Tuesday, 24 March 2015

’71 (2014)

Here there be spoilers:

Pvt Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is first glimpsed in the midst of a squad of young soldiers being put through their paces in the chilly expanses of the English Midlands. We learn he’s an orphan – just about the only thing we learn about him – from Derbyshire, and has a son whom he in turn has been forced to place in a boy’s home whilst he’s in training. Hook’s attempts at carving out a place for himself in society through serving it see him and the rest of his unit assigned to keep peace in Northern Island as the Troubles are combusting. Their new lieutenant, Armitage (Sam Reid), is a callow toff whose accent and uncertainty with his men stoke the amused disdain of the private soldiers. “You are not leaving the country,” Hook and the others are told before deployment, a piece of reassurance Hook passes on to his son, but once plunged into the midst of the civil conflict boiling into the streets they might as well be in the Wild West. Armitage has his men venture out to cover an operation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary to find a weapons cache without riot gear, in an attempt to not appear too aggressive before the populace. At first the manifestations of conflict seem puerile, as balloons filled with piss hurled at the soldiers conflate political resistance with boyish pranks. But circumstances escalate with terrible speed: the RUC coppers beat up suspects in the street and rifle a house, causing a crowd to swiftly gather and assail the army cordon. One soldier is knocked cold and his rifle snatched up by a kid. Hook and another soldier, Pvt Thompson (Jack Lowden) are sent to retrieve the weapon, only for the pair to be ganged up on and thrashed by a gang of furious youths. Armitage and the rest of the unit flee, leaving Hook and Thompson to the mercies of gun-wielding Provos Quinn (Killian Scott) and Haggerty (Martin McCann), who shoot Thompson and chase Hook off through the twisting streets of West Belfast, forcing the hapless young private to hide in the depths of enemy territory.

Whilst political violence has not been entirely eradicated from Northern Irish life, The Troubles and their once-potent place in the Western zeitgeist are fading as far as most of the world is concerned, and many might be tempted to think that the relevance of ’71 is chiefly one of parable, evoking many a contemporary struggle, a portrait in deep-seated anger and convulsive popular struggle all the more striking for the lack of any overt, easily discernible difference between factions, only a lingering sense of grievance. The most interesting goal of ’71, the debut feature of experienced TV helmsman Yann Demange, is its attempt to convey the lay of this particular land through a sudden plunge into a series of incidents that lets the viewer regard both the environment and the underlying conflicts as if scanning a tapestry. The depiction of West Belfast (utilising locations in Liverpool, Sheffield, and Blackburn, ironic at a time when many British productions are heading over the Irish Sea) evokes a tawdry, impoverished labyrinth. Following Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) and Shadow Dancer (2013) in mining this subject, Demange aims to recapture the feel of early ‘70s Ireland, still familiar but also now fading as a cultural memory, a mix of telling images and contrasts – homely Victorian streets abutting cheerless modern flats, shaggy hippie-age hairstyles on glowering Celtic mugs, neighbourhood likely lads wielding guns with intent of grim murder, the detachment of depressed urban Belfast from both the pastoral myths of Irish identity and the tarnished grandeur of Imperial belonging. 

The essential drama enacted here is woven together by a reflection on the dark forces at work behind the facades of sectarian propaganda. Undercover agents in the Military Reaction Force, led by ruthless operator Browning (Sean Harris), are stirring trouble by helping Loyalist warriors “send a message” back to the IRA with repurposed bombs and playing both sides against the middle. A generational schism sees older IRA chieftain Boyle (David Wilmot) trying to keep a leash on Quinn, whilst young Sean Bannon (Barry Keoghan) wants to join Quinn’s cadre, but might not be up to the task of cold-blooded killing. The trouble with ’71 is that its attempt to make a political thriller by encasing it within an intense chase drama does neither mode that much good:’71 is essentially a Cowboys-and-Indians nail-biter, The Warriors (1979) stripped of pop-art drag or The Raid: Redemption (2011), for the vaguely political-minded. The film poses as an aware reading of the multifaceted historical situation, and does evoke the odd contradictions in the conflict where everyone on every side seems to have their contact on the others. But the villainy is frustratingly blatant and manipulative, the moral quandaries depicted broad and familiar, and the greater bulk of the film could have been set anywhere, any time, with, say, corrupt cops in place of the MRF and gangsters in the place of Provos. Although the setting and essential plot suggest an inversion of Carol Reed’s classic Odd Man Out (1946), swapping the Irish rebel wounded and alone in the midst of Belfast for a Brit, Demange’s film never begins to approach Reed’s for using a slender story frame to evoke a world of meaning. 

