Sunday, January 13, 2019

A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

There's some El Topo and some Dead Man and obviously some Peter Watkins in the creative DNA of Ben Wheatley's picture, which seems like the sort of film more likely to have appeared forty years before it actually did. Written by his wife Amy Jump -- the couple collaborated on the editing -- it had a bit of Samuel Beckett flavor at first, in part because of its motley cast of eccentrics wandering through emptiness and in part because the first third of the picture looks very much like a filmed play. Characters mutter and mumble at the edge of an English Civil War battlefield to little purpose, and Wheatley seems clueless, though this was his third feature film, about framing their dialogue to make it dramatic or meaningful. It turns out, of course, that he was saving the bravura visuals for later. Only after the characters gorge themselves on magic mushrooms does it come to life as a movie, though the meaning may well remain unclear for many viewers. Suffice it to say that things get interesting when our protagonists, on little immediately apparent pretense, tug mightily on a rope to disinter a seeming corpse that quickly reasserts its vitality and dominance over the group. This is O'Neill (Michael Smiley), a treasure hunter and an enemy to Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) or to Whitehead's offscreen "master." Whitehead claims authority to place O'Neill under arrest, but his antagonist quickly demonstrates his superiority, "arresting" Whitehead and doing something more, suggestively implicit, in his tent in order to exploit Whitehead's apparent dowsing powers for his own ends. The menials are soon set to digging, but one by one they die of their own violence and the rivalry of the principals, though death is only a temporary setback for some of these characters -- though you may wonder by the end whether the idea was that they -- the characters other than Whitehead or O'Neill -- were dead all along. Don't expect to learn anything about Cromwell or Charles I from this picture, as the setting seems to have been chosen purely for aesthetic purposes, if that's the right word for the blasted locations. Do expect to be impressed by the intensified monochrome cinematography of Laurie Rose in the second half of the picture as it assumes Whitehead's manic or merely intoxicated perspective. You probably can argue that Wheatley and Jump have made an honest effort to recreate the mystic mentality of many in the seventeenth century in their film's more visionary and violent moments. But you probably could also argue that A Field in England is simply a film best appreciated under the influence of the same mushrooms the characters consume with such fervor.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

DAY OF ANGER (I giorni dell'ira, 1967)

 Few films identify themselves so blatantly as star vehicles in their opening titles , 
but the first-ever teaming of red-hot western stars Gemma and Van Cleef was one of this one's main attractions.
At first glance, Tonino Valerii's film appears to be based on an English-language novel, but on further review source author Ron Barker was really German scribe Rolf O. Becker, and in any event the filmmakers claim that the screenplay was more inspired by than adapted from Becker/Barker's Death Rode on Tuesdays. Nevertheless, Day of Anger is one of those spaghetti westerns that feels more like an American western in its focus on the main character's moral crisis. To be Germanic about it after all, it's a kind of western bildungsroman in which a naive youth learns what it means to be a gunman under the tutelage of rival mentors.


Scott (Giuliano Gemma) is the town pariah in the community of Clifton, for no better reason than his illegitimate birth. He's given the most disreputable tasks, particularly trash collection, and is despised by respectable townsfolk. His life changes when Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) rides through town on his way to Bowie. He seems to sympathize with Scott's outcast status and seems offended when Scott reveals that he has no last name. Since his mother's name was Mary, Frank dubs him Scott Mary and insists on treating him to drinks in the local saloon, where he kills one of Scott's tormentors. A court calls it self-defense, but everyone feels that the victim meant no real harm, so Frank is urged on his way, and Scott follows him, riding his faithful mule Sartana (!!)


On their journey together Talby takes it upon himself to teach Scott a number of valuable life lessons, most of which boil down to cynical pragmatism. It sometimes means treating Scott rough, but Frank seems sincere about wanting to toughen up his new protege. His efforts pay off as Scott saves him from a criminal gang, friends of the man he came to Bowie to meet. He and Wild Jack (Al Mulock) had been involved in a bank robbery in Clifton, for which Frank had served time in prison. Jack tells him that the town fathers of Clifton had had a hand in the robbery and had screwed him out of his (and Frank's) share -- about $50,000. Frank decides to assume Jack's claim on the city and after eliminating Jack and his gang with Scott's help he returns to Clifton for a reckoning.

