Saturday, 29 May 2010

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

The first attempt at tackling Greek myth by the production team of Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer, who kept the flames of fantastic cinema and the arts of belief-defying special effects alive through some otherwise dim decades, could well be the summit of their achievements. Smartly scripted by Beverley Cross, who would later also compose Clash of the Titans for the duo, and Jan Read, Jason and the Argonauts stands as perhaps the most tightly integrated narrative and intelligibly mythic in the Harryhausen canon, if not quite the most ebulliently staged and told. Argonauts is distinguished by its almost naturalistic depiction of time and place, in the authentic-feeling locations and rough-hewn recreation of the distant past. Although it’s mythological in story and scope, the archaic universe here swelters beneath harsh Mediterranean sun, the scent of olive trees and salt sea seeming to infuse the cinematic texture.

Visually and conceptually it adheres to aspects of the template Nathan Juran had established in his first collaboration with Harryhausen, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), expanding on some of that film’s ideas, like the final skeleton duel, but director Don Chaffey rejected Juran’s sprightly juvenilia for a slightly grittier, more darkly flavourful tone. Chaffey was a director who would later fit snugly, if with mostly lesser work, into the Hammer school with the sturdy, concrete sense of mise en scene that lends Jason and the Argonauts a necessary physicality that makes the folkloric mysticism all the more palpable. Argonauts captures a culture that sees eternity in dead ashes and where the sea rises up in personified glory, the vestiges of temples harbour the truth of gods and all the hope of the world hangs in the branches of a tree, encapsulated in the skin of a dead ram, and where the ruins of an unknowably older, grander culture of titans and deities litter the landscape.

Argonauts is of course the tale of the young prince of Thessaly (Todd Armstrong), orphaned in infanthood when the usurper King Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) conquers his kingdom and slays his family, including his sister Briseis (Davina Taylor) when she tries to gain succour from Hera (Honor Blackman) only to be stabbed by Pelias in the back when prostrate before a statue of the goddess. Jason is only reprieved when Hera appears in person and Pelias is warned that to kill Jason himself will result in his own annihilation. Jason grows up in exile and, thanks to Hera’s tweaking of events, contrives to have Jason save Pelias’s life. Pelias, not letting on who he is, encourages Jason in his desire to travel to distant Colchis and bring back the fabled Golden Fleece as a totem of divine harmony that will revive his own people’s flagging faith and end their ruination under the usurper’s rule.

Pelias dispatches his own son Acastus (Gary Raymond) as one of the crew of the ship Jason has Argos (Laurence Naismith) build. Others in the crew he selects through a sports tournament include Hercules (Nigel Greene) and Hylas (John Cairney). On their epic voyage, they have to fight off a colossal animated statue, Talos, who guards a trove of the Gods’ treasures and the foundries of Hephaestus on the remote Isle of Bronze, trap the Harpies that torment seer Phineas (Patrick Troughton), and save Colchian emissary and priestess Medea (Nancy Kovack) from the waters of the Clashing Rocks. When they arrive in Colchis, the Argonaut are at first welcomed with open arms thanks to Medea proclaiming their heroism, but they are then imprisoned by the paranoid king Aeetes (Jack Gwillim), who’s been tipped off to Jason’s purpose by Acastus. The fate of the mission then rests in Medea’s hands.

Jason and the Argonauts is a more sober, grown-up film than other Harryhausen fantasy flicks, commencing with a surprisingly cold-blooded murder and following the original myth with a general fidelity, which makes it feel more substantial. The depiction of the Olympian Gods is cynical and even theologically angry, for Jason, in his quest to find the fleece, is defined as a doubter who, even when he’s spirited by Hermes (Michael Gwynn) to meet Zeus (Niall MacGinnis), Hera and the other Gods in Olympus, retains a defiant distaste for their caprices, and vows to prove that men can build ships and conjure the strength and wits that can conquer any natural or unnatural force. Although Jason is forced to still rely in the first part of his voyage on the five favours Zeus has allowed Hera to bestow on her mortal protégé (the number of times his sister begged her for aid that did not come), he’s finally left relying on his own wit and bravery. Zeus and Hera, although fascinated by the affairs of men, deal out justice and favours with a kind of amused condescension, and they’re quite emotionally removed from those affairs, having turned them into a literal chess match.