The blankness of the hero doesn’t help: when a young kid from a staunch Loyalist clan (Corey McKinley) asks Hook what his religion is and the soldier answers that he doesn’t know, it becomes apparent that Hook is conceived not just as low man on the worldly totem pole but as moral neutral in this deliberately schematic situation, one who might have more uncomfortable similarity to the flat avatars of Socialist Realism than just O’Connell’s noble jawline. For all O’Connell’s Olympic-level emoting, he strikes me as a surface-only actor, and Hook never feels like a particularly important character: our rooting interest for him is bought very cheaply. The film’s most powerful, deeply ugly moment comes when Hook seems to have found sanctuary with the boy’s loyalist clan, who run a pub where Browning’s MRF subordinate Lewis (Paul Anderson) is handing over a bomb to the loyalists to use against the IRA. Except that the unionists accidentally detonate the bomb and blow up the pub. Hook barely survives because he was standing out front, and he tragically carries the mangled body of the boy out of the blazing building and hands it over to swarming townsfolk before stumbling off bedraggled and bleeding into the night. This is a bleak and hauntingly rendered vignette, but it also proves to be less evocation of terrorist horror than a plot device to keep Hook in the wilderness for a while more, as the fact he saw Lewis delivering the bomb means the MRF boys want to shut him down permanently. Hook is later found lying against a wall by two Catholics, Eamon (Richard Dormer) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy), and although aware they might endanger themselves by helping the lost and wounded man, take him to their flat. 

From here ’71 counts off thriller clichés: stitches without anaesthetic, family members moaning at each-other about responsibility versus safety, converging teams of good guys and bad guys, hide-and-seek stalking around council flats, and a final shoot-out, staged in a deserted pub where the team of rescuers prove to include a few enemies in their midst. Hook’s first killing as a soldier is utterly personal, jamming a knife in the gut of one his hunters, and forced to watch a man disappear from existence and leave behind dead flesh. Hook hesitates with his next target, who happens to be Sean, setting in motion a chain of mercy that will later save his life. Eamon describes his own time as a soldier, “Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts,” a line that positively drips with the screenwriter’s delight in offering a memorable epigram that captures a certain cynical ethos. But it accidentally points to an underlying hollowness in the film, a blunt melodrama dressed up as eloquence with a succession of merely functional, one-note characters, the kind of work that exemplifies the current obsession with “immersive” aesthetics in both good and bad ways, the belief that a raw and immediate replication of surface realism justifies reducing the characters and situations to stock. The closing scenes see Hook and Armitage being essentially told to keep their mouths shut so his superiors can overlook the MRF’s activities, with the shibboleth, “It was a confused situation.” But there’s actually too little confusion in ’71, as it neatly cross-references aggressors and good ordinary folk in spite of the murky factionalism. 

Nonetheless, Demange displays promise as a director, working with DOP Tat Radcliffe to create a blasted and eerie sense of atmosphere, painting the streets in sulphurous hues where every step in exposed space feels dangerous. As obvious as some of the suspense-mongering gets, Delmange generates some excellent images. The billowing smoke and air of dizzied shock after the bomb blast, Hook stumbling along with the kid’s body in his arms, utterly lost in the midst of humdrum surrounds turned into inferno. Later, when he looks out from the window of Eamon and Bridget’s apartment, seeing the sleeping city dotted with spot fires, turning the nightscape into a map of pain. The key scene of Hook’s separation from his unit manages to be both dizzying and intelligible as it observes a situation shift from children playing on an otherwise deserted street to a full-on riot within a few minutes. Demange captures a sense of eye-level oppression and anxiety, the jaggedly subjective and unnerving witnessing of events where the truth has to be gleaned from the most fleeting of glances, and the sudden, violent tides of emotion at once vividly personal and communally engulfing driving the whole rotten mess. It’s an excellent achievement in staging and film assembling that to my mind easily bests the over-aestheticised street violence in Selma (2014). Demange might have made a more original and important movie if he had the courage to film a series of striking episodes depicting civil chaos unleashed, something that tapped the inherent surrealism of a drama of savagery cheek-by-jowl with everyday life, or had perhaps made a film that dug deeper into the mindset of economic conscripts in the army. As it is, ’71 is effective, but in the end the only real thing the film has to say is that no matter your class, creed, or colour, it sucks to have people trying to kill you.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Insurgent (2015)

Here there be spoilers:

Insurgent picks up almost directly where Divergent (2014) left off: in post-apocalyptic Chicago, walled off from the supposedly devastated outside world, the community of remaining humans are divided into castes based on personality traits, but the balance has been disturbed and the commune seems bound for civil conflict. Trained “Dauntless” warriors Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are on the run, fleeing the coup engineered by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and her cabal of brainiacs in the “Erudite” faction. The two lovers drag in their wake Tris’s brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and fellow Dauntless, the smarmy Peter (Miles Teller), and hide out in the community of the friendly “Amity” faction, overseen by the stern but understanding Joanna (Octavia Spencer). But soon the goons taken from the ranks of Dauntless supporting the new regime, led by fascist bully Eric (Jai Courtney), arrive in search of the rebels. Jeanine has a new project: she’s recovered a sealed box kept hidden by Tris’s murdered parents in the “Abnegation” village, a relic that legend holds contains a message from the founders of this isolated community. Jeanine hopes it will contain a mandate for Erudite to take over in case of the breakdown of the faction system, but finds it can only be opened by a “Divergent” person with the full gamut of faction traits, a breed who have been treated up until now as dangerous free radicals. Whilst fleeing their enemies, Tris is rocked by guilt for the lives she’s had to take in the course of fighting for her own, blaming herself for her parents’ demise, and quick to break into murderous rages fuelled in large part by self-loathing. Four has his own problems, as the rebels meet up with the ragtag army of factionless citizens, led by Evelyn (Naomi Watts), Four’s mother, whom he long believed dead. Four’s fulminating anger against her for abandoning him to his abusive father’s mercies makes him reject her aid out of hand even as she offers a natural alliance, as he suspects her of harbouring dictatorial desires herself. Instead he and Four turn to the “Candour” faction, famed for their truthfulness and trustworthiness, to be tried and have their own account of the coup proven true – but this demands taking a truth serum, something Tris has good reason to avoid, with the truth about her killing her friend Christine’s (Zoë Kravitz) boyfriend during battle emerging.

This adaptation of the second novel in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series confirms the feeling I began to have in the last third of the opening instalment: this series, dismissed at first as a cash-in on the popularity of The Hunger Games, is swiftly proving the much superior article, and indeed of the few franchises still standing amongst the wastes of current blockbuster cinema, could be the most agreeable. Much of the praise The Hunger Games films have received feels now more praise for the idea of their existence than for what they have actually accomplished, managing to become with each episode even more visually bland and dramatically stodgy, its supposedly great zeitgeist-pleasing heroine Katniss Everdeen infuriatingly castrated on screen, to the extent where she spent all of the last instalment, Mockingjay: Part One (2014), fretting over her boyfriend, detached from political motivation. Tris Prior on the other hand is such a dedicated ass-kicker that Insurgent depicts in large part her attempts to control and tether her violent impulses, her place at the centre of the story is organic, and Woodley can actually emote whilst never seeming frail or indulgent. If the great problem with Divergent was the excessively long immersion in a very familiar militarist training program for the young Dauntless crew, Insurgent hits the ground running and manages to keep moving at a steady clip for two hours, overlong but not painfully so. The fluent, colourful visual palette Neil Burger utilised for the original has been taken up and rendered more confidently by helmsman Robert Schwentke, who made the mildly diverting RED (2010) and here is bouncing back from the calamitous reception to RIPD (2013) to offer a pleasant-looking swathe of widescreen pizazz, avoiding shaky cam, muddy filters, and other common tropes of pseudo-authenticity. To see a slick action blockbuster willing to admit it’s a slick action blockbuster is refreshing. Although the kind of vivid directorial invention that makes obvious precursors like THX-1138 (1971), Rollerball (1975), or Logan’s Run (1976) still beloved is absent, Schwentke offers sights like a holographic Four dissolving byte by byte at Tris’s touch, or Tris jumping around the exterior of a burning room that floats like a balloon, with a clear eye for mysteriously precise and matter-of-fact surrealism.

Many of the usual problems with middle instalments in multi-volume films are apparent in Insurgent: the story is a mere bridge from set-up to big finish and repeats elements from the first entry, and much of the narrative is devoted to completing a tour through the different factions and their sensibilities started in Divergent. But this time around a bigger budget means that the evocation of a crumbling Chicago is more convincing, urban zone turned into a wilderness, the Chicago River a dried-up moat amidst the shells of skyscrapers. Like too many of these recent movies exactingly adapted from literary sources, Insurgent still lacks truly inventive concepts for staging action: the way the first episode set up the ziplining skills of Dauntless remains a promise for high-flying thrills no-one seems interested in delivering. Tellingly, the most visually jazzy sequences in the film are the simulated tests Tris is subjected to in Jeanine’s Apple boutique of pain. But the film is dotted with entertaining fragments of invention, from ninjas swooping down from the tops of skyscrapers like some lost reel from Escape from New York (1981), to communities living on trains zipping back and forth on the city fringes in a manner reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s dystopias. I liked how the Amity faction live in a place that looks awfully like the dome of the similarly pacific, bovine Eloi in The Time Machine (1960), whilst the Candours live in a skyscraper and affect a lifestyle that suggests a possibility horrifying to many: that lawyers, like cockroaches, can even survive nuclear holocaust and prosper. Although hardly as outrageous or intellectually provocative as David Cronenberg’s early work, something about the look and setting of Insurgent, the way everything unfolds in defamiliarised, repurposed urban zones, recalled to me Cronenberg’s evocation of a haunted, decaying future eked out in fortresses of modernist architecture in Crimes of the Future (1970). 

