Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Fast & Furious (2009)

The Vin Diesel School of Diplomacy: mumble softly, carry a big motherfucking shotgun

A pseudo-reboot of the charmingly dumb 2001 hit and its equally, charmingly dumb sequels, Fast & Furious finishes up being a kind of blockhead’s remake of Mann’s Miami Vice film, including dragging back Joe Ortiz, sans beard and glasses this time, to play the same role of intermediary bad guy. The result would apparently like to wring some depth and soul out of a scenario that involves characters with a loaded past and fractured bonds coming together to deal with the damage they’ve done to each-other and to the psyches of driving instructors the world over, but director Justin Lin’s second contribution to the story is a fascinating lesson in contemporary Hollywood storytelling. Or, whatever the opposite of storytelling is. Rambling on? No, not that happening because because! Yeah, that's it.

Justin Lin respects women, and will call them in the morning.

Lin goes through the motions of offering emotion-laden scenes between his cast of meat puppets, and yet this cuts entirely against the grain of his purely mercenary sense of narrative construction: interpersonal scenes are pared back to bare minimal requirements, so that stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster might as well hold up signs that sport epigrams like “HURT”, “ANGRY”, “GRIEVING”, or “ATTRACTION RESURFACING”, which I’m sure would suit a lot of exponents of perpetual motion cinema. Brewster in particular may well have wondered why the hell she was needed, when shots of her from the first film might have been spliced in a la Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Rodriguez survives a perfunctory cliffhanger only to be iced in the most undignified of off-screen deaths after two scenes, to provide a motive for Diesel’s Dom Matteo to return to LA, and presumably so Rodriguez could hurry back to the Lost set.

Because I can pander too, damn it!

Such cynicism is pitiful, especially considering that the film patently advertises itself as a back-to-basics thrill-ride, not realising that it was the utterly absurd cornucopia of adolescent fetishes and practically pop-art reduction of dramatic elements to signifiers and the elevation of filler to raison d’etre that made the second two films considerably more entertaining than the first. The chief pleasure of the initial film was in Rob Cohen’s sleek, cool stylisation in ripping off Point Break and resetting it in gearhead land, whereas here Lin offers up several incomprehensible action racing scenes that proceed roughly in this fashion: blur, shake, wobble, blur, smear, blur, shake, and so forth. Plotting proceeds in similar leaps: villains, exposition, and motivations are offered in a blizzard of incoherence.

More thigh! More thigh! No, not quite much that thigh! Paul, stop checking yourself out in the window!

Diesel, usually an affable screen presence, acts here with all the enthusiasm of a man who…well, a man who’s been forced to return to a franchise he abandoned in thinking it was stupid because his career’s gone up the spout in the meantime. His and Walker’s attempts at emoting suggest they’ve both been stricken with Bell’s Palsy. There’s also some chick in there who looks like Megan Fox crossbred with Monica Belluci, speaks with an accent, and can’t act worth a penny (yes, I know her name is Gal Gadot, although if that was my name I wouldn't admit it), as a bad guy's odalisque who seems vaguely interested in Dom. I hoped her character would prove to be the mysterious secret villain-type person, because that would have added a touch of spice and subversion to the posturing machismo, rather than simply being the most prominent of the film’s roster of female hood ornaments. But no, the villain turns out to be someone far more obvious: in an awe-inspiring twist, the bad guy turns out to be...the bad guy! Of course, the usual proliferation of hot bodies, both human and vehicular, is on display, and the film remembers to tick off the regulation flourishes – not one but two three-way lesbian snogs = jackpot! – but rarely has a film that is so much about the pandering appeal of illicit sensual thrills been so lame in offering them. An enthusiastic final chase scene and an appropriate coda do finally rescue the film from oblivion, but there’s a terrible surplus of CGI augmentation for a film series that was once all about damn good driving. No wonder Luc Besson and his cadres are taking over this genre.

You know what was a good car movie? Death Proof. Quentin, call me!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Lycanthropus (aka Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory, 1962)

Woe often betided the European-made horror and fantasy film in English-speaking markets, back in the heyday of drive-in and grindhouse trash. Often the best they could hope for was a lousy dub job and a dubious retitling; the worst fate was having sequences hacked out and spliced into whole other movies, a la the Russian sci-fi epic Planet of Storms (1959), cinematic organ-doner for many a Roger Corman quickie. Saddled with one of the most simultaneously salacious and amusingly disingenuous titles in the history of schlock, Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory (the Snakes on a Plane of its day), an Italian-Austrian co-production originally called Lycanthropus, had the dubious distinction of having one of the very best bad horror-rock songs, “The Ghoul in School”, appended to its opening credits upon its American release, a chanson to rival other yardsticks in crepuscular crapulence such as The Horror of Party Beach’s “The Zombie Stomp”. It’s hard to tell, too, whether the often excruciating dialogue was translated and dubbed with any accuracy, and therefore how much of the blame belongs to original screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and what’s the result of morons mutilating other peoples’ films. Add to this the fact that the story takes place in a badly recreated British setting (where the woods are infested with wolves that terrify the populace, and the borstals look like Hohenzollern schlösser, don’t you know) to capitalise on the then-popular British horror style and perhaps pay homage to the influence of writers like Edgar Wallace on such fare, and Lycanthropus seems marked as prime trash.

