Sunday, 4 October 2015

Outland (1982)

Peter Hyams began his movie career after a spell as a TV newsman, breaking into screenwriting on the wistful melodrama T.R. Baskin (1971) and debuting as director with the comedy-drama cop flick Busting (1974). His directing career gained real steam with the dashing Capricorn One (1977), and from then on he specialised in slick thrillers, sci-fi epics, and action flicks. Eventually his reputation deflated, he worked with Jean Claude Van Damme a few too many times, and nearly crashed to a permanent halt with the 2005 bomb A Sound of Thunder. But at his height in the 1980s, Hyams was seen as a suitable successor to Stanley Kubrick to make 2010 (1984), chiefly thanks to his success with Outland. Outland took up where Alien (1979) left off in fashioning a distinctive brand of realistic cinematic sci-fi that presumed the stars might one day be colonised for the same reason people venture to rough and barely habitable reaches of the Earth, depicting an extreme, gritty environment where working men and women rather than intergalactic swashbucklers tread, and then only for profit. At the same time, Outland also unabashedly exemplified a trend many suspected after the success of Star Wars (1977), that the Western genre had gone off-world for good. Hyams had wanted to make a good old-fashioned horse opera, but eventually settled for making a variation on Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952) in space. Set on the Jupiter moon Io, Outland convincingly depicts a mining operation as a claustrophobic, grimy, paranoia-stoking outpost where corporate-sponsored drug abuse, introduced to squeeze ever-more impressive productivity from labourers, is causing psychological meltdowns. 

The opening scene sees one worker (Maurice Roëves) suddenly gripped by drug-fuelled delusions, convinced he’s got a spider inside his space suit, causing him to rip off his helmet. The results of explosive decompression are vividly, if not realistically, portrayed. Similar incidents proliferate, including one man, Sagan (Steven Berkoff at his most wiry and fruitloopy), going berserk with a prostitute and kicking off a siege, forcing the mine police force to pry him out. The new Marshall on Io, William O’Niel (Sean Connery), deduces the cause of the rash of lunatic activities, but as he digs into the mystery, learns the mine’s drug racket, although utilising the experienced smuggling and distributing skills of ex-cons Spota (Marc Boyle) and Yario (Richard Hammatt), is actually overseen and protected by the mine manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle). Sheppard makes it clear that his managing practices are endorsed by the mining company, and if he pushes too hard, O’Niel will be targeted by hired killers to be shipped in on the next supply shuttle. O’Niel however has reasons for refusing to toe the line beyond mere professional duty. He’s just been abandoned by his wife Carol (one-time Two English Girls star Kika Markham), after being shunted off to another grungy shithole at the far end of the spacefaring line, because she wants to take their son Paul (Nicholas Barnes) back to Earth, where he’s never been before, and the experience has left the Marshall determined to prove he actually stands for something.

Outland creates a specific and memorable little world, a poorly-lit, fetid-looking, boxy habitation where workers live in tiny cages with sweat and cum congealing on the walls, relax in a nightclub where you can all but hear their bank balances shrinking as they drink away the depression of working here, screw the company prostitutes (Sheppard is particularly proud of their cleanliness), and eventually crack and kill themselves in spectacular body-destroying acts, maybe after hacking someone else up too. The film as an artefact of design and world-building has barely dated, except for the clunky computer technology on display throughout: otherwise Outland remains a convincing vision of an off-world future in large part because it never strains to be futuristic (even the thudding techno in the nightclub scenes sounds, thanks to retro trends, still pretty current). Hyams was evolving a distinctive look for his films (he would eventually become his own cinematographer, but here worked with Stephen Goldblatt), utilising wide frames but with unusual focal planes and hosepipe effects during action scenes for increased intensity, and scant source lighting often daubed in tones of icy blues and dank reds, adding up to a flashy, haute-moderne pseudo-style (James Cameron certainly owes something to him, John McTiernan and Michael Bay probably too, for better or worse). It’s not mere technocrat flash, either, because Hyams always keeps the characters and their relationship with this environment in focus, their shared travails in a place that at once bores and puts them constantly on edge. Outland is most charming when finding time for exchanges of shaggy, wearily good-humoured exchanges between O’Niel and his co-workers, and noting the tattiness behind the tech, like Sheppard’s desperate need for a haircut.

Hyams’ casting, including an array of character actors drawn from the resolutely earthbound styles of ‘70s New Wave film and the stage, including Boyle, James Sikking, Frances Sternhagen, and Berkoff, smartly backs up the design work in forging a convincing mood of workaday casualness and giving the rather slight story body. Connery, greying and weathered in middle age and working well in such acting company, comes across like a caged animal in the on-screen environment, his physical bulk and charisma like engines uncoupled from the machines they drive and whirring away anxiously, lending peculiar immediacy to his effective performance as a man who looks like he can handle anything but has been steadily castrated by his place in the scheme of things. Sternhagen is great fun as Dr Lazarus, the smart-assed mine doctor who first ticks off O’Niel with her astringent attitude, but eventually becomes his lone real helper and pal as the chips stack up against him, all bony limbs and chomping teeth as she rolls up sarcasms and spits them at whoever’s listening. It’s entirely possible that, even without romantic business between them, Sternhagen was Connery’s most effective leading lady since at least Audrey Hepburn and more likely since Honor Blackman. O’Niel has variably trustworthy aides amongst his team of lawmen, including Sgt. Montone (Sikking), on the take but tentatively agreeing to shield his new boss, and Ballard (Clarke Peters), who seems the most competent but who tells O’Niel he and the other cops won’t be risking their necks for him. Meanwhile some hidden agent of Sheppard’s murders Montone and a captive suspect, leaving O’Niel as the sole roadblock needing to be cleared before operations can continue as normal. 

Outland certainly seems to have done its part for codifying if not originating some key ‘80s genre film clichés, including the evil corporate boss who practises golf in his office and gets his comeuppance by a sock in the face at the end, and the unknown villain who suddenly comes into the open to extend the finale. Hyams intelligently suggests the underlying tensions of the O’Niels’ marriage at the outset before it’s acknowledged in dialogue with his use of camera and setting, laying the seeds for O’Niel’s isolation. Interestingly, part of Carol’s frustration with him predicts his deepening predicament, his moral rectitude and dedication taken as an excuse by others to make him do things others would balk at. The “lone man against a corrupt system” plotline was everywhere in late ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture of course, but Hyams tackled it so consistently that it certainly counted as a personal theme. Here he found its common ground with the motif of the gunfighter-law keeper in the classic Western template. The craven populace of the mine mimics the townsfolk in High Noon tale as they shrink from risking their necks (“It’s supposed to be your job!” one tells him), whilst the big digital clock that ticks off the moments until the shuttle’s arrival pays overt tribute to the town clock that hits zenith just as the bad guys arrive in Zinneman’s work. The chief difference is that Will Kane’s loyalty to the idea if not the reality of civic virtue can’t stand in a world where the powers that be have created the malignant situation rather than random avatars of barbarism, so O’Niel sticks to his guns more out of a desire to prove his self-worth than save a commune turned fetid in its collective disinterest.

