From that point it's clear that, although we might be seeing some of the baser aspects of humankind as Elias meets various people along the way to what he hopes is sanctuary, it will not stretch too far away from the lightness of touch Costa Gavras has chosen here. I say chosen as we are in the hands of a very deliberate film maker here who has some tough stuff on his rap sheet like the intense and powerful Z and the blackly comic satire Le Couperet. Elias' adventures and misadventures bring him frequently close to trouble but the worst is kept within rubber band reach of the gentler and more comic aspects. He ricochets from the seedier episodes of the exploitation of illegal immigrants and the racism he is frequently confronted with along the way. But this is the problem at the heart of this earnest 2009 exercise: the spoonful of sugar makes it easy to ignore the medicine altogether where a starker comic approach might have done more to allow its points their due depth and bring an only ever pleasantly amused audience into full engagement.
Enjoyable but too slight for its own good.
The Penalty: Ninety minutes of silent hatred as the great Lon Chaney plays a underworld boss who seizes an opportunity for revenge for his life's nasty course. In an opening sequence we learn that as a boy injured in a traffic accident his legs were needlessly amputated at the knee. He overhears one doctor first chastising the other for the pointless mutilation but then vowing to cover it up with a lie. Cut to 1920s San Fransisco where the fallen boy has grown into a cruel and powerful criminal going by the name Blizzard.
What's the opportunity? Get this: Blizzard sees an ad in the paper for a model for a sculpture of the fallen Satan. "So if you think you look like Satan please apply..." That's really what the ad says. Blizzard knocks off the competition and charms the sculptor into accepting him for the gig. The artist is the daughter of the surgeon who lopped his limbs off all those years ago. But there's more which I'll not spoil.
In an odd subplot involving the ongoing investigation into Blizzard's operations by the local finest, Blizzard takes up an undercover cop called Rose who gets a gig as the replacement concubine whose duties include applying the pedals when he plays and sings his bleak odes of vengeance at a grand piano in the parlour. Rose falls for Blizzard's charm, too and is soon torn between doing her real job and the one she's playing at here.
Everything converges neatly and there are twists a plenty in the final act. Done.
But if you are shy of silent cinema you should hunt this one down or any of Chaney's later features. You will find all the exaggerated emotion that probably keeps you from silent movies but in this case you will also find solid film making outside of the canon of comedy which seems immune to time's judgement. There are many sequences in The Penalty which impress like the tour through the secret dungeon or the opening scene which rises over the melodramatic motion at its centre and flies to crueller drama. And then there's Lon himself; if anyone in Hollywood ever suffered for his art it was this bloke who acted this entire role with his legs strapped beneath his costume and walking on his knees. He could only do that for minutes at a time. Try it for a few seconds and see how you do.
A revelation passed on to me in my hour (actually weeks) of need by the great Lon Chaney Advocate himself, Dean Mc, whose Time Capsules film night was the inspiration for Shadows in the first place. I'll thank him here for this.
A book I read much later at university was Lillian Ross's Picture, an account of the troubled production of the film version of the book by the great maverick John Huston in 1951. The studio system that had reigned for decades and contributed such might to the art form was in decline and its nabobs were in a panic. One of the casualties of this was Huston's film which was compromised to within twenty-four frames of its life, suffering the forceful ignorance of suits left right and centre. So how does it scrub up?
Huston deliberately used a deep, silvery monochrome that emulates the famous war photography of Matthew Brady and it's stunning. The dialogue is taken effortless from Crane's pages, proving the accuracy of his ear.
But the big coup with this one was the casting of Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming, the protagonist. Murphy was the most decorated American soldier in World War II. Who better to convey a one-to-one scale understanding of the life-preserving force that fear is when confronted with the soaring likelihood of instant violent death? I find his later roles in westerns awkward but here he is in his element. One moment of that is enough to convince me: Henry is so buzzed up with fervour that he breaks from the line and runs toward the Confederate line firing. Before he thinks he goes to fire again. Audie is remembering in that moment that he is not at Anzio with his M1 but in the smoke of the Civil War and he's carrying a musket that takes a summer afternoon to reload. Keeping that in was a very nice touch.
Kes: Billy, small for his age and skeletal, shares a room and bed with his oaf brother who works "dowen pit-t". School is severe and undernourished. The days of corporal punishment are still in force and the charges warranting it less to do with errant behaviour than the frustrations of teachers. PE teachers are failed sportsmen and take that out on the kids in hard-knocking soccer games and then in shower room shouting matches. Form-minded vocational guidance counsellors quack through Q&A sessions without regard to the Q part of it. Despite his hatred of the idea, Billy is probably headed for "pit-t". And the jungle of boys and girls biffs and taunts forever and ever.
