Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Debt (2011)

This remake of a 2008 Israeli film by John Madden is a peculiar and initially compelling blend of heavy duty dramatic material filtered through Frederick Forsyth-esque thriller tropes. Madden, the bland auteur of such kitsch as Shakespeare in Love (1997) and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), is on the face of it an odd choice to try and compound such elements. Madden's prestigious, TV and theater-burnished aura of class was probably sought because The Debt requires a strong and dexterous dramatic touch as well as a solid craftsman, encompassing as it does such weighty themes as Holocaust angst, generational responsibility, and the moral phthisis engendered by living with lies, self-betrayal, and sexual and emotional jealousy. The Debt depicts a team of three Mossad agents who have been lionised for decades for tracking down and killing Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a notorious Josef Mengele-type German war criminal, whom they discovered working as a gynaecologist in East Berlin. Opening in the mid-‘90s, it depicts the three heroes in haggard late middle age. Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is being feted once again because her daughter Sarah’s (Romi Aboulafia) book about the mission has become a hit. Her ex-husband Stephen Gold (Tom Wilkinson) is still a Mossad bigwig but confined to a wheelchair after a car bombing. He pays a call to the third member of the old team, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds), or, rather, has his young goons come to fetch him, but David steps in front of a truck rather than talk with Stephen. It’s clear that something has haunted all three heroes for a long time, leaving them even more gnarled and variously battle-scarred than they should be, but just what can only be explicated through a long flashback to the original mission, where Rachel, Stephen, and David are played by Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas, and Sam Worthington.

This central movement of period action is by far and away the most interesting portion of The Debt, even if it essentially riffs on some very familiar ideas. Chastain’s Rachel acts as a patient to get close to Vogel, and she and her partners kidnap him, after she pumps him full of a drug to make it look like he’s having a heart attack. There follows a solid piece of plain suspense-mongering as the trio try to get Vogel out of East Berlin by sneaking him aboard a train at one of the points where the West Berlin rail system overlaps the Berlin Wall. But the film’s most memorable scenes come aptly when Rachel must prostrate herself before Vogel and undergo examination by him. This coldly phobic, maliciously funny exploitation of the notion of having a Nazi pervert gaze at your lady parts, a twist on the Marathon Man’s famous “is it safe?” scene, seems wittier and darker than the movie really deserves (it comes right out of the original), especially when vaginal anxiety gives way to vagina dentata (and prefiguring the way Rachel condenses post-Holocaust Jewish responsible in vividly maternal terms). Prone vulnerable body of woman playing patient/victim suddenly becomes lethal instrument of vengeance, as Chastain pulls off a move worthy of a Hong Kong movie heroine, catching Vogel between her legs and jabbing him in the neck with a syringe. Once the team is forced to hide Vogel in their safehouse until Stephen can arrange some way of smuggling him out, The Debt boils down for a time into to a Pinter-esque drama pitting a captive who is nonetheless a malignant expert in head-fucking, against righteous avengers whose hang-ups and youthful weaknesses conspire to corrode their effectiveness.

The Debt does actually take on some fascinating and rarely treated notions: what if we take on a mission of great import, with a sense of purpose and right on our side, and yet we ourselves are inadequate to the task? Is the appearance of justice being done really the same, or at least a sufficient substitute, to its actually being achieved? The team screwed up badly, we learn, as Vogel’s psychological taunts finally infuriated David, whose brooding, obsessive dedication to the mission proved to have dangerously febrile underpinnings, and this in turn gave Vogel a chance to escape. The shamed and sullen trio decide to tell a false story about Rachel killed Vogel as he ran off, the same story they’re telling thirty years later. But the publicity of Sarah’s daughter’s book seems to have stirred Vogel in his hiding place in a Ukrainian nursing home, causing Stephen to insist Rachel go after him and settle the account once and for all. Chastain’s excellent performance confirms the hints of The Tree of Life (2011) that she’s a star to watch in sustaining a believable characterisation as Rachel, intensely vulnerable and yet able to muster resolve superior to those around her when the going gets tough. Although she and Mirren don’t really look much alike, the older actress does a good job transposing and shading her enjoyably unlikely aging assassin role from RED (2010), to extend the coherent characterisation of Rachel as someone whose fighting gumption rests uneasily alongside her emotional vulnerability. To a lesser extent, Chastain’s Antipodean co-stars likewise sustain believability, whereas both Hinds and Wilkinson never quite get to be more than respectable actors filling out the cast. But the film begins to conspire against them all fairly early, as an utterly superfluous and badly drawn romantic triangle develops between the team: David’s reticence keeps him from responding to Rachel’s obvious attraction, so Stephen is able to seduce her, getting her pregnant, and whilst Rachel continues to prefer David, she will eventually marry Stephen for her daughter’s sake in a marriage that proves calamitous with such misaligned attractions weighed on top of an already palpable guilt. The notion of watching three official heroes disintegrate psychologically and emotionally could have yielded a fascinating coda.

