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.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The 18th Annual Online Film Critics Awards

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again; my estimable colleagues in the Online Film Critics Society and I have voted on our favourite films and performances of the year. Nominees this year offered a slightly more diverse roster drawn from critical favourites over the year than some other critical bodies have been including, in spite of the fact that once again many film studios patronised us and declined to send or provide access to screeners for some major works -- but let me offer my profound thanks to those who did. As for the roster of victors, well, here's the score:

The Online Film Critics Society 2014 Film Awards Winners

Best Picture: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature: The Lego Movie
Best Film Not in the English Language: Two Days, One Night
Best Documentary: Life Itself
Best Director: Richard Linklater - Boyhood
Best Actor: Michael Keaton - Birdman
Best Actress: Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton - Birdman
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Adapted Screenplay: Gone Girl
Best Editing: Birdman
Best Cinematography: The Grand Budapest Hotel

There were no Special Awards bestowed this year.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014)

My respect for Stephen Hawking is not small. That respect, for both his intellectual achievements and his struggles to ensure those achievements were recorded and transmuted into vast and vivid insight into realities beyond almost human measure, all but demands The Theory of Everything, a new biopic recounting Hawking’s life, receive a deferential viewing. But any hopes that The Theory of Everything might try to match the lucid virtuosity of Hawking’s thought quickly fails in an avalanche of Oscar-hungry slush. Not that there’s anything surprising in this. Hawking’s fame has long been sustained not so much by his scientific research, important as it is but also relatively esoteric, but by his exemplification of the contemporary obsession with inspiration over adversity, and his willingness to ply a populist side to his insights. Already we’ve ticked every necessary box for the quotidian ideal of the Oscar bait film: all that’s required is the necessary actor to transform himself for the role, and we get him in the form of Eddie Redmayne, who’s been circling the edges of stardom lately. So young savant Hawking, played at the outset as a gawky, geeky, but slyly witty and potentially boisterous chap, is just embarking on his PhD when he meets lady fair Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and sweeps her off her feet with scientific analogies. Soon enough they become a couple but as Stephen’s body begins to show signs of breakdown, he’s diagnosed with motor neurone disease, with an average life expectancy of two years. Jane nonetheless stands by her man. They get married and try to sustain something like a normal marriage as long as they can.

Director James Marsh quickly reveals his mastery of donnish biopic cliché when he introduces Hawking racing a pal on a bicycle through the streets of Cambridge: riding the bicycle has long been an efficient way of showing off big brain heroes in movies as physically active (a true genius might eventually become crippled, but no true genius is a couch potato) via a mode of transport that’s both quaint and dashing (no true genius will drive a Ford Anglia). Marsh also expertly negotiates the problem of making Stephen look like the biggest nerd in the Cambridge of 1963: how do you make someone look geeky when everyone looked geeky? Give him bigger glasses than everyone else. The first half-hour of The Theory of Everything is easily the least of it, recycling aspects of A Beautiful Mind (2002) as awkward boffin hero and his lady dance through the night at campus bashes and gaze star-wards with the certainty that the mysteries of the universe and the glory of young, white, collegiate love are conjoined in their wonderment. We get quick sketches of Hawking’s genius – he casually solves nine of ten hard questions set by his teacher Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) on the back of a bus timetable, provoking gasps of astonishment from his pals. Sciama gives Hawking a tour of the small back room where great scientists have achieved mighty feats and leaving him there to bask in its musty, dorky awe, all the better to then completely leave behind any sign of mere academic labour.

There is certainly a great, humanistic, stirring, but painful and eccentric tale contained in Hawking’s life story. Some of the eccentricity even comes across in this film, particularly in the middle third, as it is obliged to tell a stranger story than we expect from this sort of fare. The Theory of Everything necessarily depicts a marriage that necessarily becomes a thorny but, for a time, strangely stable array of loyalties. Increasingly disaffected and wearied by a relationship that has turned her into nursemaid rather than wife, Jane takes her mother’s advice and returns to her childhood love of singing as an outlet, only to find herself affected by the gravitational pull of a hunk: Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) is the sexy choirmaster (yeah, baby) who volunteers to help Jane out in caring for Stephen, only for the two to form a strong and eventually sexual bond. Stephen essentially acquiesces to this with understanding, but when he is drawn to his Irish nurse Elaine Mason (the ever-bracing Maxine Peake), he finally feels obligated to pull the plug on his marriage. There’s a hint in all this of a much-mocked literary genre, the “Infidelity in Hampstead” school of British novel and some of its cinematic equivalents like Accident (1967), in depicting the free-flowing lives and lusts of English bourgeois academia.

