Friday, 13 February 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Here there be spoilers

Five movies into his directorial career, Matthew Vaughn is still a pleasingly unhinged talent. Vaughn has long since proven a superior filmmaker to Guy Ritchie, whose Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) he produced, as a strong visual stylist who renders his framings rich in comic book colours that suggest the static eye-delights of the printed page come to rowdy life. Vaughn enjoys playing pop provocateur, thrusting violence and sex under his audience’s noses with a jokey, punkish, revisionist tone and a bratty verve that feels calculated to rile as many as it entertains. But Vaughn also retains a certain old-fashioned fondness for dramatic values, taking his characters and the little worlds they inhabit seriously, even if they seem to be just satiric or generic conceits set up to be knocked down. He plainly enjoys the genre fare he also disassembles, which means that he occasionally falls prey to cliché amidst ebullient travesty. His works aimed at large audiences – Stardust (2007), X-Men: First Class (2011) – have felt a tad tamed and lumpen, although he brought style and humour to both projects, whilst his more individualistic oeuvre – Layer Cake (2004), Kick Ass (2010), and now Kingsman: The Secret Service – are brittle displays of his diverse temperament. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a follow-up to Kick Ass, likewise adapted from a graphic novel by progenitor Mark Millar, a bold, maliciously funny if facetious genre lampooner whose work stands at slight distance from Vaughn’s interpretations of them: Vaughn has a populist, romantic streak where Millar is a blunter tool, apparent in the diversions between Kick Ass’s source material and the film. Nonetheless the duo clearly share vital similarities, and Kingsman brings Vaughn a step closer to the mystique of James Bond, already strongly referenced in Layer Cake and First Class. A key conversation between hero and villain in the course of Kingsman lays the basic thesis almost overly bare: the po-faced seriousness of recent Bond, Bourne, Batman-a-la-Nolan and other action heroes is placed aside in favour of the sort of absurdist tang associated with an older brand of pop-art pastiche, and transgressive thrills that considerably up the ante.

The first third of Kingsman is however played rather straight, almost frustratingly so: after a promisingly raucous opening during a commando raid on some Middle Eastern fortress set to the day-glo pomposity of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, Vaughn settles down to depict the travails of his young gobshite hero Greg “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton). The Kingsman organisation is a quasi-independent league of intensely talented and physically dynamic clandestine operatives that uses a Savile Row tailor’s store as its base of operations, with a membership traditionally chosen from the British elite. Eggsy’s father died protecting his squad of fellow Kingsmen by quite literally jumping on a grenade during the opening raid, and so senior Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth), codenamed ‘Galahad’ in the organisation, leaves the infant Eggsy with a trinket bearing a phone number to call one day if he should ever need a favour. A decade and a half later, Eggsy’s widowed mother Michelle (Samantha Unwin) has slid down to the bottom of the social ladder and married abusive gangster Dean (Geoff Bell). Eggsy himself has grown up into a professional underachiever, dressing and acting like a chav, his talents, including gymnastics and soldiering, all allowed to fall fallow out of a sense of futility and duty to his wounded mother. Fed up with being bullied by his stepfather’s crew of thugs, he steals the car of one, and crashes into a police vehicle. Against the wall, Eggsy finally calls in that favour. Hart swiftly extricates him from his legal troubles, beats up Dean’s goons to blow off steam, and selects him as a candidate to fill the vacancy left by the recent death of the organisation’s ‘Lancelot’ on a mission. 

Eggsy joins a team of candidates, all blue-blooded swots, and is put through the paces of a cruel and rigorous training run by ‘Merlin’ (Mark Strong). The training sequences, although touched with an edge of absurdly extreme black humour, recalls to mind all too quickly the similar pacings of many recent movies, from the Harry Potter series to Divergent (2014), without quite tapping the vein of fascist mockery Paul Verhoeven did so casually in Starship Troopers (1997), whose satiric foresight is only locking all the more impressive today as such narratives have become so popular. Eggsy’s romantic interest is another candidate for the Lancelot slot, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), a seemingly sweet-tempered posh bruiser who could be fresh from St Trinian’s, who proves Eggsy’s equal in every way and indeed, by Kingsman standards, superior. Sadly, though, she is essentially written out of the last act, albeit by being packed off to accomplish a very dangerous mission. In fact, Hart is the equivalent of Kick Ass’s Hit Girl, the character who indulges brute violence and rampant profanity in contradiction of surface appearance. Firth has a ball in the role, which plays as calculated disgrace of his image as the epitome of the suave, anodyne English gentleman, an image I don’t think he ever particularly wanted but has been stuck with: indeed the foundation of Firth’s career was the physically challenging role of a damaged warrior in the 1988 telemovie Tumbledown. Kingsman has a lightly mocking approach to the class-conflict dichotomy of the traditional image of British Tory style essayed by Hart and the down-market playa chic Eggsy plies, with Eggsy battling the jolly sociopathic toffs also competing for the Lancelot post and sticking up for his identity, but responding against his will to the appeal of the bespoke suit. This juxtaposition has a certain amount of incisive smartness, because the force of real British Imperial power was indeed wielded like a set of brass knuckles kept in the pocket of one of those Savile Row ensembles. But in the end Kingsman infers that everything is now a pop trope, including class, nationality, and many another construct people so urgently wish to define themselves by. One of the film’s best touches depicts Hart’s office, which is filled with framed front pages of The Sun, a coterie of gutter journalism and celebrity cult service. Hart explains to Eggsy with a certain perverse pride that each of these irrelevant idiocies was the headline on a day when he pulled off some great feat of patriotic duty. The point is plain enough: real news is scarcely ever on the front page. 

Vaughn and regular screenwriting collaborator Jane Goldman play out the same joke in a number of variations, including a moment, perhaps a bit obvious but delivered well, when Hart dines with the supervillain, who serves up McDonald’s. “I’ll have the Big Mac,” Hart replies, oh-so-coolly. Vaughn and Goldman may actually have stumbled on something more fascinating than they realise here, in noticing that the modern world is such a gaudy mix of power forms, from populist capitalism to remnant aristocratic flare, that stoic savoir faire, far from being outmoded, is more necessary than ever. Often throughout the first half of Kingsman, I sensed Vaughn and Goldman holding back from pushing their scallywag impulses to fitting extremes, like when they send the last three candidates of the Lancelot training field, including Roxy, to seduce socialite Lady Sophie (Lily Travers), a set up for a dirty joke that goes nowhere. The script plies an even-tempered approach to transgression, suggesting a slightly toned-down take on Team America: World Police (2004) in offering up a work that takes a bite out of several sides of the political spectrum, including American religious conservatism, celebrity do-gooderism, privileged sadism, and plebeian try-hardism. It’s a little frightening and galling to note that the final test of Kingsman material is taken straight from the SS handbook: Eggsy pointedly refuses to engage in it and so technically fails his training, and soon he learns that the leadership of the group is as corrupt as every other, and yet the film never quite subverts the Kingsman worldview. Indeed, the Kingsman group is the sort of organisation that could have been villains in Ian Fleming’s universe: they’re a covert, independent, privately financed team of self-appointed interventionists. 