The odd thing is that, in looking past these problems, Lycanthropus isn’t atrocious. The story is structured along lines of what would soon be familiar giallo territory, anticipating such pillars of Euro-horror as Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964), in placing an institution full of young women in danger at the hands of a mysterious killer, and Argento’s Suspiria (1976). It sports nascent giallo visual motifs, from huge close-ups of watching eyes to gloved hands working evil. A suspicion that this project was slightly more elevated than first impressions would suggest is confirmed by the fact director Paolo Heusch directed, the very same year, an adaptation of Pasolini’s novel Una Vita Violenta. That title seems in itself a thematic extension of what Lycanthropus promises to examine, with its bevy of young social refuse at the mercy of manipulative, hypocritical, and murderous representatives of authority and convention. The setting, a liberally administered reformatory for troubled, disturbingly good-looking teenage girls, seems ripe to overtly contrast versions of violence and repression. Such contrasts are, unfortunately, entirely unfulfilled. A proliferation of pretty Germanic faces inhabit the roles whilst the filmmakers’ notions of troubled youth prove tame indeed. Of course, the troubles start with the sluttiest girl in school, Mary (Mary McNeeran), who’s carrying on an affair with one of the school’s patrons, Sir Alistair Whiteman (Maurice Marsac). When she sneaks out one night for a meeting with her sugar daddy, which ends in a flaring argument when she tries to threaten him with blackmail, she’s attacked on her way back by a lurking lycanthrope and dies with some artful blood smears on her face.

The script soon turns into a fishery for the cultivation of red herrings. A new teacher at the school, Julian Olcott (Carl Schell, brother of Maximilian), in spite of his conventional, sensitive Aryan hunkiness, is a ripe candidate for the werewolf, being as he is a former doctor now reduced to teaching science after a trial for medical homicide which resulted in his being acquitted through lack of evidence. But he swears that his travails were the result of his efforts to cure his true amour of her annoying tendency to grow hair and claws during the full moon, and he believes he has deduced a temporary cure for the malady through study of the pituitary gland. Meanwhile, Sir Alistair is employing sleazy school handyman Walter (Luciano Pigozzi) to find some incriminating love letters he wrote to Mary, worried he may be blackmailed, as she was planning to, by her fellows. Sir Alistair’s wife Sheena (Annie Steinert) knows what her husband’s been up to and has her own games to play. It soon becomes clear that a human murderer is at work as well as the werewolf. Confused? So is our heroine, Priscilla (Barbara Lass, who was married to Roman Polanski for a time, poor dear), a doe-eyed schoolgirl of about 30. Having gotten wind of Mary’s trysts and plots, she soon proves inconveniently inquisitive in her determination to find her friend’s killer. She once lived with Mary (possibly a euphemism), and they ended up in the reformatory after Priscilla nearly killed a sailor who had assaulted Mary.

Apart from the often inane English dialogue (“He ran to the top of the stairs!” “That’s impossible…Look there! At the top of the stairs!”), Lycanthropus is hampered by uncertainty of how to work the werewolf motif, which remains just another element amongst the mystery-puzzle shenanigans until close to the end. The many plot complications essentially distract from the central juxtaposition, which could have been wellspring for both strong genre tensions and ideas and a host of exploitative opportunities: placing in close proximity a wealth of transgressive, nubile femininity and a force of explosive masculine violence. When the beast attacks Mary, it tears off her blouse, and his subsequent assaults on Priscilla, where he seems less in a hurry to tear her apart than to fawn over her physique, suggest a drooling hint then of sexualised violence that was, of course, shied away from in the film’s early-’60s context. When the film gets around to concentrating on its werewolf, he proves to be, of course, the conscientious, reasonable director of the reformatory, Swift (Curt Lowens, whose resemblance to Mel Ferrer could be some sort of copyright infringement). Cue the inevitable sequence in which Priscilla approaches him when he has his back to the camera to make an innocent appeal, only for him to turn around in full wolf man mode. Unfortunately, the werewolf is more interesting when Heusch keeps it hidden, offering only brief close-ups of his eyes and toothy, slathering mouth. When he's finally seen in full, he resembles a wino with dental problems.

Heusch does pull off one sequence that possesses the right mix of suggestive erotic peril and strange, tragic violence, as Swift’s lover and assistant Leonor MacDonald (Maureen O'Connor) attempts to utilise Olcott’s cure, injections from a wolf’s pituitary gland, to stabilise the affliction, yielding the intriguing image of a woman trying to restrain and tether her bestial beloved in order to restore his true self. She manages to return him to his human state, only then to be mauled to death by one of her test subject dogs before his eyes, and, when he manages to extract himself from his bonds, furiously clubs the dog to death, Heusch fading out in a close-up on Swift’s crazed face as kills the animal. The portrayed reversal of primal fury, the seemingly calm and decent man of enlightenment overtaken by reactive madness as if plunged right back into a palaeolithic setting in losing his mate, is a potent and interesting expansion of the werewolf symbol, and it’s a moment that conveys the qualities Heusch might have coaxed from better material. Otherwise he settles for shooting the film with a degree of professional fluency, with some admirable photography and lighting in following his characters about the shadowy reaches of the forest and the school’s environs, and the firm visual style makes Lycanthropus an oddly tolerable experience for all its faults.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Eclipse (2009)