If Divergent took too long to get around to its bluntly enjoyable melodrama, Insurgent leaps into the fray with plenty of action, real and simulated, if bloodless in a way I’m not sure is actually that moral: the toll of violence is emphasised here repeatedly, but can’t be realistically visualised. Courtney’s happily hissable bad guy Eric is dispatched in a surprising moment of forthright punitive action from Four, who apparently didn’t get the memo telling him heroes are supposed to leave asshole villains alive because that would “make us just like them,”  thus justifying their continued threat. Insurgent even has a bit of sex, although carefully blocked to avoid naughty bits, but it’s still nice to see a movie based on YA fare that’s not preeningly antiseptic, and even acknowledge something like the real world of extreme passions teenagers live in. Insurgent could be criticised for essentially building up to repeating a motif Divergent already slogged its way through, the sub-The Matrix (1999) business of Tris passing through digitised tests of her personality traits to see if she’s a strong enough Divergent to open the relic. The finale offers a conceit handled well in Superman III (1983) (indeed, perhaps the only thing handled well in that) and sent up mercilessly at the end of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2011) as Tris has to battle herself, leading to the fascinating spectacle of a Shailene Woodley twincest catfight. Interestingly, Tris’s status as The One depends not on her possessing an array of superhuman gifts but in fact on her attaining a state of perfect median humanity – that is, utter normality. 

The pay-off for all this is a revelation that explains much that was frustratingly vague and unlikely about the social set-up at the core of the series, and offers new vistas for the final instalments, if also bringing the film to a close right at the point it might rightly be said to be getting going. The annoyingly faux-populist anti-intellectualism underlying the series’ basic set-up is still present, but in essence the Erudite villains could be any cabal of technocrats, and the key to the story evokes Planet of the Apes (1968) as it depicts the construction of false limitations on communal life for motives posing as cant but hiding reasoned ends. The Divergent series is essentially a mid-1990s TV series writ large, the kind they used to show for teens in the afternoon after school, but that’s a point in its favour as far as I’m concerned, maintaining something of that zippy ethic and finite blend of the naïvely metaphoric and the forthrightly conceptual. The cast is again a great plus here. It might be cause for dismay for many to realise that Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd (who plays Tris’s mother, who, for a dead lady, manages to be unnervingly present), and Naomi Watts are now playing the maternal generation to the heroes, but Winslet’s goading aggression as a pinstriped Ilsa is still worth a million hours of CGI and Watts lets the audience see rat-like cunning and egotism squirming behind Evelyn’s protestations of motherly interest. It’s fitting that the last scene, in a series notably defined by a strong element of matriarchal power and conflict, sees ones actress pleasantly and casually shoot the other in the back of the head, raising the question of which oppressor is preferable, the cruel but purposeful, curiously idealistic oligarch or the damaged, self-righteously nihilistic. There is, too, an effective use of mirroring here, as we’ve already seen Four do virtually the same thing to Eric: mother and son might not be so different after all. Mekhi Phifer’s in there somewhere, playing Jeanine’s head goon, whilst Spencer wields her usual effortless gravitas, her eyes pools of expressive humanism. Amongst the younger actors, James is increasingly engaging, Elgort logy, and Teller amusingly pusillanimous. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna, 1971)

A former workaday director who debuted with a comedy starring beloved Italian comic Toto, Lucio Fulci began his journey toward becoming one of Italian cinema’s most illustriously disreputable auteurs when he started making horror movies, and was taken to court over A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The charge was animal cruelty, stemming the infamous vignette in which the film’s heroine is confronted by some vivisected dogs in a hospital’s secret research clinic. Special effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi, with his legacy work on E.T. still more than a decade off, had to prove in court how he faked the sequence. As with much of Fulci’s oeuvre, this legendary incident promises verboten spectacle the actual movie can’t quite live up to, although the scene in question is certainly still almost as mythical a moment of gore unbound as Zombi 2’s (1979) eyeball-skewering scene – and not recommended for animal lovers. Controversy aside, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin must count as one of the most eye-catching and well-made works during the vogue for the “giallo” style of Italian horror movie, at least before a severe case of last-act letdowns. And yet A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin also reveals Fulci as ill-at-ease in that aesthetic milieu. Fulci’s visual palette differs importantly to the colourful widescreen effects of his giallo rivals like Bava, Argento, Sergio Martino, et al. Modern art was a key point of reference for giallo cinema’s fascination with visual texture as its own end, but what naïf and cubism were for Argento, Francis Bacon and Dali are for Fulci. His London, even with all the touristy beats struck like the Tower Bridge and the Albert Hall, is turned into a looming, overcast living cemetery. Fulci paints in drained hues, except for the fleshy, flashy surreal dream sequences that punctuate the first quarter, where red satin beds float in blackness with promises of sexual neverlands, and supermodels hover in hair-flinging gusts of Sapphic lust.