The official bad guy on hand is Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), an internet billionaire with a lisp, a penchant for tacky street fashion that rivals Eggsy’s, and a horror of blood, which doesn’t stop his intent to commit radical genocide to cull down the human herd in order to halt global warming and other world-degrading human activities. Jackson has a mischievous time in skewing his gift for ebullient theatricality to play a villain who lacks the threatening force of his usual roles, but makes up for it in weird gusto. For extra ridicule value, Valentine turns out to have involved just about every rich and famous person in the world in his plan, or kidnapped and imprisoned those who haven’t: one of his meetings, with a Scandinavian Princess, Tilde (Hanna Alström), and her Prime Minister (Bjørn Floberg), goes both ways, with the PM gleefully signing up and the Princess protesting, only to be locked away in Valentine’s hidden fortress. At least this does set up a dirty joke that pays off, in a fade-out gag that both honours and defiles the traditional sex joke at the end of the Roger Moore Bond films. Mark Hamill has a good time playing a shambling professor who is at first the object of Valentine’s plotting and then his confidant, breaking out an English accent that sounds a little like his old Joker voice from Batman: The Animated Series, and a reminder of what a good character actor Hamill grew into. The genre references of Kingsman obviously move beyond Bond to fare as diverse as The Avengers, The Prisoner and Thunderbirds, whilst Harry Palmer himself, Michael Caine, turns up as ‘Arthur’, the head of the Kingsmen, who holds court with his knights via electronic projection and leads toasts to the fallen. Valentine’s henchwoman ‘Gazelle’ (Sofia Boutella), who dances about with delicate, lethal grace on razor-sharp prosthetic legs, is another inspired touch who gives the film a lot of what juice it has in the conventional first half, as handycapable lady bifurcates men with casual kicks: the inevitable climactic clash between her and Eggsy sees him wielding the good old toe-blade wielded by the villains of From Russia With Love

Kingsman: The Secret Service is almost shamefully entertaining, and more successful in blending Vaughn’s schizoid impulses than Kick Ass, but this also means it doesn’t quite have the same punch either. The qualities that made the earlier film feel like some sort of perverse minor classic in laying bare the lawless side of adolescent fantasy and taking its wayward metaphors to the nth degree, are here smoothed over. Vaughn’s camerawork in the early sections of the film, observing actions from a distance in mobile, unbroken shots, essays an organic sense of space and action with deft twists and flicks of attention-directing and orchestrated movement. An escape Eggsy makes from the clutches of Dean’s bullyboys, sees him step light as Astaire along concrete parapets and railings, is filmed with casual grace by DOP George Richmond’s gliding camera. Another shot starts with the detective who’s been interrogating Eggsy receiving Hart’s call to free the boy as he's smoking a cigarette outside the station; the detective walks up stairs and inside the station, and then Eggsy immediately walks out, to meet Hart in the spot where the detective was moments earlier: time has been negated and the wrong authority figure replaced with the right one. Such shots suggest an aesthetic ambition on Vaughn's part that he only partly realises. Gazelle’s ballerina-butcher grace embodies the visual schema Vaughn is reaching for, one that immediately recalls the similar extended staging contortions in Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Vaughn wants his audience to be specially aware of his actors as units in the cinematic frame which becomes then a performative space, a roving stage, but for much less pretentious reasons. Much as Vaughn declares independence from the self-seriousness of most current takes on superheroic fantasy, the filmmaking similarly rejects the assumption by much contemporary action cinema that sacrifices coherence for immediacy via hacking edits and camera jolting: Vaughn instead sets out to prove that the spectacle of bodies in motion is the essence of a great action film just the same as in a classic musical. The finale sees Eggsy and Gazelle engage in what is basically an aerial ballet. 

But it must also be said that Vaughn doesn’t make as much of this aesthetic as he might have, splitting the difference between inventive, outrageous moments and regulation chase-and-shoot fight sequences. When Kingsman finally cuts loose, it does at last pay off in a gobsmacking sequence of showy, amoral verve: Hart, having travelled to a Westboro Baptist Church stand-in in the American hinterlands following a lead, finds himself included in Valentine’s test of his master weapon that drives people to insane violence, a test he’s applying to the coterie of hatemongers through some ironic inspiration. Hart, affected like everyone else but far more talented as a trained human killing machine, battles through the midst of rioting church folk, slaughtering everyone in sight until he’s the last man standing. The image of the crisp, cool man of moral imperative turned insane beast is affecting enough, and Vaughn rams it home by pursuing his rampage in what purports to be a single, unbroken shot, wrapping the audience in the awesome spectacle of action heroics plied for all the wrong reasons. Firth beautifully handles the moment of Hart’s restored sense and realisation of what he’s just been made to do. There’s another interesting idea buried here, a contemplation of the will to chaos lurking just below the surface of the average person requiring constant channelling and cathartic release in the midst of modern life’s version of propriety: indeed, this essential idea is both the object and motivation behind both of Vaughn’s Millar adaptations. Vaughn evokes George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) as a mother tries to break into a bathroom to murder her child under the influence of Valentine’s plot. For a punch-line Vaughn delivers a therapeutic depiction of all the world’s unfairness being levelled out with one fell stroke, and tries to outdo Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) in making disgraceful use of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1”. Vaughn hits the mark with such explosive sarcasm you may never hear it the same way again. The film’s only real flat spot is Egerton, who never convincingly finds the charismatic swashbuckler under Eggsy’s duly frowning pleb visage.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Water Diviner (2014)

Here there be spoilers:

It was all but inevitable that some Australian filmmaker would try and make a significant motion picture to coincide with the 100 anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, that great and terrible juncture of the national mythology. Russell Crowe was the man to try it, in spite of having only directed a handful of short films and music documentaries. The battle has already been famously inscribed in modern cinema with Peter Weir’s self-consciously mythical Gallipoli (1981), and also the New Zealand take Chunuk Bair (1992), and Crowe’s feature debut earns immediate points for being less an exploration of the war itself than of the effect it had on two cultures, both left bereft of their young men and wrestling for new identities. Crowe starts his film from the Turkish perspective, depicting Maj. Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan, excellent), a Turkish officer, leading his men on a charge across no-man’s-land only to find the allied trenches deserted and their ships vanishing across the sea, the moment of surprising victory for the battered defenders. Four years later, in the Australian outback, farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) plies his peculiar art of seeking out water sources with divining rods, and digs a well that successfully strikes water. Soon it emerges that Connor has lost three sons at Lone Pine during the Gallipoli Campaign, and his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), still in the eye of an intense and unremitting grief, recriminates him before drowning herself in the farm dam. 

Quietly infuriated by the local Catholic minister’s (Damon Herriman) bartering over giving her a decent burial, Connor packs up and heads to Turkey, determined to bring back the bodies of his men and bury them alongside her. At Gallipoli, Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney), an Aussie soldier and former civil engineer who fought in the battle, directs a team recovering the allied dead for proper burial in an Imperial war cemetery, working with Hasan, who has been assigned to help with his knowledge of the battlefield. When he first arrives in Istanbul, Connor is dogged by young Orhan (Dylan Georgiades), who snatches his suitcase and leads him on a merry chase, intent on making sure he stays at the hotel run by his mother Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her brother-in-law Omer (Steve Bastoni). Ayshe is initially wary of Connor, because her musician husband died at Gallipoli, although she still describes herself as married and hasn’t yet told Orhan his father’s dead; meanwhile Omer is pressuring her to marry him and adopt less Europeanised ways than his brother indulged. When Connor is faced with bureaucratic bars to reaching the battlefield, Ayshe advises him to circumvent the authorities simply by hiring a fishing boat to take him there by sea, depositing him on the coast where he dogs the exasperated but impressed soldiers to help his quest. But Hasan quits helping as tumult grips his assailed nation, with Turkish nationalism on the rise and directed at the occupying British, whilst Greek partisans are making war.

