Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Banquet (Ye yan, 2006)

An altogether more persuasive and involving attempt to meld classical tragedy and wire-fu action than Zhang Yimou’s tiresome and overblown Curse of the Golden Flower, Xiaogang Feng’s The Banquet is a recognisable adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with some notable alterations. Most notably, as I recall, there was never this much high-flying, high-kicking action in Shakespeare, akin, to reverse the cultural traffic, to sticking multiple gunslinger duels into Dream of the Red Chamber. Feng and screenwriters Gangjian Qiu and Heyu Sheng also toy with the story to make Gertrude into Zhang Ziyi’s Empress Wan, not the mother of the Hamlet character but his former amour and then his stepmother, roped into marriage by his father the Emperor, and then seduced by usurping uncle Li (You Ge). Wan’s a sensual egotist whose only apparent positive trait is her still ardent attachment to the melancholy Prince, Wu Luan (Daniel Wu). Li, after snatching the imperial throne and Wan, whom he desperately wants to love and be loved by, tries and fails to have Wu Luan assassinated, along with the troupe of masked actors he’s been working with for three years.

But Wu survives, and makes it back to the palace to confront Wan and smoke out Li with his version of “The Mousetrap”. The Ophelia figure is Qing Nu (Xun Zhou), daughter to one of Li’s ministers, Taichang Yin (Jingwu Ma) and brother to his son, General Sun Yin (Xiaoming Huang). She receives a bitter taste of Wan’s wrath when she threatens her efforts to retain Wu’s affections, but refuses to back away, finally dying from a goblet full of poison intended by Wan for her husband at a celebratory banquet. The following massacre, appropriately, consumes all of them, except for Wan, who stands alone in a desolate triumph, but there’s still a nasty surprise waiting for her.

Like many recent Chinese mega-productions, The Banquet throws its lustrous visuals and scattershot ideas at the screen without much care for setting up either the plot, characters, or firm logic of narrative – the crucial relationship of Wu and Qing is terribly established – and Feng doesn’t quite work out how to effectively fuse the intimacy of high drama and the absurdities of modern wu xia action flicks. But nor does he retreat into the empty, jagged formalism Chen Kaige’s been specialising in the past decade, and he tackles the project with such voluble intensity it doesn’t matter too much in the end, for he digs into the aching hearts of all the major characters, and renders them compelling by the time the inevitable bloodbath rolls around. Zhang (equipped, amusingly, with an occasional body double to flesh out her character’s saucy charms) delights in playing an evil minx, and Zhou is lovely as the endangered Qing. But it's Ge who stands out with a marvellously measured turn as the cunning, vicious, but secretly romantic Claudius stand-in.

Go for Broke! (1951)

Robert Pirosh, who provided the pithy screenplay for William Wellman’s mighty Battleground (1949) and had an artful way of translating GI humour into screen-safe terms, wrote and directed this diverting little film about the 442nd Regiment, composed of Japanese-Americans, “Nisei”, who fought their way to a staggering number of citations and casualties during the Italian and French campaigns of WW2. It combines, then, two major ‘50s genres, the war flick and the social-problem drama, and succeeds through being relatively understated as it charts the conversion of Texan good ole boy Van Johnson from prejudiced martinet to stalwart defender of his charges, who don’t actually need much defending.

Pirosh almost completely resists speechifying, instead concentrating on convincingly portraying growing camaraderie, and noting the elisions of prejudiced mentalities. He (perhaps inevitably) romanticises the controversial action in the rescue of the “Lost” 36th Infantry Battalion at Biffontaine, where the Nisei suffered nearly 50% casualties, and offers some stock figures – e.g. the resentful roughneck, the likeable goofball trying to keep a pet (a pig, no less), etc – but resists forcing their individual arcs in any particular direction: only sudden death provides sure closure, without gung-ho heroics or foul-ups making good. Pirosh insists on restrained, humanist warmth, sparing a few thoughts for the intriguing spectacle of men with roots in Eastern culture but planted firmly in the American now immersed in a European landscape studded with remnants of yet another culture.

