Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Descendants (2011)

Alexander Payne’s reputation as a thornily honest and satirically acute, yet essentially humanist director has always been based in his capacity to feed back to his audience carefully cultivated truisms. Swaggering egotists often succeed better than uncertain neurotics and hapless hypocrites; sometimes the older and wiser aren’t really wiser or even nice; people of the left and right often disagree and are sometimes all silly, and so forth. Such truisms are leavened by faux-profound moments of emotional insight, an unmistakeable odour of literary pretension, and an affectation of artistic purpose that can be casually tossed aside for the sake of any old bit of comic incongruity that might goose the slackness of his narratives, like the ludicrous naked man that derailed any pretence of Sideways (2005) to seriousness. The Descendants, his latest, adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, sports a hero, Mike King (George Clooney), who is largely more functional and empathetic than some of his predecessors in the Payne canon. Given that the stunted ethical fibre of the heroes of Election (1999) and Sideways was just about the only interesting aspects of those films, however, Payne finds himself like a young learner swimmer, furiously dog paddling just to keep his head above water in a film that’s overlong and underdeveloped. Mike is often heard in declarative voiceover throughout the film, and early on he delivers a tirade against propositions that living in a “paradise” like the Hawaiian island insulates you from the petty and the painful, but the film quickly swaps such palate-cleansing cynicism to pad itself out with seemingly endless scene-setting brochure shots of the tale’s Hawaiian setting, crowded with pretty local music. The tale gives Clooney another shot at an Oscar through playing another menopausal male befuddled by rapid shifts in his world’s organising principles.

Mike is the descendant, of course, of a union between an American missionary and an Hawaiian princess, back in the colonising days (shades of James Michener’s Hawaii), and one who’s been left as the sole legal trustee of a huge tract of undeveloped land, a precious commodity on the already well-exploited islands. Mike is a lawyer, having lived as if he’s not sitting on top of an inheritance that could make him and his kin stinking rich, as that was his choice to keep his family grounded, following his father’s credo. But it’s a choice that seems be reaping him endless troubles of late. New laws are poised to take the land away, and his extended clan (all known as Cousin This That and Whatever), many of whom  are not so well off, and they’re eager for a sale, so Mike agrees to abide by a majority family decision about who to and for how much they will sell. Mike’s wife Elizabeth (Grace A. Cruz) is in a degenerative coma after a boating accident: she is glimpsed at the film’s very outset wearing a look of carefree joy as she rides the waves off the Oahu coast, presumably just prior to the disaster. Subsequently she’s defined and redefined as the kind of lady who can be described as a free spirit or a feckless cow, depending on one’s viewpoint, but the film isn’t really interested in studying this schism. The film concentrates rather on Mike’s attempts to first connect with his sullen, alienating teenage daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), and then track down his wife’s lover, who proves to be a smug-ugly realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).

There are many engaging and potentially enriching elements in The Descendants, including the practically Dostoyevskian proximity of mortal crisis and colossal fiscal transaction, in a narrative that offers plentiful opportunities for depicting an hysterical devolution in the modern American family psyche. Which makes its choice to play out along the most obvious and conservative lines all the more frustrating: The Descendants is basically another one of those pseudo-indie movies where family come together to laugh and cry and engage in assorted oddballery in acting out their various catharses. The subplot of the land sale is really just window dressing, designed to give Mike an opportunity to demonstrate his rectitude by suddenly deciding not to sign on the dotted line in spite of his hectoring Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), and give the tale, which would otherwise be defined as strictly domestic angst, a flavour of cultural import. One aspect that makes The Descendants a slight stand-out from a welter of familial crisis dramedies is that the dying, contentious figure is a mother rather than a father: “You think women can’t do anything wrong?” Mike asks Elizabeth’s grating gal pal Kai (Mary Birdsong) when he confronts her shortly after learning about his wife’s affair. Kai doesn’t want to talk about the affair with Mike when Elizabeth isn’t around to defend herself, and whilst the film sides with Mike to an extent in snorting at this kind of tendentious hypocrisy, the audience is left to circle around an enigmatic Elizabeth who is anything but enigmatic to those who know her, so that whilst the characters wrestle with their feelings towards a complex and irreducible persona, there’s no access for the audience. Rather, reactions are all guided by Mike and Alex in particular. Alex is filled with rage at her mother, trailing a recent history of bad behaviour, and having learnt about the affair long before Mike.

