Monday, 29 November 2010

Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

"Because like you the Krell forgot one deadly danger..."

"You irresponsible bastard."

"The other two pilots are just fine, and are at the controls flying the plane, free to pursue a life of religious fulfillment."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


This Island Rod is, as some may have noticed, on hiatus. I give my warmest thanks to the loyal readers and commenters who have made this more than an echo chamber for my own musings.


Roderick Heath

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

South Solitary (2010)

Shirley Barrett’s debut feature, 1996’s Love Serenade, won the Cannes Camera d’Or prize that year, and established her as an interesting if still developing talent. That film was an oddball, blackly humorous small town sex-farce with a darkly sensual mythological twist, and wasn’t a total success, but it was engaging and curiously memorable. Barrett’s career since had realised only one film, the little-seen and generally dismissed showbiz satire Walk the Talk (2000), but she’s emerged again this year with South Solitary, a comedy-drama set on a remote island off the coast of South Australia, in 1927. Barrett uses the star of Love Serenade, Miranda Otto, as her muse again here, playing Meredith Appleton, a woman in her mid-‘30s who travels to the titular island in the company of her punctilious uncle George Wadsworth (Barry Otto, Miranda’s real-life father). He’s a veteran lighthouse keeper who’s been placed in charge of the lighthouse on South Solitary to get the notoriously unreliable station back in shape, after the last head keeper blew himself up with a stick of gelignite.

The only other people on South Solitary are also part of the lighthouse station. Harry Stanley (Rohan Nichol) has a wife Alma (Essie Davis) and three children, Nettie (Annie Martin), Tom (Reef Ireland), and Robbie (Benson Adams). Jack Fleet (Marin Csokas) is a near-hermit Welshman, a traumatised survivor of WW1 who’s given to occasional fits of irrationality, setting off the alarm in the lighthouse, and peering out into the stormy night seas thinking he’s seen distress flares. Wadsworth is a model stickler, coldly but conscientiously dismissive of the various excuses and weaknesses of the two subordinate keepers, putting them through their paces in sharpening their badly waned skills in semaphore and other arts. He’s not less unforgiving toward his niece, who acts as his housekeeper, silent companion, and general dogsbody, either, hostile to her playful sense of humour and forgiving sensibility. Meredith acts in a determinedly cheerful, muddling-through manner, adopting an orphaned lamb from amongst some sheep brought over as food supply for the station and quickly striking up a friendship with bloodthirsty tomboy Nettie, with whom she shares ownership of the pet lamb. Meredith isn’t really made for the life she has to lead on South Solitary, being a high-strung, nervously garrulous woman who’s actually recovering from some deeply unpleasant experiences, including the death of her boyfriend, to whom she was “practically engaged”, in the war, and, later, a forlorn affair with her married boss when she used to work as a typist, and, when she got pregnant, undergoing an illegal abortion that resulted in a severe infection that forced doctors to remove her womb.

Meredith’s confession of her troubled past to Alma segues into Harry’s sniffing around at Meredith’s door, effecting an easy seduction. Their affair is an impossible secret to keep, and after a brief interval of intense frostiness between Meredith and the Stanleys, they leave on the next supply ship. Soon enough, Wadsworth, full of bitterly repudiating anger at his niece, works himself to such a state that, after some excessive physical labour, he suffers a heart attack and dies. Meredith is now stranded alone with Fleet, trying to aid him in keeping the light going. Together, they form a portrait of completely oppositional manners, Meredith’s toey talkativeness and need for attentive warmth grazing against Fleet’s dour introversion and deep psychological unease, and yet they slowly form a kind of working partnership and each partly re-educated by the new demands placed on them by the situation, Fleet partly emerging from his shell of dark ferocity and Meredith learning to stand on her own two feet again.

