrative, each traveling their own arc, to give the Monster enough development. One of the reasons its handy to put horror protagonists in a single Place (an island, a cabin in the woods), is that we don’t have to give time to exploring their unique lives, and can so focus on the encounter with the Monster and so figure out how to escape it. But Velvet Buzzsaw is so determined that we find these snobs execrable that they end up without the advantages of a bunch of teenagers in a Slasher flick.

Bottom Line: fun mis-en-scene, almost rises to satire, but incomplete. On the other hand, it’s on Netflix, so watching it won’t cost you anything you haven’t already spent. That’s more than most Modern Art can say.

Movies Have To Be Seen in a Movie Theater, Because Something Something Nostalgia Something Something

Owen Glieberman, pondering in Variety, avoiding the point like it carries Bubonic Plague.

And that’s why, more than not, I’m with Steven Spielberg on his likely proposed change to the Academy guidelines. He is not dissing what Netflix does. He is trying to isolate and hang onto the DNA of cinema — to preserve an essential definition of what movies are, as distinct from what we watch on television. The notion of an extended theatrical window, or something comparable to it, would be the updated version of the old requirement that a movie had to fulfill to be nominated for Oscars: the one-week qualifying run. That was before streaming, but it’s only natural that just as technology changes habits, it changes protocol and it changes rules. It’s the one-week qualifying run that’s become a relic, a trivial hoop that Netflix (or anyone else) can jump through.

But…

Why, though?

Consider film as a form of art. Consider the things that make a film a film. Ask yourself why a film ceases to be a film based on the location of it’s viewing audience. What is so essential about the public movie theater?

If I’m watching Citizen Kane in a theater, I am watching a movie. If I’m watching Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray in my house, I am still watching a movie. If I’m watching it on my tablet streaming from Amazon Prime, I am still watching a movie.

Are we prepared to argue that the only reason I can say “I am watching a movie” is the fact that, thirty-five years before I was born, it was shown in the only venue that was available to the viewing public at the time?

That’s absurd. A requirement that movies be shown in theaters is absurd. It’s not just that theaters are unnecessary; they’re actually sub-optimal. The expense and aggravation of seeing a movie in a theater is no longer worth the minor technical quality of the viewing experience, in an era when wide-screen TV’s and home audio technology is within most people’s grasp. There is no downside to watching Mad Max: Fury Road in my basement, with my own snacks.

The communal experience, you say? If I really want that, I can invite people to my basement. Movie Theaters have nothing to offer but nostalgia, a habit of thinking “this is what a movie is”.

A long-form cinema narrative can be shown on any device. This rear-guard action will not hold.

The End of House of Cards: Sound and Fury Signifies Nothing

p15818372_b_v8_aaWell, not nothing. There’s something to the final image in the final episode (I’m not going to spoil it. Watch and you’ll understand me). But it comes across as incredibly anti-climactic, given the sturm und drang it tries to build. I watched it last night, and my initial response was “non-ending”. Which, on further reflection, it isn’t exactly. I suppose the real meaning of the ending is that we’re right back at the beginning and nothing really has changed.

The mammoth task of ending House of Cards without its main character would probably have defied any creative team. But there was another problem: the character they had, by default, to replace him with was an enigma for six seasons, and the new season did nothing to illuminate her.

Who is Claire Underwood/Hale? What does she want?

One did not have to ask these questions about Francis Underwood. He was a politician;  he wanted power. He was Richard III re-imagined as an American Congressman, complete with scene-chewing asides and soliloquys thrust like a dagger through the Fourth Wall. The point of this was to take the audience on a journey into the dark heart of the City of Washington, to show us how the sausage is made via one man’s struggle to be the Greatest of Butchers.

And yes, the exercise wearied after a while, became a parade of improbables and extra-constitutional fancies, with freshly-minted secondary characters acting without clear motivation (Who the hell is Mark Bishop? Who the hell is Jane? What are they doing? Why?). Like Richard III, Frank Underwood loses his control of events when he wears the crown, and that got dull to watch.