Pirosh furthermore essays a studiously sarcastic humour throughout, in observing the soldiers’ efforts to deal both with warfare and social tension, as in their extended riffing on their attachment to a Texan unit that sees them greeting each-other with endless ‘howdies’ and B-Western dialogue, a fair reminder moreover that today’s pop-culture-inflected humour derives a great deal from WW2-era infantry lingo and artworks inspired by it, from Bill Mauldin to Catch-22 to Spike Milligan's works. The constant drollery keeps Go For Broke! from feeling heavy and dutiful, and distracts from Pirosh’s flat staging of action and the evidently low budget. The film also faces with surprising directness the Nisei’s anger over their family’s situations in the relocation camps and their own frustration in not being allowed to fight in the Pacific. Many of the “Buddha-Heads” are played by real veterans of the 442nd, with uneven performances, but they all radiate disingenuous appeal. Whilst nothing especially distinguished, Go For Broke! remains a worthy work precisely by not trying so hard to be worthy.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

The third Hammer Studios Frankenstein film was the first in six years, and in current parlance it constituted a reboot of the franchise, for director Freddie Francis, and screenwriter Anthony Hinds (writing under his pseudonym of John Elder), took over the reins after Terence Fisher suffered a car crash, adding to his woes after the failure of the archly romantic The Phantom of the Opera (1962). Evil begins in line with the series continuity, with Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), exiled and hunted out by guardians of morality everywhere, returning to his old town of Karlstaad to try and salvage some remnants of his inheritance. He’s still accompanied by his scientifically curious assistant Hans (Sandor Elès), and soon gains a third assistant in the form of a deaf-mute beggar girl (Katy Wild).

Evil soon diverts from the series narrative when Frankenstein explains to Hans the circumstances of his original exile, tossing out the story of Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and substituting a tale that allows for a new development: Frankenstein discovers his original monster frozen in ice, and now bearing a distinct resemblance to the old Boris Karloff monster design. This contrivance takes advantage of the fact that Hammer, whose films were being distributed by Universal, had struck a deal to imitate the Jack Pierce monster, unfortunately realised through some staggeringly clumsy make-up that more closely resembles Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (1974). The film digs further back into the Universal template, borrowing a castle-levelling calamity from Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the idea of the monster entrapped in ice from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). In this way, Evil becomes more a one-off tribute to famous forebears than a proper instalment of the Hammer cycle.

It also allows Francis and Hinds to push even further the redesignation of Frankenstein, hinted at in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), as a closet humanitarian, and now make him a long-suffering, far less ambiguous figure than the borderline psychopathic, grossly privileged aristocrat of Curse. When he arrives back in Karlstaad, he’s horrified to find his shuttered chateau has been looted and trashed, and, outraged to see his possessions in the hands of local potentates. But it’s a fairground hypnotist, Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe), whom Frankenstein approaches to stimulate the creature’s addled brain once it’s been thawed and revived, who utilises the monster for means of theft and vengeance.

The drunken, power-seeking Zoltan, then, becomes Frankenstein’s guilty conscience, which is exactly what the creatures in Fisher’s Frankenstein films tend to become, and also a substitute as malefic misuser of medical arts. But the half-hearted script doesn’t find much charge in that contrast, and the film as a whole doesn’t work up anything like the serial pace and force Fisher could work up, which papered over even the thin script of another series reboot, 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Francis was a technically proficient filmmaker who took advantage of Hammer’s higher budgets in the mid ‘60s to make some good-looking films. But he was also a fairly plodding director who never could dig into the more scurrilous side of genre in the way that Hammer stable-mates like Fisher, Peter Sasdy, or Seth Holt could.

Still, if you’re after an enjoyable old horror film, it’s certainly worthwhile, because at this point Hammer’s template still demanded sober telling and decent acting. Evil manages to be quite entertaining even whilst being one of the least worthy early Hammer productions, because it is well-produced by Hammer standards, whilst retaining the studio’s crisp, no-nonsense solidity in settings and lustrous colour, and replicates Fisher’s imbuing the Baron’s experiments with the flavour of some lost mid-ground between Victorian science and alchemy.

But Zoltan’s villainy never gains any real crackle because his sub-plot is rushed and clumsy, his reasons for misusing his influence badly articulated, as is the tentative relationship between the speechless, victimised girl and the hulking but malleable monster, whilst both the Baron and his beast become, in essence, pathetic victims. The finale consequently fails to build much real tension, or to generate any pathos in their (apparent) mutual destruction.

