Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Keeper of the Flame (1943)

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An intriguing work from George Cukor, written by Donald Ogden Stewart, who, wittingly or not, repeats elements of his script for The Philadelphia Story in an urgently different context, presenting Spencer Tracy as the idealistic journalist who gains access to the mansion on the hill, but instead of kooky Brahmins, uncovers arrogance, conspiracy, and treachery.


Tracy’s journalist, Stephen O’Malley, a compound of William Shirer and Edward Murrow, has recently returned from Europe haunted by visions of dictatorship and genocide, in time to get in on the orgy of mourning that follows the death of Robert Forrest, a magnate, essayist, publisher, and promoter of “Americanism”, famed for his “simple, homespun, Lincolnesque” qualities, suggesting, in the way people talk about him, a mixture of Will Rogers, Charles Foster Kane, and Ayn Rand. O’Malley sets out initially to celebrate a real cultural hero, but as he digs begins to smell a rat, when he comes into close contact with the people who surrounded him, including his troubled wife Christine (Katherine Hepburn), who’s pushed to work with O'Malley by the unnervingly devoted and perspicacious secretary, Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf). O’Malley and Christine begin a wary, not-quite-romantic pas-de-deux, until the rat, it becomes clear, is the nature of power and hero-worship, infected by a dose of Fascism, as Christine finally reveals to O’Malley that her husband had become convinced of his own superiority, and wanted to bring pseudo-Nazi rule to America.



Keeper plays like a generic rewrite of Citizen Kane (1941), whilst making a more specifically contemporary and focused – and more paranoid – statement about the dangers of handing too much trust to individuals garbed in laurels of triumph, both patriotic and capitalistic. It plays out, however, more under the influence of Hitchcock, evoking Rebecca (1940) in the sense of Forrest’s vast estate, filled with little cottages and remote houses containing more than one closeted skeleton, and, like his Saboteur (1943), looking for threats in picturesque places (all three films evoke hushed forests and cavernous mansions as breeding grounds of inequity and dissolution). You know when you see the stone sphinxes that line the Forrest’s gated driveway that something’s rotten in the state of Vermont.


Thanks to Hepburn’s conniving with Louis Mayer behind the scenes, the political themes were subordinated to a go-nowhere romance, and Cukor did not have the gifts of Welles or Hitchcock for sustaining the tension of moral drama. And so Keeper doesn’t quite work as a thriller, romance, or a cautionary drama, too cautious for the former and too generic for the latter. But the themes it evokes are still of vital relevance, as equates spin doctoring and blind patriotism as potential tools for dictatorship in equal degree, and asks interesting questions: is image more important than truth in a time of war? How much power do we cede to opinion makers and figures of moral authority? What is the nature of heroism in a democratic society? Timely indeed. The film only truly stumbles right at the end, with a tacked-on bit of villainy from Whorf to provide an uninspired climax, and a final, silly proposition to replace one false martyr with another.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio, 2008)

In honour of this film's subject, I recommend downloading a pirated copy of the soundtrack album, which features a cornucopia of excellent '60s hits.

Then, you guys (or that-way inclined girls) can enjoy this picture:

...and you girls (or that-way inclined guys, or just anyone who's been dying to see Nick Frost with his kit off) can enjoy this picture:

...and I've saved you the task of sitting through this witless, pointless, brainless, sexist, disjointed, utterly desperate mess.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Vacancy (2008)

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A troubled, soon-to-be-divorced couple (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale), stumble into one of those urban legend-ish tales that are always befalling city slickers when they drive off the main road, when their car breaks down, forcing them to spend the night in a scungy hotel that has an extremely dark secret.

Although it succumbs to last-act lapses in logic, a back-story tragedy for its central couple that’s clumsily employed and explored, and that common syndrome where utterly human villains start charging around like mindless, unstoppable zombies, Vacancy, whilst inferior to Brian Bertino’s similar The Strangers, is still an effective and gripping chiller in its own right.

The plotting is nothing special, but director Nimrod Antal’s handling has grace and power, from noting a disarming poetry in a sparkler’s shower of light, to the thunderous hide-and-seek action, exploiting the siege situation for all it’s worth. Beckinsale’s as dull a screen presence as ever, but Frank Whaley offers a delicious performance as an evil Ned Flanders, and Wilson’s unexpectedly effective job, as a wounded husband who’s both cleverer than the usual run of screen psycho-bait but not quite as clever as he needs to be, helps sustain a refreshingly minimalist contemporary horror film.

Frozen River (2008)

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That Melissa Leo rocks is a given. Otherwise, underneath its indie-school charm and digi-cam realism, Frozen River is an interesting, involving, but not entirely persuasive social melodrama very similar in its fashion to the kind Joe Mankiewicz and Richard Brooks made in the ‘50s. Writer-director Courtney Hunt knock us over the head with some hammy symbolism, as Leo’s distraught, abandoned mother and Misty Upham’s resentful, bigoted Mohawk miss strive to live up to the “American Dream” of advertising brochures, by engaging in a spot of people smuggling over the frozen St Lawrence river. The screenplay, and the actresses, initially conjure an effective, wryly tense journey when the jockeying for the upper hand between its two central women drives the story. In some ways it’s actually a kind of western in mumblecore garb.