Hyams’ definable weaknesses as a filmmaker are on display as much as his strengths here however, particularly his willingness to let illogic and a paucity of convincing conceptual imagination defeat the integrity of his narratives, for the sake of broad effect (such lapses hamstrung, for instance, his atmospheric and gamey remake Narrow Margin, 1990). Probably the most vivid moment in the film is also one of these, when O’Niel, chasing down one of his suspects, sinks his hand into a boiling kitchen pot to snatch out a satchel of dope. It’s an appropriately gruelling visualisation of physical pain, although it would have been as easy, and rather less painful, for O’Niel simply push the pot over. The climactic game of wits O’Niel plays with the trio of hitmen who arrive to claim his scalp retains excitement and sees our hero cleverly using the very structure of the outpost against his enemies. But it’s often equally awkward, including some of the dumbest hired killers in movie history. One falls for a silly decoy and blows a hole in the wall of the mine station’s greenhouse, resulting in colossal depressurisation nobody else seems to notice. I also tend to cringe a bit at such shorthand moments as O’Niel telling his son to do “seven pages of maths” by way of parental duty. Such moments of raw ballast do sink Outland down a few notches, preventing it from standing as a minor classic of the genre. But it’s a good, tough, soulful entry, and moreover epitomizes a brand of big-budget, well-crafted, reasonably adult sci-fi we don’t get nearly enough of.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Sea Fury (1958)

Following the potent Hell Drivers (1957), director Cy Endfield and star Stanley Baker reunited for Sea Fury, a film that extended their initial collaboration’s brand of blue-collar melodrama. The setting is more romantic and rarefied, depicting the lives of sailors working on ocean-going tugboats who form a small, rivalrous community in an otherwise sleepy Spanish town. Baker is Abel Hewson, a once-prosperous sailor fallen on hard times after losing his boat after engaging in some illegal activities. He comes to town hoping to land a place on the crew of the Fury II, a tug run by Capt. Bellew (Victor McLaglen), who regularly competes with a Dutch colleague, Mulder (Francis De Wolff), for the lucrative but dangerous work of towing in troubled ships from the mountainous seas of the Bay of Biscay. Hewson impresses Bellew accidentally when he gets into a brawl in the marketplace with a sleaze who accosts young Josita (future Thunderball bad girl Luciana Paluzzi), and soon the Captain has developed an almost fatherly fondness for the hapless sailor. 

Bellew secures Hewson a place on the crew. Other members resent Hewson's quick advancement and jarring professionalism, as well as Bellew’s liking for him, particularly Gorman (Robert Shaw), who gets passed over in spite of previously running the crew. The seeds of ruction between the captain and Hewson are laid however when Josita’s father Salgado (Roger Delgado), desperate to marry his daughter off to someone with cash, all but waves her under the nose of Bellew hoping he’ll bite. Although ageing and hardly a fashion plate, the Captain can’t help but be hopelessly smitten with the gorgeous young lady and he showers her with presents, as when he tries to pour her into a flashy dress after a boozy dinner with the crew. Josita however is stuck on Hewson, leaving him inevitably torn between attraction to her and loyalty to the Captain who saved him from degradation. Gorman, catching wind of the covert romance, immediately sees a chance to destroy Hewson.

Sea Fury is an awkward and severely flawed film in many ways, but it certainly earns its place in Endfield’s career, bridging his earlier work in America and Britain and his later, glossier, grander studies. It’s a glossary of Endfield’s obsessions – with social Darwinism, with increasingly isolated and symbolic universes where survivalist mores reign, with studies in stoic duty as its own virtue, with a world where low men on the totem pole often make the history and the fortunes others profit from, but occasionally find their own bit of glory too. Endfield revisited the themes of alienation and ostracism seen in Hell Drivers, and their clear basis in Endfield’s blacklist experience and subsequent rebuilding of his life in a foreign country. Baker and Endfield were certainly a director and star pairing who were deeply simpatico, both determined to make gritty accounts grounded in an everyday world and its striving citizens, exploring both the nobility and the fracture points in the psyche of their working-class heroes. Hewson is an exile keeping a step ahead of shame, entering a closed environment where he threatens a tenuous balance of powers and conventions. This element is more muted here, as if Endfield was already losing interest in it, or couldn’t work out how to leverage it in this setting without seeming repetitious. 

Sea Fury nonetheless articulates more of Endfield’s key ideas, in contemplating the kinds of guts many would consider extraordinary as a simple requirement of getting through the day for others, and in the theme of sexual desire converging with money’s centrifugal power, causing Bellew, Salgado, Hewson, and Josita to all do things they’d rather not. This is a classic noir motif echoing out of Endfield’s early work in that genre, whilst also laying breadcrumbs leading to the pure macho competition for possession of the woman and demesne in Sands of the Kalahari (1965), where money is purposefully removed as a motive but the urge it represents is laid bare. It’s also easy to read Bellew as a corrupt studio chief drooling over a starlet. Josita’s pulchritude defeats Bellew’s nobler, more sensible instincts in his desperate hunger for a last flash of sensual fulfilment as he slips into old age. What’s lacking here for Endfield is an outlet for his radical anger: none of the character conflicts are allowed to properly boil over or turn ugly. Bellew is no villain, but a victim of his ungainly lusts, and the interactions of Josita and Hewson lack conviction. 

When the inevitable moment of crisis arrives, the narrative immediately swerves to leave it rather inconsequential. Casting McLaglen as Bellew makes his desire to romance Josita a shade more grotesque than might have been, as the man was looking mighty rough by this time, although in the end there is a compensating note of pathos in contemplating the choice of bereavements he faces, between the loss of his last spark of youth and his new friend. The enemy here is the tension of both the gruelling job out on the sea and the septic boredom of port life, almost abstract forces that the characters have to face, in a manner not so dissimilar to the way the stifling dullness of soldiering suddenly becomes a do-or-die battle in Zulu (1964). McLaglen’s presence connects the film spiritually to John Ford’s oeuvre, but also highlights the degree to which Endfield opposes the key philosophy behind much of both Ford’s and Howard Hawks’ work, and made rough maps that a host of later American auteurs including filmmakers as diverse as Kubrick, Craven, and Peckinpah, would later explore such zones more closely. Where the older directors envisioned fractious and divided units eventually cohering and hardy women fitting in with the men, forging the essence of a civilisation, in Endfield’s mind the primal lurks shallow under all skins, the men are often overboiling id-pots who can barely keep their mitts off the ladies the moment their inner lecher gains licence. The finale boils down to an existential situation where a lone hero must fight for survival, cast off by the world of men.

Sea Fury does meander and slouch badly for the first hour, but it comes together for a last act that is worth struggling through for, as the tug crew venture out to try and bring in a crippled cargo ship, with a hold full of sodium that can potentially erupt in a white-hot fireball if touched by water. Hell Drivers had shown clear spiritual kinship with H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and here again Endfield annexes that film to spice up the action with its hero having to negotiate the delicate cargo of explosive material. Hewson, furiously sacked mid-mission by his boss after Bellew emerges from a sodden, self-pitying bender, makes a foolhardy leap of faith onto the ship and sets about trying to rescue the prize, an action that is at once extraordinarily dangerous but also a moment of relief, as Hewson finally enters a situation where only his own muscle and will to live matter. Endfield handles these scenes superlatively, striking unnerving notes as Hewson realises he’s not alone on the ship, and then when he’s confronted by the ship’s captain, still on board his vessel but dazed and unaware of the split in the back of his skull, like the survivor of a horror film stumbled into the wrong genre. Hewson and his half-dead companion labour against the surging sea and the tick of the clock to save their own lives and the broken ship in a marvellously shot and filmed climax, replete vertiginous overhead shots of Baker squirming under gushing water and struggling towards the sunlight with his fate contained in one smoking barrel. If all of Sea Fury was on such a level it would have been a mighty work. Look fast too for Barry Foster as the tug’s radio man.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

China Seas (1935)

A shiny nugget of Old Hollywood entertainment, China Seas takes a standard exotic adventure tale and setting and marries it to raw star power and the proud but still pithy craftsmanship of a film industry at its zenith. Clark Gable, perhaps warming up for Fletcher Christian, bothers not with affecting an accent as he plays Alan Gaskell, former British officer and gentleman, now captain of the Kin Lung, a passenger and cargo vessel making the run from Hong Kong to Singapore. Gaskell is a famously grouchy, demanding hard-ass equally feared and loved by his crew and employers, first introduced working off a hangover after a long and well-juiced break from his bouts with the ocean. Jean Harlow is his favoured shore-leave pal, a garrulous, good-hearted floozy dubbed China Doll who’s stuck on this sailor boy. When she signs aboard his ship to make the voyage to Singapore, she’s left aghast when a ghost from his past catches his eye: Sybil (Rosalind Russell), his old lover from Blighty. Gaskell ran to the far side of the globe lest their adulterous affair be uncovered and to outrun heartbreak, but now newly-single Sybil has tracked him down to restore him to the bosom of English domesticity. China Doll reacts with displays of pique, trying to inflict embarrassment on Gaskell and Sybil but instead only managing degrade herself in the eyes of both her flame and the rest of the ship’s selection of international flotsam. 