Unfortunately, and all too predictably, once The Debt moves on from its flavourful period action into ground where it ought to deepen and portray will to action petering out in disillusionment and frustration, a la Spielberg’s much superior (and obvious influence) Munich (2005), Madden’s film disintegrates entirely in a welter of weak soap operatic flashbacks and a ludicrous climax, as the filmmakers try to have their moralistic cake and eat it too. Perhaps co-producer and screenwriter Mathew Vaughn (who adapted the original screenplay along with regular writing partner Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan) might have beaten this film into shape if he had directed it, but as it stands he bears part of the blame for the overloaded script. Madden’s lacks as both artist and technician show through here, as the portrayals of Rachel, David, and Stephen post-mission are not given any sufficient space to develop their theoretical guilt and mental fatigue, their haunted ménage a trois never develops beyond the stage of bestseller window dressing, and after plodding through some bog-ordinary spy business, an interesting moral conundrum is set up only to be thrust aside with a wrap-up so painfully neat it might as well have a red bow on it. Rachel approaches the elderly Vogel in the nursing home with lethal injection in hand, turning the tables of helpless victim and ruthless assassin mediated through inescapable historical duties – except of course the potential victim isn’t really Vogel, who actually lurks upstairs, schlepped in old age make-up but still robust enough to give Rachel a suitably gruelling fair fight with geriatric wrestling and scissor wounds that serve as neat stigmata for Rachel as penitent and holy avenger. Even if the film’s tone hadn’t turned so facetious by this stage, it would be hard to take this sub-The Boys From Brazil climax seriously. Much like its characters sell themselves out for the sake of not being seen to fail, The Debt sells itself out for the sake of trying to be a hit and a serious movie all at once.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

Long before The Silence of the Lambs (1991) finally made him a household name, Anthony Hopkins had built a formidable reputation as an actor on the stage. But he had also been hovering in the film world since his eye-catching feature debut in the late 1960s with The Lion in Winter. This indecisive career was seen as hurting his standing in both mediums early in the ‘80s: “And whatever happened to Anthony Hopkins?” film and theatre critic John Walker asked in 1982, fearing he would fall into the same traps as the likes of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole but without ever having matched their meteoric phases. For over twenty years Hopkins often seemed on the verge of becoming a major screen star, after the likes of his role as a dubious spymaster in 1969’s John Le Carre adaptation The Looking Glass Warthe vexed, ill-shaven police detective with a family at risk in Juggernaut (1974), and his impressive turn opposite John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980). Hopkins' willingness to deliver expertly oversized performances is part of his value today as an older actor who found a rare niche of fame, but as a younger actor, his cerebral, dour, aggressive persona limited his chances of succeeding as a romantic lead. His obvious intelligence and emotionally discursive style matched the impression he gave of his seeing right through any lesser material sent his way. When Eight Bells Toll, one of his few traditional starring roles, is the closest anyone will come to seeing Hopkins play James Bond. When Eight Bells Toll is in fact an Alistair Maclean adaptation, the author himself writing the screenplay, from one of his novels which often leaned into Fleming-esque territory, although Maclean’s heroes and action each tend as usual to be much less glamorous.

Hopkins plays Philip Calvert, a British Navy action man retrieved from service in the Mediterranean by his old pal Roy Hunslett (Corin Redgrave), an Intelligence officer, to help organise an investigation into a series of disappearances of ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast. Calvert makes a plan to track a potential target ship, and this is accepted by Hunslett’s globular snob of a boss, Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones (Robert Morley), or “Uncle Arthur”, but he also insists they use two more familiar and house-trained agents. When Calvert boards the ship in an inlet off the small town of Torbay, he finds this pair have been killed, and Calvert only escapes a party of gun-toting heavies aboard by the skin of his teeth. Calvert and Hunslett soon begin to delve into a conspiracy that involves the townsfolk, who are variously employed or blackmailed into aiding with the ship hijackings, including local laird Kirkside (Tom Chatto) and his daughter Sue (Wendy Allnutt). The notion of a town conspiring to wreck ships is encrusted in British pulp folklore, inspiring the likes of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, but here it’s played in modern dress. The mastermind of the villainy seems to be magnate Sir Anthony Skouras (Jack Hawkins, after throat surgery had spoilt his distinctive voice, dubbed by Charles Gray), who hovers off the coast in his yacht with his icy wife Charlotte (Nathalie Delon) and suspiciously bossy guests MacCallum (Derek Bond) and Lavorski (Ferdy Mayne). Calvert is beaten up by local brawlers, and the motor yacht he and Hunslett use as their base of operations under their cover as marine biologists is searched by goons pretending to be customs men, including chief henchman Quinn (Oliver MacGreevy, a hulking bald Irish actor perhaps most recognisable from The Ipcress File, 1965). 