Where Fisher in Curse and Revenge managed to construct dark complexity in making the Baron both despicable in his free and easy sense of life and death, and yet moving in his dedication to his vision constantly threatened by self-righteous and intrusive, destructive people, here he’s just a put-upon anti-hero. Cushing, nonetheless, is as committed to the role as ever and even gets to exhibit some of the swashbuckling dash he had as Van Helsing.

State of Play (2009)

Is it just me, or does many a thriller these days start off well, and yet fail to nail its concluding act? Many of them suffer from divided personalities that usually cannot quite reconcile to being either intense and believable, or hyped-up and spotted with action, and they all seem to finish up revolving around the same tricks of secreted recording devices and waved guns. State of Play, adapted by Kevin Macdonald from his own British teledrama, is no exception, being a deliberately low-tech, noir-inflected drama about investigation, but sporting unlikely physical confrontations and a throwaway last-minute twist that’s neither especially believable nor compelling, but feels merely dutiful.

State of Play is about unravelling both public and private malfeasance in Washington, with its doughy, scruffy antihero Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), as shaggy and endangered as the form itself, an experienced and skilled print journalist, saddled with outmoded ideals and some unacknowledged conflicts of interest. He digs into a scenario peppered with scandal and murder involving around his old college buddy, Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who may be the target for discrediting by monstrous private security form Pointcorp, chief beneficiary of outsourced military contracts and employment of mercenaries in the War on Terror, when his chief researcher (and girlfriend) turns up dead.

In the course of his excavations, Cal takes on a kind of acolyte in goggle-eyed but whip-smart blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), employed as not much more than a gossip columnist, who has to grow up swiftly on the job when she hitches her wagon to Cal's hunch. She’s soon faced with immediate violence and morally slippery expediencies, as when a witness is shot in front of her, and when Cal confronts her with some of the sleazier tactics of high-pressure journalism. The usual imagery and gimmicks of the conspiracy-flick come into play: the rogue shadowy assassin, the omnipotent evil company, the structure that entwines the lowest person on the street with the highest spheres of office, the plucky hero only partly aware of his own frailty both in the physical and ethical sense, all portrayed in a teeming landscape of capital edifices and bland constructions spot-lit amidst inky night-scapes.

This is merged with a surprisingly straight variation on the deadline-beating reporter drama that was old-hat by His Girl Friday, and inevitably evokes All the President’s Men as Cal and Della try to keep their hard-assed but finally supportive editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), on their side. Like Tykwer’s The International this year, and last year’s Michael Clayton, it’s unashamedly paranoid in its suspicions about corporate prerogative, and, again like both of them, can’t quite work out how to escape the octopus’s clutches in a logical, entirely satisfying fashion, without clumsily compromising its essential themes and still delivering a satisfying finale. The days when Hitchcock tied these together with both efficiency and spectacle, or when Alan Pakula did it with spare menace, are missed.

At least the film has characters of some substance, for Cal and Stephen are more closely and fractiously linked than either would like, with Cal having had an affair with Stephen’s wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn, affectingly soulful) that binds all three of them in knots of friendship, resentment, and guilt. The efficacies of being both a seamy bastard oneself and yet possessing a scrupulous sense of truth are intriguingly introduced through both Cal, who shambles along like a homeless dog whenever he’s not the bloodhound tracking a scent like a drug, and Collins, who’s caught in a bind he can’t escape from, but pushes ahead anyway. But the film’s generic bent dulls opportunities to make it truly rich in this regard: the human drama proves to be little more than complicating back-story on the way to Cal scoring a younger girlfriend.

But what am I complaining about? Accepted clichés, compromises and all, State of Play is engaging and thoroughly entertaining, mostly because of its cast, studded with excellence down to the smallest parts, and who do their work with gusto. Crowe pulls off the trick of being effortlessly magnetic even when playing a character who’s seventh-tenths jerk...okay not much of a stretch there. Casting the adorable McAdams here, as in Red Eye, seems akin to an act of sadism, but McAdams is a cagey actress who knows how to turn her perky suburban voice and “dewy cub reporter eyes”, as Lynne describes them, to her advantage, for she and Crowe play off each-other beautifully. Mirren herself is terrifically wry as Lynne, and Affleck is effective as a golden boy going to seed. Kudos too for Jeff Daniels, sleek and convincing as a fascist disguised by hypocritical religious scruples, Harry Lennix as a dry and reprehending detective, and Jason Bateman in what I think can now be called the Jason Bateman role, that of a slick, glib twit in over his head.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Goya’s Ghosts (2006)

Not quite as bad as some critics said, and yet also a long way from great, Milos Forman turns in a sloppy and dispiritingly disjointed work here. Which may not entirely be his fault, for the film shows signs of editing-room butchery and production problems, but that would not have saved it either way from a corny and ill-focused storyline. A terrible pity, because it is a project of potential: a film charting the painter Francisco Goya’s (Stellan Skarsgard) perspective on Spanish society in the late Enlightenment, and the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion.