The underlying politics of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin seem on the face of things reactionary, depending like much giallo on exploiting images of the age of sexual liberation whilst maintaining a crusty old moralist’s view of those people who indulge sex (especially – gasp! – homosexuality) and drugs as deserving all they get. This variation comes complete with a coda that depicts the death of the patriarchy as one self-induced through shame. But the vividness of the film’s depiction of upper class repression crashing against neo-Bacchanalian spirit transcends this mouldiness to a great extent. Fulci steals the core idea from Wonderwall (1968), sticking an uptight clan of establishment progeny in an apartment neighbouring a model dedicated to libertine excess, and forcing them to listen to the tantalising, infuriating din of another world through the brickwork, each feeling the call within but mouthing disdain for each-other's benefit. The bourgeois family seems solid: Frank Hammond (Jean Sorel) is a successful lawyer. Wife Carol (Florinda Bolkan) is herself the offspring of Frank’s boss, the eminent Edmond Brighton (Leo Genn). Daughter Joan (Edy Gall) is a prim and pretty miss. Except that Frank is boffing a neighbour on the sly, Joan is actually the offspring of one of Frank’s earlier marriages with her own nurtured proclivities just starting to bubble over, and Carol reports to her therapist that she’s tormented by dreams of carnal escapades with Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg), the pagan goddess next door. Eventually Carol tells the therapist that she’s dreamt about murdering Julia. Shortly after, Julia is found brutally slain in her apartment, killed in a manner exactly the same as what Carol recounted. Inspector Corvin (Stanley Baker), parsing the evidence with the help of eccentric forensics expert Lowell (Ezio Marano), determines that the circumstances do suggest that Carol was the killer, or possibly that someone close to her might have exploited Carol’s dream to commit a killing and frame her for it.

Dream images of Carol being clawed by disembodied hands and wrestling through strange settings filled with masses of rutting humans and misshapen figures, suggest the influence of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), which was, perhaps not coincidentally, also written by Wonderwall scribe Gerard Brach. Visions of Bolkan fleeing unseen evils through vast, echoic spaces where time, space, and consciousness seem to have lost meaning, have similarity to the trippy asides in the same year’s The Last Movie. The erotica fantasias of Bolkan and Strindberg’s encounters suggest Jésus Franco’s lush, decadent brand of cheapjack surrealism, and the early part of the film strongly recalls Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1970) in depicting the call of forbidden sexuality emerging as a subliminal force. Fulci goes one better as he offers split-screen effects depicting the Hammonds trying to have a polite dinner party whilst Julia and friends descend into a maelstrom of excess, Julia herself stalking the midst of her party stark naked with lordly force looking for some body to plunge upon: Strindberg, an agreeable feminist heroine in Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail the same year, here has Amazonian authority on the screen, seeming to gain armour as she strips down. Carol’s dreamscape also featured two glowing-eyed freaks gazing down at her in the void, witnesses to her psychic murder of Julia. Soon she and Joan encounter the two, Jenny (Penny Brown) and Hubert (Mike Kennedy), for real. They seem to have no recollection of ever having seen Carol before, but Hubert shortly begins stalking Carol. Carol is placed into care at a hospital by her father as Corvin’s investigations point to her as the killer, but Hubert chases her around the grounds, culminating in her fleeing into a room where she’s confronted by grotesque animal experimentation. 

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is awkward on the script level. The plot doesn’t so much resolve or climax as trundle rather to a halt once it has exhausted its potential twists. Most of what transpires in terms of action and complication proves to be a particularly large catch of red herrings, which, combined with touches like making Corvin a compulsive, annoying whistler, have a paint-by-numbers quality as far as giallo goes. Which perhaps explains why Fulci quickly left the style behind: the giallo subgenre was based around taking the essentials of a certain kind of tricky, trashy mystery fiction and overlaying them with a sense of psychological oddness, and a deliberately schematic conflation of story pattern with visual approach, games about games of murder. Fulci found himself greater notoriety in less structured, more overtly oneiric horror films that push towards the pathological. Nonetheless this film remains powerful and often hypnotic on the level of sensual experience, for even when Carol isn’t dreaming, Fulci maintains an eerie, hallucinatory mood, and recreates the texture of a certain kind of anxious dream, his grim ambience punctuated with fish-eye lensing to contort space into approximations of the caverns of trance-state disquiet, the normal world seeming to become cancerously overgrown and oppressive, its corners dank and decaying and expanses like the glare of a desert sun, inescapable and slowly killing. An epic chase sequence late in the film, when Hubert pursues Carol through an underground labyrinth and then up into a colossal empty church (actually the Alexandra Palace, an old entertainment venue), is one of the high-points of horror cinema from the era, for the way Fulci purely evokes that sense of nightmarish pursuit, as tiny humans dart through spaces alternatively dark and swooningly bright, dominatingly large and claustrophobically small. Carol contends with bats in the literal belfry, clawing at her hair and face like embodiments of her spiky, neurotic sense of other people’s eyes judging her for her wayward inner life, whilst on the run from a faceless pursuer who could have loomed out of a billion Freudian case studies. 