 Cinematographer Enzo Serafin is fond of showing characters in mirrors  (left)
before they enter the frame proper

At this point it sounds like the Point Blank scenario, but Talby has more ambitious plans. After burning down the leading saloon and destroying those who plotted to destroy him, Frank opens his own opulent gambling joint and settles down. The realization that Talby is driven ultimately by greed rather than revenge hastens Scott's estrangement from him. The disillusionment continues as Scott's old friend and fellow stable bum Murph (Walter Rilla), who taught Scott a fast draw with a wooden gun, reveals himself as a former gunfighter who once drove Talby from another town. Recognizing Talby as an incorrigible bad man, Murph braces up and becomes the town marshal while advising Scott on tactical firearm modification. After Talby kills Murph, Scott finds a special gun the old man had tailored just for him, just to outdraw Talby....

Lee Van Cleef is The Master ... of ceremonies  

 Day of Anger stands out for some things the writers refuse to do. All the way through I waited for a shoe to drop and for Talby or someone else to identify himself as Scott Mary's father, but it never happens and it didn't need to. It observes Talby's mentorship of Scott without comment, except to perhaps endorse Murph's view that Frank simply wants a younger man as extra muscle. Another interesting detail is that, while Scott gradually turns against Talby, Frank never really does anything to betray his protege, apart perhaps from bringing in extra gunmen rather than rely on Scott exclusively. He may be vicious in general, but the people of Clifton and environs demonstrate constantly that he lives in a vicious world, as he tries to convey to Scott. There's an admirable ambivalence about Talby that allows you to conclude that, yes, he would resent a guilty town's mistreatment of an innocent boy and, yes, he could take advantage of that boy's resentment and ambition for his own ends. It helps greatly that Lee Van Cleef gives the part such gravitas. This film, among others, confirms what Sergio Leone saw in him that Hollywood had missed for so long. It's a tremendous showcase for Van Cleef's baleful charisma and perhaps his best performance in an Italian western outside of Leone's films. It's a shame you can't have a version of the film that allows Van Cleef to speak English while Gemma speaks Italian, for while screencaps convey nicely the Italian star's portrayal through facial expressions and body language of an ambitious naif increasingly horrified at the prospect of his own hardening, the English dub saddles him with a dumb yokel voice that makes it hard to take Scott seriously as consistently as we should.


As an obvious "A" spaghetti western Day of Anger has predictably good cinematography (by Enzo Serafin) and even better set design that makes Clifton one of the most fully realized fictional towns in the genre. The highlight, of course, is Frank Talby's saloon with its giant guns flanking the entrance, its unusual placement of the stage on an upper tier, and almost psychedelic design motifs -- the common influence seems to be Art Nouveau -- inside. Riz Ortolani does the music for this one and gives it a brassy swagger on top of the characteristic guitar sound. If anything, his score contributes to the film's slightly excessive length and occasionally dragging pace. There are numerous scenes of Van Cleef and Gemma riding through not exactly spectacular landscapes simply so Ortolani's music can play. It's not bad music at all, but moments like those make Day of Anger feel more like a modern soundtrack-padded American film than a contemporary western. For the most part, however, it looks and sounds like what it is: one of the best of the spaghetti westerns.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

DVR Diary: LOVE ON THE RUN (1936)

This W.S. Van Dyke comedy is a midpoint between It Happened One Night and Too Hot to Handle in Clark Gable's evolution into a lovably amoral hero. As in the other films, Gable plays a reporter, and as in Too Hot he has a rival, here played by Franchot Tone. Gable draws the short end and has to cover the wedding of an American heiress (Joan Crawford, then Mrs. Tone) and some petty prince only to witness the bride bolting the ceremony. He latches on to her, keeping his vocation a secret as long as possible, as reporters must in such stories, while sending dispatches at every opportunity during their flight from London, which begins literally in an airplane Gable barely knows how to pilot. The pair quickly realize that the plane, belonging to an aristocratic aviator Tone is interviewing, actually is a vehicle for espionage. Thus begins a would-be merry chase across the continent, with Tone and the spies constantly butting in. The problem is that the mutual attraction of Gable and Crawford is taken for granted rather than plausibly developed, while their adventures are almost childishly silly, particularly their unlikely night in the Fontainebleau palace and their romp with a pixilated caretaker who takes them for ghostly royalty. Meanwhile, the film pauses every so often to showcase William Demarest's repetitive conniption fits as Gable's editor, while Tone, who must have found the whole experience humiliating, is made to look like a complete idiot throughout compared to the more worthy rival to Gable played by Walter Pidgeon in Too Hot to Handle. Where that film rises to a truly entertaining cartoonishness, Love on the Run seems merely as blandly corny as the worst you might expect from the era of Code Enforcement.  The sad part is that this made a profit,and the later film didn't.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