The gods become, then, neat ‘60s metaphors for the manipulations of political leaders and other figures of social hierarchy, and both Jason and Medea are characterised as being in rebellion against tyrannous, corrupt authority figures on earth and dissociated gods in the heavens. Medea’s own pleas to Hecate, the goddess she is a priestess for, to guide her in making a choice between Aeetes and Jason, fall on a statue’s deaf ears. The idea that the gods themselves face limits of their power and futures if men stop believing in them, a notion that Zeus contemplates with worldly weariness and gratitude that Hera remains with him even though they may fade, is amusingly rendered. The realistic stylisation, as opposed to the glistening idealised visions of the completely reinvented worlds in the likes of Excalibur or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (although the influence of Argonauts and other Harryhausen films on Peter Jackson's humongous work is certainly detectable), gives the emanations of the fantastic – the bones of the warrior skeletons sprouting of the ground, the colossal creaking form of Talos wrenching himself off his ageless pedestal – a unique tangibility. They really do seem to be springing out of the hot, dusty earth.

The restrained production values, compared to, say, another costume flick of the same year, the splashy Cleopatra, relies on some simple effects not too far from what you might see in an episode of Star Trek (Kovack appeared in an episode of that show, and in a similar role too, a couple of years later). But that’s a positive here, for there’s a flavour of the primevally cabalistic in Medea’s appearing caked in alien make-up for dancing and making incantations in Hecate’s temple, and in the sequence in which Jason finds the fleece itself: it's suspended in the limb of a tree, guarded by a ferocious Hydra, a scene that's the very likeness of a Joseph Campbellian myth-dream in its pellucid colouring and pantheistic imagery. Jason’s a fairly flatly defined protagonist in his clean-cut, straightforward heroism, but his willingness to defy Zeus, suggesting the gods enjoy toying with humans when he witnesses a ship crushed in the Clashing Rocks and entrapping the Harpies which are a manifestation of his wrath, places that heroism intriguingly at odds with the scheme of life. Jason’s battling heaven and earth, and he comes out in front every time simply by being clever and brave; Medea, too, is ignored by Hecate when faced by a dilemma, but readily gives Aeetes what he wants in providing him with supernatural horrors to back up his despotism. This captures an authentic undertone implicit in the way the Ancient Greeks related to their myths, which were designed to inspire original thinking and provoke engaged moral and philosophical responses, and not merely make people shake with fear of eternity.

The relatively no-nonsense quality extends to the many of the actors. Greene’s Hercules, for instance, is thoroughly human and fallible – his moment of unthinking greed awakens Talos, endangers the Argo, and finally gets his friend Hylas killed. The possibility that Hercules and Hylas had a homoerotic union, inspiring Hercules’ morose departure from the Argonauts when he can’t find him, is only very vaguely suggested, but it’s still hazily perceptible, although, ironically, the film actually manages to almost entirely avoid the campiness that so often trickled through the sword-and-sandal films of the period. The no-name stars are a reminder that Harryhausen’s work was the real draw. The functionary pretty faces of Armstrong, who is one-dimensional, and sank immediately back into obscurity, and Kovack, certainly wouldn't have brought in the crowds: both of their voices were post-dubbed by other actors. Which is a pity, especially as Medea deserves to be embodied by an actress with incantatory force. But both actors look right for their parts, at least.

The supporting cast, on the other hand, is excellent, with such expert character actors as Wilmer, Naismith, MacGinnis, Blackman, Troughton and Gwillim (who would play Posiedon in Clash of the Titans): Troughton is particularly effective, shouting cries of defiant blasphemy at the heavens from which the goading Harpies and fires of hateful wrath fall. Harryhausen’s most intensive labours were in creating the skeleton soldiers, resurrected victims of the Hydra, that Aeetes creates from that slain beast’s teeth, which Jason and his companions have to battle off, and that’s an amazingly intricate and well-handled sequence even by contemporary standards, the filmmakers contriving through painstaking choreography and animation to have the bony foes leap over obstacles, kick and slash and punch and grapple with the humans, with malevolent shrieks and somehow expressive fleshless faces that communicate infernal purpose.

