Sunday, January 31, 2016


Dvorak's opera, Rusalka, rapturously received by audiences at the Minnesota Opera Company's performance in late January 2016, is a baffling and idiosyncratic work -- not so much one work, as three one-act operas implausibly stitched together.  The first act, most of which takes place at the bottom of lake, involves a water nymph who has fallen in love with a mediocre princeling, a little swaggering, self-satisfied fellow.  The mermaid consults with her father, a Vorodnik, or water gnome who duly warns his daughter against consorting with humans.  But free will must prevail and the Vorodnik also uses his deep and monitory baritone to instruct his daughter that there is a certain witch, a Jezibaba, who has the power to convert immortal lake creatures into mortal human beings -- death, the inevitable price that the nymph must pay for her passion.  (Dvorak's opera contains another theatrical coup -- the water nymph, once human, must remain entirely mute, a perverse and extraordinary fate in a work of musical theater).  Rusalka, the nymph, consents to the transformation, and, as "a white doe" (presumably a euphemism for her nudity) encounters and seduces the princeling.  This act begins with water naiads taunting the Vorodnik in an obvious homage to Wagner's Das Rheingold and contains a long scene in which the surly gnome lectures his obstinate daughter, an exchange that seems related to Wotan's nagging at Bruennhilde in other episodes of the Ring cycle. 

The second act of Rusalka takes place in a fortress of brutalist Soviet-style pre-fab concrete.  In this unlikely environment, a sort of party is underway.  Needless to say, the beautiful, if mute, water nymph -- really more like a lobster or muskellunge than a human girl -- is profoundly out of place.  Furthermore, the princeling turns out to have a bellowing mezzo-soprano as a fiancée, a big woman dressed like a white wedding cake who howls at her lover and, completely, dominates the action with her imperious demands.  The human rival is made up to look like Cruella de Ville from A 101 Dalmations or other Disney harridans such as the evil Queen in Cinderella and the Seven Dwarfs -- she has the same ueber-Waspish appearance, complete with an indomitable and pointed chin.  (She also fully twice the size of the swarthy little princeling, a mismatch that contributes to the comic effect in this act). The human lovers in this act are lousy specimens, getting drunk, slapping one another, and brawling in a Polonaise staged as a slapstick ballet.  Needless to say, Rusalka is abandoned, appalled, and returns to her watery haunts where her soprano voice is restored to her.  This Act is generally comic, over-the-top and the best part of the show -- the wretched human lovers are funny to watch and the water-nymph's discomfiture at their behavior is appropriately pathetic.

The final act of the opera, again staged on the bottom of the tarn, is the most peculiar.  Here, Dvorak reverses his meanings:  the forsaken Rusalka, Czech for "water siren", becomes a kind of zombie vampire.  When her moronic human lover staggers into her embrace, she kills him with her icy kiss. This is a complete inversion of what the audience expects -- up to this point, the opera has played like a supernatural version of Madame Butterfly with the nymph in the role of the abandoned lover and the little, selfish princeling acting the part of the swinish Pinkerton.  Although the music swoons ecstatically, we have no sense of tragedy whatsoever about the death of the egocentric and fickle prince -- if anything, we sense that the fellow deserves his demise.  This aspect of the opera assumes the character of an ecological allegory -- human beings are depicted as cruel, their hands "red with blood," and the Rusalka complains that the princeling has injected anthropomorphic human passion into a being that is entirely indifferent and devoid of anything like mortal passion.  The price for this transgression against nature is death, a penalty that Rusalka metes out to the princeling while moaning and groaning about how sad she is to destroy her erring lover.  In the final moment of the opera, she stalks away from the corpse of the loathsome little prince while the music strives (and fails) to achieve a Wagnerian Liebestod.  This last act feels padded and, like much opera, contains a comically and interminably extended death scene.  There are also oddities -- the three mermaids who taunted the curmudgeonly Vorodnik in the first scene now seems to be wood nymphs or dyads:  we see them plaiting wild flowers into garlands before reprising their initial Wagnerian-inspired taunting of the gnome. 

Dvorak's music is curiously without memorable melodies although lushly and gorgeously orchestrated in the style of Strauss.  The libretto is poorly conceived and the viewer often has the sense that the music is struggling to catch up with what has already happened -- in several scenes, something occurs and, then, the characters sing about it later.  The soprano, Kelly Kaduce, a very beautiful woman, is memorable as the Rusalka and acts bravely -- she disguises her beauty in the last Act in zombie-revenant make-up and moves spasmodically as she is first learning to walk (and, later, struggling as one drowned at the bottom of the icy lake).  The staging was simple but effective, the bottom of the lake a wavering maze of watery reflections with great banners of sea-weed fluttering overhead.  Images of the natural world, including a vast, malevolent moon, were projected on the flats to good effect.  The audience delivered a standing ovation.  I thought the entire enterprise was puzzling and that the story was too strange in an oddly cerebral and over-calculated way to warrant much applause.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Billy Budd