Around the romantic triangle runs a flotilla of colourful characterisation by a heavy-hitter cast of ‘30s actors. Wallace Beery is one of Gable’s crew, Jamesy McArdle, a bullish but covertly romantic lunk given to anaesthetising livestock with drugs and secretly conspiring with a gang of pirates to have the ship raided for a consignment of bullion stowed aboard. C. Aubrey Smith is the line’s owner, gruffly fond of Gaskell (everything Smith ever did was gruff, of course) and appalled that he might chuck over the chance to be his successor and retreat for a life of sitting by the fire. Akim Tamiroff, pate awash with hair grease and face still baby-smooth, plays Romanoff, a White Russian roué romancing an American tourist (Lillian Bond) under her husband’s nose. Lewis Stone is former captain Davids, a nerve-shot relic serving now under Gaskell, having been disgraced by being the only survivor of a pirate attack. Soo Yong is Yu-Lan, a worldly but snotty socialite. Robert Benchley patents his sozzled avatar of the intelligentsia act, stumbling through the film as a boozy writer who barely exists on the same plane of reality as the rest of the passengers. Hattie McDaniel has a brief but funny role as China Doll’s wiseacre companion who wants to inherit her cast-off racy dresses: the two actresses suggest nascent chemistry together that could in a different time have been spun into a long-running buddy comedy series. Russell, still some years before her liberating brush with farce on The Women (1939), is stuck playing politely dull refinement, sounding board for the audience to delight in Harlow’s fraught destabilisation tactics and outright mockery of the hoity types about her, part class rebel and part Harpo Marx with va-va-voom.

The embrace of MGM’s production gloss on this kind of movie could have been onerous, but China Seas crackles with a blend of efficiency in execution and organic sprawl. Director Tay Garnett keeps everything well-oiled. It evokes such works of ripe exotica as Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1931) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941) in story essentials and setting, but feels closer to pre-code films like Union Depot (1932) and evident precursor Grand Hotel (1932), rather than Sternberg’s neverland fantasias. China Seas captures a sense of time and place with all the fecund, cosmopolitan energy of the inter-war period (and its cinema), its wobbling hierarchies and geopolitical patterns described in microcosm, this meeting place of East and West considered as the anatomy of a great and fertile chimera, a place where values are recast and discarded according to the moment’s logic. The film treats its audience like passengers on the Kin Lung, privy to a passing horizon and a host of vignettes comic and exotic—Gaskell’s dubious but amusing piece of street wisdom used to unmask some pirates posing as women, the moon-faced Chinese steward wielding a Tommy gun, Benchley trying to smoke a cigarette in the midst of a typhoon, pounding waves washing a would-be rescuer away repeatedly whilst he remains stewed and oblivious. It’s less a straight melodrama than a tapestry, replete not just with heroes and villains and stakes and dramatic impetus, but also completely distracted and disinterested people, unruly human components in a shuddering mechanism. China Seas betrays the oncoming age of the Production Code as it wiggles through the rapidly closing door, reuniting Gable and Harlow after their hot-and-heavy dalliances on John Ford’s Red Dust (1932) and recasting the three-way travail of that film which also saw Gable’s interest gravitating from Harlow to an interloping lady of finer breeding. But here Gable’s embodiment of a man aspiring to the pallid virtues of communal and conjugal acceptability is more reminiscent of Hollywood’s own yearning for such respectable climes, whilst Harlow’s high-calibre sex appeal, mediated by her ever-evolving skills as an actress, is rendered more sentimental as China Doll flounders with romantic rejection and vengefully turns to the dark side to earn a crust of payback. Garnett does let a wardrobe malfunction slip by almost subliminally when China Doll has a tiff with McArdle, like a farewell for the time being to any trace of Harlow's famously oft-braless bravado and its place in Hollywood film. 

Of course the element that links this film to Sternberg and Howard Hawks is co-screenwriter Jules Furthman, who penned Only Angels Have Wings (1939), where of course Furthman would recycle the theme of a disgraced professional confronting a festering yellow streak and eventual finding redemption through gruelling trials. Garnett isn’t half as interested in that theme as Hawks: Garnett, who like William Wellman had been a WW1 aviator, seems to empathise more with Gaskell as an unswerving professional who adjusts to any climate and eventually decides authenticity is preferable to elevation. Garnett was setting himself up at MGM as a reliable hand, talented at finding a median zone the proclivities of audiences feminine and masculine, able to step between Bataan (1943) and Mrs Parkington (1944) without blinking. Garnett here looks forward to his own best-regarded work as director, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), in studying the intersections of sexual desire and criminal temptation, and happily stokes his leads’ mutual heat, although the major key here is post-Depression insouciance, not post-War psychic dry rot. The macho business blends interestingly here with the feminine-social bitchery as China Doll finds herself looking like a misfire when confronted by Sybil and Yu-Lan’s skill at clay pigeon shooting, casually and coolly blasting their physical and rhetorical distractions. The casting of the support roles cunningly tweaks some of the actors’ familiar types. Stone’s usual aura of gallant, practical integrity, apparent when he played Nayland Smith in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and later when he was Andy Hardy’s father, is effectively undercut as he plays a man desperate for redemption but quite exhausted by the spectacle of his own fetid anxiety: when he does finally recapture his nerve, and he’s confronted by the same cringing fear and ignobility in one of his former persecutors, he sets off to his agonising Calvary with an ever-so-slight curl of his lip in recognising irony. Beery plays another of his big, half-smart bullies, but revels in displaying the weird pathos under McArdle’s bluster.

Garnett constantly shifts camera angles and placements to shake up the familiar stand-and-talk syntax of early sound film, and pulls off some fine displays of technical and analytical filmmaking. There’s a great crane shot utilised twice in the film, laying bare the social and ethnic relations on the ship by starting with the Cantonese human cargo who ride on the open deck, creating little worlds for themselves in such unprotected space, and moving up to the multiracial mandarins of first class, barely noticing the grim business of survival for lower deck folk and the work of the dedicated folk who make their lives a breeze. Action scenes, when they come, are strong if brief, particularly in a bloodcurdling storm sequence when a massive steamroller breaks loose on deck and careens over the top of unfortunate coolies, a tremendously well-staged episode that takes unseemly delight in the sight of crushed bodies. Gaskell snatches a young sailor from out of the way of the mechanical monster thanks to Garnett utilising a clever special effect, before nearly being knocked into the maelstrom himself, whilst Davids cowers in terror. The climax, when McArdle’s plotting comes to a boil and the ship is boarded by pirates, is laced with memorable sadisms, as Davids has his shins splintered with rifle butts and Gaskell gets his foot crushed in a torture boot, rendering their climactic moves to battle the villains excruciating merely to watch. The awkward final note tries to satisfy the needs of both justice and romance, but Beery has a glorious final soliloquy meditating his ardour for his unwitting assassin. It’s all corny stuff of course, pure pulp magazine fodder magnified not by pretensions like spiritual or symbolic dimensions like Strange Cargo (1940) or by auteurist fine-tuning a la Hawks and Ford’s many trips around similar latitudes, but by the sheer élan of the cast and filmmaking.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Face of an Angel (2014)

Michael Winterbottom is a director who shifts from style to style, subject to subject, defined as much by how he chooses to make a film as what he makes, each work an existential leap of faith where form and meaning evolve with each-other. In short, one of his films might look completely different to the last, and yet there are tenaciously recurring ideas and instincts apparent in his career. The Face of Angel represents an attempt by the wayward Brit auteur to unify the multifarious strands of his thematic refrains and his expressive palate. The nominal basis of this tale is the Meredith Kercher-Amanda Knox murder case in Italy and the media frenzy that surrounded it; the real business Winterbottom is interested in is how a half-way authentic artist, even (or especially) one who’s adapted to the vagaries of modern commercial art forms like film, struggles to find personal connection and the right to ambiguity in situations where worldly forces demand immediate polarisation. The result is inevitably messy, a crankish metanarrative stunt about itself – the refusal of a film artist fallen on hard times to succumb to mere tabloid enquiry and instead straining to understand the little corner of hell he’s faced with. Thomas (Daniel Brühl) is a filmmaker who’s still reeling from a breakup with his movie star wife and separation from his young daughter, as well as a coincidental flop he directed. 

