Sunday, August 18, 2019

Coriolanus (2011)

Directed by Ralph Fiennes; produced by Ralph Fiennes, John Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Colin Vaines

The Roman Republic is in the midst of a crisis: bread riots result in a suspension of civil liberties, a war is brewing with the neighbouring Volscians, and an election threatens to undermine the constitution. The divisive general Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is propelled into the volatile situation, and finds himself beset by enemies.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies, Coriolanus receives an excellent adaptation here, largely inspired by Fiennes. It is set in modern times, Rome a twenty-first century nation with motor-cars, automatic firearms and cellular telephones. The dialogue remains the Bard’s, though a portion (Fiennes estimated about twenty per cent) has been removed; the anachronism between the setting and the text has led to some criticism. But if the words were updated, then it would merely be a version of the story, and not Shakespeare’s. I have seen several film adaptations of the plays set in times other than the author’s – Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was placed in what appeared to have been the nineteenth century (less rude and raucous than the sixteenth) and Richard III (1995) was in a fictional 1930s Fascist England – and am leery of such contrivances. But in Coriolanus, as in the other two examples, it works.

The acting is first-rate, especially by Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave as his character’s mother. The latter portrays a woman with guts and ambition, the latter tragically misplaced. Her performance demonstrates that she has yet to descend from the top of her form. Brian Cox gives support that seems as natural in sixteenth century English as it would in everyday conversation. Gerard Butler, as Aufidius, Martius’s hated rival, is not, perhaps, in the same league as these three, but then his role is less demanding. Jessica Chastain’s part as Martius’s wife is a thankless one and, though a good actress, she is not really given much to do. But it is Fiennes that drives the movie.

The character of Caius Martius (given the title name by Rome in gratitude for a military victory) is a deceptively complex one. On the surface, he is completely unsympathetic and unlikeable. Cold, aloof, disdainful, awkward with others, out of touch with his family, and comfortable – if the word may be used – only in combat. Being a tragedy, the story is formed by his flaws, and at first glance, one may easily point to his principal problem being pride. But in this version at least, I can’t believe it to be the case. Here, it appears that Martius is troubled by his naïveté and innocence. It seems hard to credit the ruthless and at times brutal general with these qualities. But he comes across as the only character of note who is not out for something.

Martius knows war and is good at it. Thrust into the less honourable arena of politics, he is attacked by career politicians (Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt) who view him as a potential rival; scorned by the people for his haughtiness, and used even by his mother. If Martius deserts Rome, it is not due to disloyalty, but to Rome’s desertion of him, and if he is contemptuous of the common people, the latter in this movie deserve it, being little more than weather-vanes, turned this way and that by the breath of the last speech they have heard.

Hard used by almost everyone, Martius is nonetheless charismatic, gaining a devoted following among both his own and the foes’ soldiers. And even his single-minded violence in battle may hide a diffidence: he speaks of his blood-streaked countenance as a 'mask', and his absence during a recitation of his valorous deeds might be taken for affectation, yet it is clear that he finds talk of his actions disturbing. He may be one of Shakespeare’s more misleading ‘villains’.

I did find aspects of the movie off-putting. The direction by and large is very good, first-time director Fiennes using close-ups and wide-shots well, and letting faces take the place of dialogue in a way a stage, often almost out of sight to theatre-audiences, cannot. But different accents were included among the speech – Irish, South African, Serbian – and this was more jarring than any modern appliance paired with Shakespearean dialogue. It may have been done to aid just that modern effect the setting created, or to show the cosmopolitan character of Rome (this reason would be ironic, as Rome of Martius’s time was yet a small city-state). As well, some of the words are incomprehensible due to tone and accent. This may be due to Fiennes’s use of subtlety, a problem not to be encountered in the equally laudable Henry V (1989), directed by the more overt Kenneth Branagh.

I liked Coriolanus when I saw it, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It is not a movie for everyone. For Shakespeare fans, it is essential, and for those who enjoy films with character, acting and good direction, it is highly recommended.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Saskatchewan (1954)

Directed by Raoul Walsh; produced by Aaron Rosenberg

It’s 1877, and a Northwest Mounted Police inspector (Alan Ladd) in western Canada has his hands full. His new superior (Robert Douglas) is inexperienced but arrogant; the lone survivor (Shelley Winters) of a massacre doesn’t want to be rescued; an American lawman (Hugh O’Brian) is giving trouble, and there may be an Indian uprising in the offing.

The first thing one might notice about this movie is the poster, which depicts the stars against a background of huge mountains. To those who know the province of the film’s title, showing mountains in connection with it is rather like describing the vast, sweeping plains of Switzerland, or the burning deserts of Delaware. The script manages to avoid actual irony by setting the story at the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, which are indeed in the Rocky Mountains. But its geography is askew in other ways. It mentions Forts Saskatchewan and Walsh, but neither of these real places are anywhere near the mountains. As well, Winters is first encountered trying to get to Battleford from Fort Macleod. That route would in reality take one away from the Rockies, not keep one in them.

Why Saskatchewan was chosen as the title, I don’t know. The name may have sounded exotic to the American producers. I am reminded of the scene in Rogue Male in which the protagonist confides to his uncle that he must go into hiding. The uncle advocates fleeing abroad, perhaps to Saskatchewan, which he pronounces very deliberately. Then he adds, “Er, where is…Sas-kat-chew-an?”

