Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Three Musketeers (1948)

Whilst perpetually tackled as a public domain text with a ready supply of iconic characters and rollicking action, thus saving screenwriters and producers from hard work creating their own, there have been few entirely successful or satisfying adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ most famous novel. At least, few in English language cinema. Perhaps that’s because although it’s the mother of much modern genre literature and reams of swashbuckler filmmaking, the novel has an unusual structure and style that blends high melodrama and tragedy with farce and satire, and its complex plot builds to a curious series of resolutions that are more like diminuendos. There’s a deceptive quality to the novel, with its young, ardent heroes outmatched by the power politics around them and resolving instead to proffer heroism as an expression of idealism and rejection of power, and life as a thrill-ride, skating across a necessary blindness to sorrow, that’s definably existentialist, and contributed in an odd and torturous way to the development of noir fiction – not only in its heroes’ relationship to society but also in the archetypal femme fatale Milady de Winter. But the story has generally been utilised as a justification for broad action-comedy – take the 1939 version that starred the Ritz Brothers. Even the best adaptation to date, Richard Lester’s early ‘70s diptych, played up slapstick at the cost of the original tale’s equally droll, but rather subtler ribaldry.

All that’s the long way of getting around to stating that this version, featuring Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan, Van Heflin as Athos, Gig Young as Porthos and Robert Coote as Aramis, is a bewildering, wildly uneven blend. This was one of the first significant efforts to recapture the zest of pre-WW2 adventure cinema (Errol Flynn’s somewhat enervated stab at reviving that zest, The Adventures of Don Juan, came out the same year). Whilst pre-war adventure films like The Mark of Zorro (1940) or The Sea Hawk (1941) could be playful but also grounded and dramatic, even gritty, this reveals a new uncertainty about how to play such material, unable to reconcile the flagrant unreality of the traditional swashbuckler, and the new post-war realism, manifesting in a film that is divided against itself. Director George Sidney had just directed Kelly in three bubbly musicals, and the first half plays as a candy-coloured comedy, a choice that had its logic in the circumstances of the production, but which hardly, finally suits the material. The idea of turning new, young dancer star Kelly, who might already have been harbouring aspirations to play meatier roles than he had been getting to date in frothy, flashy fare, into a sword-and-pistol action hero, was an inspired one; surely he had the physical grace and dynamism, the jaunty charm, the joie de vivre to revive the moribund genre.

Kelly had just come off The Pirate, a fully-fledged blend of swashbuckler and musical, and the version of The Three Musketeers that MGM built around him (although Lana Turner was actually top-billed) looks and sounds often like the next installment, with the musketeers introduced as colour-coordinated dandies, and Kelly playing D’Artagnan as the archest of big-talking ingénues. Everyone looks at first like they're waiting for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. The familiar plot is still in play. Young Gascon warrior progeny D’Artagnan leaves home to join the King’s Regiment of Musketeers with his father’s sword and a less than noble-looking horse and, after being mugged on the road by the henchmen of Milady de Winter (Turner), turns up in Paris a mess. He swiftly gets himself in hot water with all three of the notorious title trio, and arranges to duel them one after the other in the Jardin Luxembourg. But he finishes up joining forces with them, and earning their lifelong friendship, when they have to fight off a mob of Cardinal Richelieu’s heavies, who use a ban on duelling as one of many pretexts to assert Richelieu’s power, over the soldiers who support King Louis XIII’s (Frank Morgan) embattled independence.

D’Artagnan is soon drawn into the life of Constance (June Allyson), his landlord’s goddaughter (she was his wife in the book; but this was Hollywood in 1948), who works for the Queen (Angela Lansbury). She knows of the Queen’s illicit romance with the English Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton - the Duke was probably gay in real life, but that’s neither here nor there), which Richelieu hopes to uncover to the King and thus gain his support for war against England. He’s dispatched de Winter to snatch away some jewels from a set that the Queen gave Buckingham as a keepsake, leading D’Artagnan and the musketeers to speed their way to England battling Richelieu’s forces every foot of the way, and save the Queen’s honour. When Richelieu nonetheless gets his war, he again sets de Winter on Buckingham, this time to kill him.