Playwright and director Conor McPherson’s adaptation of stories by Billy Roche, who co-wrote the screenplay with him, is an attempt to restore eeriness, adult shading, and emotional and metaphysical unease to the traditions of the cinematic ghost story. McPherson wrote the wry 1997 film I Went Down before directing a couple of features himself, and here his gifts seem quite mature. The great Ciarán Hinds stars as Michael Farr, a recently widowed woodworking teacher and organiser for an annual literary and arts festival in his small but beautiful home town of Cobh, Ireland. Left raising his teen daughter (Hannah Lynch) and younger son (Eanna Hardwicke) after his wife’s death, Michael begins to experience odd phenomena, initially minimal and difficult to perceive, like hearing unnerving night cries, and seeming to glimpse his aged father-in-law Malachy (Jim Norton) one night in his house, but Malachi was in his nursing home all the time, fuming, in fact, because Michael forgot to pick him up for the opening night of the festival. Michael continues as he has done, however, pushing against the resistance of incipient menace and lingering, unstated grief, and he’s given the job of picking up and ferrying about two writers who are attending the festival.

Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) is a successful Irish-American author who’s quietly coming apart at the seams, beset by artistic insecurity, marital unhappiness, and the inevitable drinking problem. Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle) writes about supernatural experiences drawn from life, and once had a one-night fling with Nicholas. Nicholas has talked Lena into attending the festival, and is desperate to resume an affair with her, an idea she’s not at all keen about, especially when she realises that his supposed separation from his wife at the time of their tryst was a fiction. She and Michael instead strike up a gently amicable relationship, loaded with muted anxieties and uncertain loyalties: Michael’s desperate need not to forget his wife and Lena’s uncertain sense of responsibility to the plainly floundering Nicholas confuse an obvious comfort in each other’s company. She can hear the same night cries that Michael does, and they both try to pass them off as bird calls. Lena’s fascination with mutable reality, she explained, commenced in a childhood experience of an apparition. Michael’s experiences worsen as Malachy’s spirit appears to him in a mangled and terrifying state, almost causing him to crash his car at one point, and assaulting him from within a cupboard in his bedroom.

The Eclipse treads familiar ground. The middle-aged romance, the homey old seaside town setting, the lessons about coping with grief, and the standard wry portrait of the artistic male’s menopause in the cliché figure of the drunken writer, all threaten a middling pastel chamber drama. But McPherson, as well as coaxing fine nuance of behaviour from his actors that enriches the material, creates his mood of credulity with care, his atmosphere sepulchral yet warm, realistic and yet subtly disquieting. Nor is any element allowed to dominate, and the story proceeds in a coolly curtailed, ambiguous fashion. The environs of Cobh, thoroughly old world, look like a place where ghosts might still look, but the Farrs’ home, the tourist-catering infrastructure of the town, and the bustling, fawning atmosphere of the festival, is portrayed with naturalistic fidelity. Ivan McCullough’s cinematography paints the scenery in thick black shadows, silvery, exposed-feeling exteriors and warmly hued interiors, aiding McPherson incalculably in creating his world where the gnawing vagaries of existence can believably bleed into another, altogether stranger world, and yet remain readily familiar. The film’s mood, indeed, is one that mainstream cinema’s barely seen since the heyday of Jacques Tourneur, in presenting a thoroughly modern setting infused with disquiet and believably porous boundaries between the corporeal and the mystical.

Gorgeous performances from Hinds, Quinn and Hjejle are both incidental and key pleasures in the film. Quinn drips anxiety and steadily rising, hysterical aggression from his pours, whilst Hjejle offers a graceful but compact, cagey intelligence, imbuing Lena with a conscientious but not foolish nobility. They throw Hinds’ characterisation into effective relief, his Michael a credibly decent and good-natured man but one naturally uncomfortable with probing within himself; his solid shape and oak-carved features suggest the bubbling potency of feeling he’s keeping tightly leashed. Small moments mesh to create a believable texture, from Michael irritably shepherding his son out of a petrol station when he absconds for some sweets during the night, his glowering disquiet when he finds one of his friends has blabbed to Lena about his life story, to Nicholas’s wife, unexpectedly arriving to pluck his perpetual glass from his hand like someone long used to it. The gentleness of this sedimentary structuring segues into the surprisingly shock-horror ghostly visitations, with gnarled hands springing out of the earth and leering apparitions appearing in windows and mirrors. Whilst these effects suggest an uncertainty of how to integrate the supernatural with the realistic, McPherson’s approach works insofar as there’s a genuinely disturbing quality to the eruptions of illogic in large part because of their sheer, unexpected fright-night relish.

