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.

Quick Review: The Favourite

the-favourite-image-credit_-yorgos-lanthimos-rachel-weisz-olivia-colman-e1532374834538One of these days, I’m going to write one of these that’s not about the Stuart dynasty in some way.

Queen Anne reigned briefly at the beginning of the 18th century, and spent most of her reign at war with France over who got to sit on the throne of Spain (that Hapsburg penchant for cousin marriage caught up with them). She is not well-remembered. Fat, sad, gouty, and childless, she seemed largely at the mercy of court favorites, especially the Churchills (yes, Sir Winston’s ancestors, the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife). Her 17(!) pregnancies resulted in 4 live babies, none of whom made it past the age of 11. When she died, the very Glorious Revolution that put her sister and then her on the throne decreed that a Hanoverian clod named George should occupy it instead of the surviving members of her family. In short, in an unlucky dynasty, she was perhaps the unluckiest, almost certainly the saddest. Even her grandfather’s grandmother Mary, in her proud, defiant exile, never approached that level of melancholy.

Now, historians will quibble over how true that really was, and point out counter-narrative facts, like how Anne presided over Cabinet meetings far more regularly than her predecessors or successors. But this is the movies, and the movies will print the legend. So Queen Anne becomes a cipher controlled by other women.

And more than controlled. Because this is a 21st century film, we must treat 18th century gossip-rag rumor (the Gawker of its day) as Gospel truth, and believe that Her Majesty was giving away more than her trust to her favorite women. We will leave utterly unexplored the relationship between her and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, the father of those 17 pregnancies, nor give any credence to the widely-reported rumor that she loved him deeply and was heartbroken at the loss of him. That kind of film won’t give us a chance to see Emma Stone naked.

That being grumbled, did I like the damn thing? Yes. It aspires to a kind of Barry Lyndon feel, and it gets there. Rachel Weisz, as Sara Churchill, is at least as much fun as Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasons. Actually, more so, because Sara Churchill has a depth to her that the Marquise de Merteuil does not have. Churchill doesn’t play the game just to be Queen of the Mountain, she actually cares about the politics. She favors the vigorous prosecution of the war with France, even at the risk of her husband, the great general Marlborough. She labors against France just as her descendant Sir Winston would labor against Germany, and for the same reason. Louis XIV was no Hitler, but he was the head of the strongest state in Europe with a habit of bullying smaller states and seeking to make himself the arbiter of Western Civilization. The War of the Spanish Succession was in this respect as epoch-defining as the Napoleonic wars were a century later. And the film focuses on this, brings it right front and center. The script gives Weisz a chance to elevate Sara Churchill from mere schemer to stateswoman.

By contrast, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has no interest other than not going back to the scullery. Which, who could blame her, but the cynical disinterest in policy, the refusal to even countenance that her actions will have consequences, is not driven home until the last scene, when it becomes clear what she has bought herself. The ending is dour to the point of being anticlimactic.

But that’s what happens when you try to do history, which gives us very few third-act turnarounds. In real life, the Churchills were disgraced, the war party-Whigs sent packing, and peace with France was negotiated. The Churchills lost, and Anne died a few years later. That was how it was, and the film finds a poignant if irretrievably current way to express that. Peace to all of them, and to the shades of them we conjure up on film, just for good measure.

Not-So-Quick Review: The Man in the High Castle and the Gotcha Problem

I actually finished Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle, which I had been seriously anticipating for a while. People who were also fans told me it was something of a disappointment, and actually a chore to get through. This proved to be right: I watched the season in shortish binges and the whole time found myself wondering why anything was happening. There was a general lack of overarching narrative/conflict, such as Season 2 had. Now that I’ve watched all 10 episodes, I have nothing but questions, and not the cliffhanger kind, that you want answers to. These are the kind of questions that I suspect all have the same answer.

I should also point out that I have a copy but have not read the novel by Phillip K. Dick. I’m thinking I might read it now. It’s long, but I can do it pretty quickly.