The time and expense in creating stop-motion figures often had a consequence of making the rest of what hit the screen in Harryhausen’s films, including the more prosaic special effects like matte work, look ropy, and here there's some brittle moments, like the Argonauts falling from their ship, supposedly high in the air but obviously stationary in the sea, or being pelted by buckets of water standing in for catastrophic turbulence. But Chaffey works up the set-pieces, like the encounter with Poseidon when he braces the Clashing Rocks to allow the Argo to sail by, and the battle with the skeletons, with a true sense of the majesty and creepiness inherent in the tale. The essential perversity of much Grecian myth remains beyond the reach of the filmmakers’ commercial reflexes, although there’s a hint of what grim things there in store for Jason and Medea, united in happiness at the end, as Zeus promises to return to them at a future date in keeping account of their offences. The actual conclusion is jarringly abrupt, fading out with the driving plot still unfulfilled, and that’s a distinct fault in a film that otherwise seems distinguished by its relative rigour of form and storytelling, and provokes the question whether the makers were eyeing a sequel. And yet, in another sense, there’s nothing more to be said that isn’t mere grammar. Bernard Herrmann contributed the score, as he had for 7th Voyage and Mysterious Island, with jangling rhythms that accompany the skeletons and the low sonorous woodwinds that infuse the landscapes with primal menace. It would be easy to overstate how successfully the film escapes the strictures of matinee filmmaking, but also easy to underrate how keenly this enters into its fantasy world. Like the fleece itself and the treasures of the Isle of Bronze, Jason and the Argonauts is a lovely artefact of a different epoch.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Peter Jackson’s first drama since his mighty Heavenly Creatures (1994) was one of 2009’s biggest disappointments. Perhaps it was disastrous as both an adaptation of a beloved novel and as award-garnering cinema. I still came away with an impression of inherent personality and nobility of effort on Jackson’s part, as well as astounded by his near total failure to make it cohere. It’s very much a Jackson film, and not simply a by-rote transcription of a beloved book by a competent hack. The resulting clash of authorial voices is a source of both much that makes the film worth watching, and also what’s finally, cruelly calamitous about it. Jackson’s familiar, volatile sense of life and death and the boundaries between, and the over-eager joy in cinema as an expressive tool, are present throughout. The Lovely Bones is an outlandish potpourri. It's a The Virgin Suicides-esque fall-from-Eden reminiscence in the ‘70s suburbs. It's a Touched by an Angel-level, therapeutic mystical drama. It's an eerie psycho-thriller. It's a realistic portrait of an everyday nightmare. It's a suspenseful horror movie. It’s occasionally striking, even gripping, and just as often inept and embarrassing. Oddly enough, The Lovely Bones strikes me as resembling The Frighteners more than Heavenly Creatures amidst Jackson's oeuvre, as heaven and hell becoming porous, and the primal screams of justice-seeking Furies resound.

The story depicts 14-year-old Susie Salmon’s rape and murder by a neighbour, and her subsequent attempts to negotiate her way towards the self-extinction of nirvana after passing through an intermediate, fantastical paradise, where she lingers to aid her grief-stricken parents, siblings, and potential boyfriend in coping with her end and track down her killer. Such material required a felicity of touch, a lightness of vision, such as Cocteau or William Dieterle (in Portrait of Jenny) once mustered, to keep such contrasting elements in accord. The starting point, the annihilation of a promising young life in the midst of the flurry of awakenings that define adolescence, is actually better achieved here than in dozens of other films that revolve around such brutalisation, because Susie (Saoirse Ronan) is fully introduced as a living, breathing, giddily energetic being, and not merely in the canned way that, say, Sean Penn’s daughter in Mystic River is portrayed shortly before a sticky end (She danced on a bar top! O, cruel fate!), but with all the messy energy and nuance of a full protagonist, with her enthusiasm for photography and her mad crush on surprisingly responsive, improbably dashing Anglo-Indian student Ray Singh (Reese Ritchie).

Ignoring personal opinions about the nature of life, death, metaphysics, and justice for a moment, and trying to take it as given in the material, I can say that The Lovely Bones tries to depict two concurrent urges: the need for a sense of security and righteous dominance over destructiveness, practically embodied by Harvey, and the need to accept death as a part of life, and to not die in the midst of life through grief and horror, as embodied by Susie herself and her best wishes for her family. These innately contradictory aspects of existence animate a tremendous amount of contemporary personal and social debate, and it’s not too hard to see then why Alice Sebold’s novel touched a nerve. The efforts of Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg, surprisingly affecting) to dig out her murderer, becomes a roadblock on the way to deeper fulfilment both for him and the remains of his family, and Susie herself.

In this fashion, the more humdrum side of this tale – the process of worldly retribution that is the obsessive theme of so many of the more generic dramas we watch and read these days – is placed into direct contrast and conflict with a more elevated, far less common type of spiritual narrative. Nor is the film concerned with arguments for and against vigilante justice as a panacea against the existential ache of tragic loss, a la Mystic River or In The Bedroom, two films similar in their starting points. Instead, it is an attempt to tease apart these two urges, one an attempt to assert control over capricious fate, the other invoking acceptance of that capriciousness, and look at them in distinction. They do dovetail in crucial moments like when Jack, venturing out into the night to chase down what he thinks is the killer, instead has his bones broken by a zealous boyfriend who thinks he’s an aggressor himself.