The first major action scene, the duel in the Lux, is more comedic dance number than life-and-death brawl, with D’Artagnan dodging, jumping and leaping various fixtures in playing with his opponent, Jussac (Sol Gorss), before finally besting him and forcing him to fall backwards into a pool with his trousers around his knees. One moment that comes right out of a Friz Freleng cartoon presents D’Artagnan vibrating with horny glee in realising he’s got a bird’s eye view on the bedroom of comely Constance, leering and stamping his feet in ecstasy. Up until this point the film is distressingly twee and only Kelly’s physicality makes it at all watchable. Slowly, this version does deepen and become more engaging, but it moves forward in such tonally disparate fits and starts that it never really works. The early comic emphasis makes the last third’s darker touches, like Milady’s unremitting desire to get vengeance on D’Artagnan (for having pretended to be one of her lovers for the sake of getting to first base with her), and her murder of Constance, seem all the more bewildering.

Kelly’s performance swings from cartoonish to realistic, and sometimes there’s a good effect in this. His D’Artagnan enters the film as a youth who assumes studied airs of outrage and makes an arse of himself in offering his idea of man’s man and romantic rhetoric, bordering on a send-up of macho posturing, between wising up and growing up. This is particularly apparent in his first scene with Constance in which, having saved her from some of Richelieu’s thugs, he hurriedly makes corny love to her before realising what a fool he’s being, and when Constance asks if he’s D’Artagnan “the famous swordsman”, he substitutes, “the famous booby”, and continues on with more genuine emotion and speech. To a certain extent, his performance embodies the film – these polarities are evident throughout, but usually without enough clear sense of how to alternate them. More peculiar, interesting, and strange is Heflin’s Athos, the most Byronic of the Musketeers. Heflin plays the character as dark and troubled, rather hysterical when he’s supposed to be jovial, and genuinely dark when mulling over his tragic past, which of course involved de Winter. Heflin also seems to be in a different movie to Kelly and most of the rest of the cast: his relatively low-key, more mature-seeming approach is a distinct example of something that had shifted in the Hollywood playbook.

The film does hit its stride during the running battle in the heroes’ efforts to get to England, in a sequence filled with terrific fencing, excellent stunts, and a visual shout-out to Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood in a duel on the shoreline. Director Sidney would go on to make the best swashbuckler of the ‘50s, Scaramouche, and the design, staging, and stylistic alternation of high drama and vivid comedy, essayed in picture-book colours, which are all so strong in that film, are here too, but the mixture is infinitely more lumpy and often tedious. His best flourishes come towards the end, especially in the memorable sequence in which de Winter, having been placed in Constance’s hands as the one person in Buckingham’s mind who can be relied upon to not fall for Milady’s wiles, play-acts a descent into sorrow and hysteria in trying to convince Constance to sneak her in a knife with which to commit suicide; the sight of the lovely Turner as a bitter, ashen wretch and then, pretending to be Constance after having murdered her, sneaking into the Duke’s room with her hand caked in blood, is momentarily strong melodrama.

Turner, the one-note actress to end all one-note actresses, is too callow to be a persuasive de Winter, who’s supposed to be a master manipulator of feline cunning and unfathomable emotional depravity; instead she comes across like a cranky homecoming queen mad at her jock boyfriend. Nonetheless, her comeuppance – having her head cleaved off by an executioner at the Musketeer’s behest – is the real climax of the film, and Turner pulls off the necessary moment of Milady realising there’s no way out and substituting false pleading for innate, imperious dignity. There’s quite a distance travelled by the film, both in narrative and style, from the campy jaunt of the early scenes to the infernal lighting and climactic Gothicism in this resolution, and the production and photography are all master class, full of bold and vividly contrasting colours and hues, even if the guiding style fails to cohere. One of the best reasons to watch is Vincent Price, still developing his sinister persona, at his most silken and Machiavellian as Richelieu; a couple of more incidental but excellent performances come from Keenan Wynn, oddly cast as D’Artagnan’s buffoonish valet Planchet, and Patricia Medina as Kitty, de Winter’s maid and willing object of D’Artagnan’s romantic obfuscation. The overall effect is of a film that is a patchwork quilt of intentions and results.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Beat Girl (1959)

This odd, lurid, often terrible, occasionally compelling film is one of the first attempts by British cinema to tackle youth culture on something like its own terms, anticipating the eruptive coming decade. It suffers, like most such early efforts did, from a gruesome mixture of patronisation and misconception, blended with some of the familiar grit of ‘50s British noir. It’s chiefly worth remembering, if at all, for John Barry’s jazz-pop score. Barry had been writing and arranging songs for young pop singer Adam Faith, and Faith's being cast in this film seems to have drawn Barry in his wake. His work here is a definite precursor in both sound and stylishness to his rendition of the James Bond theme: the main theme’s blaring urgency, scoring an opening credits sequence in which young Jennifer Linden (future yé-yé pop starlet Gillian Hills) cavorts with abandon in a cramped underground club amongst dozens of dubiously jiving Britons, promises a down and dirty melodrama of the finest vintage. Beat Girl is however neither go-for-broke trash nor attempted social realism now turned cultural relic, but a strange mixture of the two, with added elements of musical, gangster film and soft-core exploitation flick.