Peter Ustinov's steely version of Billy Budd (1962) channels Melville's brutal allegory through Kafka.  When Terence Stamp playing the handsome sailor, Billy Budd, is impressed into service on a British man-of-war, he cries out:  "Farewell, old 'Rights of Man'."  Budd, who is illiterate and strangely vacant, is simply referring to the merchant marine vessel from which he was snatched, a big ship with a figure-head of an African slave breaking his chains at its prow.  But the warship where he now must serve is a paranoid place, a self-contained universe operating on the basis of its own inscrutable laws, and Budd's valediction to his previous ship is interpreted as an indictment of the system prevailing on the Man-of-War.  Since Budd is beautiful, forgiving, and naïve, of course, he must be destroyed -- there is no place for him in the iron machinery of war that defines the gunboat.  In Kafka's stories and novels, one has the sense that the bleak and enigmatic systems governing his characters are complete and all-encompassing.  When I read Kafka, I experience the sense that there is no outside, no exterior vantage from which to view the events narrated -- the whole universe is a penal colony; the castle defines an entire world from which there is no exit and only death provides an escape from the punitive processes described in The  Trial.  Similarly, Ustinov's adaptation of Billy Budd suggests that, once the handsome sailor finds himself on the Man-of-War, that vessel is a totalizing system -- there is nothing beyond or outside of the ship and its savage mission.  The first flogging depicted in the film, an event that sickens Budd, ends with his inquiry as to why the man was whipped -- no one has any answers and the only thing that seems certain is that, sooner or later, all of the seamen will find themselves trussed-up to be flogged.  The film is noteworthy for its rigor and discipline -- Ustinov eschews anything that is picturesque; although the film takes place entirely aboard seagoing vessels, the ships are not portrayed in any way other than purely instrumental -- there are no impressive seascapes, no real tempests.  The war ship is viewed in a matter-of-fact way.  Robert Ryan plays Claggart, Melville's version of Satan, and he is weirdly still and soft-spoken with little demonic points of light in his eyes.  (I saw this film on the same weekend that I watched Star Wars:  The Force Awakens and note that the Darth Vadar figure in that movie did not project one-tenth of the menace quivering in Ryan's portrayal of the vicious Claggart.)  Billy Budd, played by Terence Stamp, is profoundly ambiguous -- the officers on the ship can't quite determine whether his Mona Lisa smile is ironic or not.  A kind of holy fool, Budd is continuously suspected of depths that he doesn't really possess.  Stamp's performance doesn't quite carry the metaphorical and allegorical weight of Melville's descriptions -- after all, Melville stages Budd and Claggart's encounters as Christ tempted by Satan -- but he is sufficiently uncanny and unpredictable, a kind of sovereign man, to be effective in this film.  (I can see why Pasolini engaged him to play the bisexual saint and martyr in his later film Teorema -- Stamp has a blithe, otherworldly presence; he is like an animated statue by Donatello.)  Ustinov is brilliant as Captain Vere, a man haunted by the terror of mutiny and the other officers, particularly David McCallum, are impressively feckless and mutable.  Ustinov's film is true to the nightmare logic of Melville's last novella -- the argument that maintenance of our systems of perpetual war requires a steady source of sacrificial victims.  Furthermore, Ustinov's scene showing Billy's hanging is true to the novel's description of the saintly sailor's death without any kind of spasm -- with exquisite taste, Ustinov simply cuts away from the hanging; we aren't shown Billy's death at all -- it's a solution to Melville's inflamed and turgid prose about Billy's hanging that is restrained and, ultimately, accurate to the book, the sort of solution that Rossellini in his later films would have contrived, a mise-en-scene that is as precise as it is understated.  The movie's only false step is its ending -- after Billy has been hanged the men are about to mutiny when a French ship suddenly appears and there is a brief nautical battle.  The battle, also filmed without any particular emphasis, puts a period to the movie -- in the final shot, we see the two ships in their minuet around a barren island.  It's impressive and cinematically effective, but, I think, a bit untrue to Melville -- in a way, the short battle scene suggests an egress from the film's Kafkaesque prison, an outlet that doesn't exist in Melville's novella.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (and Saturday Night Live : 1-16-16)

J.J. Abrams Star Wars:  the Force Awakens (2015) contains two astonishing moments:  the first occurs early in the film, when one of the characters takes counsel from a wise old man who is recognizably Max von Sydow -- how old is this actor?  Curiously, von Sydow looks more hale and hearty than the desiccated Harrison Ford, his mouth twisted into a sardonic grimace that looks, unfortunately, like the twisted features of an apoplexy victim.  The dour Swede also seems more alert than the matronly Carrie Fisher who recites her lines contemptuously as if she had learned them phonetically.  The other amazing moment is when the menacing Darth Vadar character (Kylo Ren) agrees to remove his arachnid-styled black mask.  Up to this point, the guy has been speaking through transistors that make his voice sound like HAL from 2001 if that computer were speaking through a McDonald's drive-through system.  Off comes the helmet and who stands revealed as the film's arch-nemesis?  it's Adam Driver, the dude who plays Lena Dunham's boyfriend on HBO's GirlsGirls is one of my favorite shows and, anyone who has followed that program, will have a number of nude sex-scenes involving Lena Dunham and Adam Driver indelibly etched in their brain.  The guy is big but not menacing in the slightest degree -- with his wet puppy-dog eyes and impressive nose, Driver is saturnine and soulful, but he couldn't be frightening if he life depended on it and, once we know that he is inhabiting the black mask and cape, all of the character's antics simply seem petulant, fits of pique thrown by someone who has consumed a little too much Starbucks coffee. 

This new reboot of the Star Wars franchise is not so much a bad movie as one that is absurdly superfluous.  First, as has been widely recognized, no one bothered to write a fresh script for this outing -- the movie simply recycles on a louder and more grandiose scale the plot of the very first picture in the series.  There are the same chases through slot canyons, the same characters, more or less, and the same ultimate threat -- this is revealed with startling honesty in a scene in which someone shows that the bad guys, here called the First Order, have simply scaled-up the Death Star that had to be attacked and destroyed in the first film:  a blue-print shows the previous Death star, about the size of a billiard ball, compared to the basketball-sized circumference of the new and improved weapon.  This shot is pretty much emblematic of the whole film.  Since I can't recall much of the plot apparatus of the first movie, a lot of the action makes no sense at all-- and there is absolutely no effort to clarify plot-points that require knowledge of other movies in the series.  The story involves the New Order, a group of space-Nazis, who are trying to locate someone named Luke Skywalker.  It's completely unclear why they want to find this fellow or how he is significant.  (In the final shot, an incredibly portentous and overblown ending to the film, one of the characters encounters Skywalker -- he seems to have hidden himself in the outer Hebrides or Orkney Islands and is simply standing around atop an ocean-girt mountain.   The scene is totally absurd and looks like an outtake from a bad episode of Highlander and it begs the question, what are these heroes doing when they're not fighting the bad guys -- apparently, they go to picturesque locales, put on monastic robes, and simply stand there brooding until the Plot Gods summon them again to the action.)  Another aspect of the film that makes it seem superfluous is the redundancy of the action:  periodically, Adam Driver, dressed as Darth Vadar, unsheaths his light sword and, in a childish rage (Rats! Foiled Again!) chops up some of the scenery -- this happens about every twenty minutes.  Every main character is locked into some kind of torture table and subjected to "stress postures" and other forms of discomfort -- sequences that leave me a little queasy since after all, we Americans are now the world's foremost proponents of torture.  Made only about 30 years after World War II, the first Star Wars movie obsessively re-fought that conflict.  It would seem that our contemporary world with its new and ghastly conflicts might serve as fodder for some of the film's imagery -- but, not so: the minions of the New Order are simply space-Nazis complete with Sieg Heil! salutes and the aerial combat scenes are even more explicitly shot from the perspective of ball-turret gunners in American Flying Fortresses circa 1944.  The space cruisers are rigged up to look like destroyers or aircraft carriers and the scenes of pilots scrambling for their space-ships could be footage from Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.  (In the opening shots, we get POV images of storm troopers riding amphibious vehicles -- the jerky handheld editing and the management of the scenes of the storm troopers pouring out of the fronts of the personnel carriers derives from Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and we are momentarily disoriented:  are we supposed to be identifying with these white-helmeted goons?  This is one of the rare aspects of the film that I admire -- it turns out that we are supposed to be a tad more sympathetic to the storm troopers since one of them, a defector, will turn out to be one of the protagonists of the story.)  The movie sags badly in its middle third, although, on the positive side I should note that at least the insufferable Yoda doesn't appear in this movie -- "in this movie does Yoda not appear."  Furthermore, the fascistic Jedi knights are pretty much in the background of this film.  Yoda and Jedi knights were major snoozes in the other films -- you could pretty much plan to go out to t he lobby for popcorn when those characters populated the screen and they don't really figure in this movie.   As if anxious to make sure the audience is amused, the film stages just about every major action sequence as a concatenation of perils -- as an example, Harrison Ford and his buddies are chased around by hordes of storm troopers in a labyrinthine space cruiser while also being pursued by hairy and ravenous eyeballs with tentacles.  (These monsters remind me of the Spanish Irregular verb that chases Kugelmass in Woody Allen's sublime short story.)  At the end of the movie, the two principal characters engage in a light sword duel while the planet on which they are fighting breaks apart hectare by hectare, vast rafts of trees and snow falling into the abyss but never exactly where our combatants are laboring away at one another with their neon sabers.  Some of the alien creatures are inventive:  there is a bad guy who sits on a holograph throne with a face like an elderly tortoise -- he's sort of a combination of the big bad Nosferatu-style vampire in The Strain and a Galapagos tortoise.  A little barmaid creature looks like a superannuated ET and threatens to become as gaseous and vapid as Yoda -- fortunately, the movie has other fish to fry and scoots quickly away from the distraction of that character.

