Saturday, July 17, 2010

the sorcerer's apprentice (turteltaub, 2010)

A highly competent blockbuster with visual lines as clean and clear as the moral ones - if I am permitted to bestow that upon Jon Turteltaub's film as a genuine and heartfelt compliment as opposed to a backhanded one, then that's what I'd like to do. (David Bordwell has also been mighty kind to Turteltaub, in the context of the first National Treasure movie.) Full of visual effects unexpected (if a parade dragon is going to turn into a real one, who's to say the men operating it aren't going to take notice?) and expected (yes, the title character reprises Mickey's miscalculated attempt to use magick to avoid chores), this is downright classical compared to the slovenly, wearisome fare that passes for Hollywood's vanguard in the all-digital/all-dimensional age.

Set firmly in a cast of "with the program" thespians (Nicolas Cage [for once], Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer), the real engine that drives Apprentice's specialness is Jay Baruchel, the 2010 moment's emblem of dweeb and twitch (earlier this year he starred in a romantic comedy called Holy Shit I Can't Believe This Hot Chick is Letting Me Fuck Her Oh My God, or something). Rising to the front of that particular trade since he stole a handful of scenes in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, Baruchel is actually a few degrees less stable than the picture requires - but on close examination I decided his line readings and general behavior slyly and pleasingly calculated. (Again, a backhanded-sounding compliment that I am trying to submit as "on the level.") A real professional, confident as anybody else in the lineup, he's a special effect in and of himself, and provides much-needed counterbalance to the expensive, studio precision that structures the picture around him.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

men in war (a. mann, 1957)

"Battalion doesn't exist. Regiment doesn't exist. Command HQ doesn't exist. The U.S.A. doesn't exist... We're the only ones left to fight this war."

Excluding those that took place in the distant past, Anthony Mann directed only three war films, and only two (this and, by a stretch of imagination, The Heroes of Telemark) were concerned with ground combat. Like its title, Men in War's agenda is on the simple side. It shows men, in war. The screenplay is built around the basic "attrition narrative," in which one character after another is withdrawn from play until only one or two remain. This isn't the film where PFC McClusky goes back home to Flatbush Avenue, where there's a girl waiting for him; the platoon isn't saddled with a war orphan or an exotic parrot that's been taught to make recite remarks; nobody reminisces about "back home" or the last skirmish, or anything else. The view of war is pictorially cramped and thematically narrow, as if viewed from the wrong end of a telescope.

Yet the film, spare as minimalist theater, is rich in effect and immerses the viewer deeply into an environment of constant danger and anticipation of continued danger. This film sweats and smells like fear. There are no comfort zones, not even in nature. Especially not in nature. Death inhabits every natural space: a thicket of bushes and trees, a long hill, the ground beneath the soldiers' feet. In fact, at times, the film frame itself almost seems to have been set against them.

Quite a ways into the picture, a cast-off sergeant (Aldo Ray) and a mute, shell-shocked Army colonel (played with expressive silence by Robert Keith - the effete criminal Julian in Don Siegel's The Lineup, and the patriarch in Gordon Douglas's Young at Heart) appear and threaten to gum up the works for everybody. Ray comes off as irreverent and callous, and he's looking to protect two interests - his own neck, and the colonel's, to whom he's formed an unbreakable, familial attachment. Already his character is a tough nut to crack - his selfish attitude is far from indivisble, and he's given no signs of "being yellow," a trait we might otherwise expect to be uncovered later. And what begins as a battle of wits between the sergeant and Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan, never harder-bitten) is soon overtaken by the dominant structuring force of the men's lives, their environment, and the film's visual scheme: explosions, flying debris, gunfire, and the occasional garroting. It begins with thirteen men, in the middle of a hundred square miles of enemy territory, and no more than two get out of the movie alive.

below (twohy, 2002)

Preferable to Jonathan Mostow's straight-faced, secular U-571 in almost every conceivable way, Twohy's deft, Lewton-esque (it distinctly recalls The Ghost Ship), Darren Aronofsky co-scripted "haunted submarine" tale ultimately loses force as it becomes progressively more esoteric in its visuals - on at least three occasions, Twohy will execute a match-cut/scare-cut that has the effect both of diluting the oogedy-boogedy-ness handily outdone by other "old dark house in space" pictures (such as Ridley Scott's Alien, or Paul W.S. Anderson's fantastically corny and creepy Event Horizon), and derailing the narrative, so much so that we lose track of what's at stake, and wonder if the characters have, as well. Still, even if the tale eventually loses itself in a fog, the first two reels are impermeable genre sheetrock, a lean setup and kick-off with sharp editing and a terrific set piece that demonstrates how fast news travels on a small boat.

reign of terror (a. mann, 1949)

Four of the most distinctive artists in American cinema had their hand in this "period noir": William Cameron Menzies (who produced the film, and played a chief role in its visual design), the versatile Philip Yordan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Æneas MacKenzie), John Alton (who executed the Menzies and Mann aesthetic with hard shadows, harsh diagonals, and dozens of leering, harrowing closeups), and Anthony Mann (whose direction of brutality is not diluted by the fact that nearly every scene witnesses an act of violence). The prologue counts off the key figures of the French Revolution, their faces butting into the lens in a manner that recalls an outsized silent melodrama, or a crime serial. The plot is pure, self-devouring nonsense - Robespierre's hit list goes missing, and he hires an impostor to find it before his bid for dictatorship exceeds its sell-by date. As with V for Vendetta (Alan Moore's novel, not the Wachowski brothers-produced film adaptation), terror and panic is sourced directly from corruption in power (although the mob is implicated, too, in two scenes that bookend the film), and most of the villains are done in by their very natures, and that of their co-conspirators. Most, but not all: Arnold Moss's limp-wristed take on Fouché leavens the somewhat blander star turns by Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl. Memorable moments include a barkeep/pimp giving Cummings the runaround as he fishes olives from dark fluid; "There's a revolution, don't stay out late!"; Charles McGraw with a mouthful of food, barking obscenely at Beulah Bondi; the introduction to Robespierre, "of powdered wig and twisted mind!"