When middle-aged architect Paul Linden (David Farrar) returns from a jaunt to Paris with a new wife, Nichole (Noelle Adam), a former dancer in her mid-twenties, he hopes she’ll be a calming, bridging influence with his sullen teenaged daughter Jennifer. But the time he’s spent abroad has given Jennifer the opportunity to delve deeper into the nascent Beatnik scene in London, hanging out with her fellow emotional refugees and bourgeois escapees in coffee bars and underground dance clubs and appropriated cellars. She’s calculatingly disrespectful to her father, whom she perceives as an aloof, alienated prig, although it’s clear he’s found something like intense sexual fulfilment with the chic-seeming Nichole, whom Jennifer dismisses as a pretty dullard. Jennifer, offended by Nichole’s efforts to take an interest in her life and pretences to being hip, gets a scent of exploitable scandal and soon discovers that Nichole worked as a stripper and part-time prostitute in Paris, thanks to a chance encounter with one of her former colleagues who now works in the strip-joint of Kenny King (Christopher Lee). Jennifer tries to make Nichole jump through her hoops with her new-found power, and also seems intrigued by the atmosphere of King’s joint and the transgressive thrills it represents.

Jennifer’s cabal of close, jargon-spouting friends encompasses guitar-strumming Dave (Faith), and fellow emotionally bereft slummers Dodo (Shirley-Anne Field) and Tony (Peter McEnery). Faith’s character, the purest of these hipster-headed angels, is defined by his spindly, angular alienation, speaks in almost nothing but oracular scene lore (“Alcohol is for squares, man!”) and sometimes takes time out to wow the crowds with his bad lip-synching to shitty faux-rock, or, occasionally, actually performing said shitty faux-rock. Efforts to reproduce authentic jive talk are predictably horrendous (“Great dad – straight from the fridge!”). Field gets a song number too, which may require the less patient to wield the remote control. But there’s a conceptual keenness in places, and a prognosticative accuracy about aspects of both the then-current and future manifestations of youth culture that suggests a good film lurking within this mess.

In the best scene, they hang out with fellow urban refugees in a cellar turned nightspot, rude brick walls lit by thousands of candles. Dave and Tony share, in a moment of confessional angst, their memories of childhoods defined by the Blitz, Dave having come into the world in an air raid shelter, Tony having lost his mother to a V-1, and growing up playing amongst the bomb ruins. The almost neo-realist look and feel of this moment helps capture a kind of accidental poetry in the lifestyle on show: a youth culture springing out of the calamity of war, driven underground and kept there by a world rebuilt by the Paul Lindens, which offers few sensual or emotional niches. Linden is defined by his planned “city of the future”, a lovingly bland, modernistic eyesore with all the blemishes and uncleanness carefully left out of his grand scheme for the future, a scheme Jennifer rejects and which the likes of Dave perceives as inevitably doomed.

Unfortunately the film doesn’t sustain that kind of insight. The confused reading of Beat as another antisocial youth fad a stone’s throw away from more traditional forms of low-life bohemianism is the essence of square. Plain galling is the dirty-old-man’s automatic association of the faint glimmerings of feminine self-realisation and yearning for independent erotic expression as displayed by Jennifer, with urban vice and sticky-magazine sexuality. The story moves uneasily between the domestic melodrama of the Lindens, the odyssey-like vibe of the young hipsters’ search for kicks and meaning, and the quasi-gangland scene of King and his circle, which resolves in a somewhat poorly prepared climax of jealous murder and mistaken identity. It's all as if director Edmond T. Gréville never really sat down to decide what kind of film he wanted to make.

One sequence, in which Dave speeds his car through the night with maniacal disinterest in the safety of himself and his passengers, including an exultant Jennifer, does anticipate the night-ride sequence in A Clockwork Orange with surprising immediacy. Gréville and writer Dail Ambler do, however, pointedly contrast the Beat kids, especially Adam with his pacifistic credo, with the violent, anarchic Teddy Boys, and there’s something real about the way they portray the gangland sleazes, like King and his offsider Simon (Nigel Green), trying to take advantage of the youth scene to fatten their wallets and please their libidos; the climax involves Lee, always an actor possessing an unnerving mix of aristocratic grace and potent sexuality, commencing a seduction of Jennifer, trying to turn her own glaze of disaffection and self-pronounced experience to his own advantage. Beat Girl could only have been more accurately predictive of some of the grimmer bottom-feeders of the coming counterculture if they’d seen the drug scene coming.