At the outset, before Elizabeth’s doctors confirm her state is irrecoverable, Mike, who describes himself as hitherto the “back-up parent”, is shepherding Scottie, who raises the ire of a schoolmate’s mother (Karen Kuioka Hironaga) after aiming a few mean comments her daughter’s way, and Mike takes Elizabeth to make a ritual apology, a sequence skewering both Mike’s general passivity and one of Payne’s favourite targets, the passive-aggressive tone of contemporary suburban “tolerance”. Scottie’s seemingly nascent pre-adolescent darkness is however elided in making her a stock repository for precocious kid humour, as in her cheery approval of swear words. Woodley’s Alex is a little more substantial: she seems initially to be a variation on all those spuriously angry/contemptuous teen girls that were a dime a dozen in late ‘90s movies and TV shows. But this is leavened a little by Woodley’s cunning in loaning her an edge of perversity, as she becomes something like Mike’s familiar, hanging over his shoulder and egging him on in his search for Elizabeth’s lover, and insisting on getting in on the act herself. Father and daughter finally bond effectively as they work up a plan for Alex to distract Speer’s oblivious wife Julie (Judy Greer) so Mike can confront his nemesis, Speer, who proves to be hardly nefarious, but also clearly possesses all the moral fibre of an egg noodle. Lurking not far beneath the surface of the tale is an interesting dilemma of modern social function: Mike, having attempted to resist letting himself and his family be crucified by a sense of entitlement and sloth, is instead the constant target of resentment because of this, especially from Elizabeth’s crusty, faintly malignant father Scott (Robert Forster), for failing to deliver the leisured gadabout lifestyle he could have, choosing instead to subject his family to the crime of living within means and necessitating his absence in business.

The Descendants is most successful when portraying the characters’ emotional quagmires and their ways of feeling through them, as when Mike tries to rein in Alex’s tirades at her prone mother as he feels it’s the right thing to do, even though he’s doing the same thing when no-one’s around; when, furious and out to strip down Kai’s wilful resistance to his righteous anger, Mike pushes too far without knowing it in informing her that she’s been plastering make-up on what is now practically a corpse, not her friend; and when Mike and Scottie, fetching Alex from the private school on Hawaii her mother exiled her too, find her drunk and acting up, spouting “Fuck Mom!” in her addled and defensive state. The Descendants is least successful when it’s trying to milk the audience’s emotions in set-piece moments, like Alex first learning her mother’s going to die, submerging herself in the pool for a big theatrical moment of pseudo-poetic emoting, Mike’s teary deathbed farewell to Elizabeth, and Scottie’s being told what’s going to happen to her mother via touchy-feely gee-tar scored montage. Even the film’s last scene is so precious in its posed, “casual” catharsis depicting Mike, Alex, and Scottie curling up in front of the television together, that the impact is lost. Payne proves determined to hew to a discursive narrative holding pattern that results in a film at least twenty minutes longer than it should be. Unfortunately, too, the film breaks up the emotional intensity whenever it feels like it, trucking in deadpan humour like a basketball coach calling time outs to give the tale an illusory quality of tragicomic roundedness.

But much of this humour, as usual in Payne, is contrived, especially in making Sid (Nick Krause), the boy Alex chooses for some reason to be her constant companion and buffer zone between herself and the world, a gormless surfer dude. He's present merely and specifically to invest certain scenes with a inapt sensibility, inane enough to laugh at Scott’s wife’s (Barbara L. Southern) dementia and earning a sock in the mouth from Scott, and to present Mike with another frustratingly indecipherable emblem of youth. He’s later partly redeemed as simply a good-natured, preternaturally chilled-out kid, himself recently having lost a parent, but that’s a touch that still doesn’t rescue him from being a contrived screenwriting gimmick. Likewise a scene late in the film when Julie, having learnt of her husband’s affair with Elizabeth, comes to deliver a gauche and hapless deathbed pardon that Mike has to embarrassedly cut short. An earlier moment where Mike kisses Julie on the mouth directly after confronting her husband, is far more elusive and amusing in blending on almost subliminal levels both a conscious vengeful intent mixed with an effervescent emotional clasping at straws that suggests just how unmoored Mike’s feelings are. Yet there remains a curious inspecificity to Mike King as the centre of the drama; his failings are declared rather than portrayed.

More moments like that kiss that could have given The Descendants the eccentric volatility that would have made it fundamentally richer and more affecting, but instead it’s caught in a tone of ambling melancholia. A scene close to the end, where the weepy family cast Elizabeth’s ashes into the sea, reminded me precisely of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), an undoubtedly more self-conscious work that nonetheless also makes far deeper incisions into not only a sense of personal eddying within grief, but in connecting it to a larger sense of worldly crisis. The acting, unsurprisingly, buoys the film, from relative neophyte Woodley to the succession of undervalued elder statesmen like Forster, Bridges, and Michael Ontkean, and the unexpectedly but effectively cast Lillard. Clooney is very good for his part, although the promise of The American (2010) to offer him a Once Upon A Time In The West-style trash-job on his spell of playing protagonists with an aura of hangdog emotional bewilderment and essential decency under layers of compromise, has been exposed as false. Instead he and the film are stuck hopelessly in the middle of the road, right in the path of Oscars.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Thing (2011)