In the midst of this late 60s Wilson government social penalty Billy finds an escape into the sublime through his nurture and training of a kestrel chick that he took from a nest, the Kes of the title. These scenes stopped me. They are so unaffected and pure that a simple documentary style is all that is needed for maximum force. But if these work they cannot compare with the scene where Billy tells his class about the first time he let the bird fly free. His delivery is realistically nervous but his wonder bursts through and even though it's hard to get every syllable of his Yorkshire brogue the story holds its audience as much as it does the kids in the class. It feels both natural and extraordinary at once. It is exhilarating.
I'm not a fan of Ken Loach in the main. Maybe I should rather say that I'm not a fan of how his fans misrepresent him as being the voice of truth when he himself would only claim to offer a representation of it. In my opinion the Loaches of the world offer a kind of escapism that is effectively identical to popcorn fests in the multiplexes, the politics of it regardless and there is more truth in art that sublimates the issues into fable and let the human nervous system and the survival response do the work.
Mind you, the first thing I knew of Ken Loach was seeing his mini-series Days of Hope on tv in the 70s and I was consistently awed by its commitment and apparent lack of affect. Though I feel disabused of this now I think I'd still find it a strong work. So too Kes which finds its power in a sentimentality derived solely from the artfully flat surface it appears to present. This is the art of Ken Loach, no matter how blaring his fans get.
The Tiger Brigades: France 1912 and the need for a police extender force is pressing with organised crime on the rise and the political situation in Europe getting dangerously ambiguous. Meet the first motorised police/national security agents/counter-espionage unit in Europe. This 2006 remake of a French tv series from the seventies was passed by me when I first saw it on my PVR drive but yesterday I pressed play to what I'd get. I expected a steampunk romp with a lot of cute references to the technological gap between now and then and an arch late 60s feel like The Assassination Bureau. Early signs pointed that way with the teasing response to a new recruit gets us into the dialogue and internal relations of the team. The new guy is Italian but one wag from the group keeps calling him Spanish.
But soon this settles and we're off on something both more serious offered in a package that feels lighter than it is. Bandits rob a bank truck but only steal a ledger. A Russian Prince is in town to oversee his wife's production of an opera about Ivan the Terrible amid a lot of anti-Tsarist feeling among the emigre population. Princess is having a torrid affair with the leader of the latter and there is an attempt to knock the Prince off before he signs the Triple Entente. All this has to do with a financial scandal on the scale of the GFC and that might well have a lot to do with a potential war around the corner. In the middle of this, our garcons from the Tiger Brigade are on the case and then off when they get too close.
Still sounds like a romp? Well, it reaches for that levity but keeps its feet on the floor. Violence hurts and has consequences. Both hero and villain, being unmistakably both, are afforded context and foible, allowing a clear shot at the third dimension. And there is something interesting going on with audience fealty. Witness:
The anti-Tsarist in chief is besieged by the Tigers and the Paris police in a farmhouse. He's resourceful and a fighter so all their wall punching firepower isn't pulling his hands up. A carload of Russians turn up, some of them armed and join in as though its a rustic hunt. There is a camera crew. Inside the bad guy makes good in our eyes by his voice over letter of farewell to his paramour, the Princess who is watching intently from outside. We feel as intently for his safety as we do the Tiger crew outside he is shooting at. We want them to get him, too. When the siege ends badly and decisively we follow the adulterous Princess' back as she walks slowly, aggrieved, away from us. We are glad of the new Tiger recruit's escape from death, aided by one of his teammate tormentors and happily note their newborn camaraderie. All that at once in a scene that goes for about ten minutes (but feels like five). And THEN a little later we see Parisian bar patrons roar with joy at a kinescope showing of the decisive explosion from the incident. Not what you'd call a romp.
The first point of comparison that nagged me with this one was less with The Assassination Bureau than the recent Guy Ritchie helmed Sherlock Holmes (not the terrific tv adaptation but the one with Robert Downey Jr). This has none of that film's assembly line action sequences stuffed into the very end. It's intrigue is built, stone by stone and genuinely engages and seems happy enough to have its characters live firmly in their time. Also, thankfully, the score is built on a tightly controlled motif played on a cembalo. I understand that this is an adaptation of the tv show's music. Well, it sits perfectly here. Bravo. This is on dvd but it's the second time SBS have played it in a year. If you have a taste for historical intrigue and smooth action plus some very un-Hollywood treatment of ethics and violence but still with high production values, try The Tiger Brigades.
As he does we see the story as a finished film. Almodovar does this in an interesting way. Rather than changing the tone to sepia or black and white to suggest the passage of time he narrows the aspect ratio. The film proper is in scope 2.35:1 and the film within it in the more standard 1.85:1. Ole! The story begins with a couple of drag queens performing a cabaret. The more stunning of the two is played by Ignacio (the luminous Gael Garcia Bernal). this puts us in no doubt whose version of the film we are seeing as he confirms later by Ignacio's insistence on playing the lead in the film. At one show Ignacio (stage name Zaharah) hooks up with a young buck from the audience who he finds out is his old school friend. He writes an impassioned letter which he leaves beside the sleeping pickup and also leaves his payment.
