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Godliness Next to Deadliness in "Legion"

Directed by: Scott Stewart
Written by: Peter Schink, Scott Stewart
Starring: Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Charles S. Dutton, Jon Tenney, Kate Walsh, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki

Beleaguered parents of the world, take heart: If Legion is to be believed, even God Almighty has His hands full with kids. And if He can't keep his squabbling children in line, then really, how are you supposed to do better? Yes, that's irreverent, but we're talking about a movie that arms the studly, tattooed Michael with more machine guns than the Chechnyan army and pits him against trash-talking demon grannies, exploding corpses and an ice-cream seller who mutates into a spider-limbed acid nightmare — all because some trampy, chain-smoking hash-slinger is carrying a bastard who's supposedly the last, best hope of the human race. Reverence is so not the issue.

December 23, Los Angeles. As the street scum brawl, booze, screw and shoot up, a buff, heavily-inked stranger picks himself up off the mean streets and makes tracks for the shuttered Happy Toy Company, which traffics in more lucrative merchandise than squeaky Santas, if the hidden room crammed with machine guns is anything by which to judge. After painfully stitching up his bleeding shoulders — the ones that can't help but conjure the shadow of giant wings — the stranger kills a pair of cops, steals a police car and hits the road, lights sparking in his wake.

Meanwhile, a ragtag collection of travelers converges on the dismal Paradise Falls, a failing eatery on the edge of the sere Mojave desert. Bitter, disillusioned Bob (Dennis Quaid) owns the place with his no-bull partner Percy (Charles S. Dutton), a military veteran with a hook for a hand and an abiding belief in the good Book. Bob's son Jeep (Lucas Black) helps him run the place and is hopelessly in love with hard-luck waitress Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), who's eight months pregnant and mad at the world.

Unhappy, middle-aged malcontents Sandra and Howard (Kat Walsh, Jon Tenney) are seething in a booth while their trampalicious daughter Audrey (Willa Holland) shakes her barely-clad ass by the jukebox. Kyle (Tyrese Gibson) blows in on a cloud of poor map-reading skills and urban attitude, and just as the telephone, radio and TV cut out, sweet old granny Gladys Foster (Jeanette Miller) shuffles in looking for a nice bit of steak. It's another boring day in the diner at the end of the world, until Gladys transforms into a fanged freak and scuttles up the wall, hissing that Charlie's baby is going to burn in hell.

With the arrival of the wingless stranger — none other than the self-mutilating Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) — the stage is set for a showdown of, well, Biblical proportions: Michael backs humanity while the angelic hardliner Gabriel (Kevin Durand) enforces God's every fit of divine pique.

Were you to cross The Prophecy with Key Largo, add a generous dollop of Night of the Living Dead and smother it with a yummy layer of apocalyptic imagery, you'd have something very like Legion, which is pretty damned entertaining when it's not bogged down in gloomy, backstory-driven sequences in which various characters lay bare their damaged souls.

If you like your angels meek, mild and bathed in subtle heavenly radiance, this is not the movie for you. But if your taste runs to black-winged mercenaries, child-berserkers with long knives, spider-limbed ice-cream salesmen and pestilent clouds of lies, well, then, Legion just might be the fiendishly divine diversion for you.

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

Kevin's Digital Week 10 - From Springfield to Jersey

Blu-ray of the Week
The Simpsons—The Complete 20th Season
So what if The Simpsons has continued its slide down from its giddy heights of a decade ago? Even now, at its best, the show is laugh-out-loud funnier than anything else on television: Treehouse of Horror is always a hoot, and the parade of celebrity cameos (like Denis Leary, Joe Montana, Emily Blunt, Anne Hathaway, Ellen Page and Jodie Foster) is always good for a few chuckles. Since the show began being broadcast in hi-def in the middle of the season last year, the first nine episodes will have that square, less eye-popping look of non-HD transfers.