That scene, like many others, is hampered in impact by the over-busy, tonally incompatible fragmentation of Jackson’s film. The grim, expected curtailing of Susie’s life’s is tensely prepared for, and well acted-out by Ronan and Stanley Tucci as Harvey, the friendly neighbourhood pervert. Jackson avoids showing the actual violent acts at the heart of the story, avoiding an exploitative edge, but he also leaves himself with a direct point of reference to make a lot of what follows feel urgent, in spite of suitably grotesque signs, like a bloodied sack filled with her dismembered corpse being shunted home into an iron safe. In the film’s most galvanising scene, Susie, who seems to have escaped Harvey’s clutches, runs through a deserted, somehow alien-feeling version of her Pennsylvanian town. When she enters her house, she is confronted with the sight of Harvey at rest in a bath, the blood and filth that caked him after her murder strewn about his bathroom, and she realises not only that she is dead, but also the victim of a numbingly terrible crime. This is filmed in the most beautifully, savagely suggestive of terms by Jackson, in a sequence that’s a small island of technical and imaginative triumph.

These scenes following the pivotal crime, though well-handled, define however a deeply problematic lack in the film: Susie is disconnected from her own death, only vaguely remembered, so the impact of horrendous violence is nullified in favour of a vision of the afterlife that resembles an ad for Photoshop. Such a divorcement might be considered merciful, but it also looks and feels mightily like a cop-out in conjuring a Jacobean tale of slaughter, vengeance, and spiritual reckoning. The touchy-feely side of the material, and the urgent flavour of the serial killer yarn within it, aren’t just poorly reconciled, they’re barely part of the same film. Jackson’s decision to try and paint the metaphysical side of the matter in his most showy CGI terms, reminiscent of the fantasias that punctuated Heavenly Creatures, was much mocked, but to be fair, his efforts to realise what might be a young ‘70s girl’s idyll represent a stab at a kind of wondrous humour, and a deliberate, pop-art naiveté, an ethereal formless world where huge rubber balls rise out of the sea and you can be your own fashion-plate hippie-chick hero. Unfortunately, witty flourishes are lost amongst a whole array of simplistic, conceptually limited commercial-ready digital junk. I suspect, if this aspect of the story was to have been filmed at all, then either a kind of naturalistic, artifice-free kind of landscape should have been adopted, or else an extremely, deliberately pasteboard unreality, rather than an ooh-ah evocation of what daytime television addicts imagine heaven to be like.

The conceits of the story are actually, oddly familiar from many works of pre-modern drama – say, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, or Guan Hanqing’s Snow in Mid-Summer – in which the dead victim of earthly injustice looks on as the machinations of fate work and bring about balance, and perhaps lends a ghostly hint of a helping hand. What’s more discernibly contemporary is the fuzzy-headed, aspecific imagery of the afterlife and grief counsellor’s idea of resolution. The detailing of the processes of dealing with inconceivable loss and shattering of stable, warm family lives, offers some effectively otherworldly moments, like Jack lighting a candle over one of the bottled ships that are his family’s icon of generational love and using it to slightly pierce the veil between the living and dead. But when Susie’s mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) frays and finally abandons her home for a time to work as a fruit picker, her own mother, the brassy, boozy Lynn (Susan Sarandon) moving in to take her place with energetic incompetence, the movie sinks into the worst kind of pop-movie shorthand.

It’s no surprise that The Lovely Bones works far better as a killer-on-the-loose flick than as a family tragedy or moral legend. Jackson’s at home with the sweaty obsessiveness, the lingering sense of bottomless morbid fetishism, the sick paraphernalia of a predator’s art, which forms Harvey’s world. Here the film is anchored by Tucci’s effective, if rather obvious, presentation of asocial dowdiness, becoming locked in a war of nerves with Susie’s younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) when she and Jack begin to suss him out. Lindsey eventually ventures into his house to uncover incriminating evidence, resolving in a sequence of expert tension-building. Jackson offers some excellent technical filmmaking, like the colossal frame-filling digicam shots of Harvey’s fingers, and then, later, Lindsey’s, when she penetrates the sanctums of his bleakly sadistic world by fondling the pages of his diary, linking them in finite, tactile communion with the infinite nature of horror retained in a murderer’s totems. But the excitement of this is immediately dispersed through a ludicrous scene where Lindsey returns home and seems momentarily dissuaded from revealing what she’s learnt by her mother’s return, as if being pursued by a serial killer is a minor and easily forgotten event in one's day. And then there's the even more ludicrous coda that provides one of the stupidest resolutions to a supposedly serious drama I’ve ever seen, and it comes straight from the book, too. But the staggeringly awful special effects with which this scene is accomplished are all Jackson’s fault.