This triggers the real movie within the movie within the movie as his flashback takes him to a segere Franco era Catholic school in which he is the target and victim of a priest's criminal affection. There is an incident and Ignacio is on the way to lifelong trauma. He gets through it with the help of a boy he has fallen in love with. Together their alliance and mutual attraction provide a bolster against the nightmarish attentions of the dogcollared one. Until the pair are found out. The boy Enrique is expelled which brings us back to do.
Why so much plot in a small review? Well, as in every Almodovar film, there is a lot of plot left over after that. But also to show how this cinemaster will establish his main theme and then use another to strengthen the first with a weave before providing more surprises, all the time delving deeper into his character's lives. We begin with misrepresentation, a man with several identities presents himself for work to a fashioner of fiction. What purports to be a gilded memoir is highly likely in this realm to be a true account. The double life of the predatory priest in this context is self explanatory but, this is an Almodovar film, is developed later almost to the point where it festers and takes on its own ugly life.
The other thing to bear in mind about this 2004 film is that its virtually womanless depiction of Spanish life is set in the Franco era (childhood scenes) and very shortly after. Like the grim and powerful Matador, Bad Education holds anger in its heart. It appearance twenty-nine years after Franco's demise and the opening of windows in Spain bears testimony to that without ever needing to name it.
Robert Powell, Dr Martin, is a young psychiatrist who goes to a remote asylum for a new job. He is met not by the doctor in chief but the second fiddle (a typically seedy Patrick Magee) who informs him that Dr Starr has had a breakdown and is among the patients in the private rooms upstairs. Can Martin guess which patient it is?
Ascending the staircase Martin looks at a series of macabre depictions of violent insanity which are a kind of adaptation of Hogarth and Rowlandson. These pictures would never be hung on the walls of a real mental health facility. But this is an ASYLUM for the INCURABLY INSANE. We are in 70s genre land which is exactly what I felt like last night rather than the probably more worthy Winter's Bone which I recorded and will get around to soon. In any case I looked at these drawings and stepped out of the movie for a moment and thought: wow, someone drew those just for this movie. They could have grabbed from public domain horrors from abovementioned artists but they found a contemporary artist to create some new purpose-drawn pictures for this two minute sequence. Golden spuds!
So then we go upstairs and meet the cheerfully sinister orderly who shows Martin the inmates one by one who tell their stories. These stories, by the way are all penned by Robert Bloch who wrote, among other things, the novel Psycho. Once the awkward cravat-enriched setup had passed I found myself marvelling at how effective the first one was and how easily I was drawn in to the robust effect of the parts of a torso wrapped in brown paper come to life. It completely trounced the unfortunate over lighting of horrors from this time period. Next story starred the great Charlotte Rampling. Peter Cushing was in the on eafter and the final piece which rounded the last corner to complete the frame starred Herbert Lom. Directed by the largely unsung Roy Ward Baker who also made one of my favourite films of the era, the Nigel Kneale classic Quatermass and the Pit. We are in good hands.
What began as a wish for something light and diverting became a surprising reward. Good stuff with a lot of atmosphere and some real chills which is more than you can say of most western horror flickers nowadays.
If you are inclined to dismiss or ridicule Chinese wirework martial arts or swordplay you should give this one a go. Something about the preposterous action of this genre occured to me while I was watching this film: action in real life is always exaggerated and art-directed by memory so that it's smoother, more heroic and spectactular (you really do remember yourself flying through the air rather than just jumping out of the way of a car). Quite aside from the balletic and gymnastic beauty of the multispeed jousts and fights to the death on display here, the superhuman feats of the combatants are offered as the stuff of legend; we're just seeing the memory of it as though it happened that way at the time. This film mostly plays very fair with this notion as most of the wire work scenes (actually pretty much all CGI at this vintage) are played as flashbacks as Noname tells his story.
That out of the way, Hero yet holds depths that surprised me beneath its olympic coreography and luxurious visuals. The vengeance on offer here (there is a lot of it) is the driver rather than the car which has more of the examination of conflict and the purpose of fighters in its design. Contemporary master Zhang Yimou has won himself if not a fan here as much as one eager to see more.
Here endeth Fibula Films Part the Second as this week I took up my crutches and, being cleared to do so, walked with both feet into work and back into the world. There are a few I started during this time that I haven't felt like finishing due to the pleasantness of feeling freer than I have for the last two months. I'll get around to them and, blissfully, some real cinema screenings soon. Till then, can't say it's been fun but these slight things did extend some real comfort. As such they have my salute. <Salutes. Bows. Walks off assisted.>