All of the pretentions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were categorically burst by a short comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live (January 16, 2016).  Adam Driver hosted the show, more in the persona of Lena Dunham's boyfriend than as the cruel and menacing space condottieri and in the best bit, the show parodied a TV series that involve tough bosses dressing up in mufti and infiltrating their own work places to learn how the rank-and-file views them. In this case, the space villain pretends to be a minimum wage temp named Kyle.  He sneaks into the company cafeteria where the storm troopers are enjoying coffee and doughnuts -- a big sign reminds them:  Remember to take your helmets when you're done eating.  It suffices to say that as Kyle the boss can't resist throwing various fits, even though he is bullied by an officious black woman -- and he has to exercise all of his self-restraint to keep from strangling his co-workers with his bellicose brain waves.  After he hurls one of the fat cast members through a vending machine .the bemused character says to the camera:  "I pretty much knew he was Kylo Ren when he used his mental powers to throw me through the pop machine." 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight, although set in Wyoming a half-decade after the Civil War, is a long and complex work of filmed theater, more like A Long Days Journey into Night than 3:10 to Yuma or Ride the High Country. And, to be precise, Quentin Tarantino's script plays more like Tennessee Williams than Eugene O'Neil:  all of the characters have complicated backstories concealing various sorts of traumas and crimes -- all of this hidden material is slowly, and methodically, dredged-up, exploited for maximum emotional effect, and, then, resolved in catharsis that consists of high-caliber bullets blowing heads into pieces.  The film is relentless, appalling, as well as remorselessly brutal and mean-spirited.  Bad guys aren't merely turned into explosive fountains of blood -- first, they have to be taunted, tortured, in some cases sexually humiliated, and abased.  This is a movie in which the happy ending, such as it is, consists of two men, bleeding to death on a bed that is soaked in gore like the floor of an abattoir, strangling an equally blood-stained woman by slowly hanging her above them:  the two heroes laugh merrily as she kicks and writhes.  It would be easy to dismiss The Hateful Eight as merely vicious, but, of course, Tarantino writes effective dialogue, creates larger-than-life characters with interesting quirks, and devises an intricate plot that is, more or less, gripping throughout the film's great length -- it is three-hours long.  Furthermore, it is impossible to write a summary of the film without giving away various surprises and plot twists that Tarantino has engineered -- and it must be admitted that these twists and turns are, always clever, elaborately contrived, and, sometimes, very surprising indeed.  It's sufficient for me to observe that the movie involves, at the outset, two competing bounty hunters -- a white man called the "hangman" because he always brings in his victims alive so that they can be executed (Jack Ruth played by Kurt Russell) and a black man who we see in the film's first act dressed in jaunty gunfighter clothing, wearing a red tie, and sitting on a stack of frozen corpses -- this, of course, is Samuel L. Jackson.  (It is worth noting that Tarantino uses Jackson as his surrogate in his films -- Jackson is to Tarantino what Erland Josefson and Max von Sydow were to Ingmar Bergman or what Marcello Mastrioanni was to Fellini; clearly Jackson's persona, a hyper-articulate, trash-talking and signifying wise-guy, is how Tarantino views himself.)  Kurt Russell seems out of his depth in the film, a figure from another kind of movie, and, at times, he seems to be imitating John Wayne.  Russell's bounty hunter has captured a feral woman played with intense ferocity by Jennifer Jason Leigh -- she has a huge black eye when we first encounter her and Russell disciplines his prisoner by elbowing her repeatedly in the face so that her jaws glisten with blood.  He is transporting her to a town called Red Rock where she will be hanged -- along the way, other travelers are encountered, picked-up by the stagecoach, and, remarkably enough, everyone knows everyone else. The travelers, occupying the stage crossing snowy mountains, are trapped by a blizzard in a large cabin that seems to be a combination general store, restaurant, and saloon -- it's called Minnie's Haberdashery.  The proprietors are mysteriously absent but the Haberdashery is occupied by various bad hombres holed-up there while the blizzard rages outside.  Almost all of the film is shot on the set of the Haberdashery, a single location that is used theatrically -- it's like the bar in A Long Days Journey into Night, a kind of inferno where hell is other people, indeed, that is, flamboyantly volatile other people with pistols with comically long muzzles.  The film can't be readily dismissed because it is disturbing on many levels, deeply unpleasant, and, yet, fascinating, although certainly gratuitously long.  Tarantino uses racial slurs and bigotry the way other Hollywood directors use car-chases and explosions -- racial invective gives the movie its nasty, cruel charge.  And, it must also be conceded, that the movie's subject is race-relations in the United States, a contested subject that Tarantino conceives as a nightmare of quid-pro-quo hatred and invective:  in Tarantino's world, everyone despises everyone else, the only resolution to racial tension is murder and torture, and no one is exempt from the accusation of vicious prejudice -- in Tarantino films, particularly this picture, racism isn't even an accusation, it's just an accepted principle of reality, a sort of bedrock to the narrative.  (Indeed, without racial prejudice of a particularly violent and virulent sort, The Hateful Eight would really have almost no plot at all.)  At one point, Tarantino shows us a racially diverse group of women, all of them interacting in a cheerful and happy way -- of course, we know that this idyll will end with a slaughter and, indeed, a massacre that specifically involves the killers racially taunting their victims as they butcher them.  But Tarantino's misanthropy is great that one of the crucial plot points earlier developed in the film is the fact that one of the bad men is disclosed because he is a "Messikan" and the cheerful, racially diverse women had a sign posted over their bar reading:  No Dogs and No Mexicans allowed in the Saloon.  (A sentiment that a character tells us was amended when the sign was taken down so dogs could enter the tavern.)  Tarantino's world-view seems to be that those guilty of racial discrimination should be killed or tortured to death -- but he also has a weird sense of equity:  those who do the killing and torturing are, in fact, killed and tortured themselves later in a film in which, after all, no one, without exception. will be allowed to survive, a point highlighted by an eerie Roy Orbison song that ends the picture -- "There won't be many coming home alive".  As an example of Tarantino's perverse sense of justice, a character who commits a sexual assault on another person as a form of racial humiliation ends up with his own testicles shot off, a mortal injury that as in various classical operas, doesn't preclude the dying character from baroque arias of discourse and, further, racial invective.  I am suspicious of this film, think it trivializes racial discourse, and, indeed, feel the movie is nasty and, even, wicked.  But I can't deny the picture's power and Tarantino's effective (if longwinded) craft.  Some elements of the film are unreservedly excellent -- the snowy landscapes are beautiful and the scenes involving planting stakes so that people can get to the outhouse and stable are very exciting and unusual (although this is "a red herring" -- it leads to nothing); the dialogue is continuously interesting and some (although not all) of the acting is impressive.  The female gangster is particularly frightening -- she is generally as covered in blood as Brian DePalma's Carrie.  The movie has an excellent symphonic score by Ennio Morricone, a composer who has not lost his cunning -- it's unfortunate that the movie, which has as much dialogue as Hamlet, doesn't allow much time for the music.  Curiously, the film reveals that Tarantino, despite his labyrinthine plotting and his devious ordering of events (like Godard his movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end -- just not in that order) is really not so much a filmmaker as a man of the theater.  You walk away shaken from this movie, an exercise that is really only filmed work of intense and claustrophobic theater.