Unfortunately, this perspective is awkwardly realised through his relationship with two fictional characters: Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a priest of the Inquisition who tries to revive the old practises in order to repress new tides of thought; and Inés (Natalie Portman), a merchant’s daughter and one of Goya’s favourite muses, who is accused of being a “Judaiser” when it’s noticed she doesn’t like eating pork. She is tortured and sent to rot in prison when she confesses to end the pain. Her father, Tomás (José Luis Gómez, very good), uses Goya to ask for Lorenzo’s help, for Goya is painting Lorenzo's portrait. The priest, prompted to check on Inés, is stricken by her beauty, and he takes advantage of her when she’s shackled naked in her cell. In the film’s best scene, Tomás invites Lorenzo to dinner, strings him up from the ceiling in approximation of the Inquisition’s tortures, and forces him to sign a confession to being a monkey, as proof of the Inquisition’s idiocies. But the church officials, led by the unctuous Father Gregorio (Michael Lonsdale), still won’t let her go, and Lorenzo soon has to flee the country when Tomás gives his confession to the King (Randy Quaid, oddly cast to say the least, but decent).

Fifteen years later, when the French invade, Ines is finally released, a withered and sickly hag, pining for the daughter she had in jail to Lorenzo, who, as absurd screenwriting or fate would have it, has come back to Spain as a French legate. The obvious point, as it soon proves, is that Lorenzo has swapped one all-sweeping conviction for another, with nearly exactly the same prerogatives. He and Goya, who has gone deaf in the meantime, search for Inés’ now-grown daughter Alicia (Portman again), and the painter finds her working as a prostitute. Lorenzo tries to pack her off to America, but she and other whores are captured by British soldiers, so Alicia returns to Madrid as the mistress of an English officer, there to cheer on Lorenzo’s final execution when he decides to stand on his principals and refuse to repent.

The film’s relevance as parable isn’t elided, as it purposefully explores torture as a tool of state and the intricate relationship between repressive violence and fanatical conviction, and knowingly portrays the Bonapartist soldiers expecting to be greeted as liberators. Forman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere also cast a rather trashy eye on the sado-mashochistic violence inflicted on women's bodies in the intensely sexualised humiliation encoded within Inquisitorial practises. But it adds up to little, because virtually nothing in the film develops any real substance: it’s stranded fatally between wanting to be a work of genuine historical portraiture, and grandiose yarn-spinning.

The characterisations are barely coherent, and the themes fragmented by the silly plot, which isn’t handled with the verve required of epic melodrama, and certainly can’t be considered in the realms of seriousness of its obvious precursor, Andrei Rublev. The fairly absorbing early segments are betrayed by amazingly flat anti-climaxes, leading to a finale that tries for ironic tragedy and yet carries no weight whatsoever. Goya is practically absent from his own film, the very real and intense artistic and social conscience that inspired his famous sketches of the war unforgivably fumbled in the portrayal. Forman manages a few interesting images, as when the deaf Goya perceives street-fighting as soundless flashes of light and smoke, and yet Forman completely fails to effectively conjure a sense of a fragmented, violence-wracked society: his montages are ineffective and disconnected from the overall texture. The actors do what they can: Portman has a blast in playing dewy young Inés, twisted older Inés, and fiery Alicia. But the film is a colossal failure.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

What could have been a Lost in Translation for the iTunes crowd is wounded by the irritating insistence of modern romantic comedies to play out like thrillers, with bitchy ex-paramours to spurn and heroic acts of self-determination to make – which boils down here to hero Nick (Michael Cera) abandoning former girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) in downtown Manhattan on her own in the middle of the night. I call ungentlemanly and contrived on this, sir. And I sincerely doubt, even in these great post-Giuliani days, that club life in New York is quite so squeaky-clean as portrayed here.