Barrett’s film was inspired by her reading of histories of the lighthouse service, and many of the anecdotes she uncovered made it into the film, particularly a true incident in which a dead keeper’s body was preserved in a bathtub. Here, that body was that of the previous keeper after his suicide, a fact of which Meredith is unaware, hinted at by the Stanley kids and then revealed by Fleet, to her horror after having used the bath innumerable times. The habits many lighthouse keepers and their families developed of taking devoted, sublimating care of animals is given extra meaning by Meredith’s cheated maternal nature, in clutching her pet lamb lovingly before it disappears into the island’s scrub, and the homing pigeons that are the station’s only form of communication with the outside world are so coddled by Nettie that much of the time they can barely be bothered to fly away. Barrett’s cherry picking of such piquant details play well to her most distinctive quality as a writer, a nuanced, naturalistic variety of dark humour in an unresponsive, often conspiratorial-seeming universe that constantly frustrates and yet excites floundering responses from her characters.

South Solitary tells a readily familiar type of story, and the narrative reflexes, as well as the eventual direction, are predictable, particularly as they echo many other semi-art house movies of the past decade or so. It's the recognisable formula of the supposedly non-formula film, about loveable losers in remote places, a well that Aussie filmmakers have visited more than a few times too often. The clichés that dot the landscape of South Solitary are its major limitation, that and over-length, being somewhat distended at two hours. This is particularly surprising considering that the beauty of Barrett’s first film was the way in which she set up a musty kind of story, and yet led to a bewilderingly odd and memorable twist. Yet Barrett here, to a certain extent, seems to count on the familiarity of her ideas, checking off with almost ritualistic rigour the inevitable events, and her sense of rhythm is, at least, impeccable. She essays a variety of behavioural cinema, treating her characters a little bit like laboratory animals – a sore metaphor, because it suggests her efforts are detached and clinical, which they aren’t, and yet still, I think, accurate – in measuring responses to a deliberately limited set of choices. Small details are important to such films as creative stunt work is to kung fu films, and Barrett’s real emphasis is on unfolding scenes with nuance and constant humour that underpins the off-kilter emotional state of its main characters. Harry’s seduction of Meredith is a long, superbly acted scene where the end is always obvious, and yet the point is watching the minuet of evasion, suggestion, appeal and eager surrender involved.

Meredith, on first arriving in the house she and her uncle will share, is horrified to hear the panicked chirping of young birds when she lights the stove; later, at her behest, Harry ascends to pluck a nest out of the chimney and place it in a sheltered abode away from the houses. His action is both one of solicitous fellowship, a motherly male act that’s also a carefully judged act of flirtation with the neurotically concerned Meredith – Nettie later destroys the nest and the chicks within as her revenge on Meredith. Nettie’s an accurate portrait of the latent mix of mother and assassin in little girls: she keeps a collection of her scabs in a box, tends the pigeons, dresses the pet lamb in a cardigan, and walks in on Harry and Meredith screwing, not batting an eye as she delivers a message to her father before aiming the word “slut” at the woman prostrate beneath him. Harry’s façade of concern is spiced up by his cheeky, facile anti-authoritarianism in making fun of Wadsworth’s regime, constantly communicated in wry gestures and looks to Meredith.