The Revenant

Beautiful and grueling, Alejandro Inarittu's The Revenant (2015) retells the story of Hugh Glass and the bear for 21st-century movie audiences.  The film's fundamental problem is that the story, although savagely gripping, has no real resonance -- in fact, Glass' travails are so excessive as to verge on the comical.  In effect, the story has always been freakish, a man versus wilderness tale so grotesquely horrific as to contain nothing to which an audience can really relate.  Curiously enough, the oddly remote and abstract aspect of the story eludes artists interested in the tale -- estimable writers and film-makers have invested vast resources in a story that remains, for mysterious reasons, resolutely inert.  John Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, wrote a cycle of verse epics on themes arising from the conquest of the American West -- the second epic in this cycle was the saga of Hugh Glass, a poem that has a narrative arc similar to Inarittu's film because it emphasizes the hero's revenge on those who left him to die.  (This is an element of the story that is historically inaccurate -- Glass who was an enlisted man in the army did not take revenge on his superiors involved in abandoning him in the open grave in the Yellowstone country; although he seems to have contemplated revenge, he did not act on those impulses.)  Neihardt's version of the story has been long forgotten as has Frederick Manfred's novel Lord Grizzly, published in 1956 and a contender for a National Book Award.  (Manfred lived in a fabulous eagles-nest, an eyrie overlooking the Blue Mounds in Laverne, Minnesota -- the place is now the visitor center for Blue Mounds State Park).  Hugh Glass' saga was the subject of a film starring Richard Harris and John Huston, Man in the Wilderness released in 1971 -- some elements of that film have found their way into Inarittu's movie, most importantly a kind of barge that the mountain men drag through the shallows of the rivers in both pictures.  Roger Zelazny, the science fiction writer, put Glass' story in outer space and Inarittu credits a recent novel as well for his inspiration.  None of these versions is successful -- the simple problem is that Glass' horrifying adventure is a situation not a story and this situation, involving a terribly mangled and wounded man creeping across six-hundred miles of howling wilderness really can't be filmed.  Attempts to put the story on the screen result in tedium -- there are really only so many ways to film someone's agony.  (In Lord Grizzly, I think, the hero allows maggots to feast on the rotting flesh on his back, plucking off the squirming worms to eat them from time to time and, in that fashion, subsisting, in effect, on his own decaying tissue.)

