Thursday, 24 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Three

14/01/2013 - 20/01/2013

Phenomena [Dario Argento, 1985]:  The opening sequence is still one of the strongest and most unnerving moments from any of Argento's films.  The sense of terror and isolation, as this young girl finds herself stranded in the heart of the Swiss countryside, is heightened by the ominous tone of the music, the constant winds that throughout the film suggest the air of hysteria (or emotional unbalance) that propels these characters towards madness (or worse), and the natural contrast between the setting, this stunning and serene backdrop of verdant hills and silhouetted peaks, and the anticipation of the violence still to come.  The presentation of the scene is like something out of a fairy tale, where the emphasis on these young characters - trapped in a state of trance between childhood and adolescence - find themselves lost within a world that at first seems strange and beautiful, but through the actual process of its character's investigation, soon reveals a darker, more dangerous edge.  The otherworldly feel continues throughout the film, becoming increasingly more abstract, as the plot - which owes as much to Sleeping Beauty (1959) as it does to Suspiria (1977) - warps and mutates to the point of straining credibility, as the young protagonist Jennifer Corvino uses her ability to commune with insects in an attempt to find the vicious killer terrorising her school.  Many will no doubt find this aspect of Argento's film ridiculous, but for me I've always seen it as something very haunting and evocative.  A pure exercise in atmosphere and mood, where the author, rejecting logic and convention, creates something that is more like an extended nightmare or a never-ending dream. 

The Early Bird [Robert Asher, 1965]:  I'm not an expert here (obviously!), but The Early Bird seems to have had a much larger budget than any of the other Norman Wisdom films I've seen, with a lot of optical effects, miniatures, matte-paintings and elaborate sets used to give the illusion of a fully functioning world.  Unfortunately, the emphasis on grand spectacle comes at the expense of the characters and their story, with this charming and still very relevant tale of two rival dairies (one, a large conglomerate, the other a family run business) being pushed to the background while we're instead treated to endless scenes of the bumbling Norman demolishing an entire manor house with a runaway lawnmower, wrecking a golf match while masquerading as an elderly vicar, and eventually flooding a poor woman's sitting-room with a gallon of spilled milk (before having to watch as his runaway cart is crushed under the weight of a speeding train).  The quality of these set-pieces is actually rather good considering the age of the film, but there is no heart to this story, which for me, lacks both the quiet whimsy and the subtle sadness of something like Trouble in Store (1953) or the brilliant One Good Turn (1954), or even the madcap satire of the slyly subversive The Square Peg (1958).  It's certainly not a terrible film since many of the jokes are actually quite funny, but compared to these other, earlier Wisdom classics, The Early Bird just never achieves its full potential.

Revolver [Guy Ritchie, 2005]:  I would find it virtually impossible to say with any great conviction what this film is "about."  I've seen it twice now and I have my theories, but the film is beyond interpretation, playing a kind of arcane game of deception with its audience that mirrors the relationship between the characters on-screen.  Just when we think we've figured out a possible explanation as to what is taking place, or why these particular characters are being played-off against one another - like living chess pieces - a character will suddenly appear to acknowledge and dismiss this interpretation, leading to more questions without answers and a feeling of external manipulation, as if all these events and characters are somehow guided by an invincible, omnipotent force.  From this, we could maybe see the film as a sort of meta-commentary, in which the author explores the war between the 'id', the 'ego' and the 'super-ego' by way of a generic crime story that eventually distorts into a complicated psychological study about failure and insecurity.  In this sense, the plot could be an acknowledgement of the director's painful disappointment following the failure of his previous film, Swept Away (2002), or maybe even a gesture to his own fear of being typecast as a director only suited to gangster movies of the Lock, Stock... (1998) and Snatch (2000) variety.  Personally, I find the film quite fascinating, as much for its creative visual approach as for the labyrinthine plot.  The dazzling grab-bag of slow-motion sequences, fluorescent light, saturated colour, jump cuts, subtitles, animation and over-lapping voiceover might be perceived by many as post-Tarantino affectations (or just flashy showboating), but to me this approach feels intensely cinematic.  At a time when I'm bombarded with the promos for dreary Oscar-bait movies, à la Affleck, Hooper, Bigelow, etc, it's encouraging to see a director using the 'form' to create content, as opposed to just serving it. 