The lengthy pseudo-romance of the last third is hypnotically intimate, Fleet’s cringing distaste for having to communicate does not so much dissipate as alter slightly as his speech becomes less fierce and disjointed, his own strange blend of the alienated and the devoted coming into its own when he’s left alone to take charge of the light and of Meredith, training her in how to light and maintain the wick and to communicate in semaphore herself. It’s a vision of the lighthouse service as a rest cure for damaged souls. South Solitary’s admirable visualisation is supplied by DOP Anna Howard, who paints the island in lustrous hues, and wrings a sense of blasted grandeur out of the landscape, and moody, scantly lit interiors, and the score, a compilation of works by Mary Finsterer, conveys a sense of swelling passion beneath all the small, everyday assassinations of the soul. Whilst the familiarity of Barrett’s story progression weighs down her achievement, she successfully keeps her work balanced between gentle comedy and something darker and crueller, and it’s a film essayed with humour, detail, and telling humanity.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Having received a record number of AFI Award nominations, therefore standing at the apex of an unexpectedly strong year for Aussie film, and even garnering some Oscar buzz, David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom lays claim to being a must-see cinema event of 2010. That claim is baseless. Animal Kingdom is derivative, obvious, dingy, and soporific, attempting to dress its gratuitous filching from better movies, one-note, poorly detailed characters, and increasingly senseless story development and character actions, with endlessly portentous pseudo-ambient music and faux-meaningful voiceover reflections. With reasonable confidence, Animal Kingdom offers, in its first scene, the casually tragi-comic spectacle of teenaged protagonist Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) calmly awaiting and greeting the arrival of paramedics to attend to his mother, who’s just OD’d, whilst a TV game show blares away in the corner, paid fleeting attention by J as awaits fate.

The subsequent film, however, plays out as an over-aestheticised version of the sleaze-mongering true-crime series Underbelly, in telling a story thinly fictionalised out of the lives of various headline-making Melbourne crime families, equipped not with fortunes and endless ranks of dedicated hoods, but operating out the plainest suburban bungalows, with the most unswervingly sub-plebeian of outlooks and lifestyles. J is adopted by his grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jackie Weaver), matriarch for her collective of bad-boy sons, reputed for their misadventures with bank robbery and drug dealing, from which J’s mother was the lone, yet irreparably damaged, emigrant. Smurf is the beaming, enabling mother bear for this mob of terminal fuck-ups, whilst gang leader Barry “Baz” Brown (Joel Edgerton), a family friend and the captain of the criminal crew who seems to have been adopted into their number, is the supposedly becalming influence on dim, blonde husky pup Darren Cody (Luke Ford), semi-autistic psycho Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), and twitchy, coke-snorting-and-selling Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton).

None of the above characters is developed in any more depth than the thumbnail descriptions I’ve given above, and J remains a cipher at the centre of the subsequent drama, knitting his brow and mumbling with all the expressive depth, emotional engagement, and inspired empathy of a cinder block. The attempts to ground the drama in an ironically normal, everyday kind of location and atmosphere add up to little because the social and extracurricular lives of the characters are poorly described. Everyone has a nickname, because that’s what gangsters have. Cheesy, queasy hints of incestuousness in the intimate kisses mother gives sons leads exactly nowhere except to lend the film low-rent hints of classical tragedy and psychosexual hype. The disparate personalities of the crime family are all rigorously obvious – you know the moment Pope enters the picture that he’s going to prove a handful in his infantile ruthlessness, and that Craig will inevitably die in a welter of drug-fuelled paranoia and desperation. Within seconds of delivering dialogue that confirms he wants to give up this sordid life of crime, Baz is “shockingly”, brutally dispatched by trigger-happy Armed Robbery Squad officers, in one of a string of assassinations they’re carrying out with impunity, making the local underworld understandably defensive. Without Baz, Pope’s loopy ideas of how to be an effective master criminal take over the whole enterprise. Feeling obligated to avenge his brother, he arranges the shotgun murder of two patrolmen, getting J to steal a car that is then used as bait to attract the victims. J is grilled by Leckie (Guy Pearce), a straight-arrow top cop who tries to offer J a safe path to opting out of this family fun if he becomes a friendly witness.