The ghosts that appear to Michael suggest lingering guilt and severed lives and also presage future loss: Malachy’s spirit keeps appearing to Michael while he’s still alive, an extra-sensory manifestation of fear, rage, and frustration at approaching, inevitable death, whilst his dead wife’s screams out in the night refuse to leave Michael alone. This is haunting conceived as emotional ephemera, lancing through the thin veil of everyday life in taunting reminder of mortality, before a final visitation brings the grace of catharsis. Such an idea seems to spring, refreshingly, from an authentic sense of a folk tradition of such emanations as the lingering manifestations of deep responsibility and the gnawing nature of familial love. The ghosts won’t depart until Michael confronts what’s gone fetid inside himself. Alongside the spiritual drama builds the triangular battle of the main characters, culminating in a tragicomic boxing match between the men, and a postscript that offers the hope of new horizons for Michael. His bruises from battles with ghosts and men both, the film suggests, are all a price to be paid for any hope at all. A fine little work.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Aragami (2003)

On a dark and stormy night, not long before the Meiji Era dawns in Japan, two mortally wounded samurai (Takao Ôsawa and Hideo Sakaki) stumble into a remote temple after a battle. Ôsawa awakens two days later to find his wounds mysteriously healed, in the care of a wanly beautiful, unspeaking woman (Kanae Uotani) and a dour but solicitous, generous host (Masaya Katô), who inform him that his companion died of his wounds. The host serves up to his guest such unknown treats as French wine and Russian vodka, explaining that he’s travelled the globe, but he soon reveals a troubling reason for his world-weary vastness of experience. He claims to be a Tengu, or, as he prefers it, an Aragami, an undying flesh-eating warrior-spirit who was once a famous human samurai, and who realised he was a demon only after a very long time. When his disbelieving guest asks which famous warrior he once was, he replies “Miyamoto Musashi.” The Aragami has resuscitated his guest by feeding him the flesh of his comrade, and wants to know firstly if his guest might himself be an Aragami without knowing it, and if, then, he has the capacity to kill him, a consummation the monster devoutly wishes. But he won’t go out without a proper fight.

Developed by director Ryûhei Kitamura as part of the “Duel” project he worked on with Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Aragami, although bedecked with some unnecessarily flashy camera gimmickry, is essentially an intriguing fusion of minimalist character interaction and florid action in a classically limited situation. The story has the flavour of archaic folklore, and could have slotted neatly into Kaidan, as the everyman hero unexpectedly finds himself contending with forces beyond his initial coherence, having accidentally strayed beyond the edges of reality. The Samurai, confronted with the chance to face down the demon and turn his friend’s gruesome end into a fuel for victory, is in a situation replete with irony, especially considering that he may turn out to be exactly what he affects to despise, a creature of pure savagery.

Kitamura restricts the action to a single set, partly for budgetary reasons, but also through the demands of the particular experiment the Duel project represented, to examine the essential dramatic quality of any situation in which two protagonists engage in increasing conflict. The interior of the temple with its faintly malefic Buddha statue, saturated Hammer Horror colours, and shadowy reaches, whilst outside drenching rain falls and lightning flashes, is a scene of pure Japanese gothic. The duel concept is literal of course, with th necessary victory of one man over the other, but it also pervades the structure: the supplanting of generations, the awe of facing down implacable institutions, and the synthesis of new worlds, are themes that drive the story. The recurring physical details, in those foreign drinks and also in the weapons the Aragami offers the Samurai, explicate these ideas, but they also move more subtly as the young Samurai, confronting an opponent who embodies two awesome archetypes, at first responds to the idea of taking him on with hysterical laughter, but, realising there’s no going back, agrees to the inevitable duel because there’s no task more worthy than to discover what he’s capable of. Between them sits the woman, silent, biding caretaker of the recurring, more immutable tradition.

Similarly, the filmmaking suggests disparate influences fused: the eerie, restricted setting and throbbing, electronic music by Nobuhiko Morino calls to mind John Carpenter and early Michael Mann, and the high-flying action is standard contemporary wire-fu, but the first half of the film, which consists chiefly of the two antagonists talking, slowly peeling away the masks of civility and identity, equally suggests the formal intimacy of Yasujiro Uzo. Although more pathos could have been wrung of the Aragami’s existential mixture of fighting passion and exhausted interest in life, and the script lacks nuance, unsure at points how to balance dark classical drama with overt humour, it builds the rapport of its two main protagonists with care, and a sense of the transient beauty of the human experience, encapsulated in the ability to sleep and dream, lends the final stages a wistful emotion. Ôsawa’s Samurai lurches between poles of reactive anger and crippling laughter as he comes to comprehend his situation; Katô’s Musashi is excited by displays of his opponent’s uncommon potential, laughing in admiration when he displays the wit to attempt an ungentlemanly kill. The film’s stylishness reaches a dazzling height in the climactic duel when the pair fight in the dark, warring purely by sound, the shimmering ring of their swords passing through the air resounding in pitch black before the clash of sparking edges lights the protagonists in brief, bewildering flashes. Although the denouement fumbles and ideas run out, Aragami charms in not outstaying its welcome at a fraction over 70 minutes long, and the film’s look, courtesy Takumi Furuya’s excellent cinematography, is gorgeous.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Barbarella (1968)

Roger Vadim’s adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest’s bubblegum science-fantasy comic book is one of the late 1960s’ most iconic films, an appropriate fate considering that it was conceived and executed precisely as the most modish of movies. A self-conscious attempt to blend psychedelic and pop-art flourishes with Vadim’s familiar teasing sexuality and playful generic satire, it anticipates Star Wars (1977) in more ways I think than fans of either film would like to admit. Both films chew up and spit out the clichés of generations of pulp novels and movie serials with a knowing, referential sense of humour. But where the interest of George Lucas’ film was in recreating the effervescent pre-adolescent buzz of such fare, beloved by audiences of the late ‘70s crawling back into a juvenile fantasia, Vadim’s work riffed on the sexed-up atmosphere of the ‘60s and extended the traditions of European pulp and comic book authors who specialised in drawing out the fetishist, pansexual possibilities inherent in sci-fi and gothic material.