But of course, we’re not in satirical territory; we’re in noble biopic land. If Marsh had any guts whatsoever, might have confronted the peculiarities of eroticism involved in Jane and Stephen’s attempts to maintain relations as he deteriorates, but fades out quickly after a kiss from Jane on Stephen’s withered brow portends such an interlude. Apart from a scene of Hawking struggling to haul himself up a flight of stairs and realising with agony that he can’t even manage that piece of independent mobility any more, the film however scarcely deals with his decline in more than cursory terms, carelessly jumping time periods. Thewlis’s Sciama is mostly on hand for expositional dialogue exchanges that allow the filmmakers to bypass actually being interested in Hawking’s real work. Nor does Marsh really go to any effort to depict the fundamental, beautiful irony of Hawking’s life, slow physical deterioration unfettering and tempering an intellect, and the script only makes facile connections between this twinning of the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. With repeated allusions to Stephen’s desire to find a simple, beautiful equation that will solve the riddle of the universe, the eponymous theory of everything, I found myself girding my stomach with caution, in nauseous anticipation of someone eventually proposing that the greatest equation is love. But of course, Interstellar already got there this year. The film’s repeated attempts to deal with a faith/science divide via Jane and Stephen’s divergent values – she’s Church of England, he’s a Cosmologist, which he defines as a “a religion for intelligent atheists,” play less as a serious engagement of the divide but as a way of pleasing conservative viewers who might otherwise find Hawking’s enquiries irksome.

The Theory of Everything looks glossy in a digital-cinema way, with lots of nice light effects and softly diffused colour patinas, but depressingly, even the accomplished cinematographer Benoît Delhomme can’t keep the film’s texture free of traces of motion blur and scanning problems, so the whole thing ends up looking cheap. Anyway, mere prettiness can’t make up for weak cinematic language: the film builds up to an important pivot when Hawking finally loses his voice from a tracheotomy and so has to communicate through blinks alone: rather than privilege us with actually being able to see this process, and feel the thrill and desperation of such communication from the edge of total loss, Marsh’s camera hangs back indistinctly. The resulting film would fit easily into the run of moderately engaging TV-made biopics made in Britain in recent years, about people like Ian Fleming or Daphne DuMaurier. But Marsh’s emphases betray its pretensions beyond such fare, pretensions that are not so much actually cinematic, but a seeking of the kind of emotional power and gravitas that we associate with major cinema works, as it pauses repeatedly for would-be emotional climaxes. Trouble is, so many of these fail to connect, like Jane watching the angry, just-diagnosed Stephen kicking croquet balls about, or the finale when the newly-minted celebrity Hawking speaks to an audience about “A Brief History of Time”. 

Jones’ performance becomes a major irritant, as she crumples her face, shakes her lower lip and goes bug-eyed to evoke righteous feeling, and makes a show of holding back the waterworks repeatedly, as if determined to be sure she’s noticed next to Redmayne, but instead achieves something unique: quiet hambone. The film wants to make an interesting point, about how Jane and Stephen’s relationship perhaps merely exacerbates the tendency for the female partner’s life to be consumed and subordinated, as Stephen becomes a celebrity whilst she has to tend his every need. But the film can’t really articulate it, and instead sublimates this point into mere romantic longing, which is as awkwardly sexist as anything the film’s trying to comment on. Where Redmayne and Jones make a cute couple, the romance between her and Cox never even momentarily ignites, whilst Cox amusingly is asked to play a similar role to his part on the TV show Boardwalk Empire as the thinking woman’s bit of adulterous crumpet, but robbed of the sly charm and edge of danger he able to wield in that part. 