The existence of Matthijs van Heijnengen Jnr’s 2011 film entitled The Thing elucidates a host of ironies, little of which have anything to do with the actual film itself. Few modern movies have had more peculiar paths to a general esteem than John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, also called The Thing. Widely dismissed upon release as a crude and gory, phobic desecration of the good, clean Howard Hawks-via-Christian Nyby 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, time soon forced the recognition that Carpenter’s work was not only an eerie, cryptic, vividly stylised piece of noir-soaked, new-age sci-fi, but that he had honourably retranslated the original John W. Campbell Jnr story “Who Goes There?” through the lens of contemporary body-horror motifs and postmodern fragmentation, to an extent that, like Philip Kaufman’s similarly bold revision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Carpenter had fully demonstrated that genre remakes could transcend whatever cynical reasons there were behind such adaptations, and produce galvanising new cinematic models. If movie marketing had not relied upon his version being titled The Thing, Carpenter’s film could have more justly named itself after Campbell’s story. Fast-forward almost the exact amount of time that separated the Hawks-Nyby and Carpenter versions, to last year: a young Dutch filmmaker with a mouthful of a name once again tackles the material, and again the use of the title The Thing indicates a commercial pressure that partly masks a film with a nominally different priority. Van Heijnengen’s version is supposed to be a prequel to Carpenter’s film, and yet the flat reproduction of the title gives rise to the suspicion that it’s actually another remake, and that suspicion proves well-founded.

Apart from the ever-debated merits of the rise of CGI and digital editing systems, there is much less of a disparity in film technique and aesthetics between 2011 and 1982 than there was between 1982 and 1951: what was easily demonstrable as modern in Carpenter’s day is not half as distinct now, and many feel that what is different is no improvement. To a certain extent Van Heijnengen’s movie demonstrates their point. Carpenter’s film was based in two divergent impulses: the first was to honour the Hawks-Nyby film, having made sure to include a glimpse of its iconic title sequence in his Halloween (1978), but the second was to completely reclaim and refashion the material in his own epochal sensibility. Van Heijnengen, making his feature film debut after some shorts and commercials, is on the other hand almost slavish in adhering to aspects of Carpenter’s vision, not only affecting to depict events immediately prior to those in the 1982 film, but reproducing sets and lighting effects, and the minutiae of its best sequences. To a certain extent, the effect of this self-imposed template is bracing: Van Heijnengen’s film is markedly superior in shooting style and editing rhythm to a lot of factotum modern genre fare spat out by the Hollywood industry mills, and represents by far the best Carpenter makeover so far. That is damning with faint praise, as almost anything is better than the criminal blandness and clumsiness of the reimagined Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, and The Fog, works which cause me to hope there is a hell in which certain antechambers can thus be reserved for the makers thereof. Van Heijnengen’s film is by comparison not a disgrace, and in many ways it’s a solid, fairly satisfying, well-acted and well-made piece of monster malarkey, especially by current standards. And yet in other ways it’s faintly depressing in comparison to its precursors, derivative, impersonal, and merely functional, where both earlier films overflowed with distinctive personality.

It almost goes without saying that a core Carpenter quality, well-distilled from Bill Lancaster’s screenplay for his version, of rigorous grounding in realistic, tactile detail and specificity of milieu and character, is largely absent in this version, because that’s true of almost everything Hollywood puts out these days, and of product put out far beyond those sunny shores, too. Modern Hollywood has almost returned to the pre-1950s ideal predicated to situating its product in a hazily bourgeois modernity free of class and racial tensions, and easily reducible signifiers in place of characters, whereas Carpenter’s films, like Hawks', are always based in a workaday ethos. The characterisation in the Carpenter film is only swiftly sketched, but it is done with a precision and a sense of intimate humour that invests its roll-call of antiheroes with immediate humanity, and there's a steady accumulation of detail in their lives and their reactions to threat that compounds into something rich. Even the scientists and military men had given in to some extent to laissez fair ennui and countercultural impulses similar to that of the crew of Dark Star (1974). Apart from a brief pause in this version for the rude, crude Norwegian station crew to get drunk and rowdy in celebrating their alien discovery, little such business gets by here. The Hawks-Nyby film was built around a dynamic pitting self-defence and the warrior mentality against a coolly pragmatic, scientific world view, with completely divergent ideas on which ends are justified by what means. Carpenter’s film tweaked that conflict to balance different brands of ruthless survivalism, pitting collective perspective against the personal. Eric Heisserer’s script for this edition calls back to the very original, in making Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), the man who hires gifted young palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to accompany him to check out the mysterious alien artefact discovered under the ice, a frosty, self-important savant who’s willing to embrace any expedience that expands knowledge and increases his fame. There are hints of sexist undertones to Halvorson’s patronising of Kate, and the general refusal to countenance Kate’s warnings about the evil she has diagnosed until it's too late. These notes eventually converge as the film reaches its climax, as Kate is stalked by the Thing, wearing Halvorson’s face and waving phallic protuberances at her.