Barbarella is still a mildly entertaining film, but almost none of its punch is due to Vadim, whose direction is for the most part placid and lacks authentic style, more preoccupied with thinking up ways to leer at his then-wife Jane Fonda’s form than imbue his film with real wit and a giddy, fantastic pace. Apart from the famous opening, in which Barbarella (Fonda) performs a zero-gravity striptease, removing a heavy space suit to reveal her leggy, wavy-haired beauty, Vadim’s invention is in short supply. He leans instead on the wondrous designs by Mario Garbuglia and Uberto Campagna, which blend the super-moderne with suggestively anatomical flourishes, Jacques Fonteray’s costumes, Claude Renoir’s gaudy photography, and the other production elements. The screenplay was co-written by Terry Southern, whose novels Candy and The Magic Christian, and work on the script of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), had helped define the satiric sensibility of the epoch. His trademark humour provides most of Barbarella’s best moments, such as when our heroine, sentenced to death in a chamber filled with birds trying to peck her to death, exclaims that “This is much too poetic a way to die!”

Barbarella, "Astro-Navigatrix" and intergalactic woman of mystery, is cruising about outer space in her swinging bachelorette pad/spaceship, when she’s assigned by the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) to track down mad scientist Dr. Durand-Durand (Milo O'Shea), who’s absconded with his mighty super-weapon, the Positronic Ray, because he’s endangering the future universe’s pacifistic, love-exalting stability. She follows him to the planet Tao Seti, his last known whereabouts, and crash lands after her ship hits a magnetic storm that guards the planet. In quick succession, she’s captured by some feral children who torture her with flesh-eating dolls, saved by the man paid to herd the children (Ugo Tognazzi), and stumbles upon the blind, winged, angelic Pygar (John Phillip Law), who resides in a labyrinth where slaves of the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) are forced to live, some fused into the rocks as sculptures of feigned passion. The city of SoGo ("Sodom and Gomorrah"), which the Great Tyrant controls, is the abode of a culture dedicated to the gigantic mass of fluid energy underneath it, called the Matmos, which lives on negative vibes - evil - and rewards those who feed it with unlimited energy, and Barbarella and Pygar quickly find they don’t fit in.

The concept of a city engaged in a symbiosis with an entity that gorges on bad karma, requiring manifold varieties of perversion to keep it happy, seems ripe for all sorts of glorious decadence, but Barbarella shies away from anything truly confrontational and transgressive: even the inevitable sapphic flirtation that the Tyrant engages in with our heroine is alarmingly wimpy. That Barbarella won't go for broke in living up to its own dirty mind, and yet also never bothers to try and be a convincing, exciting adventure yarn, leaves it in no-man's-land. Vadim’s inert staging is weak in offering eroticised eye-candy, presenting clunky, static panoramas dotted with odalisques smoking “essence of man” and topless chicks dangling in bondage straps. The film's conceptual melding of the sexual with the futuristic only comes to any kind of fruition in the scene in which Durand-Durand, who’s taken a job as the Tyrant’s Concierge whilst waiting for an opportunity to seize power, straps Barbarella into his organ-like orgasm-inducing torture device, designed to kill through pleasure, but which Barbarella’s colossal appetite overloads. The clunky special effects suggest a deliberate nod to the tackiness of old Buck Rogers serials whilst delighting in psychedelic artifice.

Still, it is a wonder that a motion picture with eight credited writing collaborators, including Vadim, Southern, and Forest, ended up feeling so light on ideas, even for a project that sets out to be perhaps more a work of installation art and a soft-core photographic spread than a narrative film. Casting it-girl Pallenberg as the Tyrant might have seemed a good idea at the time, and she certainly looks the part of a fiercely feline sadist, but she’s dubbed over by Fenella Fielding (or by Joan Greenwood, whom Fielding specialized in imitating, depending which source you read), and her role, yin to Barbarella’s yang, has visual stature but no dramatic impact. That's also the case with Marcel Marceau as Professor Ping, a savant trapped in the labyrinth, a part making no use of his physical gifts at all. Better used, and buoying the proceedings somewhat, are Law with his radiant Aryan beauty as Pygar, O’Shea as Durand-Durand, mustering a sly blarney to make his villainy pleasantly ludicrous, and David Hemmings, in a brief cameo as Dildano, incompetent leader of a gang of rebels. Hemmings displays, at least, an expert farceur's timing, which raises an interesting question as to why he didn’t get to play comedy more.