Trying to revive his career, he accepts an offer to develop a movie based on a book written by journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale), based on her coverage of a lightly fictionalised version of the Kercher-Knox case, where the victim is called Elizabeth Pryce (Sai Bennett) and the accused, convicted killer Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt). Jessica is currently appealing her sentence when Thomas arrives in Siena, to meet with Simone, absorb the milieu, and start writing a screenplay. Thomas negotiates the twisted streets of Siena and the equally labyrinthine mesh of rumour, theory, prejudiced reckoning of the truth, whilst also wrestling with his own highly dissociated, drifting state. He has a brief affair with Simone, a hardy and self-sufficient single mother and jobbing journo who works for a variety of news sources. He looks on from the mass of media and rubberneckers as Fuller is trotted out for hearings, and listens as Simone and her fellow reporters argue over their different opinions as to Jessica’s guilt. He meets winsome English student Melanie (Cara Delevingne) and shady bohemian landlord Edoardo (Valerio Mastandrea), who seem all too willing to step into roles Beatrice and Virgil, as Thomas envisions filming the murder case through the prism of Dante’s Inferno. He harbours deep anger at his ex-wife and considers her new husband, the man she had an affair with and left him for, to be a sleaze, and he has anguished Skype contacts with his young daughter Bea (Ava Acres). 

To jog himself out of his apathy and feelings of being insulated, Thomas starts taking cocaine, and moves into an apartment owned by Edoardo, who keeps dangling before him the promise of solutions to the mystery of the murder, prodding him to read a screenplay he’s written containing the secrets he’s uncovered. Thomas starts developing a burrowing paranoia in his sleepless and drug-addled state, and soon can’t tell if he’s stumbling into a dangerous situation or simply lapping around the pool of his own lack of inspiration and drive. The further he seems to be moving away from the locus of the hullaballoo of trials and media hacks, however, the closer he seems to be moving towards the murder victim herself, the erased person who cannot speak at all and has been blotted out by the sensation: the title comes from the common ironic reflection on Jessica’s appearance but Thomas instead applies it to the lost Elizabeth, who conflates in his mind variously with Bea, Melanie, and himself. He and Simone talk to judges on the case, to police, and to some of the witnesses and friends of the accused, each locked in their own little space of confusion, satisfaction, or grief.

The Face of an Angel is a failed work in many regards, but it’s certainly a failure of fascinating density and revealing confluence. Here we have Winterbottom the post-modern show-pony of A Cock and Bull Story (2006). The reportorial alertness of Welcome to Sarajevo (1996) and 24 Hour Party People (2002). The wandering diarist of 9 Songs (2004) and The Trip (2010) and the exiled bourgeois of Genova (2008). The litterateur of Jude (1996) and The Claim (2000). The delver into troubled psyches and tormented libidos found in I Want You (1998) and The Killer Inside Me (2010). Almost all of Winterbottom’s artistic facets are on show, except, perhaps most tellingly and frustratingly his fascination with real ugliness and edge: The Face of an Angel tries admirably to deal with the significance of murder in any way but in contemplating murder itself, and yet it remains at arm’s length from scenes of real, raw consequence, reproducing its hero’s habit of moving in devolving circles without quite finding any point of great import or urgent access. The film is the by-product of too many options, too many possible attitudes, as Winterbottom instead gets caught up in presenting exactly that quandary, how a sensitive human deals with a hunt for truth in a world that rides roughshod over it. Winterbottom accumulates cinematic as well as artistic and literary reference points. (1963) is an obvious point of inspiration as ever for Winterbottom who’s often tackled the creative act itself as a theme. The portrait of the investigator fascinated with the image of murdered beauty recalls Laura (1944), the investigator’s addled chase down rabbit holes of non-event are reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Zodiac (2007). The theme of the foreigner in Italy beset by enigmas, like Genova, nods to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back (1973), although Winterbottom would never try to approximate Roeg’s high-style gamesmanship. He prefers the breeziness of a loose structure and the happenstance epiphanies of the shoot. Winterbottom even seems to be trying here to lend the sojourner improv of the Trip films/series to a more serious subject, in a film that begs description in a first-person subheading: how I went to Siena, screwed some gorgeous ladies, snorted good coke, and started getting my shit together by losing it completely.

Winterbottom nonetheless handles the recreations of the media ruckus around the trial scenes with a note-perfect sense of immediacy, and captures the environs of Siena with a crisp, lushly coloured feel for both its beauty and its intestinal-like abysses. Perhaps it’s precisely that quintessentially English brand of surface realism, one Winterbottom is long accomplished at wielding, that he feels he must strain at, as he constantly pushes at the edges of a less liminal sense of the world. But at least here he can’t effectively breach a psychological realm: the few sequences depicting Thomas’ disturbing dreams, as when he imagines himself transformed into a writhing lizard-beast in the streets of Siena or picturing himself as the potential murderer with his wife and her lover cast as victims in bed together, only feel fragmentary and overwrought, gestures of cheap hype in a film that otherwise spurns such effects. As he lets himself be netted by Edoardo’s sinister promises of revelation, Thomas’s paranoid streak, unlocked by his cocaine habit, makes him do some stupid things, but the consequences and revelations are too minor to be worth much dramatically or experientially. A leap into more outright weirdness would have illustrated Thomas’ internal struggles more effectively and entertained more too. Winterbottom is something of an ironist, a portrayer of people often brought down by their own ambitions in the face not of titanic forces but the sheer insipidness of the world, and here he seems easiest observing the minutiae of pettiness, the glad-handing around the board table when Thomas meets with his producers and the coterie of journalists swapping their pet theories about the murder formed by their personal viewpoints and prejudices. 

The business of art and the instant appropriation of crime as public narrative are certainly topics worth tackling, but too little in this narrative combusts. If Thomas was a more persuasive protagonist the film would be stronger, but Brühl, although well-cast, can’t suggest great depth under the surface of an already blandly conceived character. Even when he’s coked to the gills and hanging from a gutter forty feet above the street in a moment redolent of Hunter S. Thompson-esque gonzo adventure, Thomas desperately lacks any real streak of raconteur zeal, an ability to convincingly make events happen where nothing is happening. Delevingne, with her quirky and ragged acting style, ends up stealing the film from both Brühl’s pasty angst and Beckinsale’s symmetrical but perpetually plasticine stolidness, precisely because she’s obviously not as practised as either as an actor but also behaves more naturally on screen. When Thomas and Melanie go wandering together in a quasi-romantic fashion towards the end, the film is surely at its most rambling, but also seems here at last to find purpose, simply hanging out with two natural wayfarers enjoying themselves and escaping the roundelay of enigma and self-reference that dogs Thomas (and Winterbottom) before that. The concluding images moreover leave the film with a nexus of unexpected grace, as Winterbottom mimics his main character in finally making sense of the chaotic experience, pulling together the mass of confusion into a core image, a synthesis and a refinement, the very end as beginning. 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Creation of the Humanoids (1962)

