Thursday, 26 February 2009

30 Days of Night (2007)

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The essential thesis of the modern horror film has developed thus: you’re not so special, you hordes of suburban wannabes, so die screaming, piggies. I mean this in the sense that in comparison with the psychologised miasma of a Vampyr or the mythological dreaminess of Whale's Frankenstein, where horror is chiefly conceived through a limited set of characters and it’s the individual moral consciousness that’s really at risk, in modern films grotesque death is almost abstract. People are interchangeable in large part and can be exterminated on mass.


So, by the time 30 Days of Night’s core narrative movement commences, in which a small group of survivors tries to last out the eponymic nocturnal period, you've not met half of the characters you now need to care about before, and there’s not a whole lot to discover about the ones you have. It's a common weakness of graphic novel adaptations, as if someone in Hollywood thinks that greatness of that art-form is that it doesn't need such hoary requirements as human interest. The hapless haemovore bait in 30 Days are lightning sketches of everyday people with everyday problems, sufficiently specific to the setting: horny young refinery workers, pinch-faced middle-aged couples, nutty freedom-seeking frontiersmen and pot-smoking matriarchs. The most substantial pair is the heroic sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his fire marshal wife Stella (Melissa George), who have just separated, it seems, because of his unwillingness to have children. You don’t need anymore do you? What do you need plot for? There’s vampires. They’re eating people. The people don’t wanna be eaten. You need a doctoral dissertation?


And yet, in spite this overeager, headlong rush into Hades, 30 Days of Night is surprisingly good, far ahead of the sick, shallow chomp-and-stomp of the similarly-constructed likes of Alien Vs Predator: Requiem. Even if it hews to the modern trend of razoring back dramatic content to simple essentials, director David Slade believes in atmosphere and intensity, and he expostulates a darkly intelligent (and intelligible) tale. He channels The Fog/The Thing-era John Carpenter in building a sparse, savage survivalist tale, and makes that sparseness work for him. It’s a cruel, blasted world he evokes, beginning with an eerie quiet and resisting heroic hype. The beasts, led by cadaverous, contemptuous Marlow (Danny Huston), terrorise Point Barrow, Alaska, having come with a simple purpose, and reduce matters for its humans to equally simple priorities.


Slade makes his wizened, haggard, Nosferatu-esque vampires ferocious, horribly fast and powerful predators, rendering them unsettling foes – relentlessly inhuman and inimical to any human weaknesses. But they’re also united by a forlorn sense of community as are the people they prey on, and Huston berates a godless universe where there’s only hunger and pain. In the film’s most intense sequences, as when a teenage girl is slowly sliced to ribbons in trying to bait out others, or when Eben’s younger brother (Mark Rendall) is shattered by having to hack off the head of a girl vampire, gains a truly vicious focus that compares worthily with the sensitising horror of predecessors like Night of the Living Dead – the act of both consuming and defending oneself are linked in that each reduces sentience to animalism, far below any moral position. It could also be recent cinema’s most effective vegan tract.


It’s finally a human trait - a capacity not merely to act for self-satisfaction - that drives Hartnett to surrender his humanity and, then, life for others. In all good horror films, the flailing, hurting world has to either have its moral schema re-invented or die. Something intimately terrifying and probably destructive has to be encountered before a new rule of order can be established. Hartnett’s self-sacrifice is the effective Calvary that achieves the rebirth.


Although Slade can’t always win the battle against the short-cut nature of modern effects that counteracts the integral grit of his models, he still conjures a believably tactile environment that strikes the eye as bitterly cold and corrosive to any form of life, and it’s the most beautiful-looking horror film in many years. The film sports some excellent action sequences, notably in the kamikaze rampage of arch-individualist Beau Brower (Mark Boone Jr), and one amazing overhead shot of the vampires’ feeding on the townsfolk that plays literally and thematically as some disinterested god’s view.