Fonda’s performance, radiating exactly the right mix of bewildered enthusiasm and articulate innocence, works for most of the running time in a vacuum. Whether lolling in a post-coital daze after experiencing old-fashioned sex for the first time (humans of the future have replaced it with a chemically enhanced psychic union), or tossing off post-modern asides like “That screaming! A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming!”, her Barbarella is a sketch for a great comedic heroine waiting for a better film. This film does still retain a bouncy, fun quality thanks to the better elements and the sheer visual jazziness on display, and the great music score by multiple collaborators including Marcel Magne, Bob Crewe, Charles Fox, and The Glitterhouse, alternates gorgeously kitschy pop with rich orchestral scoring. What Mario Bava, a director with a far deeper, more intuitive understanding of pop-art cinema and genre aesthetics and how to link the two, might have made of the film is pleasant to think about.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Crusades (1935)

When generations of pedants have complained about historical inaccuracy in the movies, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades could have been an effective and instructive Exhibit A for their cause. Fidelity to the historical record and delicacy in approaching a thorny religious and social epoch be damned: DeMille transferred his tried-and-tested homiletic vision of history from the ancient Roman arena of The Sign of the Cross (1932), paired it with the kind of quarrelling semi-screwball romantic drama he was fond of, and charged headlong into the fray. The screenplay, by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young and Dudley Nichols, tosses out all mention of the first two crusades, and contrives to present a figure clearly based on Peter the Hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) inspiring Philip II of France (C. Henry Gordon) and Richard the Lionheart (Henry Wilcoxon) to wage war against the Saracens.

The Muslims are portrayed, apart from an evolving Saladin (Ian Keith), as haughty, swarthy, bloodthirsty fanatics gleefully selling Christian girls (including nuns!) into slavery, inspiring a typical DeMille mix of suffering piety and drooling anticipation of depravity, after capturing Jerusalem in an orgy of slaughter and icon-burning. The Hermit, after witnessing the city's rape by Saladin's conquering army (libellous nonsense: Saladin and his followers were far better behaved than the First Crusade's men, who butchered Muslims and Jews indiscriminately when they captured the city a century earlier), warns Saladin that he will go to Europe and preach Crusade, and he soon enlists Philip, but Philip, worried that Richard might prove a threat to his kingdom while he’s away, tries to yoke him by seeing him safely married to his sister Alice (Katherine DeMille), as Richard’s old man Henry II had planned. Richard’s portrayed as a ye-olde redneck with rough manners and rougher religion, and he opportunistically takes the Cross as an opt-out clause to avoid that unpleasant union.

The joke’s on Richard, however: leading his merry yeomen to war, Richard is compelled by the King of Navarre (George Barbier) to marry his daughter Berengaria (Loretta Young), in exchange for desperately needed provisions when the Crusader army is encamped at Marseilles. Richard’s so contemptuous of the forced arrangement that he refuses to attend the wedding, sending his dopey troubadour (Alan Hale - who else?) with his sword to seal the deal. This only cements the bad impression Berengaria’s had of Richard’s character, after witnessing his coarse behaviour with his army, but when he finally catches sight of her before setting sail, of course, he’s suddenly not eager to leave her behind. Their growing mutual adoration after such an inauspicious start proves both counterpoint and catalyst to much of what follows, as Richard’s determination to keep Berengaria as his wife infuriates Philip and threatens to split the Crusader fellowship, and the beautiful, diplomatic western woman bedazzles Saladin.

In spite of DeMille’s own dismissive memory of it as a box office failure, The Crusades was a hit, though perhaps not big enough to make back its great production costs immediately, and it solidified the director's comeback from a string of early sound-era flops. On the whole it’s a big, bristling entertainment, even if its greatest strength is indivisible from its biggest flaw: the affair of Richard and Berengaria takes up a vast chunk of the narrative. Subplots, like Conrad of Monferrat’s (Joseph Schildkraut) efforts to sell out Richard for Prince John’s (Ramsay Hill) benefit, don’t add up to much. Wilcoxon’s swaggering, virile, actually carefully nuanced performance as a rude yet redeemable Richard, and Young’s swooningly lovely look and fine feel for her character as embodiment of all the Christian virtues, are excellent, and they work up exactly the right kind of compelling love-hate tension to sustain the story. DeMille’s heroines usually came in two shapes: wilful and rebellious, needing to be taken down a peg, or righteous, modest, and lovingly martyred. Berengaria blends both varieties, seeing off Richard's unwelcome attentions in her tent by grabbing his sword and trying to swat him with it, but finally willing to go out and be killed by the Saracens to cease the quarrelling over her consuming the Crusader cause, and giving herself to Saladin to save Richard (yes, that's made up too, as if you didn't know).

The supporting cast is reduced to standing around watching them for great lengths of the film, but Keith’s pithy Saladin, Schildkraut’s fine, if rather wasted, mincing villainy, and the director’s daughter Katherine’s charismatic bitchery as Alice, all make an impression. Cecil’s over-large sense of character and gesture, as well as in narrative scope and production values, is always apparent; unrealistic as it certainly is, he communicates a sense of gravity and consequence in his visions of great kings and armies massing for earth-shaking purposes, through the vitality of his picture-book historicism. But the film is three-quarters finished before it reaches its major action set-piece, a fittingly chaotic, bloodcurdling vision of the siege and capture of Acre, the Christian armies marching en masse through the night wielding torches like a sea of truth, singing a hymn in readying to do battle, before colossal siege machines trundle forth, vats of flaming oil pour down on hapless soldiers, and Richard and his fellow armoured knights plough their way through ranks of Saracens.