An authentic oddity and paradigm of low-budget science fiction cinema from the early ‘60s, The Creation of the Humanoids depicts a future time after a nuclear war has decimated much of humanity. The remaining enclaves of the species have since become ensconced in super-technological cities, beset by slowly encroaching sterility and aided by an ever-growing populace of androids. Paranoia amongst humans at the increasing superiority of the androids, and their rapidly evolving human-like characteristics, has grown to the extent that a reactionary political group calling itself the Order of Flesh and Blood has started agitating for political action to get rid of the higher-functioning androids. They monitor and pester the mechanical men everywhere except in the one place humans are barred from, the recharging facility for the robots which they have started referring to as “the Temple.” A black market for androids subsists despite the Order's efforts, and the androids are buying up older models and upgrading them with the aid of brilliant but nervous human scientist Dr. Raven (Don Doolittle). Soon it becomes clear that Raven and the most advanced androids are creating life-like "humanoids" and implanting them with human memories extracted from the recently deceased: these creations have no idea they are artificial and continue on with their lives. When members of the Order track one of the black market robots to Raven’s laboratory, the scientist, rather than be captured, is expected to commit suicide. Raven finds he doesn’t have the will to do this, so he has the android, still in the disorientated phase of the implanting procedure, throttle him to death instead. The Order members and policemen break in on this scene and immediately the anti-robot activists presume they have at last an example of a dangerous android.

The Creation of the Humanoids weaves authentic, then cutting-edge sci-fi ideas with a parable for the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the US, as well as a broader contemplation of the tension between the clasping need for psychological security manifesting as reactionary sentiment in the face of rapid scientific change, as it journeys towards a climax that beholds a new frontier for the consciousness and humanity. The androids are referred to with the derogatory nickname “Clickers.” A portion of the plot deals wryly with the prospect of intermarriage. The finale hinges on the discovery of major characters, one of them a bigot, discovering that they’ve been accidentally passing, and further bonded by an act of political terrorism. After the death of Raven, the Order of Flesh and Blood quickly hold a meeting and policy debate over how to exploit the new, perturbing discoveries, with Kenneth Cragis (Don Megowan), one of the Order’s ardent leaders, urging forthright but considered action. He is soon confronted by the damaging report that his sister Esme (Frances McCann) has joined with an android named Pax in “rapport,” a process of psychological bonding very close to marriage. Cragis confronts his sister and Pax in an amusing sequence where Pax exhibits a not-quite-human irony strongly reminiscent of Spock and Data from later generations of Star Trek: “Don’t put me on dear – I have a sense of humour but I’m not creative,” he confesses at one point, before requesting of Kenneth, “Please don’t dislike me too much Cragis – nobody asks to be created.” 

Esme is tellingly characterised as a classic liberal with a touch of bohemia – she works for the rather internet-like future news services and finds rapport with Pax a refreshing breeze after a disastrous marriage as well as a statement of independence from the bigoted upbringing of her and Kenneth’s father, one which Kenneth, although a driven and intelligent scientist, hasn’t yet questioned. “You both would’ve been great back in the days when war was a national pastime!” Esme accosts her brother when he tries asserting pompous authority over her. Kenneth’s own desire is to halt the advance of sterility and achieve immortality, and he falls heavily for Esme’s similarly open-minded friend and neighbour Maxine (Erica Elliot), who works for a pro-android news service. Jay Simms’ screenplay, based very loosely on a novel by Jack Williamson, has something of the talky, heady staginess of a TV drama script of the time: the settings are few and the film is essentially a number of long, involved conversations. The drama is created not by unfolding melodramatic events, but by the flow of exegesis, as the characters, whether with pure logic like the humanoids or with the brittle blends of thought and feeling that compound human reactivity, attempt to work through the problems and epiphanies confronting them. The Creation of the Humanoids is dense with speculative conceptualism beyond just about anything on display found in other genre cinema of the time, and the film has a simple willingness to engage intellectually that feels almost radical. The fusion of thinly-veiled sociology and heady sci-fi metaphor again anticipates Star Trek and its preoccupation with that approach. The narrative bears a crucial resemblance to Blade Runner (1982) in tackling the limitations of liminal identity in the context of a post-apocalyptic age and the evolution of synthetic people, whilst Barry’s film is far more sophisticated on a theoretical level than something like the recently lauded Ex Machina (2015) with its artfully contrived take on ideas this confirms as hoary and superficial. 

The threadbare production is redolent of a very low-budget film, in touches like the Confederate Army-style caps the Order’s foot soldiers wear, and the presence of Dudley Manlove in the cast, who played Eros the alien in Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959). Director Wesley E. Barry and Simms nonetheless showed here what filmmakers could accomplish with limited means, although the participation of two aging former heavyweights of studio film probably imbued a level of technical proficiency: cinematographer Hal Mohr, who accomplishes some beautiful colour effects, and Jack Pierce, the former Universal makeup wizard who had created Boris Karloff’s famous Frankenstein (1931). Here Pierce applied his talents to creating the look of the humanoids, with their bald pates, sickly skin hues, and ball bearing-like eyeballs. Barry had been a popular ingénue in silent film before turning to directing, and his direction here suits the material perfectly with his all but flat mise-en-scène, regarding the characters against limited sets in a manner reminiscent again of TV theatre but also the rectilinear visual approach of early cinema, as well as Fritz Lang’s deliberate systematisation of that style on Die Nibelungen (1924): it’s like someone’s retelling an A.E. Van Vogt novel through the prism of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical movie. Barry, in dealing with a similarly mythic pivot of history to Lang and DeMille, visualises that pivot as a hieroglyphic scrawl where everyone and everything is reduced to a place in a schematic graph, struggling to emerge from the cage of both biology and film technique.

The stylisation of the settings on the other hand closely resembles the covers of sci-fi magazines, with the clashing, saturated hues, whilst the minimalist use of space and shadow in the scene of debate in the Order’s headquarters both eloquently conquers budgetary constraints and evokes a kind of techno-religious architecture, anticipatory of Ken Adam’s concepts for Kubrick and James Bond and John Barry's work on Star Wars (1977) in creating an argot at once futuristic and atavistic. The mood that The Creation of the Humanoids exudes is indefinably weird and acausal, perhaps one reason Andy Warhol was purportedly so fond of it, who might also have been compelled by the portrait of a post-erotic future. The film as a whole feels like a landmark, far more small-scale and subtle than some genre works before and after it, like, say, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but like them marking a vital moment where something shifted, where up-to-date soft sci-fi ideas properly colonised cinema as hard sci-fi ideas had with Destination Moon (1950). The finale, heavily signposted and arrived at less with a sense of answered mystery then with inevitable irony, sees both Kenneth and Maxine unmasked as humanoids, forced to confront their real state by the revived, newly confident Raven, who hopes to give the human race a chance at survival by taking it to another level, whilst trying to meet the instilled needs of the species – love, the belief in identity, sexuality – at the same time. Barry and Simm even touch on the ugliest aspects of the Civil Rights era, as it’s revealed Maxine actually died in a bombing of her office arranged by the Order, an act of terrorism Kenneth signed off on. There are undeniable limitations to The Creation of the Humanoids – there are lines of dialogue that drop like lead and some stiff performances from the no-name cast, and the whole thing can probably be listened to like a radio show as easily as watched. It still stands as a fascinating, highly individual artefact that said something about its own time’s moral quandaries as well as its preemptive daydreams, and, considering all the furore about the same fundamental issues of human coupling and social integrity today as well as the ever-closing dawn of artificial intelligence, still has relevance to ours. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)