Apropos of little, Melissa George and Isla Fisher have come a long way since balancing out each-other in bikini shots in their Home and Away days…


Madame Bovary (1949)

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Vincente Minnelli’s film faced a singular problem: Gustave Flaubert’s book, the pinnacle of the 19th Century realistic novel, is hostile in method and purpose to the gloss of classic Hollywood, because its material is precisely about the chasm between life and romanticisation. Casting the likes of Louis Jourdan as Emma’s aristocratic lover is a touch that dances close to turning it into the kind of breathless exotic romance that Emma laps up, and Jennifer Jones’ apple cheeks and James Mason’s voiceover construct a more sentimental creature than the woman Flaubert etched.
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The framework – Flaubert’s trial for obscenity over the novel – is problematic because it’s a filmmaker’s confrontation with the Hays Code, equally inimicable to tales of feckless adultery that resolve with suicide, and also because it’s used as a neat device to introduce a softer authorial voice that pleads for empathy for Emma, at odds with the novelist Flaubert’s self-effacing voice and rigorously ironic analysis of the situation and characters. Where the film needs dirt and sex, it has the bland Hollywood idea of rural town life. Too often buried substance is alchemised into platitude, as in the painful concluding moments where Mason has to batter us with a moral.
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Despite these limitations, Minnelli's Bovary is an intriguing and finally affecting work that, like Jones’ performance (she’s not generally an actress I like), improves as it proceeds, deepens, and turns sour. Minnelli tended to put the melody in melodrama, turning his dramatic films into dances of image and emotion, for better or worse. Appropriately, then, Bovary finds its feet during the brilliantly staged waltz sequence that sees Emma intoxicated by motion and the promise of having finally achieved her fantasy, to the extent where Jourdan orders the windows smashed to avoid having her faint and so ruin their dance, whilst her husband (Van Heflin, born, or at least dictated by type-casting as weak husbands, to play Charles Bovary), fleeced at cards and loaded, lurches about, desperately calling her name, the plaintively ugly call of mediocre reality. It’s a sequence where the technique fuses together perspective, psychology and theme with perfect grace, and achieves a perfect note of hysteria – the mad clash of worlds bends Emma’s mind in a knot. It’s also highly inventive cinema of the first order, not usually found in starchy cinematic adaptations.
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The final quarter is necessarily grim, and the more hypnotic for being so, in watching the train wreck of Emma’s life. Emma’s choice of fantasy sees her worn away relentlessly, falling into somewhat dutiful passion in her consolation romance with Dupuis (Alf “Christopher Kent” Kjellin), a penurious law clerk pretending to be a lawyer, reduced to grovelling with Jourdan and creditors, until the numbing end sees a shopboy encountering her in a darkened drug store, like a vampiric wraith, except rather than consuming someone else, she’s wolfing down handfuls of arsenic with the same reckless gusto she ate life. A film that pays a salutary nod to the passions and sorrows (or lack thereof) of its characters, it’s a work of a certain independent grace.
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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Command Decision (1948)