DeMille seems a little stylistically unsure of himself on occasions, however. Although an epic scale was always the selling-point of his films – the absence of a major star here confirms that he could take that chance – the Paramount production is sometimes rather set-bound, corralling hordes of extras mostly through cramped-looking, pasteboard studio recreations of the historical milieu. The startling size of DeMille’s silent films, and his later works, is absent. The drama isn't as crisp as in its immediate precursor, Cleopatra (1934), and where that film sped through the civil war of Antony and Octavian in one blistering montage, here DeMille seems uncertain of how far he can push violent action for its own sake. The direction and editing of the Acre siege and the battle of Arsuf zip by with concussive, comic book-like rapidity; there's not much sense of tactics or cause and effect in terms of fighting a battle, but offer instead illustrative, furiously edited vignettes of thrilling, horrible war. As spectacle, in their sense of visual organisation and cause and effect to what, they nevertheless belong on a par with what Michael Curtiz and the Warner Bros. production teams were accomplishing on films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and indeed Eisenstein’s work on Alexander Nevsky (1938), a film which might suggest more than a little inspiration drawn from DeMille’s example. DeMille’s constant use of blurring superimpositions and under-cranking renders the shots of clashing masses of cavalry are however hysterical and over-busy. His integrated action direction is more confident and fluent in the following year’s The Plainsman, and perhaps that’s why he chose to remember The Crusades as a failure.

Still, DeMille’s concise eye is apparent in moments like when Richard takes the cross, his followers holding up the hilts of their swords, a mass of cruciforms that renders the idea of “holy war” compellingly literal, and the charged image of the Hermit, captured by the Saracens, being riddled with arrows like St Sebastian, boiling the ideals and iconography of martyrdom down to a singular moment, driving the Crusaders to explosive rage. DeMille can even work up a scene as seemingly throwaway and silly as Berengaria’s being forced to marry a sword into a raw emotional and historical drama, through mystic lighting and rhythmic cutting. Whilst the film’s approach to the ideals of Crusading is for the most part platitudinous, he does present a spellbinding sketch in which wounded, desperate Crusaders climb a staircase to glimpse a fragment of the True Cross, reaching towards blessedness with their final exhausted breaths.

It’s all utterly cornball, of course, and the parochial depiction of Christian nobility against heathen sleaze fails to lay the groundwork for a late tilt at fair exploration of equivalency of faith. Berengaria declares that “So what if we call him Allah or God? Shall men fight if they travel different roads to him?”, and Saladin dismisses Richard’s desire to be a Christian hero because he has no faith at all. Richard only finds God right at the conclusion when he’s lost his kingdom, most of his army and his wife, and has instead stumbled on the way of peace and true religion as a wellspring within one’s self, not in holy places. Not convincing as history, perhaps, but a fitting conclusion, and it does succeed, perhaps, in communicating the way the Crusades altered Europe’s sense of itself and its religion. In this way, then, De Mille doesn’t entirely let down his subject.

The Wolfman (2010)

Painfully uneven, wildly silly, and occasionally interesting, this messy remake of the epochal 1941 George Waggner-Lon Chaney Jnr The Wolf Man is another object lesson in what contemporary Hollywood can and can’t do. The original film isn’t perfect, but it has a rich personality and a nuanced sense of family tragedy, with a vividness of characterisation and strong concept of antihero Larry Talbot as a victimised everyman. Waggner’s film also offered an ironic juxtaposition of the hominess of its idealised version of rural Welsh village it’s set in, with the gothic terrors that transform its surrounds into a fog-shrouded, monster-riddled hell. This new version, directed by Joe Johnston, but which can hardly be credited to any single creator considering its troubled production and signs of mercenary reshooting and reediting, takes great pains to despoil what makes the original film vital: the modest urgency of the situation, and the intricacy of the emotions apparent between Larry and his father and the woman he loves. The setting's transposed to a less defined place called Blackmoor, and everything about this locale and the home of the Talbots has been reinvented as the kind of obviously spooky place that coachmen used to refuse to stop at in older horror films.

The funny thing is there’s a consistent and engaging logic to many of the film’s developments, and what this film may have been originally intended as could have been an excellent modern spin on Waggner’s work. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), rather than a simple man who feels best working with his hands like Chaney’s, is here a Richard Mansfield-ish thespian who, it's suggested, hides from his true self in acting, and is the offspring of his father Sir John’s (Anthony Hopkins) marriage to a gypsy woman (Cristina Contes). Her early, mysterious suicide haunts Lawrence, who left his home young and became an actor in America. His conflict with his father is then far more loaded, and darker, deeper meanings to this alienation soon become apparent. When Larry’s brother Ben (Simon Merrells) is slain by a mysterious beast’s attack, Larry is visited by Ben’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), and drawn home eventually to confront the mysteries of past and present. That quest soon turns all the more tragic for Larry when he tries to hunt down the beast, after it marauds its way through a gypsy encampment, and is bitten. Hated by the locals and suspected by visiting Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) of being a mad killer, Larry soon enough transforms into a werewolf and begins adding to the carnage engulfing the countryside.