Beat Girl was a very racy film for 1959, and several of its saucy striptease scenes, including one blindingly sexy dance from Laya Rakis, were edited out of original prints. There’s also a level of frankness in lines like, “Love…that’s the gimmick that makes sex respectable, isn’t it?” as Jennifer asks Nichole sarcastically at one point, that’s quite impressive for the time and place. Hills’ debut performance, constantly testing the patience and idealism of her elders and the mettle of her generational fellows, is a good study in that kind of grating, affected hard-as-nails, prematurely world-weary attitude. It’s worth noting however that the film’s sexual politics are actually incredibly conservative and reactionary. Jennifer’s dabbling with sexual expression has already built to a head when, having defeated Dave’s semi-flirtatious attempts to shatter her cool in playing games of chicken with cars and trains, she then begins to strip for the assembled hipsters who have invaded the Linden’s coldly featureless house. When Linden comes upon this, he explodes in repressive patriarchal fury, and throws the beatniks out; he is of course “saving” her from humiliating herself in the name of defying decency. But the film’s incapacity to suggest Jennifer’s search for sensual liberation is anything other than dangerous and shameful helps turns the film into just another fatherly fantasy: the film finally validates Linden as the real source of strength and security, whilst other women are used as the surrogates to show off their flesh and fulfil the sexual fantasy on hand. Paul does however have to wrestle with his horror at discovering Nichole’s sordid history, hypocritical considering it’s been made plain he married her for sexual compatibility.

It’s this sort of pussyfooting around an interesting concept by an ill-focused script that keeps the film from going anywhere dangerous or incisive, and the downright clumsy musical sequences, weak editing, and uneven acting doesn’t help. Noelle Adam’s utterly horrible performance is a real drag, exacerbated by her obvious discomfort with English dialogue, but that doesn’t excuse her total lack of expression or nuance, and Faith, who had some cred as a pop star at the time, is unconvincing in trying to work up a Brando or Dean-esque volatility. Gréville went on to film a remake of The Hands of Orlac, also featuring Lee, but his work here is for the most part tame and awkward; only the suitably syncopated cutting in a repeated, amended version of the opening's nightclub dance, alternating between the gyrations of the crowd and close-ups of the fingers of the instrumentalists, captures any feeling for the ecstatic release and rhythmic intensity of a nocturnal party scene. It’s worth noting that an incredibly young Oliver Reed can be glimpsed in this scene, dancing with Hills. It's a big hunk of cheese, but if you can stick it out, Beat Girl does have it small rewards and tantalising touches.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Fifth Element (1997)

Luc Besson’s attempt to generate blockbuster cash flow after his best work Leon (1994), stuck in my mind as a zany, creative, somewhat messy film. Returning to it, The Fifth Element struck me as a ramshackle assemblage of promising ideas and actors forced into an under-written and stodgily-paced hodgepodge. The essential plot makes for a great potential starting point for an action epic, if commencing with elements a bit too obviously cribbed from Stargate. Early in the 20th century, an absent-minded archaeologist (John Bluthal) and his pretty but dimwitted assistant (Luke Perry) discover an ancient, hidden chamber, forcing a mysterious priest (John Bennett) to try and poison them. Both labours are interrupted by the arrival of a group of bizarre, lumbering robotic aliens who come to shepherd away the four elemental stones and central ‘Fifth Element’ that form a millennia-old super-weapon located in the chamber, which the priest’s cabal is charged with protecting, to keep the objects safe, but expecting to return them in three hundred years when the colossal force of nameless evil the weapon was built to fend off returns. In the future, that force manifests in an age that’s part Star Trek, part Blade Runner, as the planet-sized evil entity destroys space ships and waits only long enough to adjust to its new universal environment before devastating all life in the cosmos, starting with Earth.

The aliens try to bring back the pieces of the weapon, but attacks by a band of mercenary shape-shifters, paid off by plutocrat Zorg (Gary Oldman), scatter them, and the remaining pieces of the fifth, most crucial element has to be synthesised by scientists. This element proves to be shaped like Milla Jovovich, calls herself Leeloo, and, panicked by the bullying of General Munro (Brion James), flees. She finishes up taking refuge with Bruce Willis, inflicted with a blonde cyberpunk rinse a la Christopher Lambert in Subway, who plays Korben Dallas, former soldier who’s now driving a taxi in a futuristic New York that’s taken high-rise to obscene levels. He delivers her, after some wild driving in eluding cops, to Father Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), the current head of the cabal of priestly guardians. Korbin is then drafted into finding and returning the four elemental stones, which are being protected by an opera-singing alien, Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco) currently performing on a cruise ship on the other side of the galaxy, and he and Cornelius battle each-other and Zorg and his mercenaries in trying to fetch the stones back.