Although some might feel a distinct sense of déjà vu in contemplating his performance as another post-My Left Foot (1990) play of physical disability, Redmayne does a technically excellent job of depicting Hawking’s steady transformation into the gnomic, wheel-chair bound man who’s visage is so well-known, and he actually keeps his performance restrained throughout. The film’s actual climax, or at least its properly effective one, comes when Stephen breaks the news to Jane that he’s planning to travel to the US with Elaine, with heartbreak in forcing himself to give up something that’s sustained him finally showing on his wizened features like an act of surrender, aware that he’s being both merciful and selfish in one stroke. The film’s better moments tend to be more casual epiphanies, including Stephen’s college chums carrying him up steps and, with collegiate whimsy, depositing him in the arms of a statue of Queen Victoria, offering the oddly affecting sight of the hero of the moment cradled like a baby and presented to posterity in the arms of a metal mother. Right at the end there’s a montage of the film’s signature moments staged in reverse, a filmic device that interestingly correlates the sundered but still amicable couple’s pride in creating their children with Hawking’s scientific method and vision, tracking back to the moment of inception for such creation in their first meeting. With more touches like these, The Theory of Everything might have been grand. But the film is finally too relentlessly palatable and smoothed-over to be memorable beyond Oscar season.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Willow Creek (2013)

Comedian-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait’s unlikely but durable directorial career began back in 1991 with Shakes the Clown. Goldthwait has largely extended his scabrous, artfully crazed persona from stage and screen into an aesthetic sensibility, with harsh satires and black comedies looking at the seamier side of the modern American sensibility and the nation’s eddy of fragmented subcultures. Willow Creek, as a horror film, seems like a departure from that fare, leaving behind outré pretences. This proves not entirely true, as he annexes a modern legend to zero in on other kinds of legends of a more personal nature, and divisions in society and gender, myth and reality, that intrigue him. He does so via a remake-cum-burlesque on The Blair Witch Project (1999), taking on the much-used and much-abused “found footage” style, similarly spinning minimalist tension in presenting footage supposedly shot by would-be documentary filmmaker Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). This faux-relic depicts Jim’s determined journey to the site of the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in the deep woods of northern California, to work through his own fascination with the legendary beast, and Kelly’s equally determined humouring of Jim’s venturesome projects and posturings. 

At this point the very mention of the phrase “found footage” might fairly make us wince, and the tropes of the style are largely honoured by Goldthwait in the course of Willow Creek, who doesn't exactly stage a send-up of the genre. But Goldthwait brings humour and impudent élan to the project, mostly by making his central couple a pair of smart-alecks who provide their own stream of drollery that often doubles as their footage's own commentary track. Jim and Kelly’s joshing humour, clearly their chief bond as a couple, is turned on the scenes and people they encounter with casual snark that’s not exactly mean-spirited but offers a very common sort of blithely self-justifying mockery. That mockery is then steadily twisted and aimed back at Jim and Kelly, particularly as Kelly’s jokes – posing for her own “missing person” photo and pretending to perform sex acts on a Sasquatch statue – prove to be foreshadowing with a cruel and clever edge. Goldthwait never has any doubts how to use the pseudo-amateurish camerawork to sustain dramatic engagement, with Jim and Kelly's semi-professionalism justifying a reasonable level of camera proficiency, and how to weave in substantive characterisation, where most found-footage cinema seems designed to paper over the filmmakers’ lack of any ideas in this regard. 

Jim and Kelly travel out of their world by stages in a fashion long familiar to horror aficionados. Early scenes of the couple driving quickly clue us in on the dynamics of the couple’s relationship, their shared sense of humour apparent and their charm as good-looking entertainer and would-be artist apparent. Also on display however is Jim’s mix of attentive curiosity and unthinkingly entitled boorishness, like a former frat boy who’s outgrown youthful hijinks but isn’t yet quite the sensitive artiste he thinks he is, whilst Kelly half-deliberately dims her sharp instincts for the sake of being with Jim. We’re quickly given a discomforting glimpse of this when Jim makes Kelly hold a microphone he’s testing whilst she’s steering them along a winding, vertiginous highway. Goldthwait, via Jim and Kelly, notes with good humour and some satiric bite the swirl of all-American commercialisation that has grown up around a charming myth: the eponymous town has branded itself thoroughly with Sasquatch mystique, complete with giant fresco depicting the Bigfoot, image of the threat and mystery of nature, as a placidly tamed helper in the great American project of colonialism. Importantly, Goldthwait blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking in a way most other found-footage movies have avoided, because he wants in part to document the weird and entertaining little subculture that has grown off the legend, and implicitly studies its place in the modern American cultural landscape. He offers, neo-realist style, segments of Johnson in character as Jim interviewing with some real-life colourful characters and regional oddballs, like the “Bob Dylan of the Bigfoot community” Tom Yamarone, who happily participate in the mystique, and Nita Rowley, who works in the Willow Creek Visitor Centre and amusingly denies any belief in the creature her job relies upon. 