Josh Trank’s follow-up to his interesting, well-crafted debut Chronicle (2012) was supposed to be a big event. 20th Century Fox’s last attempt to build a cash cow from the venerable Marvel Comics Fantastic Four property was generally dismissed as lightweight and excessively goofy. Personally I found the two Tim Story-directed entries to be the closest of any recent superhero movies to the broad, innocent, zippy tone of Saturday morning cartoons, and likeable enough for that. But it was dictated by the hive mind of the internet that the franchise should move in the same pseudo-serious direction as Batman and Superman. Trank seemed a good choice to accomplish this, as a young, talented maverick who had displayed the right conceptual imagination to bring vaguely realistic emotions and youth audience concerns to fantastic material. As it turns out, his Fantastic Four has been generally deplored and declared a flop following a gruelling and fractious shoot: critics have obviously been waiting for a stray member of the superhero herd to slaughter without fear of fanboy reprisals, and Trank himself fuelled the fire by trash-talking the final, compromised product released into theatres. Fantastic Four does clearly bear the usual warning signs of behind-the-scenes struggles. The finale is rushed and tacked-on in a manner that resembles B-movies from the ‘40s when plots needed to be suddenly resolved in the last ten minutes, and gaps in the story development do beg the question whether anything like the originally intended film was fully shot. And yet I have to say it: Trank’s misshapen, ungainly shambles is still the most interesting of the big superhero films released this year, surpassing Marvel’s enjoyably adequate entries Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man by possessing actual dashes of originality and depth of purpose. 

Reed Richards (Owen Judge) is introduced as chubby-cheeked schoolkid whose precocious genius and home-made teleporter design are met with adult disdain, but he finds a pal in mechanically-minded Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), whose family junkyard Reed pilfers parts from. Their first attempt to make Reed’s design work blacks out the neighbourhood and pulps the first object to be transported, but still sort-of works, and years later, when Reed and Ben have grown into the forms of Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, they exhibit a more refined version at their school science fair. Still dismissed as charlatans by their science teacher (Dan Castellaneta!), they do attract the attention and admiration of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), a noted scientist working on a similar project. He also has a habit of bringing bright young things under his wing, including his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), whilst his son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) indulges a taste for speed and reckless behaviour as a means of acting out. Franklin employs Reed to help improve upon the teleporter his company has built, designed by scruffy, paranoid tech nerd Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). This brains trust allies well for the most part, although Victor resents Reed and Sue’s evident connection. Soon they have the teleporter working so well that Reed invites Ben to go with him, Victor, and Johnny on a drunken excursion to a different dimension to ensure their names are forever inscribed as the first pan-dimensional explorers. But on the primal, protean alien world they discover, they encounter strange sentient lava and set off an eruption that seems to kill Victor and leaves all of them, even Sue who stayed behind but still catches the wave of radiation transported back with their capsule, affected in strange and terrifying ways.

Trank’s models are obvious, with dashes of Alien (1979) apparent in the visualisation of the alternate Earth and the motif of gross transformation after such a venture, and David Cronenberg, in the attempt to contemplate just how powers like the foursome’s might work in the real life and how such perversions would impact on their psyches, and a visual palate reminiscent of The Fly (1986). These ideas are, of course, blended with the familiar comic’s template of a gang of young, bright, difficult personalities forced to mesh as a team after being dubiously endowed with traits far beyond the ordinary. Reed is glimpsed gruesomely splayed out like a butterfly specimen with his newly rubbery limbs, whilst Ben, now a hulking rock thing becomes a sullen, shadow-seeking depressive, Sue has difficulty remaining present in reality, and Johnny blazes from toe to crown. This is obviously the part of this tale that most interested Trank, and most clearly recalls the focal points of Chronicle. He posits Ben as the product of an abusive childhood like Chronicle’s tragically unbalanced antihero: The Thing’s famous catchphrase “It’s clobberin’ time” is revealed, with sour humour, to be what his brother used to say to him before beating him up. Reed becomes Ben’s preferred brother figure, but when Reed flees and goes underground, leaving the others to become caged experiments and puppets of government creeps, Ben turns resentful and accusatory. Franklin’s business partner Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) sells the idea to the military of making these freakish by-products into human weapons. They use Ben as a super-soldier on covert ops, keeping him obedient with promises of curing his condition, and dangle the same offer in front of Johnny. Hopes of rebuilding the totalled teleporter are foiled without Reed’s input, and finally Franklin begs Sue to track him down with her pattern-recognition talents. Reed is cornered and captured in Latin America, but when he does concede to rebuild the transporter, finds something truly terrifying waiting in the other dimension.

I like that Trank and company spend quite a bit of time setting up their story and characters, yearning to turn origin story, usually dismissed as dramatic nicety or lumpen McGuffin, into a full-blown tale of sci-fi daring and Faustian self-sabotage. The accident that befalls the young heroes is the direct result of their own brilliance and callow folly. This allows Trank to partly escape the air of suffocating expedience that sabotaged Marc Webb’s similarly mercenary The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) reboots, although he grazes the edges of some other franchise influences. Johnny and Ben’s fascination for mechanics and hot-rods suggesting a limp attempt to net some of the Fast and Furious fans. The long process by which the titular quartet are gathered and remade may have been intended as the first act of a real epic, but the relatively chamber drama-like scenes and conceptually restricted settings suggest perhaps not, and therein probably lies a greater part of the cause for studio panic. The idea of turning Fantastic Four into a 1950s-style sci-fi think-piece has a lot of appeal for me: at a time when superhero flicks are levitating whole cities, a bunch of eggheads arguing scientific morality in a dimly lit room feels near-revolutionary. The tweaks employed here to make the characters seem edgy and with it trend close to corny – Sue has a penchant for Portishead, which would have made her seem really cool in 1995 (I say that as another fan) – but are also occasionally smart: Von Doom, rather than a snooty tycoon, is made a particularly scruffy, cynical tech nerd, one whose isolate misanthropy meshes perfectly with otherworldly powers to make him the world’s most dangerous Gamergater.

One aspect of this film that was never going to work was casting Teller as Reed: however effective he is playing the class creep in the Divergent films and getting slapped about in Whiplash (2014), Teller lacks anything resembling leading man value or even nerdy charm. Bell, Mara, and Jordan are all very talented actors and indeed ones I’ve been hoping would get a ticket to the big leagues for a while now. They fare better than Teller, but still don’t get as much space to strut their stuff as they deserve. Bell’s Ben is superfluous to the story in the first half and Jordan’s Johnny is poorly served in the second. Cathey’s intense, stern but caring Storm is a stand-out performance, whilst Nelson injects some sleazy verve as the regulation corporate villain. The elephant in the room with this Fantastic Four is that exactly when it reaches the point of truly taking off, it falls apart, and it’s all too obvious why: I don’t think I’ve seen a film with a more obvious lurch into a studio-mandated patch job since the last reel of The Exorcist III (1990). Victor returns to the narrative about the same distance into the story that Lex Luthor appears in Superman (1978), but instead of gearing up for a grand battle of wills like that work (one that believed in storytelling), we get unleashed chaos in the Storm labs by a psycho superman that more resembles the hocus-pocus in The Lazarus Effect (2015), and then a special effects finale where the effects seem to have been borrowed from some mid-‘90s SyFy Channel show. This premature climax truly blows its wad over all the work that has come before it, without any satisfaction or sense in seeing the Four unite to defeat their enemy. It’s very clear that what we were delivered here is the discarded rump of a potentially fine film. But of course, the narratives of Hollywood success dominate how everyone talks about these things: no matter how dumb and lazy the Marvel films can get, they’re still popular so they must be good, and Fantastic Four, no matter its qualities, must be bad.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Backcountry (2014)

aka Blackfoot Trail

Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are a handsome couple heading out for a backwoods adventure. Alex, who has moved disinterestedly between professions and is currently working as a landscape gardener, has experience as a woodsman. He’s not so quietly happy to have Jenn, an articulate and confident lawyer, depending on him for a change. He intends to take her to a remote, beautiful lake deep in a national park along the so-called Blackfoot Trail. A park ranger (Nicholas Campbell) warns Alex that the trail has been closed, but Alex presses ahead without telling Jenn. At their first campsite at the edge of the high country, Alex gets talking with an Irish trekker, Brad (Eric Balfour), who claims to be a trail guide in the park, and shares the fish he’s caught with the couple. Charged masculine bullishness and paranoia arcs between Alex and Brad, leading to a confrontation, but Brad eventually backs off when Alex responds to his prods with grim-faced honesty, and departs. Alex leads Jenn on to the wilderness, and when he saws the paw print of a bear on the trail, takes her on a detour along a cruder trail. Alex’s certainty about the lie of the land begins to falter in the face of strange landscapes and gnawed deer carcasses left by the trail, as well as an injured toe that makes his progress doggedly painful. Finally, when he thinks they’ve reached their destination, the couple are instead confronted by a vista of wilderness, and the lingering tensions between them erupt, as Jenn, infuriated, accosts Alex as a loser who’s endangered them through his attempts to show off, until he sheepishly reveals the reason he was so intent on making the journey against all obstacles, as he hoped to propose to her at the lake. The couple soon realise however that being lost and hungry count amongst their lesser worries, as a large, cautious but formidable black bear is tracking them through the forest.