That Jackson is obviously more at home with the darkness of the murder yarn than the transcendent parable might be held against him, but I don’t think the beatifying hemisphere of the tale was ever going to make good cinema in any event. The Lovely Bones needed, ironically, to be colder, more reticent, and far less pretty to offer a genuine sense of the ache and terror, to make a counterbalancing sense of natural order and wonder be even slightly convincing. An elaborate sequence towards the end sees Ray’s new girlfriend, Ruth (Carolyn Dando) a mediumistic goth girl who perceived Susie’s spirit just after her death, possessed by Susie long enough for an amazed Ray to kiss her farewell, just as Harvey manages to rid himself of Susie’s body before fleeing ahead of the police, is well-constructed, and yet oddly pointless, and adds yet another, ill-at-ease element of yet another, different kind of ghost story. The whole project gives the impression of springing from an unreconciled conjoining of festering trauma and pseudo-spiritual sludge. Nonetheless, it’s littered with moments and qualities that are hard to dismiss, and the acting is generally fine. Whilst it is definitely a debacle, it’s a curiously forthright one, in the sense that it’s clearly the product of an inventive filmmaker who wants to make a work of integrity, but whose efforts are finally against the grain.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Equal parts beloved and belittled by film fans since it was released, Clash of the Titans served as a Viking funeral for the arts of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen and also, in its way, for old-style sword-and-sandal action. The cast includes Harry Hamlin leaping about in revealing robes, a leading lady who can’t act, and a parade of superannuated British acting greats swanning about earning a pay cheque for a few days’ shooting in playing Olympian gods, on a project that tries as best as it can to look as glitzy as possible for the Star Wars era in spite of a much lower budget. Many reviews of the recent remake of Desmond Davis’s original pointed out, often with a level of dismissal, the model film’s lacks. But Clash of the Titans has an integrity to it that demands respect, as well as an authentic sense of mythic flavour, that belies its tackier asides, and although some of the technical achievements and budgetary limits were ropy even for 1981, it’s all staged with a sense of epic vigour.

Davis, mostly a TV director, had handled a few good movies in the past, including the very fine 1965 Sarah Miles vehicle I Was Happy Here. An arch professional with a capacity to conjure strong atmosphere with the most minimal effects (see his marvellous subsequent adaptation of The Sign of Four), Davis successfully evokes the primordial landscape the material encompasses, a world where the depths of the sea, the expanse of the sky, and the edges of the earth still bristle with wondrous, often malevolent perversities. There isn’t enough money in Hollywood these days to buy the awareness of an appropriate fantastic texture Davis, Harryhausen, the crew bring to the film, with visions of a cloud-secreted city of the gods on Mount Olympus, the evocations of the River Styx and its skeletal navigator Charon, the ruins of the Isle of the Dead and the shadowy temple that is the home of the Medusa. The thunderous surf and billowing wind and dust of the film’s very opening, as the loathsome Acrisius (Donald Houston) has his daughter Danaë (Vida Taylor) and her infant son Perseus locked in a coffin and hurled into the sea to punish her for her having a son to Zeus (Laurence Olivier), conveys a perfect sense of primal drama.

Primal drama isn’t always on hand, especially when Perseus grows up with Hamlin’s disco-ready do and Burgess Meredith turns up to overact artfully as Ammon, the actor and playwright who takes Perseus in. It’s hard to imagine a film aimed in large part at kids these days that includes, as this film does, such innocently hippie-ish pictures of Danae breastfeeding Perseus and later walking starkers along the beach (and also, later, some soft-core body-double nudity), and that’s a part of the film’s charmingly simple, physically immediate sense of myth-history. The beauty of film-making like Clash of the Titans, at least for me, is its complete opposition to the hyper-stylised effects of something like 300, where everything is churned in a great vat into CGI butter, and even the bulging bodies of the actors look painted on in post-production.

The city of Argos, Acrisius’s kingdom, is laid waste by the titan Kraken (called Cetus in the original myths, replaced here by the Scandinavian beastie, probably because it sounds cooler), kept as a pet by Poseidon (Jack Gwillim), and Acrisius dies as he’s crushed by the hand of Zeus himself. Zeus then steers Perseus and Danaë to the isle of Seriphos, where Perseus grows into manhood living an idyllic life but hoping to eventually fulfill his mother's wish that he can one day claim the kingdom of Argos. But he finishes up in distant Phoenicia when he’s removed from Seriphos, with spiteful playfulness, by Thetis (Maggie Smith). Thetis has a quarrel with Zeus, for Zeus, bearishly proud of his own son and quite egotistically solicitous of the fruit of his own cosmic loins and the women he loved, has cursed Thetis’s own mortal son Calibos (Neil McCarthy) with a twisted, monstrous visage after using his own great advantages for destructive and heretical ends.