So, before I continue, let me just leave a big old banner that says…

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  1. Why did we bring characters back from the point of death just to kill them off gratuitously? Was Joe Blake’s death supposed to mean something? Was breaking him on the wheel and then having Julianna slit his throat supposed to be a commentary on the Reich? Like how there’s really no room to not be a monster in the Reich? Yeah, I kind of knew that. We kind of all knew that. Finding bad guys in the Reich is not a surprise. The whole point of the John Smith character is that he puts a human face above the jackboots.
    But whatever, something had to be done with Joe. But nothing needed to be done with Frank. You could have left Frank dead at the end of last season. For that matter, I don’t know how he was supposed to be alive, hundreds of miles away. And why do that just to kill him off? Was that scene in the desert between him and Kito supposed to underscore Kito’s very Japanese sense of obligation? Again, we already knew that. As for Frank’s narrative this season…
  2. Am I really supposed to believe that the guerrilla art campaign is going to amount to something? Like, I get it, a symbol of hatred. Make the People Woke or whatever. But there’s been a resistance for 20 years. People know this. Their rulers are hateful. People know this. So like…is that it?
  3. Is there a point to John Smith’s promotion to Reichsmarshall of America? Dude’s an SS general when we meet him, the American equivalent of Reinhard Heydrich (and may I just say that Smith besting Heydrich last season to get the key data point necessary to prevent nuclear war was a marvelous high point at the end of last season). And yes, the cloak-and-dagger between him and Rockwell and Hoover (cute historical touches both), proved an interesting plot for the first half of the season. But when it’s over and Smith is now Reichsmarshall, he remains essentially the same, a dude taking orders from Berlin. There’s nothing showing how his duties change, how the political aspects of his job elevate him. He’s still chasing the Man in the High Castle and interviewing suspects. He doesn’t even inherit Rockwell’s goofy baton. So why have that happen at all?
  4. Is Julianna a completely different person now? She is one of those characters who’s all over the map. Last season she was trying to escape, even hobble the Resistance to save Joe Blake; this season she’s killing Blake and leading guerrilla operations to blow up superweapons. Are we planning on having some kind of atonement with the capital-R Resistance? Or are we just going to keep having her do whatever the plot needs her to do so that Surprises can happen?
  5. Are we ever going to get an explanation of how “Moving Between Worlds” works? We saw Trade Minister Decent Guy do it with some joss sticks. Julianna’s sister did it… somehow. Dr. Mengele has a machine that sort of does it through an anomaly, but not well or reliably (yet). And now Julianna can do it by… magic? Electroshock? Guys, this is the premise of the story. If you’re going to have the titular character understand it, can we just do the exposition dump already?

I think the problem lies in two elements: 1) the economic need of TV to fit Content to More Seasons, and 2) the habit of High-Concept dramas to use Gotchas.

As I discussed here, the economics of TV, requires that storylines get stretched out over longer and longer seasons, because successful TV shows need to keep going so they can make their producers money. This is what happened to How I Met Your Mother: a concept and ending that would have worked well enough had the series closed after 6 seasons became completely unbearable after 9. So probably High Castle is in a busywork/stretching phase, giving characters “something to do”.

The other thing is a habit that Prestige Television likes to do to viewers, which is to say, sucker-punching with a sudden development or death. Just when you think you know what’s going on, boom, here’s an assassin or explosion or tap at the shoulder and NOW EVERYTHING’S DIFFERENT WHOAAAA.

Hence, Joe Blake and Franks’ death. Hence, Helen’s abandonment of John Smith in the last episode. Hence, pretty much everything.

Hopefully Season 4 will be better. For now, I’m gonna read the book.

Quick Review: Mary Queen of Scots

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This was the question Wifey and I asked each other after viewing it. Ostensibly, it’s about a great many things, as a great many things were involved with the life of Mary Queen of Scots, the last Catholic monarch of Scotland (you might say, the last monarch of Scotland, period, if you consider her son to have been the first monarch of the United Kingdom, even though it wasn’t called that for another 100 years. You see the problem?), and this film tries to hit on all of them, to give us an insight on her and her tumultuous reign.