Perhaps no other film in his career reveals just how uneven a director Besson can be. Although he was and is criticised for Hollywoodising French cinema, he actually brought to the blockbuster template some fundamentally Gallic, streetwise wit. This shows through in the portrait of a future that’s been so commercialised, sexualised, and compartmentalised that nobody notices anymore, as drugged-up goons in bizarre hats perform stick up banditry and flight attendants wear uniforms fit for juvenile fantasies. Cigarettes are 75% filter, and car chases end with policemen buried in huge piles of McDonalds. No-one but a Frenchman could think up a plot twist where the future of the universe is literally inside an artist. There’s a garrulous time-out for a slice-of-life vignette amongst the proletarian guys who keep the spaceships running, smoking weed whilst loading fissionable material and burning off space barnacles, a tantalising gag for those of who ever wondered about who does such things in sci-fi movies.

The portrayal of futuristic New York as a den of flying cars and towering, glutted buildings seems to have highly influenced the cityscapes of Coruscant in the second Star Wars trilogy, and Jovovich’s Leeloo was one of the first and most visually dynamic not only of her own subsequent heroic parts, but of the raft of tensile martial-arts chicks about to become compulsory accessories in the action genre. The effervescent colour and detail that form the background, from the seamy charms of Earth with gigantic piles of garbage, to the environs of Phlotson Paradise, the off-world tourist resort that’s defined by a mixture of futuristic hedonism and Sun King ornateness, is eye candy in the most thorough sense of the phrase – kudos to DOP Thierry Arbogast. But just as often the conceptualism, particularly in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s campy costuming, with ludicrously clumsy aliens and clunky military uniforms, is often merely distracting and even stupid.

The more serious problems lie in Besson’s script (co-written with Robert Mark Kamen), with story progression that barely makes a lick of sense, full of frantic plot strands as various parties, most of whom are on the same side, compete to get hold of the stones. Considering that Cornelius has already been consulted by the government, crucial in making them aware of the secret alien plans and the history behind it, that he, them, and their agent Dallas should be constantly tripping over each-other’s toes is just confusion for the sake of it. Why Zorg is working for the Evil, what the Evil is, why the weapon was built and then situated on Earth, and other simple questions of why and what for are tossed aside, as if Besson hoped it would all be taken as mere parable, but it just feels patronising instead. Equally incoherent is why, with so little time to spare, the stones were hidden with Plavalaguna in the first place, and why such convoluted efforts were necessary to retrieve them.

Besson’s direction is often too interested in setting up fanciful cross-cutting jokes and not interested enough in sustaining tone and coherence. His methods do work occasionally, for the film’s best sequence, original and inventive on a number of levels, is one in which Leeloo takes on a squad of aliens, kicking their asses with grace and humour, whilst Korben listens to Plavalaguna, her initial operatic aria giving way to techno-inflected syncopation – a dynamic and hip bit of film making. But the action that follows is weirdly weak and awkwardly staged, and the attempt to conjure a note of emotional urgency as Leeloo, a perfect, selfless being who can be shattered by overt displays of evil, collapses in a shivering heap after comprehending the vastness of human potential for destruction (cue inevitable archival shots of Hitler), is employed far too late and far too spuriously to add urgency to the story.

Willis’s terse, frazzled performance (“I am a meat popsicle!”) and Jovovich’s tangy, spirited physicality both demand more room than they get to cut loose, but neither really gets to do anything like their best work. Oldman, so compellingly bizarre and savage in Leon, hams it up agreeably but finally ineffectually as Zorg, who, in spite of his string of French given names speaks with a broad Texan accent, with his best moment coming in an amusing demonstration of a weapon’s firepower. Holm, in one of those regulation Respected Brit Actor Slumming It For Fun and Profit roles (since monopolised by Ian McKellen), tries to have fun. Chris Tucker’s enthusiastically over-the-top performance as Ruby Rhod, an oversexed, freaked-out DJ who suggests a caricature of Prince filtered through a Manga lens, is an element I’ve changed my mind on: when I first saw the film, he looked like a bizarre distraction from the business of busting heads, but now it’s clear he embodies the hyped-up, cartoonish, twisted sense of cutting-edge kind of razzle-dazzle Besson was trying for as well as, if not better than, his own filmmaking. On the whole, however, The Fifth Element, in spite of the cornucopia of invention on screen, looks like a first draft of a good film.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Jaws 2 (1978)