If noble intentions were art, The Water Diviner would be as great as it clearly wants to be. But they aren’t and it’s not. The Water Diviner also wants to be an act of cultural memorialisation and also revisionism, contemplating the battle not as ennobling crucible but as hellish zone of moral nullity, and taking seriously the Turkish side of the war, rarely contemplated in the official mythology of Gallipoli as held in Australia (largely depicted as an anonymous, almost abstract threat in Weir's film, for instance), for whom the ANZACs were an invading host whose efforts cost terrible death and destruction. Crowe’s film also wants to be a big, crowd-pleasing, old-fashioned epic tale of tribulation, searching, and reward. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; indeed, it’s the sort of conceit that many a great filmmaker of years past would have eagerly seized on. The film at least intelligibly frames the internal and external struggles of coming to terms with the war by contrasting the interior grief of an Aussie father with the political turmoil of Turkey in defeat, faced with radical revisions of outlook and place in the world. As one expects from an actor turned filmmaker, Crowe proves good at contouring performances. Crowe’s stock-in-trade as a performer has long been playing physically powerful men with a surprising intelligence they can’t always wield as effectively as their bodies, which he plies again here, and he’s surest in depicting men and women trying to come to terms with their dualism, their pain and life, and offering moments of low-key humanism, like a mildly stirring celebration of purpose and fellowship amidst Hasan’s Kemalist cadre witnessed by Connor with a blend of bemusement and delight.

Crowe refers back to his breakthrough performance in Romper Stomper (1992) by casting the talented but much less fortunate McKenzie as his on-screen wife, and hints at an exploration of his own status as a wanderer in the world wanting to come home and rediscover a parochial faith. Crowe, to his credit, seems to have learnt some lessons from some of the better directors he’s hung out with over the years. Early scenes call to mind Ridley Scott, visually in the clean yet lustrous expanses of his widescreen framing, and also in the thematic stresses, the cynical attitude towards social and religious pieties as well as the openness to the transformative energy of cross-cultural communication even in the midst of conflict, recalling Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Largely thanks to Andrew Lesnie’s excellent photography, Crowe plies some patches of strong cinematic beauty, with strikingly coloured and crisp visuals, alive to an essential visual thesis depicting characters caught between desire for the transcendent and the raw facts of earth and flesh, glimpsed in the early shots of Crowe immersed in the water he releases from the red earth, and recurring again in beatific flashes, as he wife wafts ghostly through his living room to kiss him before dying, in the sight of whirling dervishes in lucid shafts of light trying to catch bliss, paintbrushes daubing at decaying religious art, and even invested in the sight of Connor approaching the Gallipoli shore in a fishing boat and camping upon the beach, a star of fire on the land watched over by bemused but empathetic soldiers. 

Such hints of pseudo-mystical underpinnings are made uncomfortably concrete in the unfolding of this tale, as Connor’s mysterious gift with water evolves into a preternatural sense of certainty in the hunt for his missing boys: Crowe offers this angle without enlarging upon it all, and although it gives the film his title, it remains a mere narrative convenience. Crowe wants to effectively offers a vision of war that’s essentially tragic, climaxing a well-handled recollection of violent combat with the grotesque sight of the three bullet-riddled brothers lying together, one with his face blown off, one wheezing in animalistic pain for hours, and the third forced to lie helplessly listening. But Crowe quickly reveals this posture as problematic as he depicts brave and patriotic Turks battling sleazy Greek bandits and making us cheer Connor as he takes sides. As arresting as fragments of the film are, Crowe more often reveals the shakiness of his neophyte touch, slipping between extremes of artfulness and incompetence as he segues in and out of flashbacks with jarring clumsiness; for every moment Crowe handles well, there’s two banalities, as he offers several patches of extremely muddled storytelling where rather simple plot developments are clumsily communicated. Crowe sadly shied away from making a simpler, more effective evocation of zones of flux between death and life-force, plying rather a storyline with far too much time for hackneyed story beats and cornball cues, sabotaging his better labours. 

The source problem here is the script, by TV writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, which is broad and facetious when it’s not being a mass of pasted-together clichés. Too many scenes are transmitted from something else, and the storyline predictable in a manner that belongs less the fatefulness of myth than the convenience of formula; indeed, multiple formulae appended together. The moment Connor meets Ayshe there can only be one end, occasionally recalling a drizzly remake of Crowe’s romance with Marion Cotillard in A Good Year (2006) of all things, mixed with one of those thorny cross-cultural courtships like in Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss… (2002) where there will be inevitable clashes with forbidding relatives and angry miscommunications. Crowe, Knight, and Anastasios toss every piece of emotional furniture, from Ayshe’s snippy denial of her husband’s death to Omer’s desire to marry her, and the compulsory “You know nothing!” speech all interloper heroes must suffer through, to keep the romantic longing frustrated long enough. The budding new family unit of Connor, Ayesha, and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades) is signalled when they splash water on each-other. No kidding. The script disposes of the potential cultural tangle inherent in Connor’s stumbling between Ayesha and Omer by having Omer prove to be a sleazy creep who beats up Ayesha and tells Orhan about his father’s fate in the war out of spite. And don’t even ask me what the hell’s supposed to be going on with the resident hooker (Isabel Lucas) in Ayshe’s hotel, whose immoral profession apparently does not disturb anyone amidst all the concern about propriety: indeed, eventually she's seen working the front desk.

The film also notably subverts its own initial purpose by having the presumption that all three of Connor’s sons died at Lone Pine prove misleading; thus we shift from a portrait of a man trying to come to terms with unbearable loss to a more traditional saga of hope and redemption. Connor eventually learns one of his boys, Arthur (Ryan Corr), survived and was taken to a POW camp, but seems to have vanished in the interim. We get virtually no portrait of Connor’s sons, apart from brief, musty, confusing cuts to scenes of Connor reading Arabian Nights to them as kids or rescuing them from a billowing sandstorm, and a brief vignette of Connor extracting a promise from Arthur to bring his brothers home. Arthur’s apparent gift for art is a significant plot element that isn’t set up at all. Crowe prefers to waste time caricaturing the few British officers present in the film in manner that evokes the cheesy, manipulative side of many Australian New Wave films that sought to indict British use of Aussies as cannon fodder, and uses Capt. Brindley (Dan Wyllie) as a petty bad guy who sees a need to send armed soldiers to make sure a harmless civilian leaves Turkey, for no better reason than to give the narrative a bit of tension, no matter how illogical or unnecessary. Connor initially tries to attack Hasan after the skeleton of one of his sons is found with a bullet hole that suggests execution. This spasm of truly messy, raw emotion is quickly quelled – far too quickly – and instead Connor and Hasan develop an amity at first wary and then strong. 

Connor becomes privy to the movement burgeoning in support of Mustafa Kemal in the midst of war with the Greeks, and eventually hitches a ride with Hasan, his loyal sergeant Jemal (Cem Yılmaz), and his soldiers on a train as they travel to battle raiding Greek partisans, on the hunt for Arthur. All of this pushes probability a little too far, portraying forgiveness and new fellowship glibly and straining to work in some third act action. This pays off in an excruciatingly silly scene where Connor proves to have packed his cricket bat, for absolutely no purpose of logic other than so Crowe can stage a feel-good interlude with Connor teaching Turks how to play. Crowe then goes one better by having Connor save Hasan and Jemal by sneaking up and clubbing their Greek captors with the bat. The Water Diviner here almost descends to the level of cripplingly foolish audience-pandering reached by Baz Luhrmann’s not so dissimilar take on Aussie mythology, Australia (2008). And let’s not look too deeply at the film’s concept of the period politics – the appearance of a swaggering Greek partisan commander as last-minute villain would be funny if didn’t touch on some agonising history for the sake of cheap melodrama. That the film remains watchable can only be put down to the professionalism of the cast, the arresting qualities in Lesnie’s photography, and Crowe's ability to sustain a note of seriousness in spite of all.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Maid of Salem (1937)

