Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hush, hush, 15-foot slithering demon tongue

“What is the supernatural?” Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) posits the question to his students in that vaguely condescending, more or less rhetorical way that bespectacled smarty-pants Englishmen do in the movies. Coupland has some strong opinions on the subject, strong enough to justify confining young Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) to a single room and essentially torturing her for her own ostensible good. Jane seems to be the source of some rather nasty paranormal activity—“Her brain waves are off the charts!”—and Coupland’s aim is to harvest her “negative energy” through séances, isolation, sleep deprivation and other punishing techniques, to extract the bad vibes the way a surgeon might extract a tumour.

After his superiors at Oxford cut their funding for the project Coupland decides to whisk Jane and a team of student volunteers away to some creaky old country manor where they can continue their work without the interference of the academy or anyone with a lick of common sense. Jane’s “manifestations” and their accompanying revelations about their origins come in dribs and drabs over the course of The Quiet Ones. In the meantime, Coupland gradually proves his scummy ruthlessness, some randy youths get busy, and hunky cypher Brain (Sam Claflin) captures the whole process on 16mm—the story is set in the 1970s. Brian likes to watch, and not much else. He’s something of an empty vessel, our Brian, a Christian, if we’re to go by the tiny cross hanging from his big neck, his vacuousness/innocence making him vulnerable to mad scientists and evil spirits alike, and to the allure of poor Jane, those eyes, that gorgeous smile, the undulating 15-foot demon tongue slithering out of her mouth.

The Quiet Ones is, we’re told, “based on true events.” What appear to be photos from said true events—an experiment conducted by the Toronto Society for Psychical Research in 1972, which you can read about on the webs—are displayed at the film’s end, as if to say, “See! What’d I tell you? True events, guys!” Had scenarists Tom de Ville, Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and director John Pogue adhered more closely to the source material they’d likely have made something far more intriguing and provocative, but this Hammer production’s many concessions to genre only serve to render The Quiet Ones more, well, generic, predictable, and a little dull. Among those concessions is some dopey looking CGI and an entirely tokenistic use of found footage. It’s a shame because there are items of interest here: Harris, most obviously, a fine actor too rarely used to full effect (though he was wonderful in seasons three, four and five of Mad Men); Coupland’s use of peculiar technologies like Kirlian photography and Brion Gysin’s dreammachine; the dissonance between the film’s hoary setting and the deployment of Slade and T-Rex records to keep Jane awake; and the battling parapsychological theories regarding the source of paranormal activity. Perhaps somewhere during the film’s genesis someone wanted to make something more sophisticated—then the evil demons took over.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The condemned united

The opening newsreel footage tells of an epidemic of prison riots across the U.S., and contains a stern message from Prison Association spokesman Richard A. McGee about the lamentable conditions that will continue to prompt such riots if left unchanged. Opening a film with real-life reportage was not uncommon in crime films of the period, but Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) was more grounded in reality than most: producer Walter Wanger had recently done time for shooting Jennings Lang, who had been having an affair with Wanger’s wife, the actress Joan Bennett. Wanger received a light sentence, but those four months were more than enough to make him understand that the penal system was in appalling shape. Overcrowding, underfunding and the placement of highly dangerous, mentally ill convicts in with regular offenders were chief among the problems Wanger gained first-hand knowledge of, though it’s the unfair placement of prisoners in solitary confinement, and the inhumane treatment received while there, that prompts the titular riot in this bleak, bracing, sometimes savage politically driven actioner. In the intervening 60 years things have only gotten worse. The same day that Riot comes out on DVD and BD from Criterion, PBS will broadcast a new documentary entitled Solitary Nation, which concerns the deep trauma suffered from long-term placement in solitary, and the consequences for everyone, both inside and out.

Riot was directed by Don Siegel, a specialist in clean, male-centred, brutal thrillers, like The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Lineup (1958) and, most famously, Dirty Harry (1971). It was shot in Folsom Prison, cast with relative unknowns, kept on the cheap, though it doesn’t look it. The scenes of violence are framed and edited in such a way that nothing is lingered over yet everything looks like it really, really hurts. There’s hardly what you could call a hero in the film, but Dunn (Neville Brand), the convict who leads the riot and announces the prisoners demands—which just happen to match those repeatedly filed by the prison’s warden—is an extremely compelling protagonist, not a good guy, but a guy giving a reasonably intelligent voice to a good cause, while the warden (the wonderful character actor Emile Meyer) is a weary, hardboiled yet sympathetic figure caught between a chaotic mutiny led by sociopaths and a greater authority willing to resort to violence, murder and trickery to restore an unsustainable veneer of order.