Jaws 2 is the kind of film that faced an unenviable problem: how do you make a sequel to a hugely successful blockbuster that sported a plot necessarily precluding the fabrication of a believable sequel? Jaws 2 was, thus, inevitably contrived, presenting yet another gigantic, ravenous shark marauding in the waters off Amity Island, requiring Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to again risk life, limb, and reputation in taking it down, with his kids Michael and Sean (Mark Gruner and Marc Gilpin) getting in the road of yon wee toothy fishy. The pressure to repeat a successful formula manifests in repetitions of the first film’s social conflicts, in defiance of character logic. Brody’s efforts to alert the populace to the possible presence of a second monster again fall foul of commercial concerns embodied by Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) and now also slick developer Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo), who also introduces a note of the marital strife that had plagued the Brodys in Peter Benchley’s original novel.

The script was considerably altered during production after in-fighting between the filmmakers and the studio, which resulted in original director John Lee Hancock departing under a career-killing cloud, and French-born Jeannot Szwarc, mostly a director for TV, took over. Although it wasn’t the first big Hollywood sequel to have a simple, declarative “2” affixed to the title (that was French Connection II), this seems the film that made the practice de rigeur for the next quarter-century. The first half gives Brody the problem of proving his paranoid suspicion that a series of accidents, claiming the lives of two divers checking out the wreck of the Orca from the first film and a waterskiing duo, and the discovery of a beached, mauled killer whale, as all a little case of history repeating. Jaws 2 then plays out, in essence, as a teen slasher movie. Released in the same year as Halloween, the panoply of teenage caricatures on the menu here certainly seems to have helped codify that subgenre’s clichés.

The action moves to sea as the shark chases down a flotilla of Amity’s shiniest, dumbest young people, including the Chief’s boys, Vaughan’s son Larry Jr (David Elliott), likeable nerds Timmy (G. Thomas Dunlop) and Doug (Keith Gordon), and a number of comely females in short shorts. Brody tries to convince Vaughan, Peterson and other council chieftains that there’s a risk. After he panics when patrolling the beach, mistaking a school of blue fish for a lurking shark, and offloads his revolver in front of hundreds of tourists, he gets the sack, but when the teens of Amity, a rough coalition of on-islanders and rich-kid summer folk, oblivious to the danger, leave on a sailing jaunt, they fall prey to the new roaming leviathan.

The odd thing is that Jaws 2 is still quite a good and entertaining film, and one of the least superfluous blockbuster sequels ever made. Although the situation is inherently improbable (the convoluted novelisation offered a partial rationale of the shark being a ravenous pregnant female, eager to clear its chosen spawning ground of intruders), the decision to keep the material grounded in the established, quirky, craven, sea-wind salt and sun atmosphere of Amity, was ultimately a very wise one: the familiar faces of Amity pop up like old friends, including Jeffrey Kramer’s Deputy Hendricks, Fritzi Jane Courtney’s Mrs. Taft and Al Wilde’s Harry Wiseman. The final screenplay’s writers, Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler (the respected playwright who had helped pen the first film’s famous Indianapolis monologue), kept the mixture of everyday domestic muddle and small-town politicking remarkably intact, if now distinctly formulaic. Strong little moments lend the film a lovable flavour, like when Brody, sacked after crying wolf, gets smashed and self-pitying, and then kicks aside the emptied beer cans that litter his driveway the next morning with nonchalant grace, or wife Ellen (Lorraine Garry) advising him to “just look bored” when he arrives late to a gala hotel opening. The semi-improvised banter of the younger characters is occasionally accurate (Doug: “Sometimes the most beautiful girls are the loneliest.” Timmy: “That’s a crock of shit!”) and the usual teens-in-trouble shenanigans of the last third are at least portrayed with convincing detail, in the fractious group dynamics alternating hollering arguments, mopey sarcasm, hysterical desperation, and constructive efforts to save their lives.

If the first film is in essence about an ordinary man’s capacity to face and defeat lurking dread in its most purified form, Jaws 2 expands on this appropriately, as it hints at a study of how quickly heroes becomes superfluous to communal needs; one of the most cogent shots reveals Brody, after making an ass of himself on the beach, staring at his “Citizen of the Year” award in bewildered shame. The suggestion that an unexamined post-traumatic stress afflicts him and affects his judgement on how to deal with the problem also hovers intriguingly. Roy Scheider’s performance is as excellent as in the first film, perhaps even more so, although he lacks foils as strong as Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. But the adultness of his relationship with Ellen is real-feeling and virtually unique in this kind of film. Some of the supporting performances are engaging too, including Gordon who, recruited straight out of high school, obviously landed his subsequent gigs in Dressed to Kill and Christine thanks to this, and Ann Dusenberry as Tina Wilcox, the sweet-cheeked local beauty queen whose reaction to watching her boyfriend get eaten is quite a striking bit of acting in context, a good example of the little surprises such genre films can yield. Szwarc builds, somewhat predictably but with relish, to a repeat of the original’s finale, Brody again placing himself in the road of those massive jaws. This time it’s to lure the animal into chomping on a colossal power cable, a plot device for which the ground is laid far earlier in an obvious but humorous vignette, and it does certainly provide a spectacular finale.