The Salem witch trials have permeated the historical consciousness in America and beyond for many reasons, loaded with symbolic import in the grey zone between new world and old, distant past and modern consciousness, whilst of course the overtones of exploitable hysteria in the colonial community have often been seen as specifying one of the more troubling traits of the later national character. Most famously, of course, Arthur Miller argued this via his use of the trials as metaphor for McCarthyism, and the relevance of his prognostication only seemed reinforced when George W. Bush started accidentally quoting Judge Danforth. The existence of a film depicting the Salem trials made long before Miller permanently inflected the events with his prism is therefore enticing. Maid of Salem also stands as a perfectly worthy piece of mid-‘30s prestige cinema, made by Frank Lloyd, the Glasgow-born, reliable studio craftsman with a talent for finding relatable drama in prestige-heavy fare, having captured the Best Picture award twice in recent years with Cavalcade (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Claudette Colbert, whose fearless erotic punch had awoken DeMille’s more fiendish imaginings, and shaken out Capra’s dirty mind, was quickly becoming domesticated as a Code-era star, finding her place with her aura of soulful intelligence and well as gentle but persuasive sensuality that made her calmer alternative to the archness of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Here she plays Barbara Clarke, the titular Salem girl whose past is murky and whose feisty independent thinking puts her at risk in the repressive climes of the stern and hard-bitten town of Puritans, although tensions only manifest to the degree that her new, frilly Boston bonnet attracts Rev. Parris’s (Ivan F. Simpson) invidious descriptions, and she offends a boorish suitor: “I made a joke, and I’m afraid he understood it.”

The early scenes of Maid of Salem by and large play as light comedy, depicting the foibles of a small community defined by a portentous sense of its own uprightness. The man entrusted with the duty of driving the town’s cattle herd back and forth from pasture, Thomas Bilge (E. E. Clive) is kicked out of his job and confined to the stock for being too fond of the bottle, whilst his replacement Miles Corbin (Sterling Holloway) is said boor who uses his new prosperity to try and coax Barbara into marriage. But Barbara, who works as delivery girl for her candlestick-manufacturer aunt, encounters a far more interesting suitor in Roger Coverman (Fred MacMurray), nephew of lobster fisherman Jeremiah (Halliwell Hobbes), who’s on the lam from Virginia because he engaged in a tax rebellion there, and besides, he’s a flashy, lively cavalier who seems positively alien in the chilly midst of Salem. MacMurray is fun as Roger if a bit forced as the cheery, lively arbiter of nascent democratic sentiment in the new world, offering an interesting stab at a proto-American accent. Barbara’s romance with Roger is therefore forced to remain clandestine, a secret that will eventually cause Barbara great trouble when the townsfolk start looking with great and suspicious interest in anyone given to making midnight rendezvous with strange figures in the woods. Elder Goode (Edward Ellis) is the model Puritan patriarch, coldly birching his daughter Ann (Bonita Granville) for absconding with his Cotton Mather-penned witchcraft manual to read for lurid thrills with her pals, whilst his wife Abigail (Beulah Bondi) is panicking at the imminent loss of her youth and so presses household slave Tituba (Madame Sul-Te-Wan), who entertains the bored and hopeless lasses of Salem with tales of witchcraft from Africa, to make her a rejuvenation potion. 

Although a depiction of judicial process perverted in an historically remote period, it could be argued Maid of Salem nonetheless might deserve some consideration as an entry in the string of 1930s social-conscience films like Fury (1936) and They Won’t Forget (1937) contemplating lynching and mob justice as an American ill. Whilst Miller's The Crucible noted how little some things had changed, Maid of Salem's essential thesis is that these events may have laid the seed for liberality in the common spirit by revealing the unworkable side of the Puritan project. The film’s take on the events engages intense resentment of the power structure of the town, from the household outwards, and the impossibility of normal behaviour in such an environ causing an eruption of mania that gains fuel from neighbourly maliciousness and self-interest: Ezra Cheeves (Donald Meek) uses the witch trials to destroy a woman who owns land he covets, whilst Barbara will find herself indicted as a witch partly because her gifts with handling children compared to the strict and loveless Puritan code makes kids mysteriously more responsive to her than their parents. All hell starts breaking loose when Mr. Morse (Pedro de Cordoba) blows into town bringing reports of supernatural terror striking in another town; as he regales the townsfolk, a storm blows in from the sea, announcing a night of fear that represents the film’s most effective passage as credulity and petty events suddenly give way to full-blown hysteria, as doors and barred and houses besieged by the storm and fear of the unknown in this land on the edge of dark. Ann and younger sister Nabby (Virginia Weidler) fake fits of torment, squirming in frenzies as thunder crashes and the walls are buffeted by winds, whilst Abigail takes Tituba’s filthy concoction and is found by her husband in the pit of a seriously bad trip, leaving Elder Goode surrounded by evidence of devilry that is actually only evidence of his world’s presumptions turning inside out. Notably, Granville, still a year away from playing Nancy Drew, plays a variation on her role in These Tree (1935), as the bratty adolescent girl who stirs up social evil. 

Meanwhile Roger tries to arrange passage out of the colony for himself and Barbara, only to be captured by some sailors who know there’s a reward out for him; they kill Jeremiah and drag Roger back to Virginia where he’s imprisoned. The film’s depiction of social tyranny sharpens to a point during the impressive scene of Tituba’s interrogation, Puritan men with clothes like crow plumes and hatchet faces looming over the singularly terrified woman (impressive work from Sul-Te-Wan) and her ready acquiescence to the program of indictment and murder knowing too well she’d otherwise be the first victim. Maid of Salem betrays similarities to Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1948) amongst other films of this breed in taking a period setting and tweaking it to appeal directly to the young women in the audience chafing against social norms and dreaming of bigger things – dreams in large part fostered, of course, by going to the movies. Barbara is glimpsed dancing in her attic room, practising for a life of larger and freer thrills than she’s known before, and like many a teenage girl given to sneaking out to their boyfriends in the night, is forced to barter with her nosy young nephew Timothy (Benny Bartlett) to get him to keep quiet about her romance. But Timothy blabs to a young friend and Barbara’s encounters with the mystery man no-one’s seen becomes a supposed assignation with the lord of flies. 

Likeable, level-headed local doctor and man of reason John Harding (Harvey Stephens) tries to defend Barbara, but he and his wife Martha (Gale Sondergaard, giving her sly sidelong smoulder a good workout) know Barbara’s ugly family secret, that her mother was burnt as a witch back in England, and Martha tells it to the court when she’s afraid his defence might backfire on him, and also because she’s jealous of his and Barbara’s friendship. In her torment however upon the witness stand, in a fashion reminiscent of DeMille’s heroines, Barbara is instead all the more powerfully transformed into the stuff of martyrs and movie stars the more elegantly deshabille she becomes, with streaming loose hair and anguish-lit eyes appealing to her fellows for sanity and compassion. The film’s visual language unfolds in regulation studio style, with a quick, dramatic montage of events as the trials gain pace and the poppet is fed. Lloyd stages scenes of mob rule well as the victims are dragged up the gallows tree amidst crowds of ranting townsfolk, and works in dashes of pulpy colour, like Roger escaping his jailers through a murky swamp. The film is a good, clean piece of melodramatic storytelling from the days when Hollywood tossed that sort of thing off with casual savvy, and the only major, fairly inevitable stumble is the very end, which gives a regulation last-minute rescue and a swift rebuke to the explosion of destructive intolerance that just ends, like it never was.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)

Here there be spoilers:

In the early ‘50s, Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) is called to the house of eccentric and phlegmatic mathematician and Cambridge teacher Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), to investigate an apparent burglary. But Nock finds Turing uninterested in the crime and eager to rid himself of the visiting law. Realising Turing deliberately insulted him and other policemen to this end, and fascinated by the sprawl of mysterious technology Turing has set up in his parlour, Nock begins to investigate, hoping to catch a Cambridge Five-level spy. He follows instead a thread that uncovers Turing’s astounding, entirely secret role in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code on the way to learning Turing’s rather different secret. Flashback to 1940, when the socially inept and often obnoxious Turing is interviewed by Bletchley Park chieftain Denniston (Charles Dance), turning into a duel of brusque dismissal between the two men, before Turing is reluctantly hired and placed on a team of code breakers and linguists captained by  Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). When Alexander nixes Turing’s idea to build a proto-computer to unravel the staggering possible variants in the Enigma code because of the price tag attached, Turing gets MI6 interlocutor Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) to pass on a letter to Winston Churchill explaining his proposal, and is rewarded with leadership of the team. Turing immediately stirs dislike by casually firing several team members and labouring for months on his experimental boondoggle. He harvests new talent for the project by placing a puzzle in the newspaper and offering a job to anyone who can solve it in under five minutes, and turns up mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whose talents and education are evidently up to the job but whose fusty parents are perturbed by the offence to decorum the job might entail.