CENTURION (2010)

Once a hot genre director, Neil Marshall will release his first theatrical feature film in nine years when the Hellboy reboot -- heralded by an unimpressive trailer in theaters now -- premieres this April. Marshall, who made his name worldwide with The Descent in 2005, has been stuck directing TV since Centurion flopped in 2010. It's a film I've long been curious about, but maybe it's part of the problem that I've only just gotten around to seeing it. Whatever the case, now that I have seen it I can say it wasn't that bad, but there are some things I didn't care for. The CGI blood sprays are unrealistically instantaneous, for instance, and I still find it jarring to hear Roman soldiers from nearly 2,000 years ago using modern swear words. I understand it's meant to make them relatable as common men rather than antique aliens, but just as when I tried to watch the Spartacus TV show it always threatens to take me right out of the story. Hollywood has conditioned me too well, I guess. Anyway, on the positive side of the ledger Centurion is an often-impressive outdoor action picture that suggests a symbolic birthing of Britain from the mating, promised at the end, of the best of both worlds, Roman and Briton (or Pict), though each is in a tiny minority. Starting out as the sole survivor of a Roman outpost overrun by the woad-wearing savages, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) escapes only to lead the remnants of the almost-annihilated Ninth Legion back to safety behind the new line of defense, Hadrian's Wall. For his trouble he's targeted for death by unscrupulous officials who want no one to tell of the legion's sad fate -- led into an ambush by a treacherous guide (Olga Kuryenko) who was trusted by the highest authorities. Marshall likes his strong female, so the guide Etain becomes the primary antagonist of the picture, leading the Picts with her super tracking skills while Quintus rallies a motley band, not all of whom are worth saving, to safety. Along the way the Romans take shelter with Arianne, a woman exiled by the Picts for alleged witchcraft (Imogen Poots) who seems the nearest thing to a "real" Englishwoman on screen. She knows Latin (the Picts speak in subtitles, making the natives the "other" against the multicultural but all Anglo inflected Romans) just as Quintus has mastered Pictish, each finding in the other at last an object for sincere cross-cultural communication. In the environment established by Marshall Arianne seems too good to be true, but I suppose such people are exceptional everywhere. The point seems to be that she and Quintus aren't going to find good people anywhere else. The main point, however, is that the action scenes justify this film's existence. Marshall arguably is a good enough action director that he doesn't need to punctuate his combats, but once a horror guy, always a horror guy. After a while the decapitations and such started to seem sophomorically superflous, but in the climactic fight, with the last three Romans defending an abandoned fort (introduced in a scene like something out of Northwest Passage) against a foolhardy final Pictish attack, Marshall focuses on drama rather than effects and makes the best scene in the film. You can see why he's remained in demand for genre projects, though maybe the film as a whole also shows in its excesses why he hasn't been given a chance to do something of his own for so long now.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Too Much TV: ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018)

From prison, Joyce Mitchell has denounced Ben Stiller's true-crime miniseries, calling the director a "son-of-a-bitch liar" for the way he, writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin and actress Patricia Arquette portrayed her. For his part, Stiller has appealed to court records corroborating most of what the writers put down about "Tilly" Mitchell's relationship with the escaped murderers David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro). For her part, Mitchell's gift of free publicity to the series while it was still running only confirms the impression the series creates of a bitter, stupid woman. For those who missed it all, Mitchell ran a textile shop at the Clinton prison in Dannemora where Sweat and later Matt were given positions of responsibility that included, according to most accounts apart from hers, sexual relations with Mitchell. Bored with her oafish second husband (Eric Lange), Tilly begins to collaborate in Sweat and Matt's elaborate escape plan, smuggling crucial tools to them inside packages of hamburger indifferently conveyed to Matt by a lazy guard (David Mose). In Shawkshank fashion -- the tabloids gave Tilly the cruel nickname "Shawskank" -- Sweat cut his way into a network of catwalks and ventilation pipes finally leading out of the prison while Matt kept Mitchell interested, so to speak. The hope of all of them, if only for a moment, is to take a joyride to Mexico, but when Tilly chickens out at the last minute rather than poison her husband, the escapees are left to their own devices in an attempt to reach Canada through the tracts of wilderness surrounding the prison town.