Calvert resists returning to London when Uncle Arthur wants to pull the plug on the operation, and instead commandeers the helicopter sent to pick him up and its pilot (Maurice Roëves) to search for potential hiding places for the stolen ships. Machine-gun wielding villains shoot at the helicopter, killing the pilot and causing the craft to fall from the sky, smash apart on the coastal rocks, and slip into the sea with Calvert trapped within. He manages to sustain himself with emergency breathing apparatus until the goons go away. This is a gripping, visually impressive, well-staged action scene that’s a cool reminder of what those looked like long before fancier effects and CGI entered the fray. Another dynamic action scene comes later, when Calvert realises that the villains are sinking the ships off the coast and extracting the gold submerged, and so he ventures out to dive on a wreck and finishes up battling Quinn in a hardhat diving suit, bad guy trying to roast hero with an underwater welding torch. A great part of the pleasure of When Eight Bells Toll is in this gritty, three-dimensional quality permeating its production and thrills and spills, forcing its actors to flounder in the frigid northern waters and turn blue in arctic winds whilst they’re pretending to punch and shoot each other. As such it belongs more to the sub-strata of distinctly British, realistic action movies dating back to ‘50s flicks like Sea Fury (1958), in spite of the Bond-era affectations, which are most sadly signposted by a tediously declarative score by Walter Stott, who simply reminds me of how good John Barry was at this sort of thing.

Peter Ibbetson’s widescreen photography makes the most of the innately dramatic location photography around the Scottish and Irish coastlines, generating a sweeping, primal backdrop for the genre shenanigans that renders them incrementally more substantial and affecting, until it starts to look a little like Ryan’s Daughter with more action, especially thanks to director Etienne Perier’s enriching eye for mise-en-scene. Rather than the glitzy polish of the era’s spy films, When Eight Bells Toll, whilst hardly straining to be lifelike or antiheroic, possesses a sense of physical extremes and paranoid danger – particularly in the way the village’s oppressive atmosphere redolent of The Prisoner TV series – which lend it an immediate and entertaining kind of force. Perier had gone to Hollywood soon after his start in French cinema to make the little-remembered Bridge to the Sun (1961) and then settled into a peculiar peripatetic career: after this film he made the engaging, if over-ambitious, neo-pulp epic Zeppelin (1972). The chilly, blasted landscapes make a fine setting for Hopkins’ terse, unromantic, ultra-professional Calvert. Wearing his class resentment on his sleeve and chafing at Uncle Arthur’s unrefined snobbery, Calvert is a tightly wound package of punitive anger, professional zeal, and firm yet peculiar, personal morality, an eminently human yet dogged protagonist. It’s easy to admit that another major pleasure of the film is in the sight of Hopkins getting into fisticuffs and gun-fights, squeeze into a wetsuit, plug a guy with a crossbow, and do all the things expected of an action hero (although he obviously needed a stuntman much more than, say, Sean Connery), whilst refusing to buff himself into a smoothly palatable screen persona.

The villains try to kill Calvert repeatedly, and succeed in killing Hunslett, last seen being chased down in a dinghy by the henchmen and turning up finally hooked onto the anchor chain of the yacht. This is one of the film's best moments, as Hunslett’s body is slowly hauled from the dark deep by Calvert, who had hoped he was only being kept prisoner, like several other friends and loved-ones of the locals being pressed into aiding the hijackers. Perier manages to invest these images with a peculiar aesthetic and dramatic darkness, a quality which infects much of the rest of the film. Calvert gets even, ramming a boat full of henchmen and shooting them as they struggle in the water with a cold variety of reckoning, and he sets about pounding the enemy organisation into the ground. He gets some unexpected help in the form of Uncle Arthur, who, after unwillingly investigating some of Calvert’s leads, realises what they’re up against and comes north to check up, taking Hunslett’s place in one of the stranger action movie partnerships ever: Morley’s bluff, corpulent charm squarely offsets Hopkins’ grim wit. A third member is added to the team when Charlotte swims over from Skouras’ yacht and claims to be escaping his regime, engaging in a distrustful flirtation with Calvert before proving to be a mole. Romance was never MacLean or Hopkins’ strong suit, and the sub-plot of Charlotte is an almost complete bust, alas, in spite of casting the comely Mrs Alain Delon. Nathalie maintains that glazed, louche-eyed elegance of too many Francophonic starlets of the era where the part seems to need a more playful, jaggedly charismatic actress. The filmmakers never seem to quite decide whether Charlotte is supposed to be a likeable bad girl or a straight femme fatale, and the distinction never gains much importance either way, so it all provides a singular drag on the otherwise admirably sturdy proceedings. The final scene, where Calvert lets her go even though she’s proven herself duplicitous, is more than slightly bewildering, only coherent in that it suits Calvert’s slightly subversive sense of justice, happy to redistribute some wealth long after he’s made it plain he doesn’t really care what happens to rich people’s bullion. 