But Claire is an enigma wrapped in a duality and seasoned with progressive bromides. Am I really supposed to believe that the woman who made the office manager of her charity foundation lay off half the staff, and then fired her, is a feminist? Am I supposed to buy that the woman who murdered her lover considers herself somehow better than Frank? Based on what?

The charm of the first season was that these two schemers were a team, they understood and complemented each other’s darkness, strengthened and enlightened it. Claire wasn’t, like Lady MacBeth, full of the wish to murder and empty of the capacity for it. She wasn’t Frank’s driver, she was his partner.

And then, for some reason, she wasn’t. At the moment of triumph, she pulls away from him. Sometimes it’s because she feels guilt, but only sometimes. Sometimes it’s because she feels like she wants her turn, but when Frank offers her exactly that, she becomes his enemy. Nothing she does makes any sense, except in the context of “I want it all, and I want it now.”

Which, I understand. Which even makes sense for the tone of the show. So why can’t she just come out and say it? Why does she have to pretend that she’s somehow better? Why can’t she wryly analyze the difference between her exoteric discourse, the performance for everyone else, and her esoteric doctrine, which she lets the audience see? In the end, it’s precisely when Claire broke the Fourth Wall that I found her least truthful. Unlike Francis, who showed us without shame the foulness within, Claire seems oddly insistent that I find her heroic. Sorry, lady, but the blood on your hands is the same as your husband’s. He was no hero, and neither are you.

There’s a lot of threads in this final season that go nowhere. The App business. Mark and Jane. The Shepherd’s family secrets. Eventually all these become nothing more than red herrings meant to drag our attention from the true conflict of the season, that of Claire vs. Stamper for control of Frank’s Legacy. Which has a logic to it: Frank as the Dead Prophet with a schism between a guided caliph (Stamper) and a blood caliph (Claire), to put an Islamic cast on it. I just wish I came away from the closing credits with a feeling of something other than “that’s it?”

Quick Review: The Outlaw King

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What the wags have called Braveheart 2 came out this week on Netflix, and being a medievalist nerd, I was all about it.

It is a more accurate film that Braveheart in several respects. For one, it gives us the real struggle Robert the Bruce had in claiming the throne of Scotland. None of this sudden Hollywood climax decision with a full army at his back for the Bruce: he had to claw his way to power, bearing a crown no one respected, hiding in the heather from his own countrymen for a number of years. For another, it’s depiction of Edward I of England is probably truer than the cartoon villain Braveheart gave us. If you loved Patrick McGoohan’s moustache-pulling (and who doesn’t? “The trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots!” that’s A+ movie-villainry right there), you might not like the merely iron-fisted politician this film gives us. But Edward I of England wasn’t a cartoon, he was a real man, a puissant ruler and crusader, a man who struggled to restore royal authority after the turbulent reigns of his grandfather John and his father Henry III, and largely succeeded. Call out his excess in this if you like. Say that his cruelty to the Scots crosses the line into wickedness – I can’t refute it.  But he was a man, and not a devil, and this movie does him the courtesy of making that real. You may not recognize Stephen Dillane – Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones – in the part, but you will appreciate him.

However, when it comes to Edward II, I think the earlier film got it right:  the second of the Three Edwards (for a century, from 1277 to 1377, the King of England had the same name) seems to really have been a dilettante who had neither capacity nor wish to charge into battle at the head of an army. We see the younger Edward’s weakness in Braveheart, his terror of his father, and silent yearning to be utterly unlike him (a yearning that made him a poor ruler indeed). In this film, the younger Edward is just a bad chip off the old block.

The film doesn’t run the length of Braveheart, so it can’t spend the time building and enriching the emotional life of the characters. We don’t quite see Robert’s emotional motivation to rebel in the same way we saw William Wallace’s. Chris Pine holds more back than Gibson does, preferring to act with his eyes in something of a slow burn. How well he pulls that off is for the viewer to decide.

Bottom Line: it’s both less thrilling and less fanciful than Braveheart. It runs close to the truth, and is never boring. Worth a watch.

The Three Steps of Cord Cutting

Step 1: “I’m paying $100 a month for cable. Netflix costs $8 a month, Amazon Prime $75 a year. WTH?”