Michôd tries to prod the attention with twists and turns that are constantly predictable, but his script is that odd kind of beast where there’s nothing that’s immediately, obviously bad, with serviceably realistic dialogue, and yet cumulatively reveals itself to be barely competent. Almost nothing that happens in the film’ second half feels well-developed or believable. J hooks up, in circumstances that are poorly explained, with a girlfriend, Nicole (Laura Wheelwright), from a stable family but trailing ill-described maternal resentment, whose fondness for a little controlled substance abuse and mind-melting ignorance towards the clan of crims whose pictures she sees plastered all over the TV, does nothing to prevent her placing herself in menace’s way for the sake of the most dubious dramatic convenience. The overall thesis of the film, borne out via the stultifying obviousness of the title, is the notion that survival here is a matter for the fittest, and J evolves into a creature capable of lording over this jungle after receiving the requisite number of hard knocks. Yet his adaptation carries no impact because he’s such an uninspiring blank slate, and his final act of revenge – or is it culling the herd? – is the cheapest variety of resolution, a phoney-feeling punchline that makes practically no sense either in logic of behaviour or even simple criminal common sense.

The plot finally seems to be in danger of leading somewhere engaging when J’s imminent testimony sees him become a pawn between two camps of police, one charged with defending him, the other incorporating drug squad thugs eager to silence someone who knows their business. But even this proves to be little more than a tease, as the film refuses to condescend to any generic touches like action and excitement. The narrative lopes without pace or force towards its given end after some fiercely afunctional sequences in which J rehearses the spoiler testimony he wants to give to avoid Smurf’s wrath, and stretching out its running time by about ten minutes thanks to endless sequences of people walking in over-scored slow-motion. Amongst a raft of drably boilerplate acting school impressions of degeneracy, Pearce, sporting an amusingly anachronistic ‘70s cricketer moustache, claims acting honours, imbuing the flatly conceived Leckie with a down-to-earth gravitas and easy manner that belies his stodgy look. Weaver is competent, but her performance, which chiefly relies on the disparity between her cutesy-poo persona and the often coldly Machiavellian things she easily accedes to, has been absurdly over-rated. The bullet that finally puts Pope out of action also puts this pretentious yet utterly humdrum drivel out its misery.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Bringing about the end of the world on a ‘50s B-movie budget was always going to be a difficult proposition. George Pal, the former Puppetoons wiz who had moved into feature film production with the successful, if not exactly stellar, Destination Moon in 1950, decided to make his next film an adaptation of Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie’s novel about the end days of Planet Earth, about to become a minor roadblock in the path of roving star Bellus and its orbiting planet Zyra. Pal’s rigorous production methods squeezed the potential out of every limited dollar, chiefly by relying on the promise of spectacle and special effects rather than stars to sell When Worlds Collide, and in spite of that low budget, it’s always tantalising to me how much of a charge, a sense of eventfulness, that Pal was able to imbue his films with. There’s a lot of tackiness, too, which is part of their pleasure. When Worlds Collide is the defining example of the science fiction disaster movie, with only the likes of Paris Qui Dort (1925) and Abel Gance’s La fin du monde (1931) preceding it, and modern super-inflated spectacle films of the ilk turned out by Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich owe everything to it, whilst also representing a debasement of Pal’s hand-crafted dramas.

When Worlds Collide was helmed by Rudolph Maté, Krakow-born cinematographer turned director, who shot The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr for Carl Dreyer decades prior, and who had made his own best film, the gamy D.O.A., the year before. An amusing aspect of Pal’s style as a science fiction maestro was his clear emulation of Cecil B. DeMille in orchestrating grandiose events and apocalyptic images, infusing his vision of the genre with DeMille-esque religious images and references, and stentorian voiceovers. Many felt Pal pushed that too far eventually with Conquest of Space (1955), but it’s part of the inflated, iconic quality that makes When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds (1953), in which Pal made an evident shout-out to DeMille by having his characters attend Samson and Delilah (1949), so enjoyable and effective. Ironically, When Worlds Collide had been purchased shortly after the novel's publication early in the 1930s by Paramount as a property for DeMille, but he chose to make The Crusades instead. DeMille’s fingerprints are still on the project, which also still bears traces of the darkly racist overtones of the source novel and its sequel, which by all accounts made no bones about leaving all those pesky lesser races to die. These influences have their own, probably unintentional and yet still telling resonances: When Worlds Collide commences with a quote from Genesis and concludes with a mock page from a new one, and, like War of the Worlds, clearly presents white American Christian centrism as the bulwark against chaos and devastation whilst evoking planetary landscapes of struggle and sacrifice. There are, say, no African-Americans on that rocket ship to the other world. We’re assured other nations are working on similar projects, but the results of this are never shown. This sort of detail might make the film sound rather fascistic, which it really isn’t, for the core of the drama is a clash between a misanthropic and idealistic sense of humanity, but these blind spots are still worth noting, for they say much about what was once permissible to elide in popular culture.