Much more entertaining, if far more brief, is Hopkins’ short partnership with the aptly Celtic-hued Allnutt’s Sue. When he breaks into the Kirkside’s clifftop castle, being used as the base of operations by the criminals, and needing to extract the hostages from the castle dungeon, Calvert gets Sue to momentarily distract a guard (Del Henney): she strokes the guard’s rifle with phallic meaning and asks, “Is it loaded?” Once Calvert has disposed of the guard, he growls in wry disbelief, “‘Is it loaded?’...You must learn more than deerstalking in the highlands.” Such tongue-in-cheek flavouring runs through the film as a whole, but thankfully it mostly retains a steady cool until that uncertain final scene. Hopkins gets most of the best lines, tossed about with dry aplomb, describing Skouras’ yacht as “like Sotheby’s afloat” and, answering Redgrave’s enquiry about how he came to be dusty and dishevelled after in fact being beaten up by bad guys, “I happened to bump into this wild Gypsy girl in the heather, that’s all.” Skouras finally turns out only to be another dupe, being controlled by Lavorski and MacCullum, whom Skouras begs Calvert to chase down and reveals his real identity: “Lord Charnley?...Of Lloyds’?” Calvert asks in mild perturbation, “My god, there’s nothing sacred is there?” Whilst its flaws stick out squarely, When Eight Bells Toll nonetheless deserves a better reputation, especially compared to some of the dismayingly over-rated ‘70s Bond films, and it made for one of the more surprisingly blissful ninety minutes or so of recent viewing I’ve had. 

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Swarm (1978)

The movie business can be a mistress so harsh it makes the sea look like a dewy Manga schoolgirl. Submitting for your inspection the case of one Irwin Allen, producer and sometime director. Allen made his name in the mid-’50s with his documentaries The Sea Around Us (1953), which won an Oscar, and The Animal World (1956). With the overblown selection of historical skits called The Story of Mankind (1957), Allen forged a template that would serve him well later in his career: tempting has-been movie actors with a remnant after-glow of fame out of the Brown Derby’s bar with a large pay-check, stuffing them together on a movie set, and calling the resulting pile-up an all-star cast. In the ‘60s Allen seemed intent on becoming the second-tier George Pal before he hit the phase of his career he’s most famous for, that of “the master of disaster”, taking up the ball first put in play by Airport (1970), by making his cheesy but entertaining hits The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). These movies did grandiose spectacle and action right, but also summarised something distressingly cynical about the early ‘70s cinema zeitgeist, and spawned a distinctive genre exploiting what remained of old Hollywood’s esprit d’corps. That remnant was fighting a rear-guard action after the dizziness of the ‘60s and the invasion of all those long-haired young east coast freaks, but only able to offer up in return all its best blow-dried ingénues, fed up with losing parts to hipper Method-schooled weirdos, and torpid over-the-hill heroes of yesteryear, as sacrificial lambs to be drowned, mutilated, crushed, or however dispatched after a regulation amount of fashion spread lounging and posing had been dispensed with. Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974) ushered in the more debased version of Allen’s template where the supposedly mighty production values are in fact riddled with blue-screen work and set construction so flimsy it starts to feel like a high schooler’s pop-art pastiche. It is, as my colleague Bill Ryan once put it, a bit like watching Robson and the film world he represented, the survivors of the studio system, throw up his hands and say, “I don’t care anymore.”