Waggner’s film generated drama by exploring the shaded space between monstrosity and the mind, and, in spite of the familiar old-school expressionist stylisation, emphasised a modern sense of incredulity about the existence of the supernatural and a low-key sense of humanity. This The Wolfman presents a rural England full of prejudiced, hysterical rednecks all too willing to believe that Larry is cursed, vicious quack scientists, and repressive, loutish patriarchs, all tossed into a stew that reduces everything to the obvious. It’s curious that like many modern films that ransack older ones, it ends up looking and sounding far less sophisticated, and the social and psychological themes are gnarled into incoherence. The central family melodrama is taken up several notches by making Gwen already a pawn in the family’s twisted psychodynamics and suggesting that all of the narrative is sourced in Sir John’s sense of masculine entitlement. Father-son battles have consistently been an aspect of many of the best werewolf tales, and The Wolfman’s makers have tried to give that a contemporary gloss by changing the dynamic that conflict usually represented: instead of the father figure being forced to rein in the son's wayward impulses, here the opposite is true, the brutishness of the son both product of and reaction to the father’s violence.

Director Joe Johnston’s ideas are occasionally suggestive, like staging Larry’s fateful mauling in a ring of standing stones, redolent of primeval forces still defining the modern world. The look of the film, especially in the first third, with its foggy forests and saturated shades of midnight blue and honeyed yellows, has a suitably haute-gothic sheen. Tips of the hat to several other werewolf movies apart from Waggner’s are evident: Larry’s costuming is based on Oliver Reed’s in The Curse of the Werewolf, a set-piece in which the werewolf-Larry rampages in Picadilly Circus quotes An American Werewolf in London in period setting, and the plotline of warring lycanthropes, one slightly worse than another, is cribbed from Wolf. But Johnston’s more ambitious visuals, like the regulation CGI London, an extended rooftop chase, and the climactic brawl of werewolves which fails to achieve any sense of clashing ferocity, look and feel interchangeable with the kinds of scenes found it most other special-effects-laden fantasy films of recent years. Johnston finally turns in a flavourlessly phoney and impersonally bland-feeling product that’s the definition of hack work. Rick Baker’s make-up, beautifully rendered to pay tribute to Jack Pierce’s classic work, is subordinated to the computer-generated cheese.

Faults quickly proliferate beyond a redeemable point. There’s no sense of menace or sustained dread in the monster attacks, and gore effects are tossed at the screen with a childish showiness that entirely lacks an unsettling quality. It’s amazingly unscary – there’s one decent, unexpected gore shock late in the affair when Larry reenters his family home, but otherwise the film seems to have fallen victim to a studio push to get the gruesome money shots inserted regardless of tone or pace. Maleva, the gypsy who becomes Larry’s mother figure in Waggner’s film, is here reduced to a minor plot mechanism, and played by a totally wasted Geraldine Chaplin. Art Malik makes a momentary impression as Singh, Sir John’s Sikh servant, but his role is equally, irritatingly brief. Continuity goofs and story gaps litter the film, with a sloppiness that’s startling for such an expensive production, and Johnston leans on tired devices. How often have you seen a variation on the scene where a couple’s bubbling attraction is communicated by the man guiding a woman from behind to show her how to hold a gun or some such malarkey? Here it’s how to skip a stone across water.

Most unforgivably, the film has no grasp at all on the essentially tragic dimension of Waggner’s original. Where Chaney’s wolf man was anguished and conscientious when human but simply savage and indiscriminately murderous when transformed, here the filmmakers can’t approximate such fascinating duality. They instead render Larry almost heroic, by making most of his victims obnoxious, like consuming a posse of hunters who have insulted his mother’s memory, or tearing his way through the asylum keepers and quack psychiatrists who have tortured him. There was room to move there, in fact, in depicting a socially-created vengeful monster, but Johnston only renders it in the most boorish of cheer-along fashions. Del Toro tackles the part with as much intensity and commitment as he can, but he’s conspired against by the reduction of proceedings to a supernatural action movie, and his Larry is so laden with Byronic darkness from the start that his lycanthropy seems just another shit thing that happens to him, and merely deepens the already omnipresent ruts in his brow a quarter-inch. Where the 1941 film’s narrative presented the sad spectacle of a father having to finally express his love for his son by beating his brains out, there’s no coherent emotion in the bearish battle of man-beasts here.

Hopkins tackles his part with some familiar but entertaining tricks, and Weaving imbues his flat role with mordant humour. But Blunt’s turn as Gwen becomes the film’s expressive focal point. She’s excellent in a way that seems weirdly at odds with the otherwise overstuffed, unsuccessful efforts, as if she was the only person who seemed exactly sure of what she was doing. In spite of all the faults, though, it’s far more interesting as a disaster and a failure than, say, a “success” like the often visually and conceptually similar Sherlock Holmes, because it least it hints throughout that it could easily have been far better. If the filmmakers hadn’t become lost in second-guessing themselves, a thoroughly enjoyable work might have come out of it.