Turing’s life and achievements have long deserved greater recognition, and the achievements of Bletchley Park have begun to feel like a modern creation myth, as the intersection of World War Two with all its associated evil and greatness, with the birth of the most crucial of modern technologies, and also its attendant social significance as a scene where people usually left out of the social mythology of the war were able to play a vital role. That angle was recently plumbed by the TV series The Bletchley Circle. Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001), was a good, honest thriller that cast Dougray Scott as a hunky, hetero Turing variant. More properly, Turing himself was the subject of a 1996 telemovie, Breaking the Code, a cramped and matter-of-fact production that was nonetheless considerably preferable to this slab of painfully by-the-book screenwriting and often indifferent filmmaking. If it is superior to the likes of other recent British award-bait cinema like The King’s Speech (2010) and The Theory of Everything (2014), with which it shares a romanticised fascination for doomed savants, it’s because it’s a better story, sold with a certain level of theatrical enthusiasm by a fine cast and kept moving with superficial energy by director Morten Tyldum, who made the enjoyable Norse nailbiter Headhunters (2011). But digging a little deeper into this work exposes a host of annoyances. Breaking the Code featured Derek Jacobi as Turing, portrayed as a stammering, highly nerdy, but enthusiastic intellectual, and allows that intellect space to express itself with explorations of theory presumed verboten for the audience this film is intended for. The Imitation Game makes Turing even stranger, a possible obsessive-compulsive and strong blip on the Asperger’s spectrum, and I wish I didn’t have the feeling throughout that this was designed to push the character ever-closer to Cumberbatch’s persona well-known from his TV series Sherlock

Such casting-by-association is apparent also in asking Knightley to reprise her role from the infinitely better A Dangerous Method (2011) as the under-appreciated nascent feminist heroine sprouting under the wing of a major male intellectual icon, Dance working variations on his contemptuous hauteur from Game of Thrones, and Strong doing the dry, knowing, quietly malevolent character he’s done in works as diverse as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and John Carter (2012). The impression that they’re playing a pile-up of mannerisms reinforces the strange indecisiveness in Cumberbatch and Knightley’s performances in the first half of the film. Moreover, the film clearly yearns to annex the acclaim of A Beautiful Mind (2002) with its similarly addled hero: Alexandre Desplat’s score offers up similar tingling, heady, Arvo Part-esque arpeggios to James Horner’s score for the Ron Howard film. The meretricious nature of all this is hard to ignore, and that’s even without noting how obvious Graham Moore’s script is, particularly in the regulation all-is-lost moment when Dennistone is about to be mean and pull the plug on Turing’s machine, or the embarrassingly clichéd scene when Clarke first enters the film, to be mistaken for a secretarial candidate when turning up for the second phase of Turing’s talent scouting, and then beating everyone in the room to solving his brainbuster. Tyldum badly fumbles the flashback structure.  The original intent seems to have been to unfold the mystery of Turing’s identity as an ironic pastiche of investigation that leads only into personal pain and hidden identities, but the timeline alternations are clumsy and self-spoiling, and the filmmakers can’t even decide whether Turing’s portentous narration is sourced in the interview scenes or non-diegetic. Tyldum offers a third layer to the structure in leaping back to Turing’s schoolboy days (played there by Alex Lawther), where swift vignettes portray Turing’s cruel tormenting by fellows, which thoroughly explains why he’s less than charming to other members of the society that did such things to him, and also his strong attachment, shading into a powerful but seemingly one-sided romance, to pal Christopher (Jack Bannon), whose death from tuberculosis left him bereft and haunted. 

There’s strong pathos here that is nonetheless diffused by the lumpen editing, and the agonisingly reductive use of Turing's formative woes, as Turing names his computer after Christopher, and the repetition of Christopher’s poster-worthy line, “Sometimes it’s the people who we expect nothing of who do things nobody expects,” or some such rot. Moreover, The Imitation Game represents a peerless example of an insidious habit that inflects too much pop culture today: pseudo-drama designed to appeal to the audience’s progressive self-congratulation. In this case, Turing is nominated as tragic hero destroyed by the unthinking society he helped save for his sexuality, which is entirely correct, but reduces portrayal of that sexuality to a schoolboy crush and a blithe reference by Turing, during Nock’s interview of him, to a man “touching my penis” (that is, at least, a peerlessly Cumberbatchian line, to go up there with “You have to bite it.”). Perhaps this reflects wariness about falling into the same trap as Brokeback Mountain (2005) supposedly did in turning off elderly members of the AAMPAS with confronting gay activity, but certainly reflects an annoying failure of any sort of nerve. Although clearly Turing was active in England’s gay subculture of the time with all its hidden colour and danger, The Imitation Game cannot countenance that. Viewed as a whole, the film’s approach to Turing’s sexuality represents a surface appeal to the viewer – “Oh, isn’t it awful what they did to him just because he was gay!” we are supposed to say – whilst the film carefully neuters and infantilises Turing. 

Pauline Kael assumed that Omar Sharif’s role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was to provide more familiar, relatable movie star stuff next to the fey ambiguity of the main character; so too here Tyldum makes sure Goode displays some good old fashioned swashbuckling lothario cred, and emphasises Turing’s relationship with Clarke, with at least the piquant irony that because he wants to marry her to save her gifts from conservative mores, he is her beard rather the other way around. Moore’s script laboriously plays out as a rewrite of Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) amidst wars and spying: the shy, awkward smart guy meets a funky lady who advises on how to make himself popular, and so we get such pearls of bullshit as when Turing gives out apples to his befuddled teammates. Tyldum tries to give a panoramic sense of events, meaning occasional shots of the characters travelling through blitzed streets and montages of random war footage and CGI submarines stalking convoys, beyond the lackadaisical habits of the small back room. The film at least pulls off one movement of dramatic panache: frustrated by the computer’s inability to crack the code, the team retreat mournfully to a pub to kick up their heels, where Alexander’s attempts to crack on to one of Clarke’s girlfriends sparks an insight into how to break the code, leading to a race to try out the possibility, and then being faced with an awesome power over life and death that Turing realises they must ration with strict logic in order not to warn the Germans they have rumbled their code. The only trouble here is that the gimmick of barroom sexuality giving the genius an idea how to work his magic is copied holus-bolus from, yes, A Beautiful Mind. The film illustrates the team’s moral agony in the face of having the power to ward off death and not being able to use it once they break the code by a forgivably personal manipulation: the team’s very first decoding success prove to alert them to the imminent destruction of a convoy one member’s (Matthew Beard) brother is a sailor with – except that I then remembered that almost exactly the same plot stake was used in Enigma.