Allen immediately set about emptying all the water from the shallow well he had dug with a proliferation of TV movies, and then The Swarm, which probably looked like a sure thing, combining the already-familiar disaster flick refrains with the animal attack motif recently turned into box office gold by Jaws (1975), which everyone was trying to get their piece of, with dashes of The Andromeda Strain’s (1970) procedural plotting, and the uneasy blend of cynicism for, and fetishism of, military-industrial infrastructure, as seen in so many large-budget ‘70s films. In short, The Swarm is a compendium of recently successful movie tropes, and like most such obvious chimeras, the result was a colossal bomb. And it damn well deserved to be. The disaster movie’s official comeuppance with Airplane! (1980), which is perhaps now better remembered than most of the movies that inspired it, was still a couple of years away, but Allen’s film plays as unintentional prequel, with hapless extras being shaken about inside sets that look glued together, limp stunts, and absurd special effects. The latter were provided by L. B. Abbott, an old Hollywood soldier whose work simply never belonged in the same class as Ray Harryhausen’s or Douglas Trumbull’s, and yet who managed to hold on doggedly as 20th Century Fox's go-to guy for fantastic spectacle. One of Allen’s major mistakes was that, after he had successfully managed to brand his name, he made a play for full auteur status, taking over directing duties. Poseidon and Inferno had been wrangled into shape by battle-scarred Brit vets Ronald Neame and John Guillerman, men who could possibly have squeezed an ounce of dramatic credibility out of Ronald McDonald. The absence of a real director behind the lens is soon obvious, in the complete incapacity of the early scenes to set up any sort of believable tension or sense of menace, as a military team led by Maj. Baker (Bradford Dillman) penetrate an ICBM bunker in rural Texas. All the staff are dead, from an attack by huge swarms of killer bees, except for a small number of bite victims and their attending doctor, Helena (Katharine Ross), who sealed themselves off in a ward. Also lurking around the base is entomologist Dr. Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), and how he came to be on the base and aware of the threat of the bees is set up as a question that needs to be answered, for the satisfaction of both Air Force General Slater (Richard Widmark) and the audience, but it gets lost in the shuffle.

Instead, therefore, of commencing with notes of lurking and erupting threat, Allen charges straight into what ought to be the middle act when the threat is recognised and the response prepared. The film’s first moment of “horror” comes with an appropriate moment of placidity turning to nightmare, in which a picnicking family is attacked and only the adolescent son, Paul Durant (Christian Juttner), survives by locking himself in the family car. But this comes when the story is clearly laid out, and the bees have already been seen as a mass of unconvincing dots swirling about Widmark’s helicopters and causing them to crash. This signals Allen obviously learnt nothing from Jaws. Not only does this scene evoke no horror, because the bees simply mass on the bodies of the actors who lie prone, clearly having been smeared with something by the insect wranglers, without any apparent physical damage, but because Allen, as he will do throughout, uses hammy slow-motion to hype the bee deaths. The Swarm employs a curiously schismatic approach, with overtly mean stunts like killing off a yard full of schoolkids, and then half of the cast in a train wreck, and yet there’s barely any gore, with virtually no convincing sense of physical danger and agony. The film sets up a half-hearted variation on the tension between the scientific and military approaches to the crisis, with Slater characterised as a fearsome hard-ass who baulks when Crane is placed in charge of the situation, thanks to his White House connections and history of playing Billy Mitchell about a bug assault. Slater has to sit about while Crane does hippy nancy-boy things like research and investigation when they could be doing some good, solid bombing and gassing, as Widmark’s trademark growling sarcasm gets its 3,754th workout, and Crane whips Slater into line with Caine’s equivalent use of his patented rising tirade.

After about an hour Caine’s apparent approach to fighting the bees by wearing turtleneck skivvies and jackets whilst affecting a raffish professional cool proves ineffective, so they finally move on to trying to poison them with pellets developed by Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain), who also brings his awesome beard power into the fray. Henry Fonda also joins the team as Dr. Krim, an immunologist assigned to develop an anti-toxin for the bee stings, which are automatically fatal with more than one sting. Paul’s determination to get revenge for his parents sees him sneak out of hospital and, along with two fellow scallywags, tosses Molotov cocktails at one of the bee swarms’ nest. This just pisses them off, and they converge on the adjacent town of Marysville and create havoc. One major sub-plot of the details the triangular romance of Marysville’s school principal Maureen (Olivia de Havilland), town’s mayor and childhood friend Clarence (Fred MacMurray), and retired engineer from Houston, Felix (Ben Johnson). A bit sticky and essentially fruitless, nonetheless Allen seems to have some real affection for this geriatric ménage a trois, as the two old bachelors offer the long-ago beauty queen bunches of flowers and the three of them end up taking the evacuation train together out of town – well if the kids are doing the threesome thing, why not the older folks? But Allen’s lack of wit reasserts itself as all three die in a train wreck that counts as one of the most inept set-pieces in movie history, from the engineers in their pasteboard cabin swatting at a face-full of popcorn standing in for bees, to the film’s one noticeable African-American actor having other extras pile on top of him. The elderly actors are tossed about as if the train carriage is in a bad storm at sea rather than tumbling down a mountain side, before stunt people in their costumes get tossed out the windows. It’s a sequence that shows off both Allen’s directorial incompetence and confirms that all sentiment has become mere grist for the mill, lacking the pathos of the similarly tragic Fred Astaire-Jennifer Jones romance in The Towering Inferno: none of these characters are ever mentioned again.