Carol is eventually caught on the rooftop, a vast plain of rutted metal before a chasm, but Hubert is frightened off by a gun-wielding luvvie who pops up out of nowhere. Fulci brilliantly exploits his locations, evoking Jean Cocteau’s similar use of decaying infrastructure to mimic psychological landscape in Orphée (1949), especially during the pursuit through the dank and shadowy basement, whilst also readily recalling Hitchcock and Carol Reed’s use of such locales as stages for thrills. It’s even arguable that Fulci does an ever better job of utilising places redolent of the 20th century’s troubled inheritance of the crumbling infrastructure of the past, to stage a drama of survival both immediate and yet highly surreal, than Nicolas Roeg would manage two years later with Don’t Look Now (1973). Alan J. Pakula's use of architecture in The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976) is likewise anticipated. Elsewhere Fulci beadily eyes a hippie commune as a draughty and cheerlessly perilous clasp on respectability by the down-and-out, and shoots the looming facades of Enlightenment justice like a citadel on a drizzly part of Mars. A society matron gabbles about the sinfulness of others on the phone whilst her chauffeur gets dressed in the background. A painting of a swan with a vaginal portal swirling on its chest turns up in one of Carol’s dreams, swooping over her like Leda, seguing into a hat-tip to the Dali-designed dream sequence of Spellbound (1944). 

Fulci’s framings offer fetishist panoplies, Strindberg’s leather-encased legs and Bolkan’s fur coat filling a shot, before craning upwards for the coup-de-grace, whilst later Bolkan swans about Swinging London dressed up in suits and hats left over from some forgotten ‘30s modernist melodrama starring Garbo. Fulci laces in cineaste references, recalling distant giallo ancestor Green for Danger (1946) by casting Genn, who also starred in John Moxey’s Circus of Fear (1966), from which Fulci steals a gag involving a police superior’s cigarettes. Bolkan had played the doomed village witch of The Last Valley (1971), and brings with her the same air of atavistic intensity, except that where she was a conscious rebel against the modern order in that film here she’s locked tight within her own hypocrisy, doomed to go as mad within as the world is without. Fulci’s sarcastic avatar in the film is the hippie artist Jenny, a frizz-haired, insolently bisexual urban guerrilla who tosses paint-soaked knives at canvases to create art, and grabs Joan’s hand and shoves it down her pants just to find out what will happen. Joan turns up dead shortly after, the answer to that transgressive question. “I saw a lizard in a woman’s skin,” Hubert confesses to the cops when recounting the acid trip he and Jenny had whilst witnessing Julia’s actual slaying, coining the title, and the image of the reptilian monster inside the woman proves the film’s slyest, bleakest, most essential metaphor: the alienating indulgence of LSD nonetheless served its purpose and laid the world inside out, the monster within unveiled. In Fulci’s mean sense of a repressive world, everyone seems a little like those unfortunate dogs, strung up with their bodies still working, their insides turned out for all to see. For all its beady-eyed negativity and a slack conclusion, this is still a major horror work, depicting a genre already in transition.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Elvis Presley was the direct heir to Frank Sinatra as epoch-defining music star and heartthrob, armed with a new type of music and a far more aggressively suave persona. Both men readily incorporated their poor-boy-made-good status part of their legend, but whereas Sinatra settled into ambassador for jet-age class, Presley’s edge of the uncouth remained a powerful weapon even as he was similarly slicked up and shipped out. But as a movie star, Presley never got to follow in Sinatra’s post-From Here to Eternity (1953) footsteps into dramatic credibility. Apart from some of his earlier, more classically dramatic vehicles like Jailhouse Rock (1957), Kid Creole (1958), and Kid Galahad (1962), Presley’s movies are usually dismissed as goofy balls of kitsch, up-market editions of the Beach Party films that made giant piles of money at the cost of slowly destroying the credibility of the once-untamed, inimitable rock star. There is a lot of truth to this. When he did try and break out of his musical comedy trap, with Charro! and Change of Habit (both 1969), the results were too late and too weakly received to help, and Elvis subsequently stuck to reviving his music career. Viva Las Vegas, one of his frothiest, silliest, most utterly lightweight films, nonetheless belies this narrative, to the extent that it testifies to the power of total nonsense as a cinematic value. Viva Las Vegas is as pure a star vehicle as any movie has ever been, a work that exists as a cinematic unit purely to exhibit the pleasures of watching Elvis and co-star Ann-Margret on screen, a film that caters to the desire of the audience to just spend time hanging out with beautiful, talented people. 