These aspects are included, much like the reproductions of the Carpenter film’s signature set-pieces, as a matter of course, but they're far more incidental, and eventually add up to nothing. This is a film for our age, where filmmakers assume that multiplex audiences have  little to no interest in ethical probing, situational hypothesising, and detailed clashes of temperament in  bodied characters. The filmmakers can’t wait to rush in to give money shots of men being digested alive by manga tentacle beasts, and getting the whole blood-pumping monster-dodging party underway. In this regard the film works well enough, mostly by jumping into the action and not giving anyone time to think too deeply, as Kate is forced to take the lead purely by dint of having a few minutes’ advantage of awareness over everyone else. The Carpenter film’s immortally protracted, unbearably tense and clever blood-testing scene is echoed here with a less dramatic device as Kate checks out the mouths of the crew to check whether they still have fillings that the alien can’t assimilate, a way of whittling down the suspects which the rush of circumstances soon proves only partly effective. Joel Edgerton is Carter, clearly modelled on Kurt Russell’s MacReady, as a rugged chopper pilot who’s man enough to wear an earring, who, along with his flying partner Jameson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), become major suspects as assimilated aliens because they survive a terrible helicopter accident: Edgerton is likeably blue-collar and soulful in his toughness here as in Animal Kingdom (2010) and Warrior (2011), but the variation on the character he is given to work with, like Halvorson, is finally so thin he could be a cardboard cut-out. One good touch is the fact that Kate’s most ardent initial supporter is the one member of the team who can’t speak English, the team’s bearish, over-intense dog-handler Lars (Jørgen Langhelle). But otherwise the supporting characters are barely characterised beyond being hairy guys who talk funny.

Van Heijnengen’s nuts-and-bolts filmmaking is sleek and efficient, and indicates he has talent, particularly in his sense of contrast between claustrophobic settings and great vistas. But he’s bitten off far more than he can chew here, trying to reproduce the nervelessly timed shocks and the intricately staged obliqueness Carpenter wielded so well, in keeping just what we’ve seen partly obscure in some moments, deepening his film’s sense of paranoia and the mood of disintegrating psychological and physical cohesion that accompanies the slow destruction of the Antarctic base. This The Thing, by contrast, becomes relentlessly more conventional as it continues. The contrast between, say, the uncannily eerie strains of Ennio Morricone’s theme for Carpenter version, interpolated throughout here, and the boilerplate scoring provided elsewhere by Marco Beltrami, shows up the essential lack of real originality and new thinking that curses this film. One aspect that Van Heijnengen does manage to do something with is in the disturbing spectacle of living flesh being warped and infused with alien matter: apart from the brilliantly outlandish dog cage sequence, Carpenter largely steered clear of much sense of this intimate, weirdly and grotesquely erotic kind of body-horror. Van Heijnengen, on the other hand, does stage some impressive moments, particularly in one moment where a self-animated hand detaches and clamps itself, like the face hugger of Alien (1979), over the mouth of one camp member: suggestive pulses ripple through obscenely penetrated flesh as the man’s eyes beg Kate for death, a relief she furnishes soon enough with flame thrower.

But soon the chimeric beast is lumbering about in full CGI glory, animated as a perverse tangle of limbs and distorted faces, but in such a way that drains it of its fundamental ungodly menace. Attempts to reproduce Carpenter’s what-just-happened? moments of disorientation, such as when Lars seems to be attacked and vanishes, are just flat and clumsy. Indeed, every one of Van Heijnengen’s tributes comes several beats too early, and it reveals the essential dearth of real inspiration that finally his film relies so heavily on recreating or slightly tweaking Carpenter’s tricks than working up any of his own. The last twenty minutes or so lose shape in the rush, with a final hide-and-seek bit in the alien’s spaceship is barely a step above the obvious shenanigans seen in Cowboys & Aliens (2011). The very end does hit a note of faithful darkness, as the chances for Kate’s survival seem much better than that of MacReady and Childs at the end of Carpenter’s film, but having paid the price in killing Carter, who turns up suddenly lacking his earring, a killing that might just be homicide. Meanwhile Lars and a just-arrived helicopter pilot go chasing after a dog that flees, circling right back to the beginning of the 1982 film with apt concision. Winstead, so engaging in her second and third fiddle parts in the likes of Live Free and Die Hard, Death Proof (both 2007), and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010), and who even in playing a dimwit in Death Proof hinted at a genuinely cunning intelligence behind her craft, is very good in her first real lead, putting across Kate’s quick-rising alarm and gathering grit, even if, again, Kate just isn’t well characterised enough to be a truly memorable heroine. Her first scene catches her listening to Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” on her Walkman headphones, actually one of the film’s subtler gags, at once setting the timeframe and evoking Campbell’s original title. Ultimately, however, she’s at the mercy of a slick, competent film which thoroughly demonstrates that these days, even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Orca (1977)