John Williams inevitably returned to repeat the scoring duties that first made his a household name, but rather than take to the task lazily, he made it an opportunity to indulge his creativity, offering up some splendidly suite-like moments, like the ballet that accompanies a group of divers, and the jaunty yachting and beach-going themes. Szwarc’s direction is for the most part admirably efficient, keen to performances and fluent in action, and occasionally even atmospheric. I especially like the eerie, anticipatory moment in which his camera drifts away from the gala, romantic big band tunes playing and recomposed harmony of life reigning in Amity, their sounds echoing out across the water where lonely moored yachts bob, only for one to be rocked by the shape of a massive underwater presence before the tell-tale fin cuts the water. When the shark pursues the oblivious flotilla out to sea with malevolent intent, Szwarc’s and William’s inventions entwine neatly as Szwarc films the racing boats in sweeping, thrilling helicopter shots, and William’s score builds in frenetic, melodramatic chords, before resolving in the familiar shark theme.

But Szwarc constructed suspense sequences in a more obvious fashion than Steven Spielberg’s shocking and yet logical and carefully wrought climaxes. Szwarc’s equivalents, like a diver (Barry Coe) being ambushed by the shark, Brody’s being freaked out by a charred corpse in the surf, or the cynical yet effective moment when Marge (Martha Swatek) saves Sean’s life only to then be consumed in one gut-crunching bite in front of the kid’s eyes, lapse far more obviously into horror-movie gimmickry. The pressure to enlarge upon the thrills of the predecessor offers up a scene both fun and stupid, when the shark brings down a helicopter. This time around the mechanics animating Bruce seemed a little more refined, so that the filmmakers were more confident about putting him on screen. Unfortunately that doesn’t really help the tension, for he’s quite awfully fake in some moments – I particularly like one scene where, with mouth open wide, his overbite crinkles up exactly like a toy rubber shark I used to own.

In purely technical terms it is, however, often a mildly superior film to the first Jaws, more confident and expansive in its ocean-going action, with a tried-and-tested effects crew and large budget. The richly hued and brilliantly lucid cinematography by Michael Butler (no relation, funnily enough, to the original’s photographer, Bill Butler) is a great plus. But the story as a whole, the relative sluggishness and formulaic tone of the narrative in comparison to the grand adventure of Jaws, and the lack of Spielberg's technique, just can’t be considered in a class with his film. You could argue that if you wanted to make a believable sequel to Jaws and keep the original characters around, the second two instalments - the wonderfully awful Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge – actually came up with a better essential idea, in that Michael, after his traumatic youthful encounters, started placing himself in harm’s way as a marine biologist. Still, Jaws 2 is probably as good as it was ever going to be.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

Well-acted, initially engaging, but finally facile and rather dispiriting, Up in the Air commences with a good hook: a man whose job it is to fire people, about to experience his own life travails. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a character that his creators seem to have competing concepts of, however. He's presented as a rootless, solitary corporate schmoozer who loves his life in hotels and airports and the faux-bonhomie of customer service, an archetype of modern commercialism incarnate, like a leftover Jack Lemmon character, and as a vaguely honourable defender of human values in an increasingly inhuman working world, like a leftover Paul Newman character. This schism is one that director Jason Reitman and his screenwriting partner Sheldon Turner (working from Walter Kirn’s novel) don’t seem to have thought out in any meaningful way. Ryan moves about the modern United States the way other people move about their own home, and indeed that’s how Ryan thinks of the country, with his intricate understanding of the best car hire companies and the benefits of elite consumer status, as one big playpen full of shiny pretty things.