One interesting, if hardly well-fulfilled, aspect of The Swarm is that it states something more implicit in the other ‘70s disaster movies: the notion that the evils befalling America are in some way a wrath-of-god punishment for all the lost faiths and self-indulgences of the previous decade or so. Crane despairs at the bees’ seeming capacity to absorb everything his team throws at them, and the assault of Marysville comes across like the Last Stand of Mayberry, before the bees flock on Houston, which is consumed by apocalyptic flames as the army try ineffectually to burn them out. This idea gains a modicum of urgency from its being tethered to environmental concern. The Swarm ends with Caine framed against boiling flames delivering a speech straight out of the last frames of a ‘50s atomic monster movie, warning that his victory over the bees is only temporary and time may run out again. But this element feels, finally, just like everything else in the film, fatuous and dishonest, whilst attempting to push a button marked “relevance”. Early on, Allen’s attempts to build emotional engagement are mawkish and laughable, like casting Slim Pickens as the angry local father of the one of the silo’s dead soldiers, blackmailing Slater into letting him fetch his boy’s body. Pickens, like Lee Grant’s fetchingly no-nonsense journalist, enters the film at random and disappears again. 

The Swarm actually manages to get sloppier and sillier, and funnier, as it goes on. Scenes of camp gold flow at a steady rate: Chamberlain and Jose Ferrer, who pops up for about a minute playing the boss of a nuclear power plant, are caught in a bee attack inside a control room, writhing about in a shower of insects, which, somehow, immediately sets off the reactor in an explosion. Later, when the bees are flooding into the military’s control base in a Houston high-rise, suited flamethrower-wielding soldiers try to burn out the bugs: when a couple of soldiers stumble out of an elevator covered in the little pests, one of their colleagues starts spraying fire in their direction, with a fourth shouting, “Kill the bees, not the men!” in spite of the fact that, well, the bugs are kind of all over the poor unfortunates, and they both promptly get roasted, anyway. Slater meets his end fighting off the evil commie bugs until the last, whilst Crane and Helena escape by the simple expedient of covering their heads in blankets: the couple are saved by a jump cut to a different time and locale so jarring that it beggars belief. Allen repeatedly uses the hilarious device of having the characters who have been stung hallucinating gigantic bees looming over them. As the film enters this last torpid act, Caine and Ross enter the Army HQ and have the following exchange whilst riding the escalator:

Ross: Now that you’re here without the President’s authority, how can you possibly help?
Caine: Well, the least I can do is try.

Both actors deliver these lines, the sort of dialogue you might reasonably expect at the start of an episode in a continuing TV show, rather than two hours into a two-and-a-half hour megabudget film, with all the urgency and sense of grave responsibility of an infomercial hosting team rehearsing their banter, but without the salesmanship. It’s one of those  rare, privileged scenes where you can sense Caine’s usually unflappable professionalism completely slip, and, worse, the sort of moment where you can practically feel an actor’s soul wither at the core. De Havilland and Widmark also rack up their worst moments of screen acting. There was always a close affinity between the disaster movie and television soap opera, and here, almost lost amidst the proliferation of absurdity, is a General Hospital-esque subplot where Patty Duke Astin, playing Rita, a pregnant waitress widowed by the bees, falls for physician Dr. Martinez, played by Alejandro Rey because apparently Ricardo Montalban was too busy on Fantasy Island. Once he’s delivered her baby, she coos from her hospital bed, “I guess it’s true what they say, that a woman sort-of falls in love with her doctor at this time.” To which he replies: “I hope you will feel the same way tomorrow…and the day after..and all of the days after.” Similarly desperate is the moment when Baker and Slater catch Crane praying over Helena’s hospital bed: “Can we really trust a scientist who prays?” Baker asks sneeringly (he does everything sneeringly), to which Slater replies, “I wouldn’t trust one who didn’t,” and tells Baker to stop investigating Crane. If you’re like me, you may have to wedge some object in your mouth to suppress the potentially fatal physiological reaction of trying to laugh and vomit at the same time, as inspired by these scenes.

The Swarm’s lone islet of genuine intensity and involvement comes when Krim tries out his experimental antidote on himself, a bracing few minutes where Fonda reminds us what a good actor he was and where Allen actually seems able to rely on the natural tension of the situation, with the black-hearted twist that after the antidote seems to work, this proves only momentary, and Krim dies in a perspiring mess. Considering that much of Fonda’s last few years were squandered in similarly silly movies, it’s somehow salutary that he gives this film its only charge of authenticity. The Swarm re-employed Fred Koenekamp, one half of the Oscar-winning team who had shot The Towering Inferno, and yet it possesses none of that film’s classy lustre: most of the film instead possesses that bland, over-lit quality reminiscent of so many of the era’s telemovies. Mostly The Swarm confirms how Allen’s hit-making model had become instantly out-dated, in putting his money into hiring name actors who contribute little and stunningly little real skill into production, after the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977), both of which cost substantially less than this film, but which look and sound infinitely more polished and visually fluent and artful. The one aspect of The Swarm which suggests money well-spent is Jerry Goldsmith's epic score. By the time this film’s rushed, barely coherent final kill-the-bees plan swings into action, it finally becomes impossible to tell if The Swarm was intended to be camp or serious. During the end credits we get this title…