For a period after the release of Steven Spielberg’s foundation blockbuster Jaws (1975), every low budget movie producer and his dog tried to siphon off some of the colossal revenue flood that Spielberg’s film had unleashed, for the formula seemed so easy to emulate: have big animal with teeth, set it on assorted nubile innocents. A slew of tales about animals attacking, or some other impressive unstoppable force, followed, many from American filmmakers (Piranha, 1976; Grizzly, 1976; Claws, 1977; The Car, 1977, etc, etc), and many, like the previous wave of cash-ins inspired by The Exorcist (1973), came from the reliable batteries of Italian schlock merchants (Tentacles, 1977; The Cave of the Sharks, 1978; Zombi 2, 1979, L’Ultimo Squalo, 1980). Dino De Laurentiis, in the midst of his concerted effort to penetrate Hollywood with genre blockbusters, offered two peculiar derivations of the basic theme of hunts for rogue animals, Orca and The White Buffalo (1978), both of which feature Will Sampson, the towering Native American actor made momentarily famous by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), in tales that invoke, in a spurious but operative pop-cultural fashion, the ironic viewpoint of the aboriginal in the face of a tone-deaf modern western society. Of these two The White Buffalo is by far the better, a genuinely rich and hallucinatory tale that easily transcends whatever reasons there were for making it. Orca, on the other hand, is widely derided and perhaps justly so, but it is also such a strange, occasionally visceral and compelling film that it too asks, to a certain degree, a fair hearing. Tonally and production-wise, Orca is an outlandish cross-breed, a quickie rip-off that nonetheless has distinctive pretensions and collaborators of an alarmingly high class all around, and a fusion of pan-Atlantic talent and creative impulses. 

Orca is also a prize piece of ‘70s kitsch, signalled right at the outset where the happily mated pair of killer whales cavorts in the surf in front of a syrupy sunset straight out of a magazine ad, to a swooning score imbued with lyrical feeling by Ennio Morricone. The specific period conceits are extended in the film’s pseudo-hip themes linking environmental conscience and Weeping Indian-ad-level invocation of Native American understanding of natural forces. Of course even such facile social-relevance edges would be buffed off most genre fare in the refreshed conservatism of the ‘80s, which is one of the reasons this sort of thing is perhaps more stimulating now than it was at the time. Whereas Jaws hinted very faintly at mysterious, alien intelligence and preternatural forces behind the shark’s attacks, Orca is outright in presenting its beast as an intelligent and wily foe. At the outset it’s heroic, as the male whale rams and kills a Great White shark about to eat a young ichthyologist, Ken (Robert Carradine), after menacing him and fellow researcher Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling). This pair are plucked out of the sea by Nolan (Richard Harris), a superficially bellicose Irish fisherman, who’s out to capture a Great White and sell it to an aquarium, hoping to pay off his mortgaged boat, the Bumpo. After listening to one of Rachel’s dramatic lectures on the amazing qualities of the Orcinus orca, Nolan changes tack and sets out to catch one of them instead. But his plan goes terribly awry when he tracks the mated pair and shoots the female with a tranquiliser dart; she panics and tries to kill herself by thrusting herself against the boat’s propeller. The crew haul her out of the water and she miscarries the disturbingly human-like foetus she was carrying. Her mate, enraged, attacks and kills Nolan’s crewman Novak (Keenan Wynn), and causes another of the crew, Annie (Bo Derek, in her film debut) to break her leg.

Orca has ambitions to draw out the Melvillian themes kept mostly latent or merely phobic in Jaws, depicting Nolan as a man of awkward conscience and obsessive tendencies, and the animal as the actuation of spiritual torment. Told early on by a priest as a service for Novak that sins are committed against one’s self rather than external creatures or objects one hurts, Nolan develops a powerful guilt complex even as he laughingly staves off responsibility, but which soon enough transmutes into fixation with his marine enemy that can only be expiated in single combat in the wild. Nolan tries at first to outwit the pissed-off porpoise and resists pressure to go out and hunt it turned on him by the fishermen in the small Newfoundland town he’s forced to take harbour in, as the whale sinks their boats and contrives to blow up a fuel depot. The screenplay takes the mirroring a step further by having Nolan identify even more deeply with the creature because he too lost a wife and child, to a drunk driver. Sampson is Umilak, a local teacher and native lore-carrier who tries to guide Nolan through his predicament according to ancestral legends, but finishes up trying to restore sanity too late in the game. The director here was Michael Anderson, a practiced craftsman who had, in his time, helmed the Oscar-winning extravaganza Around The World In 80 Days (1956), and provided Harris with two important early roles in Shake Hands With The Devil (1958) and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959): the latter also established Anderson’s cred with handling nautical settings. Anderson had just come off Logan’s Run (1976), perhaps today his most admired film. Here his arch-professional grasp on the mechanics of cinema is persuasive, and he seems far from shy about drawing out the pathological notions in the tale, most clearly found in the images of the whale, bathed in infernal reds by source lights or boiling flames, eyeing its quarry from the water or dancing with glee every time it pulls off a new piece of mayhem. 