A major subplot detailing the presence of a Soviet spy in the midst of Bletchley, which proves to be another member of Turing’s team, John Cairncross (Allen Leech), seems to have been included to give the proceedings the buzz of intrigue, but it’s developed so limply that it scarcely seems worth the effort, paying off as it does in a “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine” punch-line that might have been coherently linked to one of the chief spurs for homosexuality’s legalisation in the 1960s, precisely for the reason gay men were such ripe targets for blackmailers. But such linkages can only be made if you already know this history; the film certainly can't make them. Moreover, the film concocts the specious idea Turing uncovered Cairncross who actually didn’t even work in the same part of Bletchley as him, and that Menzies was able to use him for disinformation. Finally, Cumberbatch and Knightley do kick to real life in a pair of memorable late scenes in the film, firstly as Turing outs himself to Clarke in trying get her to leave Bletchley, to which she responds at first with frustrating acquiescence, happy at the thought of a purely intellectual union, and then, when he changes tactics and insults her, responding with cold fury: as desperately unconvincing are the dramatic reasons leading to this scene, it plays out well. So too does the last meeting of the pair, when Clarke, having since grown glam and happy in a traditional union, comes to visit the embattled Turing and finds him in depressive torment, where again the stars emote well, although the most heartbreaking detail used with effect in Breaking the Code – the hormone therapy Turing was forced to take after his conviction caused him to grow breasts – is elided, and the film carefully elides the grim climax of his life so as not to overly spoil the afterglow of vague triumphalism. The Imitation Game is a mildly entertaining contraption whilst it unspools, but just as Turing’s machine was ingeniously constructed specifically to crack German code, this film is merely a mechanism assembled out of spare parts, designed to crack the Oscar code.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Westworld (1973)

Such was the topsy-turvy, wide-open, frontier-like condition of Hollywood in the early 1970s that even a humble author could winnow his way into directing a movie if it looked like they might conjure a money-spinning proposition. Michael Crichton did just that after the film version of his book The Andromeda Strain (1970), and his own leap from TV writing to direct the telemovie Pursuit (1972). He made a deal to make Westworld with MGM as that studio was passing through the throes of managerial woes and maligned by many creative talents. Crichton provided the studio with its biggest hit of the year, and his directing career continued with a handful of good movies before running out of steam in the late ‘80s. Later, Crichton essentially ripped himself off by recycling the core idea of Westworld, of a futuristic amusement park that offers the thrill of impossible dreams but goes haywire, and repackaged it with dinosaurs for his novel “Jurassic Park”. The stature of Steven Spielberg’s film of that book is hard to shake these days, but Westworld is the more interesting variation for many reasons. Whereas the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park invoked the fantasies of youth, Westworld proposed a more adult, overtly satirical, acutely aimed metaphor. Delos is a triptych of fantasy theme parks built in the middle of nowhere, with clientele flown in and out by hover-jet, run by white-coated savants overseeing a cast of lifelike robots. The three parks, West World itself, Medieval World, and Roman World, are specifically marketed to men in grey flannel suits as the place to live out desires frustrated by the modern world: in essence, the freedom to kill and fuck and indulge all fantasies of power and eroticism untrammelled. Crichton reveals the carnage wrought by the entirely normal men and women (mostly men) who have come to this pleasure dome as the park’s night crews pick up the mangled, bullet-riddled bodies of the robots slain in the course of the day's fun, and take them to be repaired in laboratories that become charnel houses of circuitry and wiring.

Crichton quickly reveals his gift of the non-diegetic gab by communicating the film’s premise with clarity and ease not through mere dialogue but by playing on the audience’s ready understanding of such phenomena as TV advertising and in-flight training films. He opens with a mock TV spot for Delos where various enthused schmucks testify to the joys of their experience and slogans flash on screen, before cutting to his audience avatars, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), already en route to the park: Peter is torn between excitement and anxiety, listening to the information movie for broad details but prodding John, who's made the trip before, for the subtler tips. Peter and John are clearly delineated as the divorced and depressed milquetoast and the confident swinger who’s done it all, anticipating the act Woody Allen and Tony Roberts would sustain in Play It Again, Sam (1972) and Annie Hall (1977). John coaxes Peter slowly and with increasing gusto into losing his cherry West World style, riddling the local Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) with bullets and bedding a cyborg prostitute (“She’s from France.”) Eventually Peter gives in with boyish delight to the charm of Westworld, even declaring it the most real-feeling thing he’s ever done. The door is thus opened to enquiries about what reality and experience would become in a world where such things were possible, and of course, we await the moment when the experience will become much more urgent and authentic, when the system will break down and the robots, carefully designed to yield to the fantasies of the humans, no longer yield, and the carefully preordained tests and trials become all too real. But Crichton doesn’t belabour the existential ideas percolating beneath the surface of his tale, keeping things on the same level of pop sci-fi fun leavened by the Planet of the Apes series.

Thus the first hour of Westworld is essentially a wry study in egotism offered a venue to play itself out and littered with light and breezy pastiche of well-worn genre fare. Peter and John’s adventures counterpoint some of their fellows from the hover-jet, like Dick Van Patten’s banker, a diminutive and unimpressive man who nonetheless gets himself cast as the Sheriff of West World after the robot one is shot dead by John, whilst Norman Bartold plays a would-be heroic, irresistible knight battling the evil Black Knight (Michael T. Mikler) for the affections of the Queen (Victoria Shaw) in Medieval World, and various lotharios settle for getting oiled up and rubbed down in Roman World. Threaded through this however are glimpses of the management of Delos, the labour put into repairing the robots and keeping the parks operating. Crichton coolly and even at time abstractly studies the nuts and bolts of the operation, with Fred Karlin’s excellent score providing an eerie, dissociated electronic drone, giving the sense that beneath the surface Delos is actually a kind of derelict vessel, inhabited by simulacra and scientific geniuses who have voluntarily made themselves mixtures of carnies and pimps. Asimov’s heralded Three Laws have no place here: Crichton presents these robots as brilliant feats of narcissistic engineering but which have no more moral sense than a dishwasher. The outbreak of all hell in Delos is announced with the first, effective shock of Bartold getting the Black Knight’s sword through his stomach.

Westworld takes up one of Crichton’s favourite themes of technology as a potential trap and insidious force, particularly the thread of The Andromeda Strain of the super-laboratory that becomes more of an enemy to the human inhabitants than the disease they study. Here the human staff of Delos are ensconced in control centres which they can’t escape from when something as simple as a power cut occurs: eventually they will be found, all suffocated to death. Crichton lands his best mockery as he depicts one operator ordering lunch whilst another carefully coordinates the fulfilment of some salesman’s life-long onanistic fantasy of debonair triumph. Like many a clever pop artefact, Westworld invokes a host of subtext, a lot of it not even that sub, particularly as a commentary on the state of the film industry circa 1972, still feeling its way out of the late ‘60s crisis, with Crichton using the infrastructure of MGM’s bygone blockbusters as playgrounds where the merciless future will take over and stalk: the way entertainment and its makers adapt to service our wants and secret hypocrisies is skewered with a deft hand. There is even, in the distant horizon, some understanding of the internet’s allure for those seeking alternate identities and connections through technology. Casting Brynner as an oblivious robot based on his wise hero from The Magnificent Seven (1960) is the central coup, a meta-fictional touch that relies on the audience recognising the association and having a good chuckle and then watching in dismay as he stalks our wiry, nervous, all too human hero with impassive relentlessness, as if some childhood fantasy pleasure has suddenly turned nightmare. Westworld even bears a faint but definite resemblance to Deliverance (1972) and Jaws (1975) in tackling a common theme of the era (also apparent in those aforementioned Woody Allen films, if handled in a much different manner), focusing on ordinary men forced to fight for their lives, with the quick, ironic discounting of the confident manly man that forces the man more insecure in his masculinity to prove himself.