Batman & Robin [Joel Schumacher, 1997]:  Don't get me wrong, I didn't necessarily like it, but I do think a lot of the negativity surrounding this film is a kneejerk reaction to the context of the thing.  For one, Batman & Robin is not an adaptation of the Batman character, his mythos or his ideology - in the sense of being truthful (if not "reverent") to the source - but more a pastiche of it.  To borrow a British phrase, you could almost call it a "piss-take"; a film that underlines the inherent absurdity of the Batman character and exaggerates it to a near-outlandish degree.  While the recent Batman films have attempted to approach the concept from a more realistic or at least semi-plausible perspective, they still can't change the fact that it's a franchise built around the idea of a billionaire playboy fighting crime in a rubber costume.  Schumacher's film not only understands that Batman, as an idea, is total nonsense, it celebrates the theatricality of it; turning the adventure into farce and the action into camp.  Many have taken this aspect of the film's approach to be an example of the director's blatant homosexuality getting in the way of the Batman character, but I'm not so sure.  Yes, there are nipples on the costumes and occasional close-ups of his hero's rubber-clad crotch, but even with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's often quite smutty double entendres and the kaleidoscope of vivid, flowery colours, the tone of the film is more or less in keeping with the harmless kitsch of the 1960s T.V. show.  Like Mario Bava's delirious spy parody, Danger: Diabolik (1968), this seems to be the spirit the filmmakers were going for; creating something that could be, to Batman, what Austin Powers was to James Bond.  Yes, it's incredibly stupid, but I suspect that's kind of the point...

Nomads [John McTiernan, 1986]:  On paper, the film sounds exceedingly silly.  Something about the displaced spirits of an Inuit tribe that congregate on the sites of past tragedies.  Into this we have a story about the transferral of memories, from one character to the next.  Nothing is very clear and I could imagine a lot of potential viewers, when faced with the sheer insanity of the thing, either laughing at it, or rolling their eyes in disbelief at the inevitable direction McTiernan takes.  With its reckless ambition, "rock video" aesthetics and eclectic cast (a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan as a heavily-accented French anthropologist), the film almost invites ridicule.  That said, there's a germ of a great movie here, and McTiernan - debuting as both writer and director - instils it with such a complete and utter seriousness that the audience has no other option but to go along with it; embracing its bizarre twists and turns and effectively 'buying into' the delusions of its central protagonist (much like the supporting characters on screen).  Although the film is far from perfect, I still found it interesting, for its ideas.  A film about madness, or more specifically, the idea of madness as a kind of contagion.  The madness of the modern world, suggested by the almost documentary-like presentation of 1980s Los Angeles - with of its exiled subcultures, late night loneliness, darkened alleyways and neon-lit streets - which provides a stark and alarming contrast to the more bizarre excursions into genuine horror.  Here, McTiernan creates a style that falls somewhere between the gritty L.A. noir of James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) and the otherworldly suburban-surrealism of Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); an approach that finds its most startling expression in the scene in which Brosnan, having been pursued by these 'nomads' through the actuality of downtown L.A., takes shelter in an abandoned mission station, where his personal nightmare of death and transfiguration is fully exposed.

Predator [John McTiernan, 1987]:  Now that its blockbuster credentials have dated slightly, I suppose one could argue that the film has become the '80s equivalent of a great '50s B-movie; not quite Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) perhaps, but maybe The Thing from Another World (1951).  The comparison would be apt given the occasional references to director John McTiernan's approach as being somewhat 'Hawksian' in nature.  True enough, there's a great economy to the director's use of space that recalls a film like Red River (1948) or Rio Bravo (1959), with the same use of the frame to suggest the various on-going power struggles within the group.  However, what's more interesting (to me) is the way the filmmakers exploit the over-the-top machismo so prevalent in American action cinema of the 1980s by making it a film primarily about the physicality of its characters.  A film where these two-dimensional musclemen are pitted against the ultimate adversary - a creature, able to use their own surroundings against them - which forces them to throw away their weapons and artillery and revert to more old-fashioned methods of survival and self-preservation.  This is something of a running theme for McTiernan, beginning with his debut film - the aforementioned Nomads (1986) - and continuing through to the hugely successful Die Hard (1988) and the flawed but fascinating The 13th Warrior (1999).  In these films, the "modern man" (or "modern" to the world of the film) has to regress to a more primal or primitive state when faced with a particular threat.  For me, Predator - still one of the director's most popular and enduring films - might be the most clear and concise distillation of this theme, for obvious reasons.