Glass was a mountain man who was attacked by a grizzly bear and mauled to the point that his death was reasonably anticipated.  Paralyzed, he was left with two men, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger, who were supposed to stand vigil as the wounded man died.  The fur traders who were affiliated with the U. S. army were under attack by Absaroka Indians -- in this film, Ree warriors.  Fitzgerald and Bridger panicked and fled, leaving Glass to die in the wilderness.  But, somehow, Glass revived, crawled 600 miles to a fort in Nebraska where he confronted the men who had left him in the snowy mountains near the headwaters of the Yellowstone.  In Inarritu's film, Glass has a teenage son by a Pawnee woman to whom he is married.  Ree raiders have destroyed the Pawnee village, a group of earth-mound huts like yurts on the open prairie and before the film starts, Glass' wife has been killed.  The movie starts with a bravura combat sequence involving an attack by the Ree Indians on the fur traders who retreat to their crude barge -- most of the men are killed and, as they retreat, Glass gets mauled by the bear.  (The extended sequence of the bear attack is exceptionally effective and terrifying.)  Glass' son stays with his father but is murdered by Fitzgerald when the men panic as the Ree war-party hunts them.  The death of Glass' son motivates the hero to herculean efforts so that he can survive to inflict revenge on Fitzgerald -- this is accomplished in a man-to-man duel so spectacularly gory and cringe-inducing (fingers are cut off with an axe and the characters repeatedly stab one another until the snow on which they are battling is completely "encarnadined" as Shakespeare says in Macbeth "making the (white) one red."  This brings the film to an end but not a climax or conclusion -- the movie just sags to a stop as if exhausted.  The Revenant is shot in long takes that emphasize the brutality of the action (the violence is not interrupted by cuts) and so the gruesome events seemsremarkably unmediated, direct, and authentic.  An example is the bear attack, a four or five minute sequence, involving the huge animal first mauling Glass, then, ambling away so that the hero can get his gun, and, then, a prolonged hand-to-hand fight with the rifle fired into the bear at close-range, Glass knifing the beast, and, then ,both of them suddenly dropping off a small cliff to land with a thud on the forest floor beneath them, an impact that half knocks the breath out of the audience.  This stunt is repeated a couple hours later when Glass fleeing the Ree war-party on horseback rides right off a hundred-foot cliff, ending the chase spectacularly as the horse and rider falls down into an evergreen tree.  (The horse is killed and half-disemboweled by the fall, something that turns out to be convenient when Glass has to hide inside the animal's carcass during an ensuing blizzard.)  The scene where Glass drops off the cliff horseback is completely surprising, but weirdly without suspense -- we don't know that the cliff is anywhere nearby and, when the horse falls, we register this with a sense of amazement that is without real fear or, even, concern.  The special effect, accomplished without cutting, is so realistic and matter-of-fact, that we have a sense of nonchalance about the whole thing.  Obviously, Glass can't die or the film will end.  While watching this scene and admiring its technical brilliance, I couldn't help but thinking that it wasn't really exciting -- and, in this respect, I compare the horse-jump with the infinitely more exciting (because cut for suspense) jump that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make into the plunge-pool of a waterfall in their film.  At the conclusion of the movie, I noticed that the filmmaker engaged the services of about a dozen CGI special effects firms and, although the movie has a harsh, documentary feeling, I assume that it is rife with highly sophisticated digital trickery. 

In many ways, the film that The Revenant most resembles is the Robert Redford vehicle, Jeremiah Johnson, a similarly freakish and violent saga about "liver-eating" Johnson's' vendetta against the Indians that killed his family.  Both films are notable for their scrupulous authenticity and their beautiful photography.  In The Revenant, the war parties making their way along half-frozen rivers have the statuesque beauty of old photographic plates by Edward S. Curtis -- the landscapes are immense, splendid, and daunting.  This is the kind of movie in which a man doesn't fall into the river without being carried over massive, icy waterfalls.  The opening scenes, involving an elk shot dead in a flooded forest, evoke Tarkovsky's drowned woods and there is a ruined chapel that looks as if it were frescoed by Greek or Russian orthodox monks -- it's presence in the Rocky Mountains north of Wyoming makes no sense at all.  (Inarittu also installs in the film a reference to his previous movie, Birdman, a shot of a comet or meteor falling to earth, part of the flaming projectile, in fact, plunging into an icy river.)  There are two incredible sequence, again executed in continuous takes -- in one scene, Glass crawls up an embankment to see a great herd of furry bison harried by wolves:  it is a majestic image of raw nature, indifferent to human beings.  In a shot near the end of the film, Glass fires his muzzle-loader and, then, fifteen seconds later, we see an immense avalanche pouring down a funnel in the face of a mountain three miles away.  Again, the image suggests nature and titanic natural forces that have nothing to do with our puny existence.  The Revenant is beautiful, horrific, but emotionally remote.   

Friday, January 8, 2016

Chandu the Magician

Released in 1932, Chandu the Magician is an early example of  a special-effects-driven super-hero movie -- it is the precursor to films like The Avengers and other movies in the Marvel comics franchise.  Accordingly, Chandu is visually impressive, beautifully shot and edited, and afflicted with a script that might have been written in crayon.  Chandu is a stiff-upper-lip Ronald Colman-sort of conjurer, a well-spoken cosmopolitan Brit who has spent many years studying magic (actually hypnotism) in the Tibetan version of Hogwarts -- he is described as a Yogi and the graduate of a Yogi monastery.  In the opening shot, we see a diminutive but atmospheric model of a kind of Himalyan Angkor Wat; the camera slinks through fog and haze and as the tiny model dissolves, we find ourselves tracking toward a bonfire garishly lighting the façade of a sinister-looking Hindu temple.  Chandu is involved in his graduation exercises, a final exam that involves bilocating by projecting his astral body above his actual flesh, a version of the Indian rope trick, and, finally, ambling across a pit full of a fire.  Despite these exertions, Chandu is a regular guy, clubbable, who, now and then, enjoys a gin and tonic on the deck of his papyrus-raft floating down the Nile.  As it happens, in Cairo, a scientist played by the gaunt Henry Walthall (he was the "Little  Colonel" in Birth of a Nation) has invented a death ray.  The ray is an elaborate contrivance made from Tesla coils spurting stray voltage in all directions and it can be deployed to ravage cities on the other side of the globe.  Having invented this device, the scientist finds himself captured by a villain named Roxar (the name sounds like an energy drink:  Rockstar).  Roxar is played by Bela Lugosi who grins and squints at the camera and rolls his "r's" while haranguing the audience with mad rants about destroying the world and making all of its peoples submit to his will.  (There is much chatter in this film about the Will and the Triumph of the Will.)  Lugosi is not particularly frightening -- for some reason, Roxar is made to prance around in black tights and he looks like an escapee from an amateur production of As you Like it or Hamlet.   Roxar is working to reboot the Death Ray from his laboratory incongruously located in an ancient Egyptian tomb, a cavernous maze cut into a cliff high above the Nile.  Chandu is friends with the kidnapped scientist, and, with the man's family -- an annoyingly puerile Boy Scout with his shapely sister and their dignified upper-crust mother -- rushes to the "cliffs above the third cataract of the Nile" to rescue the Death Ray's inventor -- the poor mad scientist is being tortured by Roxar into revealing the secrets of the deadly device.  The narrative is propelled forward at breakneck pace with swarthy loin-cloth clad henchmen attacking the doughty family and their leader, Chandu, at every opportunity -- goblets of poison are switched around on silver trays, hypnotized bad guys find their guns turning into serpents, mummies become animate and march around the labyrinthine tomb where Lugosi is tinkering with the Death Ray and, ultimately, Chandu gets locked in an immense sealed sarcophagus and is hurled into the depths of the Nile.  (Of course, he escapes and the film's imagery is lyrical:  we see the Magician ascending through great undulating fronds of underwater vegetation to reach the surface.)  This is a pre-Code film and the scientist's daughter gets auctioned off as a sex-slave -- feminine underwear in 1932 is pretty revealing and we see her lissome figure very clearly as she struggles against the evil, turbaned Orientals on the auction block.  There is a cell that can be tilted to hurl its occupants into a oubliette that is about five-hundred feet deep and, as added value, we get a comically alchoholic man-servant hypnotized into always seeing a miniature, and disapproving, version of himself whenever he tries to take a drink.  Despite the dire subject matter, the film is full of low-brow jokes -- for instance, when the alcoholic valet sees a revivified mummy approaching him, he rolls his eyes, shrieks with terror and scoots through the tunnels just like Lou Costello in parody horror films he made with Bud Abbott in the forties and fifties.  The special effects and the elaborate sets are exceptionally impressive, the work of William Cameron Menzies, a great set designer and special effects innovator.  (He engineered films as disparate as Alice in Wonderland and the science fiction epic Things to Come, as well as various versions of The Thief of Baghdad.) Menzies' effects are often gratuitously beautiful if not really motivated by the narration -- for instance, we are treated to not one, but three apocalyptic scenes of the Death Ray being deployed, in Lugosi's fantasy as it happens since, of course, the deadly ray gun has to be destroyed before it can really be used:  London and Paris both get destroyed and, then, Menzies' throws in a brilliantly lit and shot image of a huge dam bursting for a good measure as well.  One repeated shot of the hero's  papyrus Nile barge anchored under palm trees in a moonlit Nile lagoon is rapturously beautiful and many of the action sequences are both engaging and dynamically edited -- and since the film is almost all action, most of the picture must be acknowledged as technically effective.  (The acting is comically abysmal.)  A pretty effect concludes the movie:  Chandu is about to kiss a winsome desert Princess (who looks about as Arabian as Zelda Fitzgerald) -- the moon shines brightly over the desert, but, then, Chandu raises his hand, gestures as the lunar orb, and an armada of lacy clouds covers the moon.  As the hero kisses the heroine, the screen darkens chastely but we still see Menzie's glamorous high-gloss rim-lighting making a halo of the heroine's lustrous hair. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The President's Analyst