As in De Laurentiis’ King Kong remake from the year before, the accent is squarely on empathy for the beast, and in many ways Orca is as closely related to the era’s “animals are people too” flicks like Day of the Dolphin (1975) and Phase IV (1972). The overt anthropomorphism in the whale’s actions does however drains off the threat of the alien and the sense of inimical forces inherent in better variations on the theme like The Birds (1963) or Jaws itself, in a film that badly lacks persuasive drama. But Orca does pay off in an apotheosis of bizarre pathos, as the male whale pushes his martyred mate ashore on his back, Morricone’s score swirling all the way. The distinct similarities of Morricone’s music to the more romantic passages of his work for Sergio Leone is disorienting and perhaps deliberate, because Orca was written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati, who had written several of Leone’s films, with uncredited augmentation from Robert Towne, of all people: the finale even builds to a climax, after the whale leads the Bumpo north to arctic waters for a suitably extreme locale, in an arena-like circle of ice floes, invoking the end of For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good The Bad and the Ugly (1966), both which Vincenzoni and Donati wrote. The film’s signature coup is a malicious sequence in which the whale staves in the props for the harbour-side house Nolan and his crew are renting, causing the structure to tilt so it can roll Annie down and tear off her leg like someone trying to get the last M&M out of the packet. There is here some specific force in the depiction of real intelligence with an awesome physical form to back it up, and a perversely mischievous humour is apparent too, or perhaps that's just the unintended result.

Unfortunately the film’s visual punch is drained off by numbing repetitions of shots of killer whales obviously contained in the safe confines of a Seaworld tank. Although it’s barely over an hour and half long, Orca still dawdles towards its conclusion, pausing for endless portentous dialogue exchanges, and trying just a bit too hard to make us take the whole affair seriously on a psycho-spiritual level, providing rather an affected drag on a tale that just can’t be taken with a straight face. The film’s attempt to reproduce Jaws’ social-conflict subplot, through the conspiracy by the assailed locals to force Nolan to go out and kill the whale, is purely functional, and the nominal romance of Nolan and Rachel never goes anywhere. Worse, the film lacks basic suspense, except for a few seconds in the house-tipping scene. Still, the gritty, three-dimensional production qualities pay off in the finale as the heroes risk life and limb floundering in icy seas and hopping over icebergs. The orca, having successfully whittled down all of the boat’s crew save for Nolan and Rachel and sunk the Bumpo with tumbling ice that crushes Umilak, chases the last duo under the pack ice. Nolan fatally wounds the animal with a harpoon, but it lasts long enough, in a calculated consummation, to lob Nolan like a beanbag through the air to crack his bones on an iceberg, before swimming off to die under the ice, now with a lyrical song by Morricone is accompaniment. It’s impossible to tell if the intended effect was camp or a strange kind of earnestness. Harris could often devolve into overripe theatrics when disinterested in the movies he was acting in, which was increasingly often in the late-’70s and ‘80s, and here he offers little of his suppler wit and romantic sensibility, but he’s still surprisingly devoted to playing Nolan, shifting from smug, glib good-humour to contorted, morbid fixation. Rampling, as in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely in another moment where she was actively resisting drifting into eye candy roles, is the film’s real ace, contending with a potentially thankless part with her lethal emerald stare, wetsuit-hugging physique, and air of fearsome intelligence shading into obsessiveness nearly as deep as Nolan’s. Many of the people working on Orca were self-evidently above the material, Rampling perhaps more than any other, and yet they’re all so apparently committed to it that they almost will it into being more than silly schlock. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Film Preservation Blogathon 2012

As I’m sure all of you know, This Island Rod has become a byword for both the celebration of genius and the exercise of it, in the course of a general dedication to the most exalted realms of the art that is cinema.

You weren’t?...Okay then.

Anyway, it’s my great pleasure to announce that this year TIR will be joining mondo blogos Ferdy On Films and The Self-Styled Siren, captained by esteemed colleagues Marilyn Ferdinand and Farran Smith Nehme, as a host site for the annual Film Preservation Blogathon. In the past two years, the Film Preservation Blogathons have raised thousands of dollars towards the restoration of the silent short films The Sergeant and The Better Man by the National Film Preservation Foundation, and Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury, under the aegis of the Film Noir Foundation. This year, we’re working again with the NFPF, and the lucky movie chosen as the target of our efforts is the 1923 British film The White Shadow, another work from the tremendous stash of lost silent films found in the New Zealand Film Archive. Directed by Graham Cutts, whom I’m sure did a good job – let’s all hear it for Graham, people! - The White Shadow is chiefly notable for the participation of a young filmmaker whose jack-of-all-trades contribution to this production, including screenwriting, assistant directing, and editing, made the case for his debut as a film director only a few months later. And before I start to sound too much like Paul Harvey, I can tell you that young man’s name was Alfred Hitchcock. And now you know the rest of the story.

So from May 13 to 18 this year, TIR will become for a time the scene for unimaginable orgies of cinephilia, unparalleled in the awesome, filthy, and awesomely filthy annals of the internet!