Those nine episodes are on the first disc; the second disc is given over to the dozen hi-def episodes, when the celebrated opening got a noticeable makeover and the in-jokes about HD came fast and furiously each week. Unlike previous season releases, there are no commentaries or other fun extras; rather, there’s a brief sneak peek of the recent 20th anniversary special hosted by Morgan Spurlock. Creator Matt Groening also drew new Blu-ray menus, and the cool packaging features a layout of so many characters from the show that even the most die-hard fan might not name (or even recognize) them all.

DVD of the Week
Artie Lange
Jack and Coke
Despite his recent personal problems, New Jersey-born Artie Lange has been one of the most visible comedians of the past decade, thanks to his long stint as sidekick on Howard Stern’s radio show. He’s also a valuable raw stand-up who’s unafraid to tackle even the most dicey material, which he proves as soon as walks onto the stage at the Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan: he announces that he’s glad Heath Ledger is dead.

From there, he riffs on Brokeback Mountain, President Obama, Giants and Jets fans, Lawrence Taylor, and his own overweight, messy self: watching Lange admit to (and joke about) drug and alcohol issues while nursing a glass of water onstage is certainly a sobering sight in light of his recent (apparent) attempted suicide. The rowdy crowd is certainly behind him, and among the many bonus features is one showcasing his rabid fans, and another in which the comic dispatches hecklers in inimitable fashion. There’s also a behind-the-scenes featurette, a rap song by ReSurch, and the opening acts of Pete Dominick and Joe Matarese.

"Zero Hour" Is a Fascinating Time

Zero Hour
Directed by Piper Laurie
Written by and starring Jim Brochu

Consummate actor, painter and personality Zero Mostel  was a presence in American films and stage for decades, except for a brief hiatus called McCarthyism. Zero was iconoclastic, cynical and flip. He scowled and shouted in a voice that was stentorian.

Jim Brochu’s one-man show, directed by Piper Laurie, brings him to life, eyes piercing out of a gray-bearded jowly face, recreating his physical presence and attitude, and most importantly his passionate political commitment to honor at a time when theater people and others were selling out their colleagues.

The story Brochu recounts is fascinating, and his performance is riveting. The device is an interview with a New York Times journalist. "I don't want to know your name,” Zero snarls. It's an interview not a relationship.” The interview takes place in a studio on West 28th Street, the top floor of a building Zero owned in what was once known as Tin Pan Alley. Zero wears a blue artist’s smock and dabs at a painting. The set creates intimacy at the same time that it highlights a central and not widely known element of Zero’s life.

Zero Mostel was devoted to art. He had no training in theater and became a performer by accident. In the thirties, he was hired by the WPA (Works Progress Administration, for those who don't know history) — along with such painters as Jackson Pollack and Moses Sawyer. Later, he gave art lectures filled with jokes. That led him in 1941 to appearances at the night club Café Society, in Greenwich Village. He was wildly funny, on stage and off. He was manic. He got people helpless with laughter. Some of that comes through in Brochu’s performance.

But most of the stage story is political. Zero was a Marxist. Brochu/Zero says that "Anybody with half a brain was, because of what was going on in Europe:  fascism."

That made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s crusade against free speech in 1955. "Are you a communist?" he was asked at a hearing. "Well, you certainly don’t beat around the borscht belt, do you? No, I am not a communist," Zero replied.

"Are you in favor of the violent overthrow of the government?”" he was asked, in a question that violated the First Amendment protection of free speech, not to mention thought.

Zero replied, and the text is from his testimony, "Well, sir, as our fourth president, James Madison, for whom they named a lovely hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach once said, 'I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by silent and gradual encroachments by those in power rather than by violent and sudden usurpations.'"

Zero and a handful of artists stood up to the Committee. But the people who ran Broadway and Hollywood were men of little courage. Zero was blacklisted, along with prominent actors such as Lee Grant, Burgess Meredith and Jack Gilford. He excoriates those who named names: the director Elia Kazan, the actor Lee J. Cobb, the choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Zero says, "Robbins only went to communist meetings to make connections; to further his career. Hell, he would have joined the Girl Scouts if they let him choreograph a number. He was so weak. And they go after the weak ones, you know. He named us to save himself…. Why were they targeting actors," he wondered. "What did they think we were doing — giving acting secrets to the enemy?"