In Theodore Flicker's amiable The President's Analyst, James Coburn grins to beat the band and his pearly white choppers, at once menacing and comically equine, are a special effect on par with Raquel Welch's breasts or Jennifer Lopez' buttocks.  Coburn has the longest, whitest teeth of any Hollywood actor on record and, when he shows them to the camera, the audience registers a kind of jovial aggression -- although Coburn has a stallion's teeth, his face is vaguely simian and, when he grins, it is like an alpha-male gorilla or chimp protecting his territory and harem of females.  Coburn lopes through The President's Analyst with nonchalant ease and he is nothing less than charming as a leading man -- like many great natural film actors, he seems to be doing nothing most of the time, but you can't keep your eyes off him.  And in this 1967 film, Coburn plays a man gradually going mad:  the hero is in the grips of late sixties-style paranoia of the kind given most brilliantly exemplified by Thomas Pynchon's novels from that time period.  As a madman, Coburn hams it up, rolling his eyes, or darting them in all directions so as to better survey his surroundings for the assassins of all races and nationalities pursuing him.  Coburn mimes the kind of paranoia that animated various novels and TV shows of the period and his performance exemplifies the so-called "paranoid style" that seized American culture around the time of the debacle in Vietnam.  Accordingly, if nothing else, The President's Analyst is an interesting document of its era.

The film's premise is that the unnamed (and always off-screen) president of the United States is staggering under the weight of his international responsibilities.  A covert organization modeled on the CIA hires Coburn, a prominent Park Avenue analyst, to provide psychiatric counseling to the president.  Summoned to the White House at all hours of the night and day, Coburn's character rapidly becomes paranoid, correctly suspecting that he is being tailed by various sinister agencies of the Federal government, including the FBI under the malign leadership of the tiny, but charismatically vicious, Walter Burke (he plays Lux the head of an agency like the FBI -- Lux was once a brand-name of a vacuum cleaner like Hoover, get it?)  Exhausted and lonely -- Coburn's flower-child girlfriend is spying on him and they have been separated because the analyst talks in his sleep -- the hero flies the coop, escaping Washington D. C. with a posse of assassins of various nationalities and political affiliations pursuing him.  At first, he hides with a family of left-wing vigilantes (!?) and gun enthusiasts that he meets when he joins a public tour of the White House and slips out of town -- the Quantrill's, as the suburbanites from New Jersey are named, are heavily armed and dangerous:  when the Soviet and Cuban spies come to capture the Analyst, they blithely gun them down in the streets of Soho.  The analyst flees to the country with a rock-and-roll band (reportedly the Grateful Dead was tapped for this role but demurred).  The hero meets another sexually voracious flower child and, while making love to her in a meadow, remains blissfully unaware that four or five assassins, equipped with exotic, silent weapons, are killing one another a few feet from their love-nest in their competition to kidnap him.  Ultimately, the analyst falls prey to the most sinister organization of them all, the telephone company, and the movie's last fifteen minutes spiral into science fiction -- Ma Bell is planning to insert phones in everyone's brain via transmitters injected into the carotid artery.  The phone company scenes are the most memorable parts of the film.  Bell Telephone presents its nefarious schemes in a chatty, cheerful little documentary that is a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of high-gloss scientific documentaries that I recall watching in 8th grade -- movies with clever colorful animation and jazz soundtracks extolling the virtues of GE's research and development or Bell Telephone's laboratories.  After a James Bond style shoot-out at the end of the film, the Soviet Agent and his American counterpart, memorably played by the great comic, Godfrey Cambridge, meet at Coburn's house with his spacy girlfriend, all order restored since the phone company's sinister plot has been foiled -- as the friends open bottles of champagne to celebrate, the screen suddenly becomes a TV monitor and we see that a crowd of robot-executives, each plugged into a teleport, is watching the festivities from Ma Bell's headquarters.  I recall seeing the movie when I was in ninth or tenth grade and being immensely impressed, particularly by the pastiche of the educational films to which we had been subjected in junior high school.  Alas, the film is not as complex, witty, or imaginative as I remembered it.  However, it is a movie that I once greatly admired and that I am happy that I have now seen it again in my old age. 