Like too much contemporary indie cinema, however, the surface, tactile immediacy is betrayed by a series of marketplace-fit plot arcs, in what’s really a girl-power buddy movie. The attempts to weave a general socio-political net, tying together the failing heroines with fears of terrorism and immigration, go a couple of steps too far without really engaging, and a last-act swerve into vaguely noir action and morally grave reckoning is unpersuasive. Such lapses disappoint given the effective location filming and persuasive sense of oppressive straits. It’s not bad, but might have been far better.



Sunday, 9 August 2009

Ten Little Indians (1965)

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An Agatha Christie adaptation directed by George Pollock, who had helmed the earlier Miss Marple films with Margaret Rutherford, this version of Ten Little Indians is both very cheesy and rather enjoyable. Ten people, invited to a mountaintop chateau which can only be accessed by cable car (the great number of which in movies always begs from me the question of how, by whom, and what the hell for, they were built), arrive to find themselves without their host, a Mr U.N. Owen, and also soon realise that none of them have met him.

The gathering resembles a twisted Gilligan’s Island: a retired Judge (Wilfred Hyde-White), a cop (Stanley Holloway), a rugged, taciturn American (Hugh O’Brian), a fusty general (Leo Genn), a glamorous movie star (Daliah Lavi), a boozy doctor (Dennis Price), a comely secretary (Shirley Eaton), an irritating pop idol (Fabian), and two shifty servants (Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe).



Pollock builds tension well, and his style blends the rigorous reductiveness of Christie’s scenario (her novel is still the seventh highest selling book of all time) with a reconfigured Alpine setting filmed with only the lightest edge of shadowy stylisation, and emphasises a perverse edge in the murders, with the unseen killer’s gloved hands wielding large knives, jabbing hypodermics, and knocking out rock climbing pinions.


Thus Pollock’s film looks on from the drawing-room whodunit ghoulishness towards the giallo genre, just beginning to develop. It’s produced by renowned schlockmeister Harry Allan Towers, who would soon be employing Lee and directors like Jesus Franco on a seemingly never-ending film shoot. The crisp black-and-white photography and the cast of stalwarts, and the gorgeous Eaton and Lavi, a pairing irresistible for ‘60s fetishists like myself, make it all pass swiftly.


It does suffer from modish touches, like a clanging jazz score, not one but two leering Eaton-in-her-underwear scenes (not that I’m complaining), and a sex scene between Miss Goldfinger and television’s Wyatt Earp, whose chest is so hairy he resembles a black bear from the neck down. And then there’s the “Whodunit Break”, in which a clock appears on screen and counts down for a minute, which, at least in my case, gave an opportunity for paralytic laughter rather than time to nut out the killer’s identity. “We’ve given you the opportunity to solve the mystery,” croaks the voiceover, “but we doubt that you’ve guessed right.” To which the appropriate response is: “Kiss my ass, and get on with the film.”


The finale retreats, like all the film versions (except, amusingly, for a 1987 Russian version), from the novel’s almost existential annihilation of the whole cast, but it does set up a decent double-bluff to reveal the killer and get the lovers out safely.

Sakuran (2006)

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A pictorially and aurally creative, occasionally intoxicating film, Sakuran could be described as a native cultural and feminist riposte to the hopelessly Hollywood Memoirs of a Geisha, as it tells the story of a girl sold at a young age to a house of concubines and rises to become a sought-after courtesan. Sakuran tackles this story with a highly artificial visualisation that’s one part Vincent Minneli, one part ukiyo-e, and sports a soundtrack as aggressively cut-and-paste as that of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2005), being, perhaps not so coincidentally, another film made by a woman director which deals with a female protagonist entrapped by a highly formalised historical milieu. In both films, the approach resembles an assault on the niceties of the period genre, part and parcel with questioning the values of the period observed.


Adapted from Moyoco Anno’s manga by Yuki Tanada, Sakuran is the directorial debut of Mika Ninagawa, the daughter of a highly respected stage director, and her movie delights in its own gaudy artifice and often delirious employment of colour and design, channelling the stylisation of the comic with fidelity. Kiyoha (Anne Tsuchiya), the heroine, arrives in the House of the Chrysanthemums as a child, having been sold to them by her mother.


From the start she proves to be something of a handful for the managers of the house, and grows to be a hot-tempered, wilful star courtesan. When she falls in love with a weak-willed young aristocrat, she’s beaten and imprisoned, and soon finds he wasn't worth the investment. Eventually, she finds a true soul-mate in a young man who, the son of an ex-prostitute, has also grown up in the house.




The film is dotted with marvellous moments, such as when Kiyoha ventures out of the doll-house to see her lover and immediately discerns by his reaction that he won't stick by her. In another memorable bit, her chief rival attacks her artist lover in a moment of existential despair, accidentally cutting her own throat in the struggle, blood spurting in impressionistic smears.






However, Sakuran also suffers from extremely familiar plotting, an unpersuasive core romance, and its tale of a repressed but spirited heroine describes an overly-clich├ęd arc. As in the comics, Kiyoha is defined as a period Harajuku girl, defiant, almost punk in her bad manners and bad habits, but somehow she never really develops as an effective character in an effective drama. It builds to one of those non-finishes, where boy and girl run away together to face come what may, that I've come to really, really hate. The perfervid stylisation only comes on as boldly as necessary in fits and starts, and the tale positively ambles towards it conclusion. The excellent, witty musical score by Ringo Shiina helps drive along an interesting failure.