Otherwise Nick and Norah’s a charming and vivacious stab at creating a young-hipster romance, achieving an elegant variety of contemporary teen comedy, laced with keen detail in the milieu and characters it portrays. It also sports that night-time odyssey structure I’m always a total sucker for: this one lands somewhere between the soft-pop of Adventures in Babysitting and the hard-core of Eyes Wide Shut (okay, far closer to the former than the latter), whilst referencing classic screwball, obviously invoking in its protagonists' names The Thin Man, as well as It Happened One Night, with more than a dash of American Graffiti. And yet the story is built around a gimmick pinched from that old episode of The Wonder Years where the characters spent all night trying to find the Rolling Stones gig.

The plot, such as it is, sees Nick, bass player for a queercore band, currently called The Jerk-Offs – Nick’s the straight one of the trio, lacking as they do a drummer of either orientation – and about to head off to college, suffering from a severely broken heart after the cheating Tris finally dumps him. His bandmates drag him out for a gig, and there’s the teasing promise of a performance sometime during the night by the legendary band Where’s Fluffy?, who never announce their gigs but leave clues around town to guide fans thither.

Which is pretty dumb marketing, if you ask me, but moving right along...Tris drags her useless new boyfriend to the gig, and two of Tris’s school friends also end up there: straight-laced Norah (Kat Dennings), and her boozy friend Caroline (Ari Graynor). Norah worships Nick unknowingly as the compiler of marvellous mix CDs which he’s been sending to Tris, who promptly throws them away. Taken with his gawky cool when finally meeting him, she tries to deflect Tris’s bitchiness by asking Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend for five minutes. Many shenanigans and misunderstandings intervene before their dawn-light departure from the city as a couple.

Playlist manages that tricky balancing act of making its two heroes both insanely cute, and yet also volatile and recognisably human, as Nick and Norah constantly trip over each-other’s hang-ups and anxieties in their teasing back-and-forth conversations, which are lithe and witty but thankfully not hammered into angular stylisation a la Juno. One particularly telling moment sees Nick decry accepting any particular label and Norah rolling her eyes in cliché of the statement, of which they’re both painfully aware. And yet Norah herself, a Jewish princess who’s the daughter of a famous recording studio owner (a fact that causes her more pain and embarrassment than anything else, although it does get her into clubs with speed), can't live up to her status, being often as awkward and malleable as she is smart-mouthed and spry. Flirtation alternates with argument and the clumsiness of two young people still trying to work themselves out is well-portrayed, and they consummate their attraction in a sequence that manages to be gorgeously erotic without showing a thing, as they make love in a recording studio, Norah's first actual orgasm registering on the sound bench's dials.

Cera seems to be a one-trick pony as an actor, but he’s still damnably likeable, and allowed to stretch his legs here with an effective characterisation, and the unbearably comely Dennings delivers a fine characterisation. Graynor has a lot of fun as Caroline, who spends most of the film stumbling around in an alcoholic daze, whether plucking her chewing gum out of the toilet and leaping up with a Christmas tree on her head during a gay revue.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)

It might be utterly foolish to call a film called Lesbian Vampire Killers a disappointment, especially considering that it aims low and scores a few funny goals, but it is still a lost opportunity. It has a title no film could really live up to without pushing the boundaries of censorship and mainstream taste to the limit, and not, more importantly, without a bolder grasp of the subgenre it tackles satirically. Directed by Phil Claydon, from a screenplay by Stewart Williams and Paul Hupfield, LVK tries to do for ‘70s Hammer and Euro-horror what Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg did for zombie flicks and cop thrillers, but with an edge borrowed more from TV comedy that plays the portentousness of genre clichés against low-brow contemporary mores of lad culture and the popular zeitgeist’s T&A obsession.

Two Londoner losers, Jimmy (Matthew Horne), recently dumped for the seventh time by his horny, wayward girlfriend Judy (Lucy Gaskell), and his portly mate Fletch (James Corden), just fired from his job as a party clown for clocking a bratty kid, decide to escape their troubles, and lack of bread, by heading off for a hiking holiday. Having tossed a dart at a map to decide their destination, they finish up in the remote village of Cragwich in rural Devonshire. That town has been cursed for centuries by vampire queen Carmilla (Silvia Colloca), causing every girl in the village to become one of her army of undead gal-loving ghouls on her eighteenth birthday, keeping the men in the village alive only to help them snare new prey. When they enter the compulsory creepy tavern filled by weird-looking blokes, Jimmy murmurs that he feels like he’s stumbled into a “medieval gay bar”.