We aim to raise $15,000 in order to give you – yes, you! – the chance to watch The White Shadow. Restoration work has already been done for this film, but we hope to pay not only for the recording of the marvellous new score written for it by Michael Mortilla, but for future online hosting for the film, so The White Shadow will be available in a well-restored, free and accessible state for everyone fascinated by early cinema and the career genesis of one of cinema’s most heralded figures. Or, you can choose not to help, and maybe one day you can watch it cut up into ten minute chunks with public domain music slapped over it on You Tube. Yeah. You really think you can live with yourself then, pal? Can you?!

So, if you want to participate this year, whether by contributing posts to the Blogathon or simply helping to spread the word, you can find this year’s array of banners, posters, and donation buttons at the For The Love of Film 2012 site. Yes, I must take full responsibility for these posters and all bad jokes therein, and I am properly ashamed. If you do want to contribute, all you have to do is let us know, either here, or at Ferdy on Films or The Self-Styled Siren, via our comment sections. As usual, there’s more to this than the vaguely pinko pleasures of communal action and celebration, however: there will be raffle prizes to donors, and this year, businesses who wish to contribute to the NFPF will have the option of two levels of support, and therefore two levels of exposure and profile with our readers. For further information, contact Marilyn at ferdyonfilms (at) comcast (dot) net. David Wells of the NFPF will be contributing photos and film clips to our Facebook page, where you can find out more about this big wonderful thing called a blogathon if you’ve never participated before, more specific details about it if you have, or if you just don’t need me patronising you, thank you very much. And remember: by liking our Facebook fan page, you actually help us raise money. So yes, this time by liking something on Facebook, you’ll actually be helping with something, not simply agreeing with how cute those kittens are.

As for me, I can only quote Dr. Peter Venkman to properly explain my feelings: I love this plan, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

See you in May!

P.S., if you just can't wait to donate until May, just click this button below, or on the sidebar. 

The link address for those of you who to post donate buttons yourself is:

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden, 2010)

Perhaps my contrarian tendencies are fulminating again: whereas for many commentators this second instalment in the initial native-made adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” marked a point of parting between casual viewers and fans, I must confess I enjoyed it more than its predecessor, the popular and interesting, but near-fatally confused, 2009’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which made Larsson’s novels immeasurably more famous and has now earned itself a big fat Hollywood remake. …Played With Fire lacks the fascinating motif which rescued the original from being overripe trash: hero Mikael Blomkvist falling under the spell of a dichotomous contrast, between the haunting, long-lost ‘60s blonde, constantly gazed at in longing and mystery through photos and films, and her lethal, damaged, vengeful spiritual descendant, Lisbeth Salander. But in its place is a story that dovetails the themes Larsson was trying to dramatise with far more integral effect, the acting is better focused, and director Daniel Alfredson’s (brother to the currently more famous Tomas) handling is tighter. This episode is beset by rotten edits, but avoids expositional and camera gimmicks, and Alfredson maintains, for the most part, an unobtrusive approach, and actually proves superior in drawing out the material’s basis, which, whilst dressed up in contemporary fashions and techno-geek terms, is nonetheless based squarely in a deeply carnal sensibility that’s practically medieval, depicting as it does apotheosis through physical and moral suffering. The film’s many characters, and Lisbeth in particular, can only truly find actuation in violence, whether it’s being inflicted or received, in a tale that circles inwards towards a study in Oedipal rage conflated with a socio-political inflation of the same rage. 

In short, these films are not really such polar opposites of the Swedish film industry’s classic Ingmar Bergman template as one might think at first, and this is also their key deviation from the template of lefty Scandinavian social-realist crime fiction, even if Larsson and the filmmakers never quite realised it. More ties to the classic Swedish dramatic tradition of intense portraits of the human experiential crucible are sustained by the presence of the great Per Oscarsson, in his last role before his untimely death, star of the canonical 1966 adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, as Lisbeth’s former state guardian, a compassionate man who’s been left part-paralysed by a stroke and completely excised from official interest in Lisbeth (as opposed to the attentive Blomkvist). His presence, and the way it is utilised, elucidates an interesting idea, that the welfare state is only good for your welfare when guided by principles and people of decency, and it can be turned into another apparatus of controlled social narcotisation. …Played With Fire trots in far fewer cornball bestseller cues than its predecessor, although plenty still slip by, with a new minor hero who’s a mixed martial arts enthusiast, an arch-villain who’s a former KGB agent, and a hulking offsider who’s one of the most striking monstrous goons since Jaws in the ‘70s Bond movies. The series’ basic conceit, of trying to conflate state and corporate paternalist behaviour with a more intimate, personally violent version of the same thing, is both calculatedly paranoid and more than a little reductive, and yet it’s also coherently conceived and executed, at least insofar as Larsson’s tales offer up characters who constantly, conveniently illustrate the matters at hand: abusive officials of state, medicine, and law enforcement whose conspiracies hamper justice and victimise society’s vulnerable members. 