I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu watching Backcountry, the debut feature directing work of actor Adam MacDonald, who stars alongside Peregrym in the TV series Rookie Blue. The feeling of familiarity is not entirely MacDonald’s fault. Along with Into the Grizzly Maze (aka Red Machine, 2014), Backcountry is the second killer bear movie released lately amongst a recent spate of man-vs-nature dramas. Such works hark back to the days of backwoods horror flicks like Grizzly (1976), Claws (1977), and Prophecy (1979), as well as unavoidable precursors The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1975). Here there’s also the influence of more starkly serious, allegorical takes on the dangers of venturing off the beaten track, exemplified by Deliverance (1972). In terms of dramatic method and focus, Backcountry closely resembles Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek and also recalls Jeremy Lovering's In Fear (both 2014). As with those films, MacDonald takes a young couple on a cross-country adventure that segues into violent ordeal, as a means of exploring both the narrow line between civilised mores and primal instability, and also the points of fracture in contemporary male-female relationships, as opposed to the homosocial focus of Deliverance and most other, earlier survivalist tales. Like Goldthwait, MacDonald signals something slapdash under the male member of the couple’s self-assumed aura of prowess early on by showing him acting goofy behind the wheel of a car, and acerbically describes the ritual back-to-nature skinny-dipping, supposedly an expression of free-spirit bravado, as a challenge laced with wordlessly acknowledged implications. Doubtless, this is an interesting coincidence of intention, revealing something consistent going on in the minds of directors dabbling in low-budget horror at the moment. Where Goldthwait’s film was droll and eccentric in leading up to its cruel punch-lines and Into the Grizzly Maze a fun-cheesy throwback to a ‘80s style monster movie, Backcountry is rather intensely serious and determined in its desire to articulate its ideas to the point of being overdrawn in places, in spite of its minimalist storytelling and cast. 

MacDonald was apparently inspired by a real-life event, but he doesn’t settle for mere docu-drama effect, and goes beyond making the characters blank avatars for normality faced with the unknown, attempting instead to study the way situational and character dynamics fuse and combust. MacDonald amplifies the background strains on Alex and Jenn by making them disparate avatars of class as well as woodland experience and gender norms, and privileges the viewer in noting Alex’s various decisions to ignore or tactically avoid signs of threat. Alex’s uneasy square-off against interloping Brad, whose blend of aggressive bonhomie and fishy traits – his Oyrish brogue contradicts his claims to have grown up in these here parts – strains too much to achieve a note of tense “ambiguity” whilst underlining the readiness of these men-folk to snap into time-honoured stances of competition before the worthy mate. MacDonald offers up Alex as exemplar of macho arrogance still subsisting under the veneer of fun-loving hipster, grazing against the outer edges of schematic issue-mongering: the mansplainer as villain. MacDonald undercuts and complicates this to a certain extent when the object of Alex’s emphatic focus is revealed, comprehending if not absolving his mistakes. Alex is allowed a certain luckless pathos once his hopes are dashed and the gaps in his relationship cruelly exposed, and also given him a least a glint of nobility in his hopes of expanding Jenn’s game but constricted experience and granting their union a reference point to something outside the usual proclivities of urbanite coupling and its place within the flux of modern life. Alex’s attempts to improvise prove his undoing, however, in the face of the dark side of the commune-with-nature fantasy and the reality of inimical forces lurking in the woods, the very thing civilisation has been created to hold at bay. 

Backcountry is exceptionally well-made, with MacDonald making use of hand-held camerawork and spacy audio-visual effects that could have become laboured clichés but instead prove judiciously handled. MacDonald backs up his sometimes over-determined themes with solidly-crafted storytelling, with plotting that functions effectively on the level of real-world logic as well as illustrated nightmare: from the warning that the trail is closed, to the tell-tail stains of blood on Alex’s socks from his mangled toe that attract the bear, and the various ill-fated moves he makes to avoid trouble instead exacerbating the predicament, MacDonald deploys detail with sparing but cumulative effect. A gruelling physical challenge in climbing down a teetering waterfall met late in the film is cleverly anticipated in earlier dialogue, teasing out another notion the film is fascinated by, the moment where rhetorical knowledge crashes headlong into practical application. MacDonald offers a mirroring scene to the moment in Jurassic World (2015) where the heroine led on a monster with a flare, swapping that film’s comedic approach for the sight of Jenn stumbling in the night, her flare the only barrier between her and the teeth in the dark, but both films are tellingly fascinated by the spectacle of simultaneous exterior exposure and emerging interior armament in ill-starred women, far out of their depth but eventually proving hardy and capable.  

Most importantly, when it comes to the crunch (so to speak), Backcountry swerves from charting the ephemeral play of human relationships to outright horror with a sense of sudden, blunt, unstoppable calamity. Here, Backcountry, although not always so delicate in getting to the point, suddenly achieves a powerful effect, one more contemporary horror films ought to emulate, in not simply offering suspense or gore pyrotechnics but a sense of the disorientating brutality of utterly inimical situations, and confronting the audience with a truly awful proposition: what is it like to watch (and hear) your lover being consumed by a wild animal? In this regard Backcountry does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the classic films it evokes, whilst also in some ways daring to go past them. Backcountry distils the essence of the genre, a singular, hideous pivot of fate that comes and goes, perhaps with a test passed, perhaps not, but with the only assurance being that assurance is lost. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Wake of the Red Witch (1948)

This unusually classy Republic Pictures production, adapted from a book by Garland Roark, is loaded with all the gaudy trinkets of an exotic adventure tale – windjammers, shipwrecks, pearl diving, tiki gods, hula dancers, murder, intrigue, hints of the supernatural, and deadly cephalopods. But Wake of the Red Witch has a peculiar atmosphere that distinguishes it from the sprawl of such tales made in Hollywood back in the day, including obvious precursor Reap the Wild Wind (1942). Loaded with literary ideas, it also fits rather neatly into the late ‘40s noir zone it was released amidst, with an emphasis on antiheroes, psychological fixations and manias, and fascist power expressed through capitalist will, as well unusual structuring that emphasises a densely layered sequence of motives. Director William Ludwig had been making films since the silent era: he handled several films starring Wayne, including WW2 actioner The Fighting Seabees (1944) and the much clunkier anti-commie thriller Big Jim McLain (1952), whilst his last feature work was The Black Scorpion (1957), an occasionally overripe monster movie that nonetheless has an inky, effectively nightmarish texture. The first half-hour of this film is particularly odd, as borderline-Sadean ship captain Rall (Wayne) supervises a punishment devised to chastise anyone who fights on board his vessel: the two quarrellers are forced to pound each-other to bloody pulps. 