This all played out quite a distance from where I live in New York State, but local news media covered it as a major story. I remember seeing the news of Sweat's capture, a few days after Matt's death, appearing on TVs in a restaurant as I was being treated to dinner on my birthday in 2015, so it was an odd sensation seeing those events recreated on film -- especially in something more ambitious than the typical true-crime docudrama. Stiller's series is an exercise in social realism like something by Zola, Dreiser or Frank Norris, an attempted unflinching gaze at mundane human depravity. It eschews sensationalism -- prison rape apparently isn't a worry for honor-block cons like Matt and Sweat -- but grows more unsettling, if not repulsive, as you see the depths to which characters sink. I regret to say that that includes the utterly cynical way in which Matt romances Tilly, played with fearless grotesquerie by Arquette as a would-be femme fatale, if not simply a sociopathic nympho in the body of a middle-aged, snaggle-toothed frump. Yet you can almost empathize with Tilly as she endures the pressure to meet quotas inside the prison-industrial complex and deals with the well-meaning imbecility of her husband Lyle. I thought Eric Lange's performance some over-the-top caricature and unfair on Stiller's part until I saw photos of the real man, but even if he looks like the world's stupidest man Lyle emerges as probably the most sympathetic of all the characters, guileless if not selfless in his love for Tilly. Pretty much everyone else on the show is lousy in some way or other, from Morse's bored guard who tries to be Matt's buddy at one moment only to lamely assert his autori-tah! in the next to another who has no apparent purpose except to bully the prisoners with words if not deeds.

As for the escapees, Paul Dano shows a side of himself as a performer I've never seen before. I'm used to seeing him play little weirdos going back to There Will Be Blood, but here, as David Sweat, he's the most level-headed, capable and pragmatic character despite obvious and sometimes self-defeating anger management issues. It's fascinating to see him play stooge to Del Toro's swaggering Matt, only to see the worm turn once they're out of prison and forced to rough it. Matt comes across as one of those "institutionalized" types who are cocks of the walk inside the walls, but have lost the ability to function outside. Richard Matt fancied himself an artist and was respected as one by Tilly and other guards, but his art is utterly impersonal and crass -- yet he keeps at it almost until the end, sketching a horse on the wall of an abandoned home that looks almost like a Lascaux cave painting. He has the artistic temperament in the negative sense of lacking nearly all common sense once he's free, as if the only way he can express his freedom is by getting drunk and making noise when Sweat desperately needs him to be quiet. If Matt's the dominant personality in prison, he becomes more like a Lennie to Sweat's George once they're out -- which is only fitting since Del Toro more closely resembles Lon Chaney Jr. now than he did in The Wolfman.

Seven episodes over nearly eight hours gives Stiller the opportunity to display a range of pictorial styles. The early chapters are all gritty realism and do a great job, thanks also to location shooting, immersing us in the drab world of Dannemora. For episode five, featuring the breakout, the director shifts styles suddenly, giving us action-movie style long takes and dramatic music as Sweat makes a dry run from his cell to the outside before summoning Matt to join him. The direction can't help but create a sense of exhilaration after we've followed the prisoners patiently through their labors, and that has to be why Stiller and the writers waited until the next episode to flash back and show us exactly how Sweat and Matt ended up in prison. Matt's crime is especially horrific as he tortures a former employer to find a hoard of money that doesn't exist, finally killing him more or less by accident and then brutally dismembering the body. An especially interesting choice was to wait until after that to tell how Tilly hooked up with Lyle. The story underscores further how much of a sap Lyle was while stripping away what sympathy we might have granted Tilly for sparing him in the previous episode, once we see how she set him up to take a beating as part of a plan to get custody of her son from the husband she dumped in Lyle's favor. Of course Tilly's schemes aren't as terrible as the crimes of Sweat and Matt, but the more valid conclusion to be drawn, Joyce Mitchell's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, is that she was as ruthlessly selfish as the two murderers. That penultimate episode probably was the most harrowing hour of TV I saw in all of 2018, and Escape at Dannemora as a whole was one of the best TV programs of that now-departed year.