Step 2: “Is it really worth $100 a month to watch football and 24-hour news?”

Step 3: “Hold up, digital rabbit ears are a thing?”

via Breitbart, noting the death-spiral of cable. Huzzah.

Or, as I noted when I underwent this process myself two years ago:

Mostly, I’m tired of paying through the nose for channels I never ever watch. The History Channel might be worth my time if I was an illiterate who needed everything explained to me real slow and then repeated. The Learning Channel has taught me nothing except that some women don’t realize when they’re heavy with child, but you can be a raging, soul-sucking, child-pimping, social climbing psycho hose beast control freak for eight seasons and the whole world will forgive you if your ex-husband puts on an Ed Hardy T-Shirt.

The pleasure are just not enough anymore. The Soup is not enough; reruns of How I Met Your Mother are not enough. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are not enough.

I’m a bit behind schedule, but I’ve finally watched all of Breaking Bad as it is.

Why Netflix is Still the King…

Politics is the ultimate entertainment.

Over at The Atlantic, a sober estimation of why TV is outperforming movies as quality entertainment:

Networks love the cable bundle for the same reason that viewers hate it: It’s a relentless (i.e. dependable) transfer of money from households to networks, regardless of what television or how much television we watch. “Basic-cable channels have to broadcast shows that are so good that audiences will go nuts when denied them,” Adam Davidson wrote in the New York Times. “Pay-TV channels, which kick-started this economic model, are compelled to make shows that are even better.” Thus, television has seen a race to the top while Hollywood has experienced an ostensible race to the middle-bottom.

Back to Netflix. The company’s business decision to chase exclusive TV rights was not an act of charity for TV fans; it was a business decision. Netflix has two things going for it: its deep library and its wonderful streaming technology. Keeping the library of quality titles deep is getting very expensive very quickly. And Showtime and HBO can compete with Netflix on streaming tech, even if they’re also tethered to the cable bundle. So, Netflix needs to increase its value in the eyes of the 120 million households who aren’t Netflix subscribers. Following in the footsteps of HBO and Showtime by going after original titles is the smart next step.

I’ve been watching House of Cards, Netflix’ original series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and directed by David Fincher. It’s fun, even if not quite as epoch-making as Mad Men or Breaking Bad. A Machiavellian congressman with an unctuous South Carolina accent is a good role for Spacey, and the writing is smart. If Netflix has the money for Oscar-caliber actors and directors, then they have the money to compete with the Premium channels without drastically altering their price point (that $8 a month may creep up, but that’s still nothing compared to HBO on top of basic cable service).

Netflix is no longer the only streaming service out there, but it’s still the best. When I got my Roku XD box, I discovered that I could also stream Amazon Instant videos, some of them free with my Prime Membership. But Amazon’s library of free videos is small compared to Netflix, its browsing display shows you the same titles over and over again, and its streaming just isn’t as reliable. Last month I finally got around to watching Ted. It wasn’t a Prime video, so I had to pay $3.99 to rent it for 48 hours. It skipped and hiccuped in the last third of the film, and kept re-streaming at a lower quality rate, until by the end it looked like I was watching a VHS copy that had been soaked in bleach for a few weeks. I’ve had this happen a few times with Amazon’s streaming. It never happens with Netflix.

HuluPlus, which costs as much as Netflix, has a needlessly complicated navigation system, still doesn’t have distribution deals with CBS and F/X (No HIMYM, Sons of Anarchy, or Archer) and has several titles still Web only (I haven’t seen an episode of Happy Endings in months, as we can only watch it on wifey’s computer upstairs in bed, and I keep falling asleep). Netflix is elegantly simple: the stuff on your Queue, and the other stuff, broken down by genre.

The others, such as Crackle, VuDu, etc., are all so much background noise, me-too services. I imagine everyone’s going to set such a service up eventually, and eventually some of them will be able to compete with Netflix. But everyone who declared it dead when it split it’s DVD and streaming services turned out to be dead wrong. They’ve sucessfully shifted from being  the all-online Blockbuster to being the streaming king, and now they’re about to trade punches with the cable heavyweights. Invest in popcorn.