Jimmy, gentle and bewildered, and Fletch, foul-mouthed and desperate to get laid, hook onto a holidaying foursome of jiggly Swedish students (in a VW microbus, no less). Whilst Fletch tries to make one of the others who dance to crap techno and smoke copious amounts of pot, Jimmy is taken with their most sensible member, Lotte (foxy MyAnna Buring), who proves to combine traits of three of the genre's favourite female figures: the virgin waiting for the perfect man, the nerdy student of folklore who knows all about the legend of Carmilla, and the kick-ass action heroine.

Pretty soon of course her three fellows have been snatched away and chowed on by the vamps, and the two twits and their plucky gal pal have to fight off the rest, with the aid of the village’s vigorous Vicar (Paul McGann, amusingly channelling Peter Cushing’s iron moralism), who’s desperate to stop the vamps before his own daughter Rebecca (Emer Kenny) comes of age at midnight. Carmilla’s former lover and leader of the horde, Eva (Vera Filatova) realises that Jimmy is the descendent of Carmilla’s slayer, a heroic knight of yore, and his blood mixed with Lotte’s virginal blood can resurrect Carmilla. But Carmilla, and the entire curse, can be laid to rest by the knight’s sword, with a handle that’s rather too phallic for the boys’ comfort.

Claydon, for his part, employs the imagery of classic gothic-horror with a certain intelligence and vivacity, depicting Cragwich’s woods as gnarled, fog-riddled abodes, and the vampires as wraith-like spooks, so that LVK is, by default, the best visual approximation of the gothic style since Sleepy Hollow. The lesbian vampire subgenre, depending on how it’s played, can be either the most prurient and reactionary, or the most scurrilous and sensual, of breeds, and the filmmakers tackle it with a jokey comprehension of the symbolism it invokes, particularly in that phallic weapon, made by the underworld demon “Dieldo”, as the annihilator of the lesbian bitch-queen. Filatova’s Eva has exactly the right attitude of sepulchral sauciness. LVK explicitly counterpoints the heroes’ sexual frustration and emasculation, and latent gay panic, against the sensualised liberation of the Sapphic trollops, building to some decent comic punch-lines, like the death of one recently-turned vampire – they all liquefy upon expiring – leaving Fletch clutching her silicon implants. The problem's with the script, which fluffs a lot of gag potential, and lurches to a conclusion, played very nearly straight, with utterly perfunctory story development. Even in loopy comedy, you can't just toss the ideas at the screen.

Writers Williams and Hupfield originally conceived the tale as a B-movie, and it’s a pity they didn’t roll with that, because the core ideas, especially the notion of a town in which all the women are heir to a vivid sexual transformation that inverses the power structure, has a certain cheeky, unrealised potential, particularly in the subplot of Rebecca. But the half-hearted story development finally leaves the viewer nowhere: it's not funny or original enough to justify its own absurdity, and too lazy to work as either horror film or send-up. It certainly never develops into a truly sophisticated crossbreed, like obvious precursors An American Werewolf in London and The Fearless Vampire Killers. When it comes to its central conceit, in acknowledging so baldly the ripely onanistic appeal of the genre, it’s weirdly shy of actual sexuality, as if looking squarely as its lesbian vamps doing lesbian vamp things might take the spotlight away from its dopey heroes and the laddish humour style, and, by implication, is finally afraid of the erotic peril at the heart of the type of tale it intends to mock and exploit.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Premature Burial (1961)

Long dismissed as the problem child of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, chiefly because it lacked Vincent Price, Premature Burial is actually a total gas. It does struggle to overcome major casting problems: Ray Milland as antihero Guy, convinced he’s doomed to be buried alive, is fairly flat in a role Price would have crash-tackled, and Hazel Court isn’t nearly as awesome as the secretly cruel wife aiming to exterminate her husband as Barbara Steele was in Pit and the Pendulum.

But these lacks prod Corman to some of his most gaudily stylish staging, aiming for the deliciously über-gothic, aided by a strong production and a thoroughly stylised approach, which builds in sinister intensity to a cracking finale, in which the worst thing Guy feared comes about, only for fate to liberate him in a homicidal rage in a plot arc highly similar to Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead. One suspects Corman knew the debt and paid it by casting Alan Napier, who’s in both. Floyd Crosby’s camerawork is particularly excellent, tracking and swooping with verve and visual concision.