Calibos, exiled to the distant marshes, retaliates by cursing the city of Joppa, capital of Phoenicia and his former home, and specifically his former fiancé, the princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker), daughter of Queen Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips) who now becomes the object of a grotesque lottery where suitors have to try and answer a riddle and risk being burnt alive, as Perseus discovers when he visits the city. Now that he’s adrift on fate’s whims, Zeus has his goddesses provide him with weapons, including a helmet that makes him invisible. He uses that to infiltrate Andromeda’s remote bedchamber, and there sees the colossal vulture that ferries Andromeda’s disembodied spirit to Calibos. Perseus soon captures the winged horse Pegasus to follow the vulture, and, after overhearing Calibos’s new riddle for the suitors, he battles the deformed anti-hero and cuts off his hand. He presents that severed limb with its distinctive ring, the object that is the subject of the riddle, to the astonished citizens of Joppa, thereby winning Andromeda’s hand. But Thetis, answering Calibos’s pleas for intervention and offended by Cassiopeia’s vain pronouncements, demands Andromeda as a sacrifice to her honour, to be consumed by the Kraken unless Perseus can think of way to destroy that fearsome titan.

Harryhausen’s techniques weren’t so much out of date in 1981 – after all, Phil Tippet was at this time filling out the visuals of The Empire Strikes Back with his stop-motion beasties – as were the efforts to try and do a special effects blockbuster without a very large budget and the slickest attendant production values. The hand-made charm of Harryhausen’s earlier films usually compensated for some very rough edges in never being as expensive as they needed to be, a cheesiness which Clash of the Titans retained: effects are filled with sloppy matte lines, dubiously spliced in chunks of stock footage, and the usual problem of old-style stop-motion, the greater clarity and sharpness of detail often betrayed on the models compared to the footage they’re transposed into, is even more pronounced in the (then) modern film stock and shooting and lighting styles. On the other hand, the bristling detail of Harryhausen’s models and their superbly complex motions, like the fearsome interplay of the claws and tails of the giant scorpions, the scaly, part-serpentine Medusa and the Kraken itself, retain a tactile, surprisingly beautiful kind of menace, as well as the ever-so-carefully tweaked personality brought to such creations.

The least effective of Harryhausen’s creations is the anthropomorphic Calibos, but Calibos is still a remarkably interesting villain, chiefly because of the actor who plays him in head and torso shots, Neil McCarthy, who effectively presents the tortured quality of the character, his dashed but still boundless egotism infused with deep erotic frustration that manifests tellingly in the scene where he gives Andromeda the riddle. She, pleading with him to cease his vengeance, touches his gnarled face, and he closes his eyes in momentary, beatific relief from the physical and moral disaster he’s become. Smith’s Thetis is terrific, too, alternating a kind of sad outrage at Zeus’s fatherly prerogative over her motherly one when it comes to their two sons, delivering the demand for Andromeda’s sacrifice with the most don’t-fuck-with-me assurance imaginable (it’s hard to argue with the giant severed talking head of statue possessed by a goddess), with her cool, aware riposte to Calibos’s demand for justice: “Justice, or revenge?” As in the Greek myths themselves, emotion and moral order are distinct and quite often as confused to the gods themselves as to mere mortals.

Andromeda’s scenes with Calibos, and those proceeding them, with her spirit leaving behind her sleeping body, slowly taking on full form, and riding away in a cage into the great wilderness, possess a heady scent of sensuality, with the theme of the maiden’s soul held captive by dark, resurgent eroticism, the necessary counterpoint to the virginal ardency of Perseus. Perseus, like all good Greek heroes, then has to go on his quest and penetrate the equally well-realised heart of darkness and wipe out the shadow of twisted psychology, on the Isle of the Dead, and contend with the Medusa in the dark, fire-lit halls of some unknowably ancient, ruined abode, full of petrified heroes and scored by the whiz of the Gorgon’s deadly arrows. Even when she’s dead Medusa's blood proves poisonous and corrosive, capable of giving birth to the huge scorpions.