As a writer, Crichton found success combining conceptual ingenuity with entrepreneurial guile rather than through great dramatic gifts, and although Westworld displays his real and perhaps superior talent as a director, at times Crichton can’t quite excuse a certain jokey thinness here and there in Westworld, like a jolly barroom fight copied from countless real horse operas. The story develops with the kind of obviousness one doesn’t mind if the hook is good enough, and it sure is good enough; as long as the story keeps heading where you know it’s headed it doesn’t need to do too much else. Crichton doesn’t indict his heroes too hard for looking for fulfilment in fantasy after real life has treated them badly, but their activities do have darker permutations with hints of sex tourism and other forms of exploitation. The sleazy, unnatural, post-human quality of these ideas which young David Cronenberg or a good cyberpunk author might have gone wild for, is mostly played for humour, except for one of the most memorable moments in the film: Peter sleeps with a robot prostitute and in the midst of throes of passion she goes glaze-eyed as the nightly tune-up signal goes out from the command centre: the falsity of the eroticism and the emptiness of the fulfilment is revealed for an excruciating moment, and Crichton can’t quite match it again. The film also lacks anyone as interesting as Jurassic Park’s squabbling brains Grant and Malcolm to seed exposition. Alan Oppenheimer’s role as the Chief Supervisor of the park, who tries to warn of potential disaster when he starts detecting signs of a virus-like instability in the machines, is purposefully flat and castrated, and the other staff indicted as foolish functionaries, only malevolent in their oblivious faith in their super-duper Potemkin village. 

Nonetheless, Crichton handles Westworld with a steady, deadpan intelligence admirable for a first-time feature filmmaker, and the result now seems to have been as influential stylistically as it was thematically: a host of upcoming young filmmakers including Carpenter, Spielberg, Cameron, McTiernan and others surely drank at this well. Westworld feels like the birth of something, perhaps the modern science-fiction action film itself. Battles with blank-eyed, unstoppable monsters in such later stalwarts of this style, like The Terminator (1984) and Predator (1987), and even perhaps Halloween (1978), are strongly anticipated and probably directly influenced, particularly the digitally segmented cyborg’s-eye-view shots, daring to turn the theoretically neutral camera into the viewpoint of something beyond the human way of seeing. Crichton’s later team-up with Spielberg feels especially appropriate, as Benjamin’s nervous everyman who has to prove himself wily enough to survive a deadly situation clearly anticipates Spielberg’s fascination with that theme. Crichton tightens the screws until the comedy gives way suddenly but logically to horror and excitement. His eye for menace in echoic spaces of chilly modernity, and skill at generating tension in extended sequences of pursuit and eluding, later displayed in the techno-baroque slickness of his work on Coma (1978), is plain here. The last half-hour, depicting Peter’s desperate battle for survival against the Gunslinger in the midst of massacre and dashed fancies, passing through the various realms of Delos and then the blank, subterranean labyrinth beneath, is exceptionally well-staged. Benajmin is fine and effective as Peter as he walks the character through stages of fretful anticipation and unsteady self-concept, through to the crucial moment where, confronted with the possibility of his own annihilation, sees his chance and moves forward with the determination of the survivor. A weak sequel, Futureworld, followed in 1976.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Battle at Bloody Beach (1961)

A low-budget offering from 20th Century Fox, Battle at Bloody Beach is notable as the only WW2-set movie Audie Murphy made apart from the autobiographical To Hell and Back (1955). Murphy plays Craig Benson, an American soldier who specialises in missions making contact with partisans in the Philippines, a cunning and dogged warrior to the point that the Japanese have put out a colossal reward for his head. Benson, however, has a singular motive for his relentless action: he’s really searching for his wife Ruth (Dolores Michaels, with amusingly salon-perfect hair). The couple were on their honeymoon in Manila when the Japanese first attacked, and were separated in the chaos that followed. Benson is dropped off by submarine on the coast of an enemy-controlled Philippine island, with an assignment to find reliable resistance fighters to supply with arms; his local contact, Marty Sackler (Gary Crosby), is a serviceman who managed to escape being taken prisoner during the invasion and has been subsisting on the coast keeping tabs on enemy ships for Naval Intelligence. Sackler signals Benson to land at their rendezvous spot, a wrecked ship stranded on the beach, but two lurking Japanese soldiers force the duo to fight for their lives immediately. Benson soon learns the lay of the land, with two rival rebel groups vying for the arms he’s brought: one is run by McKeever (William Mims), another American survivor who proves to have hopes of becoming a petty warlord, the other by Julio Fontana (Alejandro Rey), a rich kid who’s rejected his esteemed collaborator family and become a gritty freedom fighter.

Although not terribly distinguished amidst the vast roster of cheap wartime action movies made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bloody Beach does have some worthy similarity to the stark, efficient work of later William Wellman and Raoul Walsh, and the blending of genre nicety with torrid human melodrama Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller managed in this style of moviemaking. The result offers the kind of punchy satisfaction a halfway-decent potboiler can wield, and more specifically it has that canary-in-the-coalmine quality low-budget genre film often sported in noting changing social mores: the film is laced with interesting progressive rumblings. Bloody Beach was directed by Alfred Hitchcock’s long-time associate producer and assistant director Herbert Coleman, whose only other feature film also starred Murphy, Posse From Hell (1961). The writer and producer was Richard Maibaum, an experienced Hollywood screenwriter who was just about to find the great goldmine of his career, when he would be hired to contribute to the screenplay of Dr. No a year later: he would go on to work on most James Bond films up to and including Licence to Kill (1989). Bloody Beach whips through reams of story that might have been belaboured. Scarcely before a half-hour has passed, Benson encounters McKeever, a rotund, down-market Kurtz who tries to threaten Benson before Fontana steams in with his freedom fighters to avenge one of McKeever’s ravages. Fontana’s second-in-command, a black former boxer named Tiger Blair (Ivan Dixon), remembers his and Fontana’s heyday as gentlemen playboys, and comes to the rescue at the end as the faintest anticipation of a blaxploitation hero: indeed, Dixon went on to direct Trouble Man (1972). 

False regime is defeated, Fontana’s noble corps ascends, and Benson is saddled with a gaggle of civilians he must try and arrange safe passage for. But private concerns threaten selfless patriotic effort: Benson discovers Ruth has not only survived but has fallen in love with Fontana, and she briefly pretends to be happily reunited to help ensure he gets the weapons Benson has. The romantic triangle that emerges here could have been very corny, but what makes this more interesting than the usual run of such is the notion that Benson has to make peace with his wife’s empowered independence, manifest not just in her transferred affections for Fontana but most particularly in her status as competent guerilla fighter who’s committed herself to a cause, like the seed of women’s lib, still struggling out of its chrysalis in 1961, being planted in the midst of 1940s exigencies. Coleman does not blink an eye as Ruth mows down the enemy alongside her husband and her lover. Murphy, as he often chose to, works against his own clean-cut, heroic image, with a tense, slightly neurotic performance like those he gave for John Huston. He depicts Benson as a man who’d gladly turn his back on the war once his personal need is met, and who smoulders with fetid anger once he perceives the way he’s been used, disillusioned with his driving sense of mission revealed as hapless, ignoble gag. Coleman emphasises people encountering and trying to overcome divisions and misunderstandings, enacted on a political level as the good partisans defeat the warlord and end the strife that’s weakening the resistance cause, but also constantly in evidence on a far more personal and intimate level, manifest in race and gender, and characters who struggle onto higher ground to find a place where they can live or die on their own terms. The story, a pressure-cooker situation where sharply contrasting personalities and world-views are forced to work together in a siege, recalls many a Ford and Hawks western. But the idea of placing a romantic Calvary at the centre of his film suggests Coleman was operating under Hitchcock’s influence just a little, and the “love is a battlefield” theme is given body as Maibaum’s script deliberately contrasts the central drama with other relationships. 