Of course, Ryan’s jet-set self-satisfaction is ruffled when three significant developments in his life coincide, as they must. He meets a chic but saucy fellow traveller, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), with whom he commences an affair that is consummated whenever the pair manage to end up in the same city or close enough: she advises him to regard her as “yourself with a vagina”, but their tryst soon proves so satisfying that he’s tempted to consider her an actual, like, girlfriend. Simultaneously, he’s saddled with young go-get-‘em Princeton graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who’s convinced their mutual boss, the spurious Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman in the Jason Bateman role again), to try adapting their business to the internet age and simply sack people online, an idea Ryan strenuously objects to. He’s given the task by Craig of showing Natalie what the job actually entails, confronting the gruesome emotional distress, hostility, and despair unleashed in such situations. Ryan’s a smoothie in every sense, capable of midwifing people through the moment of crisis whilst preaching a pared-down life at business seminars, offering a fantasy world of perfect control through having nothing to control. A third roadbump is the lingering ghost of familial responsibility represented by his two sisters, Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey), the latter of whom is getting married, requiring Ryan to attempt to fulfil some long-neglected sibling responsibilities.

Reitman deserves some credit for not belabouring a lot of throwaway details that many filmmakers would have wrung for every last drop of pathos or humour, like Julie having to uncomfortably inform Ryan that the job of giving her away is taken. He also builds an admirable sense of a provisional fellowship and the kinds of accidental joys that Ryan and Alex are adept at discovering in their life, when they sneak themselves and Natalie into a party for a posse of professionals and spend a joyous drunken night cutting loose. Reitman also offers a keen visual motif in the early segments of the film in offering grandiose aerial shots of the America that Ryan flies over, as in the opening credits, where a disarmingly funky rendition of “The Land is Your Land” scores the beautiful vistas of agriculture, landscape and urban sprawl. This communicates coherently Ryan’s love for exploring his country and viewing it from such an angle, even if he has to peddle mercenary claptrap to the victims of corporate misfortune whilst pretending it’s empowering, and explicating his tactile admiration for and yet divorcement from that world, for which, when he sets down, he represents something not unlike the visitations of the Red Death. Eric Steelberg’s photography lends the film a sharp but still malleable visual beauty.

Unfortunately, Up in the Air resolves into an utterly prosaic, puff piece of a film. Much like its hero, it never plants its feet in one spot long enough to delve with any depth. Reitman’s sit-com dialogue style and cut-to-the-chase sense of dramatic shaping precludes that – for instance, Natalie’s romantic life, the reason why she accepted a job that’s beneath her in the first place, and its curtailing, is a sub-plot poorly set up and insubstantially explored. The deliberated attempts at anti-cliché feel contrived, like having Ryan do one of those “hero dashes away from place/event/person that encapsulates what's wrong with his life to chase after the thing/person that’s important to him” runners, only to get an emotional kick in the teeth (and, as in virtually any other variation on that scene, it’s an action weirdly lacking in consequence). This kind of smoke-and-mirrors dramaturgy, like the resolution in which, tragi-comically, Ryan’s life remains exactly as he had once liked it but now seems irrevocably spoilt, leaves the film bordering on pointlessness. Reitman has no capacity whatsoever to communicate the emotions of his characters through changing the tempo and compass of his filmmaking; instead, much of the last half-hour is taken up by musical montages to try and convey disaffection. The punch-line of Ryan and Alex’s relationship, whilst reasonably affecting, is crass in its goose-gander inversion and deflating purpose. Clooney, whilst smooth in his role, seems far too innately intelligent and soulful to play a man as shallow as Ryan’s supposed to be. Nonetheless, he, Farmiga, and Kendrick share a great chemistry that makes the middle portion of the film far more engaging than the project as a whole deserves, and some good character turns from the likes of J. K. Simmons help. And Sam Elliot’s in there; he doesn’t really get to do anything, but I’m always glad when Sam Elliott turns up.

Worse yet, the film, for all its lip service to the horrors of dissociating business from humanity, has little time for its theoretical relevance: in terms of where the story leads, Ryan and Natalie’s job could be almost any fill-in-the-blank obnoxious corporate stuff, and the consequences of what they do, evinced by the suicide of one person they’ve dismissed, is bizarrely, smugly laid aside, as part of a character’s coming of age. The film cumulatively has absolutely nothing to say about modern life other than the homiest bromides: family is important, shit occasionally happens, learn to move on. Reitman offers up interviews of people who have actually been through the experience of being downsized, interspersed amongst the dramatic scenes to give his film the illusory substance of something to say about coping with such travails, but what’s actually going on in the flesh of the drama is readily familiar from other films, as recent as In Good Company and as old as The Apartment. Whilst the film mimics courage in saying that sad things are just part of the scheme of life, Reitman has no actual outrage, sorrow or engagement with the world he portrays: he’s safe in Hollywoodland. The cumulative effect is a movie that disturbingly embodies rather than critiques the alienation of professionals.