And it does a pretty decent job of it. Mary had one of the more colorful lives of 16th century monarchs, and that is saying something. Queen of Scots from the tender age of Six Days Old (Which was completely normal. The Stuarts were an incredibly unlucky dynasty, beset with early deaths and long regencies. Here’s a Reddit Post with the details), she was carted off to France as a child to marry the Dauphin (what that “Reign” show was all about). For about a year, when said Dauphin became Francis II of France, she was both Queen Regnant of Scotland and Queen Consort of France. Then Francis died of meningitis, and back to Scotland she went. This is where the movie picks up.

Finding herself the Catholic Queen of a country gone full Protestant in her absence, she attempted to hoe a tolerant row, and was rewarded with disrespect and conspiracy by the Reformers, especially John Knox, whom the movie finds very quotable for that Whore of Babylon rhetoric that 16th Century Calvinists were so keen on. But that’s just one wrinkle. Like many a Scottish Monarch, she had to deal with the bloody English. Not for the usual Overlording, mind you, but because of The Tudors fathomless inability to reproduce (the dynasty was three generations, and five monarchs, the last three of which were siblings who all died childless) made Mary the heir of her cousin Elizabeth through her grandmother, the daughter of Henry VII of England. At the opening of the film, Elizabeth is still young and could ostensibly still marry and produce children, so Mary’s rhetoric about being the Heir to England has very much an air of imperialist presumption about it. Which is why the film’s attempt to dress these two up as Sister Monarchs torn apart by Teh Patriarchy doesn’t quite work. Mary and Elizabeth were rivals for the same reason that Edward III of England and Phillip VI of France were: dynastic politics and claims to thrones. Their status as women was to a large degree incidental to their political problems.

Allow me to prove my brief. Let’s say that instead of being born a girl named Mary, the only surviving child of James V of Scotland had been born a boy named Robert (I’m saying Robert because to earlier Stuart monarchs had that name, and so as to avoid confusion with all the Jameses), and that from the age of six days old, he reigned as Robert IV of Scotland. What precisely would be different? Granted, he would not have been sent out of the country to marry a Princess of France, but Mary’s sojourn there doesn’t seem to have cast a blight on her legitimacy as a monarch. But he still would have been faced with a similar set of choices:

  1. To remain a Catholic, as his father had been, or to embrace the Reformed Church.
  2. To marry someone which would not cause antagonism with England (especially has both James IV and James V were undone by wars with their southern neighbor).
  3. To do all the other things expected of a Renaissance monarch: manage the nobility and burgeoning middle-class, govern the public fisc, keep order and justice, protect the realm from outside threats, etc.

Being a male monarch might have made this easier, but as the above link of the history of the Stuart dynasty will tell you, it by no means ensured success. Two of the Stuarts were assassinated by nobility (three if you count Robert III’s intended heir), one was killed in a civil war, two as a result of war with England, and one blown up by one of his own cannon. And all of that is before Mary.

But this is an argument for historians. Does the film work? I think so. It doesn’t not work. It’s well-shot; it’s well-acted. The ins and outs of the plot make sense. I just don’t know that it works as well as Outlaw King did. I don’t think it quite packs the emotional punch it wants to. The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is so distant and political that I have a hard time believing that they really mean anything to each other. Thus, while both Ronan and Robbie seem to absorb the camera when they’re on screen, ultimately I’m not sure why Robbie’s Elizabeth I really cares what happens to her cousin. Mary is nothing but trouble to Elizabeth from the beginning. Why would she be bothered by chopping her head off?

I mean, other than the fact that it completely demolishes her claim that she’s not her father, and perhaps strikes home the object lesson that a successful monarch is obliged to shed blood to keep the throne, as her father, grandfather, and almost any of her ancestors could have told her. Other than that, what does she care?

So while I get the dichotomy the film shows us: that unmarried, childless Elizabeth has a long peaceful reign, but the fertile, overthrown Mary ultimately wins by having a son who unites both realms, I think the film would have worked better if it had either given Mary and Elizabeth equal time, or made their relationship more honestly antagonistic.

But then, history doesn’t fit into narratives that way.

Bottom Line: If you dig on historical pieces, this one is honest and human.