Like Harryhausen’s other stab at the Grecian mythos, 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans used location shooting, this time in Spain, Italy, and Malta, and that lends a specific visual mystique. Some of the film’s delight is in precisely its low-rent methods of imbuing proceedings with a sense of mystery and danger, with billowing dry ice fogs and the laser beams through smoke that play the part of the rays of light behind Zeus’s head on his throne. The most effective device is even simpler: Zeus’s array of figurines standing in for the mortals whose lives he controls, deployed in an amphitheatre of life and death, and especially the two acts of direct wrath he unleashes on them, crushing Acrisius’ model, the mortal man buckling in agony as an unknowable force of anger squeezes the life out of him; and the eerie moment when the punishment of Calibos is depicted through the shadow of his figurine contorting and transforming. It’s worth noting that the film’s screenplay, by Smith’s then-husband Beverley Cross, doesn’t dumb down the conceptualism of the Greek gods and their complex, often amoral games. They are actually allowed to debate their acts and consequences, contrasting Zeus’s curiously personal, emotional sense of right and wrong, condemning Acrisius for murder and ignoring his previous piety, and often more instinctively right in this way than Hera (Claire Bloom) and Thetis, with their appreciation for working to rule, ignoring as they do wrong acts by Acrisius and Calibos because they have played their parts as suppliant and son respectively. And yet Olivier’s Zeus still often seems like a capricious jerk, with Thetis's motherly ache for Calibos all too apparent. There’s a very complete feeling of mythological import in the conclusion as the constellations named after the protagonists alight in the sky: it’s a film that seems aware not only of the fun inherent in these tales but in their inherent importance to the western traditions.

More awkward is the film’s wavering in tone, from the relatively adult and aware elements I’ve described to the kid-pandering employment of the mechanical owl Bubo – yeah, I’m not five years old anymore, and it’s not alone in offering robotic comic relief among many post-Star Wars fantasy and sci-fi efforts, but that doesn’t make it less hard to take - and the battle with the two-headed dog Dioskilis is rather disposable, especially in the dull-witted detail of having Perseus delayed from saving the moment by having his sword hugged by a python. Such small, flimsy flourishes drag on a film considerably, and a problem, often suggested by some of Harryhausen’s other works, seems that the amount of time and dedication required by the stop-motion entailed neglecting other details. One of the sadder side-effects of the CGI era is a kind of loss of patient wonder with the achievement of the animation, and one starts looking at such scenes instead with a more functional sensibility. A few of Davis’ visual touches still carry the lingering mark of too much TV work. On the other hand, a sequence like the destruction of Argos maintains a direct link with the history of similar scenes as far back as the silent versions of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur as columns and statues crumble and the wrath of the heavens consumes petty everyday lives, and the appearances of the Kraken are excellently handled, with Poseidon’s awed look as the great beast’s tail slides out its submerged abode before the beast appears in all its green, slobbery glory. Although glimpses of it at the outset robs its appearance in the conclusion of some impact, it does serve a purpose, in depicting just what a formidable force the Kraken is and how difficult it will be for Perseus to take it out.

Although he’s so easy to make fun of, Hamlin is actually quite good as Perseus: whilst he never seems more ancient than 1979, he’s really an appropriately wooden kind of gentle but determined hero, and he even manages, unlike so many American stars stuck in amongst Old Vic actors in these sorts of things, to put on a fittingly neutral accent. Bowker has the right look and manner for a heroine mostly defined by her bovine sacrifice status (with a few flashes of imperial prerogative to make her seem slightly more empowered), but otherwise she’s the weakest point in the cast. Olivier delivers a deft lesson in effective ham, especially in that he rarely sharpens his godlike rants to a fine point, except with occasional, meaningful snarls, like “His daughter!” when he decries Hera’s suggestion Acrisius deserves mercy in spite of treating some girl cruelly, or his casual, falsely winning request to Athena (Susan Fleetwood) that she give Perseus her own owl, the reason she has Bubo fashioned instead. Kudos, too, to Laurence Rosenthal’s sweeping score. It’s still a fun, sprightly, lush and graceful swansong for the Harryhausen brand, and the last remnant of the old-fashioned epic.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Coco Avant Chanel (2009)

Although in form and intent very much Biopic 101, Coco Avant Chanel, directed Anne Fontaine, maker of the interesting if not finally compelling Nathalie…, tries here to imbue the genre with a kind of gossamer elegance, a deceptively frivolous dream-sheen in which an older world gives birth to a newer one through small acts of designer rebellion. Essaying a fin de siecle atmosphere in muted but beautifully defined lithographic colours, Fontaine tries to find the Jean Renoir movie in the story of how Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (Audrey Tautou) found her path to fame and infamy.

Having survived being dumped with her sister Adrienne in an orphanage, she becomes with her a second-rate tavern singer, catching the eye of wealthy, aimless gadabout soldier and heir Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), whilst Adrienne (Marie Gallain) becomes the mistress of a baron. Coco forces her way into Balsan's life as a live-in mistress in his colossal country pad and contends with the ways of a rich, idle, and psycho-sexually contorted class: after at first encouraging her to hide away from his ritzy guests, Balsan doesn’t know how to react when she contrives to crash into his riding luncheons and swank affairs in her hastily improvised costumes, often culled from items in his wardrobe, bending genders and propriety’s presumptions with her ingrained distaste for the afunctional.