It all works best when most of the artifice is stripped down to a minimum. Herschel Burke Gilbert’s martial score is exciting, but it also gets in the way of what makes Siegel’s work tick. For all its chaos, Riot in Cell Block 11 is in a sense a procedural, showing us step-by-step how a riot is staged, maintained, and finally undone. It is thus never more riveting when simply showing us action unimpeded by style or flash. The convicts clamouring for better treatment in this film are men with almost nothing left to lose—“We’re rotting to death,” declares Dunn—men whose daily existence has been reduced to numbing austerity. Riot does their story justice when it too feels austere, numb, and scarily go-for-broke.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Stuck in the sleeping car

Let’s say you were busy getting settled in your seat during the opening moments of The Railway Man, in which Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is lying on the floor, muttering some eerie rhyme to himself. This would mean that, for you, the film would begin, more or less, with Eric meeting Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train. It’s all rather comforting at this point: the Technicolor tones of the cinematography, the two attractive stars sharing a table as the landscape passes between them, swapping travel routes as a way of making love. How old-fashioned! There’s even mention of Brief Encounter. Firth almost looks like Robert Donat in that moustache. Perhaps the rail-riding lovers-in-waiting are playing a variation on North by Northwest. Though the truth is that Eric is far too tormented to be Cary Grant, and Patti, a nurse, will come to more closely resemble Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, the single-minded woman determined to heal her damaged man. But Bergman had a personality and authority. She liked liverwurst. And she was in a movie that, however artificial, even silly, had gravitas. All The Railway Man has is gravity, and that gravity comes entirely from the source material, not from this awkwardly structured, numbingly somber piece of prestige cinema.

My reservations are in no way meant to make light of the suffering of the real Eric Lomax, an engineer who served the British Army in the war, was taken prisoner and tortured, and who never recovered his psychic health until his spouse made his recovery her mission, and until Lomax went back to Southeast Asia to confront his chief tormentor and, amazingly, wound up becoming his tormentor’s friend. That last part, the confrontation that turned into reconciliation that turned into camaraderie, deserves a smart, lucid, searching movie, yet this entire development, the most extraordinary chapter in an extraordinary story, is barely even touched on here. It’s all but reduced to a closing title card.

At first it seems like Patti might be out protagonist. While tight-lipped Eric is going semi-catatonic or lunging at strangers with a box-cutter, Patti is relentlessly questioning Eric’s wartime buddy (Stellan Skarsgård) about what really happened. “Wherever there’s been a war there are nurses like me to put people back together,” she declares. We know Patti’s something of a bossy pants from the very start of their romance—right after their first kiss she’s already giving Eric the moustache ultimatum. But whatever promise Patti had of turning into a real and active character quickly dissolves under the film’s poorly handled flashbacks, which are spread out as evenly and indiscriminately as David Hirschfelder’s overly busy, obtrusive score. Why is Kidman even in this thing? Firth at least gets to flail and be agonized, though the character’s lack of texture and the film’s lack of curiosity does no favours to Firth or anyone else. Lomax died in 2012, but his memoir is still in print. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Head in the cloud

One of the things that irked me about Spike Jonze’s Her was its failure to consider any number of consequences generated by its eerily close-to-reality science fiction premise. By contrast, Transcendence, which shares a key narrative element with Her—its protagonist’s beloved is an omnipresent immaterial being who exists solely via the supernatural realm known as the Internet—bends over backward to consider all sorts of grandiose consequences of living in a world where such love is possible. The problem is that consider is all Transcendence does. The film, written by Jack Paglen, checks off a lot of big ideas that we should probably all be thinking about, but is ultimately just as soft-headed as Her, while bearing little of that film’s distinctions. Her sacrificed coherence in favour of some resonant knowingness about the nature of love and possession. Transcendence sacrifices coherence for the veneer of intellectual and/or spiritual heft—and for a nonsensical third act full of big-ass explosions and sundry special effects.

The portentously named Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Deep), a genius in the realm of artificial intelligence, gets shot by radical anti-AI activists. At first it seems he’s going to be okay, but then a doctor with an astonishingly poor bedside manner informs him that the bullet was laced with isotopes and he’s going to die from radiation poisoning in a matter of weeks. A devastatingly brief window of time, but just enough time for Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will’s partner in love and science, to encode Will’s memories, ideas, emotions—in short, his consciousness—and upload the whole package into PINN, or Physically Independent Neural Network, the Casters’ revolutionary AI program. So Will’s flesh perishes, but his mind, or some facsimile, lives on in the cloud. He’s everywhere, all the time, and, it seems, all-powerful. He makes a bunch of money fast, and sets up Evelyn with an entire desert town, and, apparently, all its inhabitants, to continue their research, which, needless to say, has the capacity to take over the world!