Theodor Flicker was a TV director, primarily known for the pilots of shows like I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched.  He is capable, slick, and the film is efficiently made.  Flicker is very good with character actors and, for those nostalgic for the TV shows of the late sixties, the movie is a kind of museum of people that you will recognize but whose names you can't recall.  The film is clearly influenced by the model of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and imitates that movie's Mad Magazine esthetic.  The jazz soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin is also characteristic of the time.  The female characters are all kooky and have enormous eyes -- they are all fantastically pretty but insubstantial.  Flicker was a man who admired the Rat Pack and his portraits of rock and roll characters are clearly insulting parodies -- he obviously can't understand why people were making a fuss about the Beatles (in fact, he has derides longhaired moppets in the film that he calls the Liverpudlians).  Accordingly, the movie is an instructive mixture of the ultra-cool esthetic of bebop jazz (with a little admixture of Sinatra-style machismo -- Coburn looks fantastic in his tailored three-piece suits) and super-square failure to grasp the meaning of the youth revolution that was, then, in its nascent stages.  The film also has a little of the grotesque flair of Lindsay Anderson's If... and O Lucky Man -- I think it predates the latter film by four or five years.  Flicker shifts in a dizzying way between different moods -- an opening sequence in which Godfrey Chamberlain, a patient of the analyst, confesses how he first discovered that he is Black is exceptionally painful, powerful and moving.  But it has nothing to do with the rest of the film.  For most of the movie, the picture oscillates between Laugh-In style satire -- Arte Johnson is in the film -- and Bond (or Our Man Flint to cite the spy films starring Coburn)  mayhem.  Ultimately, The President's Analyst is not a very good movie, but it has some remarkable features and anything from this era featuring James Coburn is eminently watchable. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Gospel According St. Matthew

Pier Paolo Pasolini's narrative method in his 1964 transcription of Matthew's Gospel is made clear about within the first ten minutes of his film:  a posse of young thugs have been deputized by Herod to murder first-born infants -- Pasolini's handheld camera jerks from face to face, surveying the handsome, mulish, and dispassionate murderers, each singled out for a brief close-up.  The cameraman starts to pan toward the next man in the sequence, generally tracking from right to left, but, then, realizes that he has left out a man standing to the right, and a little behind, a soldier whose close-up has just been recorded.  And, so, the camera movement stutters, pulled to the right as if by the magnetic force of the man's face.  Yet, there is nothing different about this fellow -- he is merely another stolid, inert-looking peasant from the impoverished south of Italy where Pasolini shot this movie.  (In an accompanying documentary, a commentator tells us that Israel was too "full of kibbutzim and light industry" for the movie to be produced on location.)  Pasolini's film is stubbornly "parametric" to use a term first developed by David Bordwell -- he constructs his movie on the basis of formal parameters that override his subject matter.  The parameters that characterize The Gospel according to St. Matthew are close-ups of faces and the concept of the apparition.  Whenever possible, Pasolini devises his narrative by a sheer accumulation of facial close-ups -- the film must contain hundreds of them, mostly of anonymous onlookers and bystanders.  Pasolini does not edit the film conventionally -- there is no cause-and-effect mise-en-scene presumably because we are dealing with the miraculous.  Indeed, Pasolini's technique looks primordial, ancient -- he uses a filmmaking style that seems to predate D. W. Griffith's discovery that narrative could be driven by montage or editing.  Pasolini's Gospel is shot as a series of tableaux, small groups of people traversing immense stony wastelands, and handheld tracking shots in which the camera follows someone climbing steps or crossing a piazza.  Shots are intentionally mismatched -- eye lines don't cohere and there is no attempt to build scenes according to a shot-reverse-shot film-syntax.  Scenes are often recorded from immense, uncommunicative distances with action blocked by foreground figures.  Since the editing is discontinuous and jagged, people simply appear, without any kind of transitional effects, on the screen.  This is Pasolini's technique used to introduce principal characters or angels -- and it is, in effect, annunciatory.   After showing a few faces, people shot from a close-up angle that does not reveal their location or relation to one another, Pasolini will cut to a surprising middle-distance shot in which an important or focal character has suddenly appeared -- the effect is that of an apparition.  There are no establishing shots and no attempts to develop any narrative continuity -- people simply appear next to smashed ruins or sinister-looking grottos.  The sense is that of an apparition, something uncanny associated with this sudden appearance of a figure into the scene coming from nowhere and, apparently, going nowhere as well.  Pasolini's two parameters are closely, even metaphysically related -- the brutal materialism of the film is undercut and contested by the director's obsessive focus on the faces of people who, generally, don't even matter much to the story.  The emphasis on unmotivated close-ups --the images are not designed as reaction shots (in fact, everyone seems to simply stare impassively at the lens) -- precludes any attempt to devise a coherent narrative space.  Like the earliest film-makers, Pasolini defines place by simply reverting to a stock shot, an image that always signifies one location -- in this case, the only location that matters is Jerusalem and Pasolini shows the place from a low-angle in a repeated shot directed up a hill at crumbling walls and parapets, pits and cisterns, a place that looks more ruinous than Pompei spread out along a deep and barren gorge.  (The stony, naked appearance of the city is like the backdrop of one of Giotto's paintings -- mineralized angles, edges, and a bit of a smashed wall.)  The Gospel seems not so much stylized or abstract as simply prehistoric -- it's like an ineptly edited silent film from about 1909.  People harangue the camera in full frontal shots.  The massacre of the innocents is shot in fast motion with thugs hurling babies here and there in the air -- it's horrific, dispassionate, and vaguely comical, like a Keystone Kops two-reeler from Hell.  Pasolini doesn't want to show relationships between people and so his figures are always isolated within the frame -- they don't talk to one another so much as they rant to the camera.  Everything is defamiliarized -- the movie starts with African tribal chants, but some scenes are underscored by Bach or Webern or, even, Negro spirituals.  (Pasolini, the Marxist atheist, is the most spiritually inclined of all modern Italian directors -- this spirituality is evident in his first film, Acccattone, in which the futile hustling of a small-time pimp is set to the choral music of Bach.)  The movie is so stubbornly true to its parametric principles and so austerely impassive that it is more than a little bit dull and difficult to watch.  Viewed from one perspective, the whole endeavor is somewhat foolish -- illiterate peasants parading around in enormous turbans or hats that are like inverted buckets or lampshades.  (The only effect that Pasolini transfers from medieval and renaissance Italian paintings of the Gospel is their predilection for immense, showy hats, turbans and helmets like castles or the prows of ships or miniature mosques.)  The Redeemer is played by a swarthy Spaniard, apparently a student that Pasolini met in Rome -- the fellow is short and wiry and he has a disconcerting uni-brow:  his eyebrows meet in asterisk-shaped furrow between his eyes which seem to be slightly askew.  There are no performances in this film, least of all Jesus, and the only criterion for judging this fellow's work in the movie is whether he has sufficient charisma to impersonate the Son of God -- by this standard, the actor is insufficient to the task, although, of course, very few professional thespians could rise to this occasion as well, even the redoubtable Willem Dafoe seemed a bit wan and whiny in Scorsese's version of the Passion.  True to his austere, almost geometric style, Pasolini ends the film with four or five centurions groggy and half-asleep at the tomb -- the handheld camera tours their faces, pausing for a moment on each inexpressive visage.  Then, we see Mary and a crowd of black-shawled women carrying flowers.  They kneel at the tomb.  Pasolini cuts to close-up of the door to the tomb rolling aside to reveal vacant and disheveled grave-clothes.  Then, he cuts to a close-up of an angelic boy who admonishes the off-screen women to "be not afraid for He is not here."  In a shot that could be lifted from Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, we see peasants running parallel to the jerkily handheld camera -- true to Pasolini's Communist ideology, the peasants carry big and impressive sickles, flails, small children on their back.  Several jump-cuts track the running mob that assembles on a desolate hillside where Jesus is standing.  In close-up, Jesus says "Now I have come to be with you forever."  The soundtrack is exuberant with African voices crying out in call and response over a thunder of drums.  It's thrilling, remote, and horribly disciplined...