Sackler has become a prototypical drop-out, shacked up in a perfect ménage-a-trois with two local women, Camota (Miriam Colon) and Nahni (Pilar Seurat), “one big happy family” as Sackler puts it. This is inevitably destroyed as the war comes too close, claiming each one in a mini-tragedy, Sackler eaten by a shark as he tries to swim for help and the two women gunned down. Amongst the other survivors is an elderly doctor, Van Bart (E.J. André), and equally weathered mission teacher Delia Ellis (Lillian Bronson), who bicker their way to an admission of love just before fate catches up with one. Planter Pelham (Barry Atwater) is dying of malaria, necessitating he be dragged along on a litter, kept alive by his total contempt for his plaintively insufferable wife Caroline (Marjorie Stapp), as if they’ve stumbled out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The finale sees the would-be escapees besieged, stranded by the submarine’s inability to rescue them, and forced to fight off the Japanese from the flimsy citadel that is the shipwreck, a plot flourish that suggests something more like the kind of regulation western Murphy was more used to acting in. The climax is bracingly unsentimental and punctuated with pithy violence. Partisan warrior Blanco (Dale Ishimoto) dies rather than retreat. A young boy's mother is casually cut down by a bullet. Pelham climbs off his deathbed with a rifle in hope of gaining glorious death, but is unable to shake Caroline off until a mortar shell blows them both to pieces. The coda resolves the human drama conservatively on one level, but also incorporates the creation of a pick-up family such as Nicholas Ray was so fond of, and in his own way Steven Spielberg, later on: home  is where you make it. It’s hardly Bridge on the River Kwai, but Battle at Bloody Beach is likeable enough as itself.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

Although it brought together Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Barbara Steele, shortly before Karloff’s death and at the cusp of Steele’s career wane, Curse of the Crimson Altar can hardly live up to the expectations such a confluence of horror movie icons creates. Smug antiquarian Robert Manning (Mark Eden) travels to the rural English town of Greymarsh where his family has roots, in search of his brother Peter (Denys Peek). The privileged viewer already knows what’s become of Peter, because a prologue has shown him selling his soul to Satan at a ritual sacrifice overseen by blue-skinned witch Lavinia (Steele), sealing his deal by plunging a knife into the heart of a victim. Lavinia was put to death by burning three hundred or so years earlier, but still seems to be haunting the dreams of anyone who stays at Craxted Lodge, a country manse owned by descendant Morley (Lee). The early scenes of Crimson Altar promise prime late-'60s disreputability, and fans of prime camp can get themselves into a serious lather at the opening ritual, which features a hooded, nipple-ornamented dominatrix (Nita Lorraine) mercilessly whipping some trussed blonde, and a stag-helmeted, G-string clad muscle man (Nicholas Head) beating hot steel and branding Peter as member of the Satanic club. Steele watches and directs, clad in ram's-horn headdress and feathers, body painted blue with vivid red lips, a perfervid fetish totem climbed straight off a DC comic page, or Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl turned feral priestess.

Robert’s subsequent arrival in Greymarsh immediately offers more earthbound but equally sensationalist thrills. Robert leaps to the rescue of a half-naked woman being chased down by goons in cars bent on pack-rape, only for this to prove only a nasty party game, because the Lodge is hosting a decadent upper-crust bohemian rave where perversion and licentiousness are the currency of the night. The idea behind this scene, that the normally staid inhabitants of Greymarsh indulge a night of hedonistic delights before celebrating the death of their scapegoat, is intriguing, but like too much in the film, remains undeveloped except for mild titillation. Such sequences do indeed promise a descent into lovely depravity, but instead they prove mere modish ornamentation on a slack narrative that soon slows to a dawdle, with subplots left dangling and hope of even the most basic thrills dashed. The plot, possibly filched from an H.P. Lovecraft story and close enough to several other then-recent likenesses including John Moxey’s City of the Dead (1960), Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), and Michael Reeves' The She-Beast (1965), meanders as it duly sets up red herrings, particularly Karloff’s aged, wheelchair-bound Professor Marsh, brandy enthusiast and scholar of occultism and medieval torture, and his tall, mute chauffeur (Michael Warren), who may or may not have tried to blow Robert's head off whilst pheasant shooting. Lee plays a host so avuncular he must be hiding something. Meanwhile Robert romances Morley’s niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell) with all the charm of a ferret in a tar puddle. Invited to stay with the Morleys in Craxted, Robert is beset by dreams where he sees Lavinia and her cadre of demonic helpmates, who attempt to force him to sign his name in the devil’s ledger. Soon it emerges that the Mannings’ forefather was the judge who had Lavinia killed, and her shade seems to be operating through some flesh-and-blood avatar to complete her revenge by claiming their descendents’ souls. Michael Gough is thrown into the mix as a frightened, batty servant who tries to warn Robert.

The direction by veteran filmmaker Vernon Sewell is solid but also rather mercenary, going for gold early on with all that kinkiness but undermining the script’s half-hearted attempts to create some narrative ambiguity. As the film rolls into its third act, screenwriters Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln seem to be leaning towards demystifying their plot, as Robert discovers a hidden chamber that’s been carefully dressed to look disused, and shots later offer the villain working his diabolism with satanic helpmates who are actually just costumes on frames, suggesting all the black magic is just the by-product of a sick mind. But the film’s shoddy structuring, including the declarative opening and very finale, foils this. Sewell’s career stretched back to the 1930s, and he had made several light horror and eerie films, most of which were variations on the same basic story, in which a young couple buys a haunted property, including the solid and modest Ghost Ship (1952). As horror became more popular in the ‘60s and halfway competent genre smiths were needed, Sewell branched out and made The Blood Beast Terror (1967), this, and 1971's Burke and Hare before his career ended. The film’s chief pleasure is the photography by John Coquillon, who would soon become Sam Peckinpah’s preferred cinematographer: his palettes blend and balance autumnal mustiness with the saturated velvety interiors around the location (actually W.S. Gilbert’s house, the wonderfully named Grim’s Dyke). The night shots are expertly lit and atmospheric in shades of tallowy light and chiaroscuro dark, particularly when the revellers recreate Lavinia’s burning in a morbidly ecstatic parade through the dark trees on Morley’s estate, and later when Robert snoops through a graveyard in search of a clue. In such moments, Crimson Altar at least looks like a great British horror film. As Sewell tries to make his film hip with psychedelic flourishes, Coquillon obliges with dream and torture sequences drenched in violently bright colours, and kaleidoscope effects superimposed in for trippy textures or carving shots into delirious fragments.

Crimson Altar was made by Tigon, an upstart low-budget company that tried to wriggle into the British horror market like Milton Subotsky’s Amicus, and it gave a start to one major if doomed directing talent, Michael Reeves: notably, Karloff and Coqullion had worked on Reeves’ The Sorcerers the year before. Steele, making her first film since her last major Italian film, the daftly arty An Angel for Satan (1966), is given absolutely nothing to do here except sit around and look weirdly beautiful. If regarded as a kind of photographic spread rather than movie, with Steele called upon to incarnate the ideal of erotic stygian femininity, Crimson Altar presents Steele at the peak of her iconic power in horror cinema. Sadly, at no point does she get to interact with Lee or Karloff. The film’s final twist reveals that Lavinia had taken possession of Morley, and cackles down at her tormentors as the Lodge burns down around her. The possible angles this idea opens up, replete with intimations of gender subversion and sexual confusion lying behind Lee’s seemingly schismatic, weak-willed efforts to be evil, once again could have provided a more adventurous director with vast realms of exploitable weirdness. At least the climax offers the sight of Karloff managing to rise from his chair long enough to perform a little heroism, and in spite of his fragile health gives enough displays of his gleeful theatrical ability to enliven proceedings, whereas Lee seems utterly without recourse. Crimson Altar is brief and competent enough to be a painless and even modestly profitable viewing for horror fans, especially if viewed as a flow of fragmented but individually appreciable elements. But what a disappointment it is as a whole.