Evelyn is our Dr. Frankenstein, her hubris driven equally by grief and scientific vision, her fundamental innocence underlined by the fact that she wears Keds with every outfit. Will is her disembodied monster, HAL 9000 with a handsome synthetic visage, a novel spin on the abusive, controlling spouse, Big Brother as bad husband. There are other characters to complicate and crowd Transcendence: a soundly sceptical neurobiologist pal (Paul Bettany) who conspicuously wears a cross around his neck, a wise old former colleague (Morgan Freeman), and a fed (Cillian Murphy) who keeps a watchful eye on the Casters’ mad science, which could one day prove useful to the Department of Defence.

The first hour is very intriguing, if poorly paced—so many scenes are a few lines too long, and there’s a great deal of padding—but then the script devolves into ungovernable plottiness. First-time director Wally Pfister, already famous as Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer, opts to emphasize spectacle, whether it be clouds of infectious nano-dirt reaching up out of the earth or a diamond-like drop of dew sliding off a sunflower in slow-motion, the former being an empty conceit designed solely to look freaky and thrilling, the latter being an empty stab at profundity.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Keeper of the flame

The second scene of Nostalghia (1983), Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, offers us a broad view of a road weaving through a misty Italian countryside. A car enters the frame, exits the frame, and, some moments later, enters again; a woman and a man exit the car and move into the landscape, those cottony spectres of mist. The scene is conveyed in a single unbroken shot—no other director in history is so closely associated with extended shot duration as Tarkovsky. It is entrancing and beautiful, but also indicative of this film’s general air. Nearly everything that departs returns, while characters move through a fog that increasingly blurs present-tense reality from dreams of things lost.

Kino released Nostalghia on DVD and BD earlier this year, prompting a handful of critical reconsiderations of this, one of two films from the less-admired exile period in the oeuvre of the Russian director, who died in 1986. But anyone who watches any Tarkovsky film more than once knows well the way his films have of shifting with every visit—or even within a single viewing. How many times have I struggled with some aspect of these unusually personal, sensual, meandering, philosophy-smacked, sometimes downright cryptic films, only to reach the end and feel redeemed by their exalted, breath-taking visions and uncanny ability to find poetic closure? Cinema as travel: I’ve yet to encounter a Tarkovsky film that hasn’t left me feeling as though I’ve been transported, been through something.

Tarkovsky had certainly been through something by the time of Nostalghia’s release. He wouldn’t have had an easy time making his films in any country, but his frustrations with the micromanaging Soviet industry were particular and many, to the point where working abroad could mean permanent separation from his family. He’d been thinking of making a film in Italy since the mid-70s, and the project came about in part through his friendship and collaboration with Tonino Guerra, Antonioni’s regular co-scenarist. Yet Nostalghia is anything but a radical departure from the themes or MO of Tarkovsky’s previous films. As the title suggests, it is soaked in longing for the past, as well as apocalyptic sentiments about the present.

The story, such as it is, concerns a homesick Russian writer in Italy to research the life of a Russian composer who once lived there and suicide upon returning home. The writer travels with a young interpreter, a Renaissance beauty whose allure he seems to be working to resist, perhaps because of the wife waiting back home, perhaps because of some general contempt he feels toward a spiritually bankrupt West. Enter Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson, oddly cast but completely captivating), a local lunatic in the soggy Tuscan village where the writer wanders. Domenico claims that if he could just manage to cross St. Catherine’s Pool with a lit candle he could save the world. Nostalghia’s dramatic climax finds Domenico atop a statue in a public square, ranting about the world’s slide into perdition before immolating himself in front of a scattering of impassive onlookers. From fiery spectacle to one tiny precious flame: Tarkovsky cuts from Domenico’s flailing to the writer attempting the ostensible world-saving traversal Domenico hadn’t managed. Then comes the film’s final and most emblematic image: the writer seated before a Russian dacha that, impossibly, is nestled in the ruins of a colossal Italian cathedral—an image explicitly echoes the final image of Solaris (1973). A happy ending? It seems so to me. A reconciliation of past and present, cinema magic as a way of allowing both to exist simultaneously.

There are things that irk me in Nostalghia, like the writer’s condescension and somewhat insufferable gloominess—the guy could almost be an Antonioni protagonist—and Tarkovsky’s tendency to reduce women to symbols. Yet the sense of dream and memory’s hold on our psyche infuses the film with a watery soul-hauntedness that will stay with you forever.