Zero tells how the Committee targeted actors and Jews. He declared, “That committee of lily-white Protestants marched us in front their firing squad of fear and pulled the trigger on our lives and our work. It was an intellectual final solution to eliminate thought; they couldn’t kill our bodies — they had done a damn fine job of that already — so they decided to obliterate our minds. And they targeted Jewish minds.”

Zero tells the appalling story of Phil Loeb, the actor who played Jake on the TV sitcom The Goldbergs. He recounts, "He lived his life practicing the greatest principal of America — that all people were created equal and should be treated that way. Even actors.

"Outrageous! Do you know what his 'Un-American activities' were? He was fighting for black actors to be able to use the same stage door as white actors, he was fighting for equal pay for men and women, paid rehearsal time, hot running water in dressing rooms. Horrible! Despicable!

"So the Committee subpoenaed him and they blacklisted him and they destroyed him and then all of America sat back and said, 'Of course he shouldn’t work. He’s evil. He’s the Jewish devil!' And the man lost everything. And Kate and I took him in and he lived with us. We cared for him. We fed him and we clothed him and then we watched him disintegrate.

"So one morning, Kate made him breakfast, he put on his coat, he said bye-bye, checked into the Taft Hotel and jumped out the window."

Later, Burgess Meredith found a tenement on the lower East side, turned it into a theater, and starred Zero as James Joyce's hero Leopold Bloom in Ulysses in Nighttown. The play was memorable, and Zero was so good that producer David Merrick called him to do a Broadway play, The Good Soup. But tragedy struck in 1960, during rehearsals for that play, when Zero’s leg was crushed by a bus that careened out of control on an icy street. The leg was saved, but he would endure frequent pain thereafter.

Still, he continued on the stage and was a triumph in Rhinoceros, the absurdist play by Eugène Ionesco. It had resonance for him: “It’s about conformity. It’s about not becoming a Berkeley [a prominent informer] or a Robbins. It’s about being true to yourself,” he says. Zero virtually morphed from a man into a snorting rhinoceros, mesmerizing audiences and critics.

His next triumph was full of irony. The show doctor brought in to fix A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which would be a smash hit, was Jerome Robbins. The producer asked, "Will you work with him?" Zero said, "Of course I’ll work with him. We of the left do not blacklist."

But he wasn’t forgiving. He welcomed Robbins: "Hiya, Loose Lips. How ya been? Haven’t seen you since 1953 when you gave all those names to the Committee. You haven’t aged very well, Mr. Robbins. Sleeping poorly from a bad conscience? Did you say hello to Jack Gilford over there. Say hello to Jack. You remember Jack — whose wife’s career you destroyed.

"No, don’t apologize, Mr. Robbins. What do you have to apologize for? You’re a hero. You saved America with your testimony. They’ll give you a state funeral when you die. But you won’t be able to be buried in hallowed ground, did you know that? Because the Torah says that informers can’t be buried in sacred ground. Your soul is going to twist and turn forever in the limbo of your dishonor and your spirit will roam the earth for all eternity like a golem. Like a feared and hated golem.”  (Then, all smiles) Now, shall we do the opening number?”

Zero’s triumph was complete in 1964 when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. The next year, he got an invitation to a state dinner hosted by President Lyndon Johnson.

This is a fascinating and important play, not only for its dramatic heft, but for the story it tells about America’s dark days of ideological repression.

Zero Hour
Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street
New York City
(212) 239-6200.
Opened November 22, 2009; closed January 31, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Stan Barouh


Live and Become

Chances are, unless you’re a burrowing rodent, you’ve heard stories of Holocaust survivors escaping to Palestine. But raise your hand if you know jack about the breakaway sagas of the Ethiopian Jews. This year’s Ring Family Wesleyan Israel Film Festival seeks to wrest this staggering history from undeserved oblivion with its screening of Live and Become, an epic drama directed by Radu Mihaileanu.

Read more: Live and Become

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