Coco, and Fontaine, cast an acerbic but rather sympathetic eye on this world, full of emotionally bereft people with too much money, playing desperately naughty games and striking convenient arrangements, both freer and more warped than anything Coco has encountered before, a sphere ready to reward any entertaining guttersnipe who can bring a shock of the new without scaring anyone. Coco’s sexually ambiguous look, and self-pronounced bedroom ambiguities, is all a tease that works wonders for her, as she makes eyes with popular comedic actress and former Baslan mistress Émilienne (Emmanuelle Devos) and then makes her hats, which prove colossally popular in their select circle. But the big romance on show here, a la La Vie en Rose, is the tragic one with a married man, here Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English entrepreneur and debonair dude who sweeps Coco off her feet and finally bankrolls her first business, designing hats, and, in spite of his marrying a super-rich heiress, they live in blissful cohabitation after a regulation amount of soul-searching, before he dies in a car accident.

The low refrain of bedroom farce and the high of tragic victory both echo in Coco’s experience, as presented here. The film presents her squarely as feminist heroine working with what few parts and stages she has to work with, resisting being controlled even as she submits to a leeching, subordinate role as mistress, her force of character backed up by beauty, her main weapon, her talents at first a mere tool before proving an end. Fontaine’s keen enough to show how small life lessons result in aspects of Chanel’s design philosophy, perhaps most amusingly noted when Boy, stripping her off for another tryst, remarks with pleasure: “Undressing you is always so easy!” The carefully controlled employment of settings, barely taking in any of the period world beyond either the sordid locales Coco and Adrienne haunt at the outset, Baslan's estate, and, briefly, Deauville, might be the product of budget restrictions, but also helps Fontaine's conveyed sense of hermetic, mutually exclusive spheres of existence, and the beatific mood of non-sentimental nostalgia. She also does a surprisingly good job of divorcing romantic sexual passion from a more prosaic kind.

The second half of the film is of course a tale of dovetailing purposes, but it’s also a finely portrayed little emotional minuet where Boy, Balsan, and Coco dance around the hazy middle-ground where finite personal understandings are no less binding and corrosive than socially officious ones. Balsan’s simmering jealousy over Coco and Boy’s genuine amour, rather than the rather boyish, oddly dependent affection he has for her, and Coco’s discomfort at her place in the scheme of things, especially when called upon to lose the niche of dignity she’s carved for herself when Balsan insists she sings her saucy tavern song for his guests, are the kinds of tension that manifest in some very well-acted scenes.

It’s not, of course, The Rules of the Game, lacking anything like that film’s teeming detail and dexterity, and the soap opera of the second half as Coco and Boy find a brief bliss we all know can’t last gets a bit stale. But the fact that Fontaine cuts out any “the fabulous story of!” hype whilst maintaining a coolly romantic take on a situation one could be very cynical about, looking for the hope and ardour in its main characters and not just the flaws. The narrative is also intelligent enough to absorb and transmit a sense of a changing world, one that Coco’s sense of style presages, a time where her dresses seem far more appropriate for (and stylistically matched to) a world already busy with motor cars than the feather-and-floral frou-frou of the other Edwardian women, and the louche affectations of the wealthy and their chosen pets come across less as liberated than as the recourses of the terminally feckless.

Fontaine is aware of what surfaces mean in this world, and ours, communicated through styles and signifiers of class and gender, and brings home then the subtle impact of Coco’s war on those signifiers as a modernist of clothing. The film steers absolutely clear of any presaging of her later controversies, and by the end, as a parade of her creations passes by her in a dazzling flow, like the ethereal products of a magician’s conjuring, she’s been emptied, in any event, of any immediate human desire by disaster, now living only for labour, the substitution of form for feeling now her life. And so Fontaine’s Coco Chanel origin story, funnily enough, comes across like the feminine riposte to the Daniel Craig making-of-Bond version of Casino Royale. Tautou is admirably free from any gamine Amélie-isms and is entirely confident, and Nivola possesses a kind of grave, fixated charm, but laurels go to Poelvoorde, who embodies his role with a perfect mix of struggling impulses, his aging, unhandsome but likable façade not concealing his still juvenile wants and fears. The whole affair could be called a knock-off of La Vie en Rose, and invites that dreaded epithet of being a prime contemporary example of the "cinema of quality", but truth be told I liked it.