There is a vestige of a plot, and the characters have names that are not Elvis and Ann-Margret, but that doesn’t fool anyone. The director, George Sidney, was an old hand with flashy Technicolor musicals like Anchors Away (1944), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Pal Joey (1957), although he’d dipped his toe successfully into action-adventure fare with Scaramouche (1951), where he played up the theatricality of the piece, making it a testimonial to role-playing and the spectacle of movement, and much less successfully with The Three Musketeers (1948), where the egregiously bright colour-coding of the heroes nonetheless clearly anticipates the obsessions exhibited in Viva Las Vegas with costuming and décor. Viva Las Vegas sprawls like an illustrated page from an old Japanese scroll, in widescreen swathes of colour broken into variegated patches, through which the faces of Elvis and Ann-Margret bob all but disembodied. Sidney had boosted Ann-Margret to stardom with that famous, striking opening to the otherwise insufferable Bye Bye Birdie (1963), a film where she played a love-struck teen crushing on an Elvis-esque character. Some genius had the idea of actually placing her opposite the real thing just to see what would happen. But rather than have her play a girl chasing the man, this time Sidney and screenwriter Sally Benson, knowing full well what a fireball the actress could be, made her force unto herself, giving Elvis something he too rarely encountered: an equal. 

Elvis’s ‘60s films to a certain extent resemble the American answer to the James Bond films of the same era, similarly offering their hero as fantasy avatar cutting a swathe through high-life beauties and living carelessly on the edge, hence his common on-screen job of racing driver. Here he’s Lucky Jackson, intending to enter the Las Vegas Grand Prix and planning to buy a super-fast engine for his car, built by his mechanic pal Shorty Farnsworth (Nicky Blair). Shorty speeds from LA to Vegas to warn Lucky he’d better buy the motor fast, because his boss might just sell it to another racer. Lucky maintains a friendly rivalry for Rusty’s attention with his fellow race driver Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). The trio – I hesitate to say threesome, but damn, the film does everything but throw the bunch of them in the sack together Jules et Jim style – meet at the garage where the racers prime their vehicles, with Rusty pulling in and, mistaking the Count and the King for humble mechanics, asking them to check out her motor, setting in motion their frantic, panicky boyish efforts to please this lawless short-shorted babe. The two men cruise the Las Vegas scene in search of their prize, assuming her to be a dancer, and have to negotiate such difficulties as how to clear out a crowd of blitzed Texans out of a bar – a jokey sequence that revolves around Presley’s reflexive ability to speak the many parts of American culture on their own level. Soon Lucky finds Rusty is actually the manager of the pool of his hotel, a discovery that results in him losing all his cash as he flirts with her. Lucky is forced to pay off his hotel bill with Shorty, working as waiters.

The comedy in Viva Las Vegas is just dumb enough to be intermittently funny and sometimes just dumb, following the same make-it-up-as-we-go logic as early Marx Brothers movies as Lucky and Shorty roll with the punches, a likeness particularly strong when Lucky sets out to wreck Mancini’s seductive tête-à-tête with Rusty by making himself their dinner attendant. But the film is at its best, not surprisingly, when musical. What there is of a story reveals itself as more a variation on one of those Maurice Chevalier-woos-Jeanette Macdonald vehicles from the early ‘30s where the footloose guy falls for the obviously smitten lady, but she spurns him in a dance of attraction and rejection for a suitable amount of the running time, with a little rivalry from a higher-class suitor. Something like complication is provided by Rusty’s anxiety over Lucky’s occupation as the dangerousness of car racing is made plain to her, and he resists her attempts to bring him to heel. Rusty’s father (William Demarest) has a far more sedate job, sailing tourists about on Lake Mead, but he’s covertly thrilled by Lucky’s business, enough to lend Shorty the money to buy the car motor in time to make the big race. In the meantime Lucky and Rusty go head-to-head in competition by entering the hotel’s talent contest, each hoping to net the prize, which proves to be disappointing for both – so close are the levels of applause each receives from the crowd that the MC flips a coin to decide who wins, with Rusty capturing a pool table and Lucky a prepaid honeymoon. This is all a very thin scarecrow to hang many scenes of Presley, Ann-Margret, and sometimes the dashing Danova interacting. Sidney’s capacity to capture sexual chemistry is the real octane firing the film’s motor, as it was with his hypnotic delight in another redhead, Eleanor Parker, rattling Stewart Granger’s cage on Scaramouche