Along the way we get Guy’s priceless self-built crypt equipped with every escape method you can think of, many a moment in the hilariously foggy and twisted landscape that surrounds Guy’s house as if the building is located somewhere within his decaying id, an hilarious comeuppance for Napier's sleazy paterfamilias, and one of Corman’s best trippy dream sequences, in which Guy imagines all of those methods failing through decay, a vivid vision of the hopelessly depressed mind’s unfailing morbidity. And it’s that utterly disproportionate morbidity that’s vital for Poe.

The film finds a creepy leitmotif in the jaunty tune “Molly Malone”, whistled by the two sleazy, Burke and Hare-esque grave-robbers whose midnight peregrinations are sponsored by Guy’s father-in-law (Napier), an eminent surgeon who’s as happy to use Guy’s body in experiments as anybody else, neatly exposing Guy’s blindness to his own situation even as he tries to take control of his intensely corrosive fears. There’s also an affecting performance by '30s starlet Heather Angel as Guy’s sister, left guilty and withered by trying to keep Guy’s prodigious talents and fears in balance. Strongly plotted and more quickly paced than several of the other series entries, Burial is sheerly entertaining.

Advise and Consent (1963)

Possibly Otto Preminger’s last great film (although Bunny Lake is Missing has admirers), and the final screen work of Charles Laughton, in fine hammy form as a bullying Southern warhorse, Advise and Consent suffers from lumbering expository dialogue and some over-neat dramatic coincidences, but it maintains pace and verve in handling hefty and adult material, all the more so for its time: it’s like The West Wing with the gilt of nobility scraped off. More importantly, although some of the buzzwords here are old-hat, the film reveals how consistent American politics have been for the past fifty years: scenes in the film instantly evoke Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, the intra-party intransigence of the Democrats lately, and recent, infamous gay sex scandals. It could nearly have been made yesterday.

When the President (Franchot Tone), mortally ill, and saddled with a lightweight Vice President (Lew Ayres), decides to appoint as Secretary of State a controversial liberal, Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), he hopes this candidate will ascend neatly into the Presidency when the time comes. Immediately, cabals of interested parties in the Senate begin working to both secure and deny the nomination, with Walter Pidgeon’s majority leader aiding the former, represented by the irritating, faintly frantic peacenik Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), and the latter, prodded along by Laughton but led by the young, go-get-em senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray). When Laughton almost blows the lid on Fonda’s long-ago flirtation with Communism, Leffingwell asks the President to withdraw his nomination, but the President stands by him, trying to pressure Anderson into giving an immediate vote. But Anderson, righteous and ambitious, holds firm, prompting someone to begin blackmailing him with evidence of a gay war-time relationship.

The plot twists and turns like a rogue anaconda, and Preminger, at home in the meaty power-plays and moral ambiguities, prods his cast into delivering possibly the later Preminger oeuvre’s most thoroughly well-acted film: even Peter Lawford holds up his end. Gene Tierney, still ravishing, plays a minor role as Pidgeon’s mistress, and future Golden Girl Betty White makes an appearance as what seems to be the only female Senator. A keynote of Preminger’s best films is mounting hysteria, and the central act, as Murray turns increasingly frazzled in his attempts to get in contact with his former lover and finds himself (gasp!) in a gay bar, staring into the face of his own total public and private annihilation, is vintage. Another of Preminger’s best traits is to conceive and brilliantly expostulate a narrative that sees a dig for truth only reveal expanding complexities, and that’s very true here. Initially caricatured figures, like Laughton’s and Ayres’, reveal many more shades to themselves, at the same time that the core ideological and moral schisms begin polarised in tidy terms but begin to lose certain shape until, fittingly, Pidgeon unfetters his party faithful for a conscience vote, a literalisation of Preminger’s tactics. It’s in this way that Preminger belongs more in the company of the great ironists of ‘50s Hollywood cinema, Sirk, Hitchock, and Ray, than with the very tired stringency of Elia Kazan and Stanley Kramer.

It’s interesting to note its similar sensibilities to two other mid-‘60s films about high political chicanery, Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man and John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May. Like The Best Man, it quotes tellingly from the supplanting of conscientious bore Adlai Stevenson by young sharks Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and, again like The Best Man, characterises the Kennedy figure as a closet homosexual. What rumours were getting around then, one wonders?