Here, Lisbeth becomes the fall guy for a neatly composed coup of conspiracy by secretive villains, who try to kill several birds with one stone. She is set up for the murders of two young, likeable characters, Dag Svensson (Hans-Christian Thulin) and Mia Bergman (Jennie Silfverhjelm), who are so young and cute and idealistic when introduced you just know they’re bound for a sticky end. That pair were working with Blomkvist’s Millennium Magazine to expose a sexual slavery ring whose operations had been patronised by many high-ranking officials, and Lisbeth’s main foil from the first film, Bjurmann (Peter Andersson), the creep of a state-appointed guardian who raped her and then had the tables turned. The connection between the two crimes requires following disparate trails of evidence towards a common source, lurking in Lisbeth’s history. Lisbeth’s return from her sojourn abroad as a tarted-up multi-millionaire sees her better tanned and distinctly healthier in affect, but no more soothed and relaxed in mind. Lisbeth is a distinctive variation on an old kind of hero, one who practically transcends mortality through her steadfast refusal to be defeated, a point vividly illustrated in the finale when she literally crawls her way out of a premature grave. 

Noomi Rapace’s performance is better judged this time around, clearly illustrating the disparity between Lisbeth in motion and in rest, a creature of brilliant instinct who knows exactly what to do when facing down hulking thugs and evading law enforcement, but for whom the everyday world and everyday emotions are faintly perplexing, even upsetting, in their lack of scale and clarity. Her sometime lover and helpmate Blomkvist spends most of the film unfortunately stuck in a holding pattern of fending off the police and trying to grasp onto the elusive Lisbeth’s furiously flittering coattails long enough to aid her. But at least this time around Blomkvist’s day job is more important to the plot, which also far more fluently combines Lisbeth’s traumas and motivations with the compulsory abused females subplot, here being the victims of the sex slave ring which finally proves to be being orchestrated by Lisbeth’s scarred Russian thug father Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), and her hulking half-brother, Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), who provides the muscle. Meanwhile Blomkvist contacts Lisbeth’s kickboxing instructor Paolo Roberto (Swedish martial arts celebrity and occasional film actor Roberto playing himself, sort-of), asking him to help make contact with Lisbeth’s French sometime-girlfriend Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi) who’s prone to showing off members of the police force and journalists with extreme prejudice. In an amusingly violent set-piece, Niedermann kidnaps Miriam, and is chased down by Roberto, whose practised pummelling of the nerve-addled beast works no effect, and Roberto gets solidly beaten up instead.

The Girl Who Played With Fire bears traces of some apparent influences on Larsson, in particular Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), reproducing that tale's pattern of an inevitable, inward circling drawing Lisbeth into a confrontation with a corrupt father figure/abuser, and a burial alive that she improbably escapes. This second entry is certainly not faultless: there are some woefully long bows drawn in the story, it’s slow, and, like its predecessor, the visual lexicon is however not that of the cinema but television. I’m not sure if some fine exemplars of clunky dialogue, like Blomkvist’s defensive salvo at the Jewish cop Bublanski (Johan Kylén) heading the investigation targeting Lisbeth, “She hates men who hate women,” are a by-product of clumsy translation or were bad originally. The episode tosses in another of the series’ signature moments where Lisbeth, this time entirely transforming herself into a wraith of vengeance with a pancake-slathered face with one blood-red smear for extra cabalistic effect, ties up and tortures a man whose thoughtless exploitation of women supposedly justifies Lisbeth getting her own rocks off with such behaviour. This served to not make me cheer, as is intended, but instead made me realise how narrow and contrived the series’ moral schema is. The notion that Lisbeth may be a version of what she hates presents an interesting idea, but not one this series’ basic revenge fantasy exploitation is interested in, or capable, of exploring. 

What it does explore, however, and explores well, is that combination of fascination and revulsion towards physical violence and sexuality, and how strangely fluid the two can be. Alfredson’s calmer, meatier direction helps draw this out. Towards the start of …Played With Fire there’s a strikingly carnal, bracingly tender interlude between Lisbeth and Miriam. Unlike in the first film, Lisbeth’s bisexuality isn’t just a throwaway gag, but a part of her complex identity, and Rapace gets to show at several junctures throughout the film, including here, an edge of befuddled vulnerability to Lisbeth, rather than mere alienated fanaticism. One seemingly off-hand scene carries enormous weight, in which Lisbeth decides to grant Blomkvist access to her apartment via remote control, a metaphorical access into her life she’s never allowed anyone. The film pulls off one nice moment of ironic brutality, as Lisbeth bests two seamy bikers employed by Niedermann, and is next glimpsed riding down the highway, having appropriated one defeated foe’s bike and apparel, in her element as a highway-cruising bad-ass and wearing her enemies’ apparel, like a victorious, unreconstructed tribal warrior. It’s a brief interlude of liberation for Lisbeth, in between flashback nightmares and her final passion and resurrection where she actively conflates Christ-like parallels with Viking myth. As storytelling, the Millennium series is barely choate and often clumsy; as neo-mythology, it’s something much more interesting.