Pal became the first filmmaker to truly, successfully sell science fiction to a mass audience by assuring them that the space age was a continuation of, even a reestablishment of, archaic certainties, and the notion that technological conquest and worldwide calamity may go hand in hand with heightened spirituality and renewed social vigour. The spaceship ride to the future will also have room for cute dogs and apple-cheeked young couples. Simultaneously, the screenplay, by Sydney Boehm, sets up the oppositions that have subsequently recurred through many of the films inspired by it: the assurance that the nerdy savants of the world might have the fibre to rebuild worlds is balanced by handing the audience an Everyman identification figure whose grounded, anxious response to finding himself thrust into Biblical-scale events, and rising to the occasion, provides surest proof of human worthiness. Here he takes the form of Richard Derr’s David Randall, a pilot who becomes involved in the great project when he’s hired to courier photographs from a South African observatory by Dr. Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke), a great astronomer who first observes and predicts the coming, destructive cosmic bodies. There’s a power in the notion of such a normal, if talented in his way, man as Randall – he’s introduced indulging a bit of cockpit nookie with a girlfriend and reiterates his eagerness for money – being entrusted with such a colossal responsibility, and only perceiving the magnitude of it by absorbing the reaction of people who know, or sense, the truth of what he carries in the suitcase cuffed to his wrist.

Fate is on Randall’s side as he delivers the information to the recipient Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating), after he bluffs his way through a conversation with Hendron’s daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush), and then into her father’s briefing of other scientists and businessmen about the dread truth. With Joyce attracted to him, in spite of her long-time attachment to family friend Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), Hendron humours his daughter by keeping Randall around to work on his colossal project to build a spaceship ark to transport a handful of people to Zyra after Earth is consumed by Bellus. Jeered by disbelieving UN delegates and rival scientists at first, Hendron gets financing for the project from credulous philanthropist businessmen and then, less agreeably, from wheelchair-bound plutocrat Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), who puts forth money in exchange for a seat on the ship. When Randall discovers he’s only been given a seat on the ship by Hendron because of Joyce’s attachment to him, he’s stricken with guilt and refuses his place, not able to think of a role he can play in the new world.

Of course, this soul-searching is rendered in the naïve, two-dimensional fashion of old Hollywood dramaturgy. The triangle between Randall, Joyce, and Drake resolves in a far too cute fashion. Drake, after a couple of fraught exchanges and a near fistfight with Randall, and a will-he-or-won’t-he sequence in which Drake seems to toy with the notion of leaving Randall stranded during a rescue mission, nonetheless to make Joyce happy, and for the sake of common humanity, convinces Randall to come along as back-up pilot to Hendron, by falsely claiming to have evidence that Hendron’s heart may not stand up to the G-forces during lift-off. No-name Derr is actually quite engaging as Randall, especially by the generally wooden, jut-jawed standards of the heroes in these things: whether drunkenly burning his money to light cigarettes after learning of the coming end of the world, or when rushing out to gleefully kiss Joyce when Drake convinces him of his worthiness, he gets you on Randall's side. Much more interesting however is the subplot pitting Stanton, an ugly face of pseudo-fascist exceptionalism, against the selfless, humanitarian Hendron. To Hendron’s ideal of humans working together to take a last desperate grasp at saving a tiny sliver of itself, Stanton counters with visions of fearful proles overwhelming the chosen few, and stockpiles weapons to forestall any such revolt. When he makes his initial offer of cash to Hendron with a demand to make sure he be the one to select the passengers, Hendron retorts, “My proposition’s simple – your money for your life!”