Whether or not the on-set affair between Presley and Ann-Margret was all it was cracked up to be, what’s plain is the spectacle of the pair getting off on each-other throughout Viva Las Vegas, to a degree that’s almost like watching fully-clothed pornography. The pleasure of attraction is stoked all the hotter by the constant, vibrant, happy competition and mutual enjoyment that’s apparent in the film’s many performing scenes. Viva Las Vegas, through its sheer defiant belief in surface pleasures, can be called a relic of the then-burgeoning pop art movement. Sidney films in rectilinear framings that all but place a MOMA bracket around the action, tracking Ann-Margret and dancers up and down a stage in pure motion study (recalling Godard’s similar camera movement tracking the more sarcastic stage performance in Le Mepris, 1963, as if retorting to cynical amateurism with the real deal). Lines of showgirls and the sprawling billboards of America’s playgrounds are conflated, bright lights of the big city to set the sensual consumerist’s soul on fire. Viva Las Vegas was an immediate influence on the Japanese anime show Speed Racer, and indeed the film has a kind of gaudy, day-glo expanse that readily calls animation to mind, and also, weirdly, reminded me of Seijun Suzuki’s squared-off, hyper-coloured compositions on Tokyo Drifter (1966). The lustre of the candy-hued visual design certainly might have influenced Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Sidney shoots Presley and Ann-Margret having a ball amidst a cotillion of hopped-up squares caught in the blast radius of the new Dionysianism, twisting and shouting on a spinning stage, the sinuous flirtation of George McFadden and The Jordanaires “The Climb” segueing into Presley covering the full-on musical bacchanalia of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” 

Elvis is forced to primly tone down the orgasmic thunder in the call-and-response part of the song, but Sidney zeroes in for rapid edits alternating between his and Ann-Margret’s faces as they gasp “Ah! Oh!” at each-other, film language filling in for erotic furore. Presley’s Cerberus Col. Tom Parker fought noisily with Sidney on set because he saw that Sidney was executing MGM’s plot to render the film into a star-making vehicle for Ann-Margret using Presley in part as a prop to make her exciting. This is readily apparent in the talent show scene, where Presley breaks out the title song, the most memorable new song on the soundtrack and indeed one of the singer’s most readily recognisable staples. And yet the staging of the performance, shooting Presley cavorting with some listless, half-naked showgirls in a single fluid shot, makes the star look almost stodgy before Ann-Margret’s production number, which goes all out to announce her as a new musical star, and succeeding, right before the crucial moment in Hollywood history where such things ceased to matter. There’s even a sequence where Ann-Margret takes on Elvis at a bunch of boy things and beats him, from skeet shooting to motorcycle riding to fake cowboy gunfights. 

Ann-Margret’s dramatic gifts were still developing, and some of her line readings hit the ear as frail. But she’s always a grand screen presence, alight with a sass and sexual imperiousness on screen that still puts a lot of would-be heirs to shame, and her joy in sheer physical dexterity is infectious, to the point where she’s fun to watch even when doing some silly comic business, as when she tries to plug in a coffee maker in the midst of the busy drivers’ garage. The air of a professional lothario’s pomposity that would begin to dog Presley within a few years in his movies was still being held at bay by his naturalness on screen, a boyish streak of glee behind the playboy affectations, although aspects of his nose-flaring, lip-sneering act were starting to look like a form of kabuki already. Still, it’s a testimony to Presley’s unshakeable aura of masculinity that he can spend as much of the film being humiliated or emasculated in some way, to a degree that only Cary Grant before him allowed (see I Was a Male War Bride, 1949), and still seem like the best of sports. The film’s cool-down moment, a solitary song Elvis performs when pining for his lady in the waned hours of Vegas nightlife, “I Need Somebody to Lean On,” sounds a little like Sinatra’s “One For My Baby,” and for a moment Presley gains the brand of emotionally supple strength the elder star wielded and genuinely begs the question what kind of tragedian he might have made. The film remembers to throw in the long-promised big race as afterthought finale, a procession of party-coloured cars zipping across the parched expanses of Sidney’s desertscapes. Mancini gets into a godawful pile-up, whilst Lucky drives on with a slight gasp of chagrin. Lucky gets right back to business, winning through Elvis’s astonishing mastery of the power of back projection. Fortunately Mancini turns up all right in a coda showing Lucky and Rusty getting married, just in case you were worried. But Presley's progress along the wide, smooth road of stardom was about to hit a huge pothole: Viva Las Vegas' box office success was eventually curtailed by a film starring four young weirdos from Liverpool...