…which finally begs the question, if camp is failed seriousness, then what exactly is failed camp?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

London Boulevard (2010)

William Monahan made a name for himself as a screenwriter with the likes of Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Departed (2006), suggesting an expansive intelligence and gifts for conflicted characters and pungent dialogue. But they also reflected a Hollywood player’s over-reliance on predictable dramatic tempos and twists. His debut sees him decamping to Blighty to adapt a novel by Ken Bruen, but he doesn’t leave Hollywood sufficiently far behind. London Boulevard is however to me a more compelling debut for a major scripting talent than, for instance, the dutifully slick Michael Clayton (2007) and The Adjustment  Bureau (2011) were for fellow big-league wordsmiths Tony Gilroy and George Nolfi, partly because Monahan displays a more volatile and eccentric directorial voice. London Boulevard’s title pays overt tribute to Sunset Blvd. (1950) in remixing the theme of a lone stud male accidentally coming into contact with a reclusive movie star, but the real driving force here is Monahan’s affection for the classic British crime flicks, and Mike Hodges in particular, trying to reproduce his distinctive blend of icy, almost art moderne visuals and tough, tangy dramatic byplay. Whilst Monahan again ends up hitting many inevitable notes, he invests the exposition with a toey energy, and keeps the film jerking and twisting like an angry asp, hacking his scene structures into cubist hunks and swathing them in ‘60s rock, energising at least for the film's first half, before it all gets away from him.

Colin Farrell gives another customarily excellent performance as Mitchell, a former stand-over man just out of prison. His first act in getting out proves to be an original sin he can’t ever recover from: he accepts the help of his featherheaded low-life debt collector mate Billy (Ben Chaplin), who works for underground titan Gant (Ray Winstone). Billy stashes Mitchell away in a flat that belongs to a doctor who fell afoul of Gant and had to give up his worldly possessions to him. Mitchell’s intrinsically protective attitude, so potent it’s practically self-destructive, as displayed towards women and old pals, is based in unstated familial traumas and his perpetual worry for his damaged, flighty prostitute sister Briony (Anna Friel). This instinctual quality begins to dictate his future even in his first hours of freedom. Outside a nightclub, he sees off two likely lads about to harass Penny (Ophelia Lovibond), who, impressed by his mettle, recommends him for the job of bodyguard to Charlotte (Keira Knightley), or “Our Char” as she referred to on the tabloid pages that report her crises with vampiric élan. An ubiquitous movie star and fashion icon, Charlotte has retreated into her London house in a fit of social phobia, abandoned by her playboy husband and suffering the lingering after-effects of being raped by a producer when shooting a film in Italy, a crime she couldn’t report. Meanwhile Mitchell's old friend and father figure Joe (Alan Williams), now a street vagrant, is soon murdered by a dead-eyed local teen (Jamie Blackley), and Mitchell sets the underworld telegraph tingling to track down the culprit, only to find he’s a football prodigy protected by Gant. To repay Billy’s favours, Mitchell aids in his debt collecting, but when Mitchell gets beaten up by a cohort of Nation of Islam followers on one such job, Gant sees an opportunity to bind Mitchell to his organisation permanently, by executing one of the offending band in front of him. Too bad Billy misidentified a random black teen, but Gant couldn’t care less.

London Boulevard is an interesting failure that declines steadily from an excellent first act to an underwhelming last phase, suggesting a crisis of confidence and focus on Monahan’s part. He carefully weaves a number of potentially gripping motifs, in the clash of high and low life, the surreally disparate yet equally potent versions of fame and fortune exemplified by Gant and Char, as well as the variations of entrapment experienced by the actress and Mitchell. Bridge for the two worlds is Char’s perpetually stoned houseguest and guardian angel Jordan (David Thewlis), who adapts readily when necessity demands from louche intellectual immigrant, reminiscent of a caterpillar in his shaggy shrugging indolence, to assassin by simply by adapting his actor’s creed – “I am what I say I am” – and a call to arms from Mitchell. Monahan populates the vibrant background – perhaps too vibrant – with oddball characters like Sanjeev Bhaskar as Raju, a likeable but repressed doctor who attends to the dying Joe and who falls under Briony’s spell, and Eddie Marsan as the corrupt yet utterly spineless top cop Bailey. Chaplin is very good playing that most interminable of modern gangster movie figures, the hapless and pathetic friend who tries to be a player but drags everyone down. The soundtrack bristles with tracks by the likes of Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Electric Banana, borrowing their swagger for initially compelling affectations of mod cool and pop-art-inflected Greek choral commentary, and occasional moments in the film, as when Jordan loans Mitchell one of Char’s vintage Rolls Royces to ride off to gangland warfare in, that do suggest a mischievous sense of humour. 