Hoyt’s excellent nastiness asserts itself later when his valet, Ferris (Frank Cady), tries to take for himself a ticket abandoned by a young man who doesn’t want to be separated from his wife. Ferris threatens Stanton and Hendron with a gun, declaring his grinding hate for his employer, whereupon Stanton’s own gun, hidden beneath the blanket over his knees, booms out repeatedly. As the Earth's final moments near and the spaceship readies to take off, Stanton’s predictions prove correct as workers rise up in armed rebellion and try to storm the ship, and Hendron, to help the ship get away quicker and lighter, refuses to enter the vessel, and holds Stanton back with him, declaring, “The new world is not for us - it’s for the young!” This dichotomous pair deserved more of the spotlight and stronger scripting, because Hendron’s a one-note heroic scientist figure. But the image of Stanton, determined to live with malignant yet desperate self-regard rising from his chair in proto-Dr Strangelove fashion, in a scene bathed in the bloody red glow of the approaching sun, trying to chase the ship on withered limbs, is not quickly forgotten. Interestingly, the film avoids depicting civilisation in break-up, with the usual orgies and panics: sticking to the spaceship project lessens the necessary dramatic scope and therefore budgetary pressures, but also emphasises the essential theme of acceptance of the inevitable as well as grasping for a last chance is overt here, voice-over and doctored newsreel footage telling us that never before have so many people felt as close to God. This is finally contradicted by the last revolt of project workers, who complain that the procedure for picking passengers wasn’t fair (they may have a point). In spite of such sticky sentiments, the drama of the film is, in spite of the ‘50s blockbuster naïveté, ethically speaking rather in advance of, say, the recent emulation by Emmerich of this kind of drama with 2012. In that film, most of the people saved thanks to the great save-the-world project are rich people who buy their places, the Everyman heroes never doubt their right to survive, and their actions nearly create a hugely fatal disaster for one-quarter of what's left of humanity.

From a nearly sixty year distance, the most amusing quality of When Worlds Collide’s science is the suck-it-and-see approach to such endeavour: no-one has any idea whether Zyra is inhabitable, nor does anyone look to check when it’s close enough to tell. When Worlds Collide, like Destination Moon before it and War of the Worlds after it, captured for Pal’s crew a Special Effects Oscar, which is interesting considering how judicious the effects are. The actual scenes of worldwide disaster caused by Zyra’s passing are a hodgepodge of original effects, including a great matte painting of a drowned New York, and stock footage, full of random glimpses of swollen rivers, burning oil fields, and erupting volcanos. I swear there’s a shot from For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) in there. There is, of course, the tinny yet visually delightful spectacle of the spaceship’s take-off along a colossal ramp, and its entry into Zyra’s atmosphere, landing in a snow-crusted valley, carving a great furrow in the ice, in one of the first glimpses of well thought-through realism in visual effects, back when those effects were still thoroughly subordinated to the needs of the story. The final landscapes of Zyra, matte paintings that resemble a kind of modernist Garden of Eden, are weak (reputedly slapped on in place of more detailed ones for preview showings and then never replaced), but then again the storybook mystique fits the material: the voyage to Zyra is an act of faith, and the world they find is like a dream of imagined futures, essayed in that marvellously saturated Technicolor. I also dig the dated but piquant details like the calendars counting down to doomsday with the affixed message, “Waste Anything Except Time – Time Is Our Shortest Material”. When Worlds Collide is indeed a broadcast from the early years of our modern era in which awareness of the preciousness of the Earth infuses so much of our thought and discourse.