Goldthwait quickly and efficiently notes the patronisation Jim and Kelly turn on their hosts and the double-sided exploitation going on, as Jim just like them wants to fashion the straw of backwoods legend into personally enriching enterprise, but with more slickly knowing presumptions, and obliviousness to real problems, as when the pair fail to note the import of a missing woman’s poster. There's a peculiar, communally-derived warmth inherent in the idealisation of Bigfoot for commercial purposes, a face painted on the wilderness that gives it a value it might not otherwise have. But that mythos, as evinced around the Willow Creek locale, might mask a different blend of these two impulses, as the couple are alerted to the possible dangers of redneck pot growers who exploit the rugged locales for their own ends. An alarming encounter with a quickly angered man (the aptly named Bucky Sinister) on the road to the film site thus presents the possibility that in the course of their adventuring, they’ve blundered into a place that is genuinely dangerous beyond the immediate threat of unforgiving terrain, in ways we know Jim and Kelly are not prepared for. Jim’s romance with the idea of the Bigfoot is however plainly rooted in his concept of himself as a frustrated manly-man and adventurer into the unknown, foiled ever so relentlessly by Kelly’s mordant humour and looming career necessity of moving to Los Angeles. That is a move cool Jim claims he won’t stomach, but capitulates to rather than accept complete defeat in her delicate rejection of his marriage proposal and substituted suggestion of cohabitation. 

Nonetheless by the film’s climactic scenes, the couple pass through stages in relationships in hypertrophied speed, including what Jim might well have been hoping for, as Kelly is reduced to quivering and clutching his arm, before they devolve to mutual, frantic berating and disillusionment as circumstances close in, and then become, finally, a besieged, mutually reliant duo surrounded by dark and monsters, standing back to back, armed and ready. Willow Creek could well be one of the more quietly incisive romantic comedies of recent years. Officially, however, Goldthwait’s film sits squarely in a contemporary school of horror cinema. In its themes and settings and even in some plot refrains, Willow Creek also calls back to the small but engaging glut of regionally-made, no-budget US horror films of the ‘70s, some of which featured Bigfoot, like The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), Creature From Black Lake (1976), and Sasquatch (1978). The film’s long, deceptively casual lead-in, with its ambling, humorous vibe and pseudo-authenticity proves to have been sterling conditioning for a more traditionally intense last act, once Jim and Kelly arrive in the forest. They set up camp and divert for some skinny-dipping before returning to find their camp ransacked: “What’s one of my socks doing in the tree?” Jim questions as they return, a great gag that’s also the warning sign this lovers’ jaunt is about to get menacing. 

And so it does, in an epic sequence accomplished entirely in static shots, which merely offers Jim and Kelly straining their ears and cowering as something seems to stalk their camp outside their tent, recorded by Jim only to keep a record of the freakish and frightening moment. A proliferation of strange sounds, from wild howls to branches being bashed together, seem to spell visitation of the very beast they’ve sought but haven't really believed in, or, at least, have never paused to consider what it might act like and want. But what’s making the sounds like a woman’s sobbing? Johnson and Gilmore’s acting is plainly vital to the slow-building force of the sequence, but also Goldthwait’s conceit is matched here by his cunning, his ability to force the viewer to share only the extremely limited viewpoint and paranoia of his characters, with only the bare minimum of cinematic devices, quite detached from the barrage of camera and special effects so many recent horror films offer. Goldthwait takes care to offer a choice of explanations for the events that unfold, and although he presents a weight of evidence that finally favour one, doesn’t entirely spell things out and ruin his dichotomy. The last twenty minutes offer a curtailed version of the sort of herky-jerky, impressionistic survival flight most found-footage movies offer at length, but Goldthwait has an actual, coherent, very dark punch-line to offer without ever violating the entirely suggestive approach he’s taken, and also makes sure that his mordant final note works no matter how one interprets the circumstances leading up to it. Kelly, having resisted falling in thrall to her chosen mate’s self-written mythology, seems now about to fall victim to much less gentlemanly attentions, and be they from cryptid ape-man or redneck man-ape, she’s screwed.