When mate Rosen (Gig Young), a hastily signed-on crewman unfamiliar with Rall’s methods, speaks up to end the bout, Rall tests his mettle by threatening to have him locked in the brig. Rall draws him instead into his plot to wreck their ship, the Red Witch, a vessel belonging to the ubiquitous shipping line Batjack. The Red Witch carries a load of gold belonging to the line and its shareholders, and Rall ostensibly plans to return the wreck later and retrieve the treasure. To pull off this crime, Rall and Rosen conspire to fool another senior member of the crew, solid company man Mr. Loring (Jeff Corey), about their position. As intended, the Red Witch crashes onto a reef and sinks beneath the waves. Rosen soon finds that he’s signed up for a far more tangled melodrama than he thought. Rall’s conspiracy brings down the shadow of Batjack’s wrath upon them. The company’s sinister owner Mayrant Sidneye, has a reputed penchant for malevolent and relentless payback against enemies, and when, at a court of enquiry, Batjack declines to have Rall and Rosen prosecuted for their actions, they’re left to suspect they’re being saved for a more personal and exacting lesson. Rall and Rosen subsist as pearlers and fishermen for months whilst waiting for a chance to return to the wreck, all the while sensing Sidneye’s manifold spies across the South Pacific. Finally, following a chart sold to them purporting to reveal a pearling bed at a remote island, the men find they’ve stepped directly into a well-laid trap arranged by Sidneye (Luther Adler) himself. 

The paranoid, cryptic atmosphere of the first third is distinctive, as Batjack is described as an organisation of grand power and menace that can deceive men even within the vast reaches of the Pacific, like some distant precursor to the monolithic organisations of The Parallax View (1974) or Alien (1979), whilst Sidneye is made to seem, in abstract, a figure of Mabuse-like spidery control. This movement resolves with images loaded with lingering, eerie power – the Red Witch sinking silently under the water, a wall of spikes rising from the sea to entrap Rall’s lugger, and Sidneye being carried out of the jungle as a crippled potentate by his native minions, to cluck over Rall’s position with satisfied largesse. Rosen is tantalised by Sidneye’s niece Teleia Van Schreeven (Adele Mara), who warns Rosen about the danger he’s in lest Sidneye’s mood spoil. Sidneye makes a ploy to win Rosen’s loyalty instead, and launches into a lengthy explanation by way of flashbacks as to how he and Rall first met, revealing the deeper purposes behind Rall’s attempt to wound Sidneye and his associates financially. Wake of the Red Witch becomes more conventional here on, but only relatively, as it depicts Rall and Sidneye’s relationship as a kind of lethal romance. Each man embodies qualities the other prizes. Rall has the masculine swagger and rakish gutsiness, Sidneye the readiness to treat anyone and anything as a function of his will and remake the world to suit himself. Of course, a woman was the fulcrum for their love-hate relationship. 

In Sidneye’s account, he came across Rall set adrift by annoyed Pacific islanders, a crucified he-man with sharks circling to gnaw the meat from his bones. Rall seduced Sidneye with the promise of riches as he would Rosen, drawing the shipping magnate to another island with the lure of pearls. Angelique (Gail Russell), the daughter of the island’s French governor Desaix (Henry Daniell), became the object of both men’s affections. Rall, believed holy by the islanders but loathed by Desaix, battled the giant octopus that lorded over the pearling bed and killed it, winning a fortune in pearls which he gave to Sidneye in exchange for mastery of the Red Witch. But when Desaix tried to denounce and shoot Rall, Rall socked him and accidentally knocked him into the natives’ ritual pyre, killing him. Unsurprisingly, this destroyed his romance with Angelique, who married Sidneye instead. Teleia later fills Rosen in on some of the details Sidneye judiciously excluded, including that later Rall and Angelique met again and found their love still potent, and finally she withered away under Sidneye’s thumb, dying like Cathy Earnshaw in her interloping lover’s arms. But the men’s resumed warfare still retains a weird exaltation of mutual jealousy and adversarial challenge. A bomb planted to disable the lugger by one of Sidneye’s underlings proves more powerful than Sidneye’s desired end of crippling the boat required: the device destroys the boat, almost killing Rall and the rest of the crew just after Rall has convinced Rosen to stay behind with Teleia. But the crew survive and Rall returns to taunt the almost delighted Sidneye, leading to a climax in which Rall agrees to retrieve the sunken gold from the precariously perched wreck of the Red Witch.

Overtones of Bronte-esque eternal love and morbid passion blend with the more intellectualised approach to the same themes that so compelled D. H. Lawrence, his interest in the complex intersection of primal urge, psychology, and social structure – Sidneye is finally entrapped like Lord Chatterley in a wheelchair as metaphor for impotence before Angelique and Rall’s continuing ardour, wrestling with the same schism between instinct and control, naturalness and artificiality. Rall and Sidneye’s mutual fixation is explicated complete with Teleia’s suggestion that Sidneye remade Rall as an apt pupil in the school of harsh masterdom, echoed in the same way Rall tries to court Rosen for the same ends. Sidneye is less an overtly destructive villain than a man with great gifts for accumulating life’s successes and slowly throttling them, finally reducing himself to crippled husk, whilst Rall achieves veritable demigod status amongst the islanders for conquering the octopus god, and like many a demigod of classical literature has a fatal flaw. Rall’s neurotic propensity for violence, best stoked to a fine pitch when sodden in alcohol, gains him legendary status but also continually sabotages his best gifts and intentions: he cannot operate cool just as Sidneye cannot operate hot. The unexpected complexity of these major characters as individuals contrasts their sharp relief as products of different cultural viewpoints. Rall is natural man, Sidneye a by-product of civilisation, each masters of their own world and bound in conflict and envy to duel in remote places where neither has immediate advantage. Interestingly, Teleia embodies the alternative as product of two worlds. Ludwig casually undercuts a well-worn cliché when Rosen stumbles upon Teleia bathing nude in a tropical lagoon: she emerges totally unconcerned that he copped an eyeful, and later dons full Victoriana ensemble for dining without a blink of dissonance, a female equivalent of Burroughs original concept of Tarzan. She ultimately becomes not prize and pawn of their duel like Angelique but catalyst for understanding them both as strong but failed experiments in human evolution. 

The problem with Wake of the Red Witch is closely related to the qualities that make it unusual. The odd structure and the complexities of the drama conflict with basic generic niceties of suspense and thrills. Much of the story unfolds in recounted scenes, which means that the narrative lacks urgency, never quite boiling over with the kind of psychodrama it promises, and there’s a lack of action before a finale that lacks a strong stake. Rall risks his life thanks to his own brinkmanship, in a sequence that filches the last reel of Reap the Wild Wind without the elements which made that conclusion exciting. Wake of the Red Witch is too rich to be a merely diverting piece of cine-exotica, but on the other hand, it's too busy to become a truly effective psychological narrative on the level of Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship (1943), to which it does feel spiritually connected. The result is left perched between two poles, of paperback novel romantic adventure and genuinely Conradian saga of interior drama revealed through exterior travails, whilst Ludwig’s evident gifts for striking vision-mongering is only present in fits and spurts. But the film builds to another haunting shot, of Wayne’s face distorting through registers of death-terror and dreamy acceptance as his diving helmet fills with water, an almost Kenneth Anger-like moment of perfervidly numinous imagery. Sidneye rises to his feet Strangelove-like in his shock at losing his spurring antagonist/devotee, whilst one sea salt murmurs “She finally got him!”, meaning the ruined ship claimed her betraying master. The last moments aim for Wagnerian horizons as Rall and Angelique are glimpsed riding the wispy spirit of the Red Witch for the setting sun. Wayne gives a good performance, working up something of the same irate, gnarled intensity that would later serve him so well on The Searchers (1956) when Rall is gripped by his irrational side. The project must have left a mark on the actor, who went on to name his production company Batjac. Meanwhile, according to legend, the giant octopus Wayne fights here was the same one Edward D. Wood Jr stole for use in Bride of the Monster (1953)…