Friday, January 1, 2016

Kingsmen: The Secret Service

Kingsmen:  The Secret Service (2014) is an anthology greatest hits from other movies.  There is nothing original in the film except, perhaps, Matthew Vaughn's lurid panache in aethesticizing violence -- at the climax of the film, a thousand people have their heads explode.  Vaughn's imagines this carnage as a kind of fireworks display -- the heads (acting under the influence of explosive transmitters buried in the flesh of the victims' necks) burst into bright, gaudy fountains of glittering, multi-colored confetti.  There's no gore really -- just a computer effect in which each head dematerializes into a floral display of splashing rainbow-colored pixels.  Vaughn stages this mass beheading to music -- heads erupt in geometrically choreographed mayhem, something like a nightmarish Busby Berkeley routine.  This climax is characteristic of the entire film -- a female assassin who darts around on razor-sharp blades (like the Olympic athlete and murderer, Oscar Pistorius) blithely decapitates and dismembers a small army of attackers; again, there's no blood, just chopped-off limbs fluttering here and there.  Although the film is inexcusably violent, it's really not gory with one notable and disturbing exception that I will address below:  when the protagonists gun down people at close-range, whirling and somersaulting, colorful puffs of scarlet signify bullet-impacts -- it looks like a Hindu festival, Holi, in which celebrants hurl brightly colored powder at one another.

Kingsmen invokes James Bond and, indeed, aspires to some of the cool, vicious elegance of those films.  Tarantino-style, characters rant about Bond movies and emulate scenes in those films -- in particular, Samuel Jackson, equipped with an ultra-annoying lisp, harangues his unfortunate victims with references to Bond movies.  But Vaughn isn't content to pay homage to Bond.  At one point, Eggsy, the movie's hero, is asked why he has selected the initials "JB" for a pseudonym -- Michael Caine, slumming as spy-master, guesses "James Bond", then, pauses and asks "Or Jason Bourne?"  Eggsy responds:  "No, Jack Bauer."  And, indeed, there are episodes in the film that resemble scenes from the Tv series, 24, in particular, one sequence in which Stanley Tucci, also slumming as a kind of drill-sergeant training new spies, leads Eggsy through a maze by accessing computer diagrams of the site and whispering directions into the hero's ears via a telelink.  The movie features a bravura skydiving scene involving one too few parachutes taken directly from one or another of the Bond movies, albeit filmed with splash and MTV vehemence of Katherine Bigelow's Point Break, another picture featuring people parachuting from great heights.  When a female assassin rides a balloon into the edge of outer space to use an RPG to shoot down a death-dealing satellite, she falls to earth in a sequence yanked right of Phil Kauffman's The Right Stuff.  Eggsy mows down armies of white-clad henchmen who move robotically like Star Wars stormtroopersThe film's plot-line is a variant of the creaky narrative machinery that drove a dozen or so Bond films -- a super-villain, played by the foul-mouthed ranting Samuel Jackson has distributed free cell-phones to everyone in the world.  There is only one problem, the cell-phones can be satellite-triggered to emit a noise that provokes homicidal rage in every human being that hears it.  When the cell-phones make this noise, people immediately pick up knives or spoons or bats and try to hammer their family members and neighbors into pulp.  The villain's motive for imposing this mayhem on the earth is simple and politically correct -- there are too many people in the world and the population must be culled.  (Jackson has created an ark in some "fortress of Solitude" Arctic, or Antarctic mountain range where he has selected the chosen few who will survive the purge of the earth's population.)  The first third of the film derives from Harry Potter:  the movie shows a group of young assassins being trained by spymasters Colin Firth and Michael Caine at a kind of Hogwarts Academy. The kids are mean to one another and there is a strong whiff of class privilege in the humiliations meted out on Eggsy, the most talented of the killers in training, but, also, a lad who comes from a lower class background and has, even, worked at a McDonald's restaurant. 

About two-thirds of the way through the movie, a scene occurs that reminds us that in present-day Hollywood (or the international pop cinema), there is only one group of people who can be portrayed with merciless contempt with complete impunity --- these are right-wing Fundamentalist Christians.  A group of yokels is gathered in a Church to hear a sermon by a preacher who denounces gays, gay marriage, evolution, and abortion.  The hillbillies in the congregation are white supremacists to boot -- a radically unfair conceit.  We are told not to equate Islam with terrorism, but Vaughn conflates conservative fundamentalism with racism apparently reflexively -- and he does this for laughs.  Then, Jackson's death-ray activates in the cell-phones of the parishioners, triggering homicidal rage.  For the next 8 minutes, the film luxuriates in a brilliantly staged and choreographed massacre -- Colin Firth literally kills everyone in the church possibly a 150 people.  Unlike the other slaughters in the movie, the violence in this sequence is graphic, brutal and gory.  Implicit in the sequence is the idea that these people deserve to butchered.  The scene's tastelessness resonates, unfortunately, with audience recollections of a massacre in a liberal African-American church in Charleston, a real-life blood bath that everyone rightly decried.  So we are left with this question:  if a murderous assassin infiltrated a White Southern Baptist Church, a conclave of Ted Cruz supporters, would it be all right to butcher these people en masse?  The answer that Kingsmen suggests to this question is disquieting.