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A companion piece, after a fashion, to the following year’s superior Twelve O’Clock High, both films deal with the vicissitudes of command in terms of the daylight bombing campaign run by the US Army Air Force in WW2. Command Decision, adapted from a play by William Wister Haines, gains great heft and bite from a good cast – not least of whom is Clark Gable, giving probably his best performance, one which gains in believability considering Gable’s noted war service: he’s terse, grouchy, harsh, and ever so slightly distraught, perfect for his role. Beneath him there’s some excellent players – Ray Collins, Charles Bickford, John McIntire, Edward Arnold - and also an eye-catching collection of bland male ingĂ©nues bound to populate B-movie heroism for the next decade, including Van Johnson, Marshall Thompson, and Cameron Mitchell.
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There’s no Catch-22 or Strangelove-esque mockery in sight here. Beyond superficial similarities, both this and Twelve O’Clock High explore an issue rarely analyzed with much depth by war films – the savage calculus of death and the effect this has on the men charged with giving orders and winning, moral men who accept their vicious task as morally necessary and proceed from there. In this case it’s Gable’s Brigadier Casey Dennis, who’s desperately trying to knock out three German factories from which are producing parts for a new German jet fighter that could tip the balance of the war back in the Luftwaffe’s favor. But his efforts are terribly bloody, as he loses a third of his force on every mission, and as well as the men in the air, it’s grinding up the guys on the ground too. Worse still, this “maximum effort” coincides with a visit by a contingent of politicians, including Arthur Malcolm (an as-ever splendidly pompous Edward Arnold), whose son is one of Dennis’ pilots, and is receiving a DFC. Dennis’s superior, Maj. Gen. Kane (Walter Pidgeon), has spent years desperately currying favor with political overlords to get appropriations and support for the air arm, and has to choose between Dennis’ unswerving exigency, which will accomplish the necessary mission, and replacing him with the theoretically more pliable Brig. Garnet (Brian Donlevy), to save the aerial warfare program he’s fought so hard to build.
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It’s a film with a message – let the soldiers to do their jobs or don’t make them do them in the first place – that resists an easy partisan political formulation, though director Sam Wood’s conservatism is evident in the unshakeable nobility of his soldiers – even the politically-mindful Kane maintains his dignity. Wood’s sleek direction admirably accepts the limitations of the play and keeps things relentlessly ground level. The only moment resembling an action scene is an admirably handled sequence in which Gable attempts to guide down a crippled B-17. That’s also notable as one of the few moments where Wood offers a close-up, momentarily recontextualising the war effort and abstract horror as personal devastation.
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Otherwise he maintains master shots and group framings, befitting the theatrical dynamics of what he’s shooting, but also absorbing the fashion in which power relations, as men yield and assume varying forms of authority – military, character, and moral. One telling moment sees Arnold and his party forced by intruding news to yield their place in the foreground to the soldiers, to Arnold’s stung-looking disapprobation, and he vacillates in the middle ground. This attentive framing pays off in the climax of the sequence: a standing Gable dominates the frame, as he is devastated by hearing of a friend’s death; Arnold attempts to berate him from a sitting position, failing to rise from his seat as his son, who holds the other edge of the frame, an actual fighting man literally and metaphorically marginalised, suddenly intervenes and berates him from centre-frame. The construction of the shot embodies the moral character of the moment.

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Decision is essentially a melodrama dressed up as a truly incisive ethical drama with its corny (if historically based) secret weapon Macguffin, some untrammeled theatrical verbosity and weak comic relief, and some old-hat dramatic tricks. It doesn’t have any of the poetic intensity of Twelve O’Clock High, nor the psychological acuity – its heroes furrow their brows and look troubled but don’t show any real signs of being worn down by it, so that Dennis in the end can fly off to a grandiose farewell. One long speech reminds me that Pidgeon had a marvelous voice and very little acting talent. Nonetheless, Decision maintains the attention worthy of a mature piece of work because it accepts some bitter facts and tries to find the best way out.

The Password Is Courage (1962)

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Predating, anticipating, and in some ways outdoing The Great Escape, for both detail and comic value extracted from the arts of outwitting Germans and escaping from prison camps, Courage is both a rollicking good time and a disturbing exercise in selective storytelling. The ironically namd Charlie Coward, played with charm and zest by Dirk Bogarde, was a Sgt-Major of artillery who made an art out of sabotage and skiving when a POW in WW2. Made with an appealing, raw-looking early '60s naturalism, with its economic location shooting and lack of gloss, much of the plot and process is astoundingly similar to the following year’s blockbuster. The film is sustained by a series of genuinely hilarious set-pieces of destruction and mayhem – many of them absolutely true – that Coward and his compadres accomplish with native cunning and sheer gall, from passing off the plans of a washing machine as a secret weapon, to arranging the destruction of an entire work camp, in a sequence that fittingly quotes Buster Keaton. The film even manages to fit in a decent romantic interest (with Maria Perschy’s comely optometrist/resistance chick).
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But in another sense, the film perverts Coward’s tale in rather shameful ways. He had a good command of German (which he doesn’t have in the film, for convenient tension-building), an ability which saw him appointed as a Red Cross liaison when he and other British POWs were shipped to Auchwitz III. There he earned the nickname “The Count of Auschwitz” for the part he played in smuggling food and weapons into the death camp, and arranging a system for saving lives that rescued some four hundred Jewish slave labourers. For this he has a tree in the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles. To sacrifice such a tale for an amusing comic-drama takes the cake for trivialising. Nonetheless, Coward worked as an advisor on the film: that’s him with Bogarde on the set in the picture.