Mitchell makes for an engaging anti-hero, a man of scruples and humanity who is nonetheless ready and able to use stunning violence to defend his turf, a refusal to bend or retreat or cower that will ultimately destroy everything he sets out to protect. Farrell handles his mixture of confidence in physical confrontations and ever so slight dazedness in the face of paparazzi and the metastasising strangeness of modern life, as well as his simmering sense of protectiveness towards his loved-ones, with sublime confidence. Likewise his scenes with Winstone are riveting for the divergent versions of Alpha Male force they invoke, especially when, after Gant has shot the black hostage, the pair’s mutual fury rises in a squall, bellowing in each other’s faces like dogs arguing territory, confirming, as later dialogue states unnecessarily, that Mitchell is not only not afraid of Gant, but that if he builds up a head of steam he would prove an engine of murderous destruction. Only his lingering morals and human ties keep him from doing so, and Farrell expertly evokes the twinges of those scruples, like fishhooks in his skin, tugging at him as circumstances demand brutal action. One particularly good scene presents the spectacle of Mitchell trying to get his bedevilled and wilfully fuzzy-headed sister to flee town long enough for him to take out Gant without worrying about her: the schism between his concern and her mixture of affection and contempt is a penetrating momentary portrait of dysfunction and solicitude failing to comprehend each-other.

London Boulevard lacks the ruthless deterministic quality of Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2004) in portraying a former heavy whose desire to stay straight is eroded by a sense of duty and justice as well as ingrained warrior reflexes. But London Boulevard constantly suggests larger and stranger things on its mind. In presenting a collision of the underworld’s capacity for brute and showy force meeting the equally showy and perhaps equally corrosive perversions of show business, it threatens to careen deep into irrational romanticism and meta-theatre ironies, a la Performance (1970), another apparent influence, or perhaps a gaudy pop-art eruption along the lines of Seijun Suzuki. But Monahan proves unequal to that challenge. Instead, he finally takes refuge in modern gangster movie standbys, from Gant’s scarily discursive conversational gambits, to the last-minute twist, evoking the likes of Layer Cake (2004) and The Departed where a near-forgotten supporting character returns to ice the anti-hero right at the point of victory. The central romance between Mitchell and Char never seems as vital or sexily transgressive as it should be. Char’s most substantial moment comes in meditating on the essential uses of actresses in mainstream films, in a wry, acutely accurate scene: it would ring truer if Char didn’t end up so peripheral to the main story, and therefore exactly the sort of feminine sounding board Monahan’s making fun of. Knightley’s performance is aptly fidgety and brittle, the familiar planes of her face drawn taut in nervous exhaustion and eyes pools of suggested internal damage just as descriptive as the Francis Bacon paintings on her walls. Whilst Char never quite seems to find her place in the movie, nonetheless Monahan seems to be working from some reservoir of experience in his portrait of her and the world she represents, with its supposedly classy yet often sleazy and abusive vicissitudes. In another telling vignette, Char goes shopping, attempting to retain anonymity in a boutique where her physiognomy is affixed throughout, and her self-consciousness is crucifying. Whereas Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010) depicted a movie star in crisis fleeing the Chateau Marmont, here it’s the last refuge for Char, a mordant reversal in a portrait of fame as a cage where not only is normality out of reach, but so is a common right to justice.

Monahan’s dialogue also often retains a knowing zing, as when Jordan explains to Mitchell, whose incarceration means that he’s not up to speed on the pop cultural moment, that, referring to Charlotte’s acting career, “If it wasn’t for Monica Bellucci, she’d be the most-raped woman in European cinema,” a line that hits several targets at once. Monahan clearly tries to channel his better models and former collaborators in creating his cinematic surfaces, including an early Scorsese shout-out as Mitchell’s first heroic return to an underworld night spot is scored to the Stones a la De Niro’s Mean Streets entrance, substituting “Stray Cat Blues” for “Jumping Jack Flash”. But finally Monahan’s lack of experience begins to show as the film collapses under its own weight, and his attempts to leave the edges rough give way to a rushed, non-sequitir fragmentation. The last half-hour, like The Departed, dissolves into a rather bewildering and desultory corpse pile-up, and whilst the stranger, better ideas continue to bob up, like Jordan travelling so deeply within his role he finally becomes a desperado himself, they fail to cohere with moral weight or tragi-comic pep. Chris Menges’ strong cinematography, with its crisp textures and glassy colours, does a lot of the work in maintaining a semblance of cohesion. The shame of London Boulevard is that it constantly suggests the better movie it might have been with more courage and originality.