However, the film is historically at fault, as well. The story centres on a large body of Sioux coming into Canada after their victory over the United States at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Filled with confidence, they seek to incite the native Cree to rebel against Canada. The attempts of Ladd to keep the peace, and deal with the results, form the bulk of the story. In fact, the Sioux came to Canada to settle down in peace, though they eventually returned to the U.S.

All of this I can forgive in the right movie. I am not so pedantic as to insist on rigid accuracy if the film is a good one. But Saskatchewan is not really that good. Ladd’s character is a standard type: raised locally (how he ended up in the NWMP when all of its initial members came from elsewhere is not explained), he is knowledgeable and experienced; his new superior is a stiff know-it-all. There’s the Indian blood-brother (Jay Silverheels), the tough girl on the run, ambushes, gun-fights. While it is all competently done, it has also been competently done before, and better. The writing is unmemorable, the characters two-dimensional. And did no writer ever hear of infection from bullet wounds? One Mountie runs to join his fellows for the climactic battle just days after being shot in the abdomen.

While Saskatchewan certainly shows Canada in a good light, it does not reflect as well upon its own qualities. If viewers want entertainment with a Mountie in it, perhaps they could watch an old episode of Due South instead.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Tuck Everlasting (1981)

Directed by Frederick King Keller; produced by Howard Kling

In the early years of the twentieth century, Winnie Foster (Margaret Chamberlain) is an over-protective girl with no friends. One day, she braves the wrath of her mother and explores the near by woods, where she meets a boy named Jesse Tuck (Paul Flessa). He introduces Winnie to his family. They act oddly but not sinisterly, though they are definitely evasive when confronted by a stranger (James McGuire) in a yellow suit. It turns out that the Tucks have a secret for which others would pay a lot – and for which the Tucks themselves have paid a lot.

I very much wanted to like this movie. I had heard of it decades ago, and have been since searching for a copy to watch. It is an independent production (so much that it doesn’t seem to have had a poster), filmed on just $60,000 in upstate New York, with unknown actors who have appeared in almost no other motion picture or television production. The work seems to have been done among a small group: the actor who portrays Angus is the father of the director (both worked on the screenplay), while another Keller is credited with the costume design. It was clearly a labour of love, and it deserves some fame. I am not one who automatically supports the underdog in most things, but since this was remade twenty years later, with the now-requisite big budget and big name actors, I was in the 1981 production’s corner. However, I cannot write that I was not disappointed.

The acting was adequate, more than so from the principal adults (Fred A Keller, Sonia Raimi, McGuire); that from the younger players shows promise. The low budget means little with the skill to use it, and the locations were perfect. The fault, I found, was mainly with the direction; to a lesser extent, with the script.

The direction, though competent, does not give the movie the charm that it needs. The direction seems workmanlike, rather than inspired, and I believe the movie-makers were really inspired by Natalie Babbitt’s original novel. I dismissed the poor visual quality of my version (apparent in the images displayed here), which may or may not be indicative of the production. Rather, I think Tuck Everlasting needed, as a film, someone behind the camera with more vision, or experience.

I cannot tell how much, if at all, the script diverged from the book, since I have not read the latter. But it comes across as obvious in many spots, and heavy-handed in others. For instance, when it is explained to Winnie how the secret of the Tucks might be exploited for wealth, and its benefits given only to those who could afford it, the exact sentiment, almost the same words, are used by the villain when he describes his plans.

Regrettably, Tuck Everlasting falls into the category of it being better to read the book, than to see the movie.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sleepers West (1941)

Directed by Eugene Forde; produced by Sol M Wurtzel

Private detective Mike Shayne (Lloyd Nolan) has what should be a simple assignment: escorting a trial-witness by train from Denver to San Francisco. But the witness (Mary Beth Hughes) is barely co-operative, Shayne’s old girlfriend (Lynn Bari) is aboard with her fiancé and newswoman’s instinct, and certain parties are interested in keeping the witness from testifying. Needless to say, it will likely be a sleepless night for Shayne.

This is the second of seven films, shot and released quickly over three years, starring Nolan as the investigator, Michael Shayne. I haven’t seen the others but, if Sleepers West is typical of the series, they were competently if inexpensively produced, decently written and well-performed.

Nolan was already a veteran of many movies by the time he was cast as the lead here, and his natural, almost diffident manner makes it easy to see why. His fellow performers are all good supporting actors, most with credits as numerous as Nolan’s, though mostly in small bits. Even so, they are all capable.

The writing is a surprise, as it delves rather deeply into the personalities of two supporting characters, who threaten to eclipse the leads. A minor but significant sub-plot features the train’s driver who has a schedule to keep, regardless of safety. Detective Shayne is depicted as tough, but far from hard-boiled. In fact, he seems as much determined to win back his former love as he is to succeed in his assignment. He has a fine sense of humour, which, fortunately, the script was able to display (it’s a dismal feature of many movies to be told that a character is this or that, only to have no evidence shown to support the claim) and the reporter/girlfriend is able to match him.

The plot is quite simple. There is no actual detection done here; this is a more or less straightforward action/adventure yarn. This is of course acceptable if other elements make up for the deficiency, and in Sleepers West they do. The movie isn’t a classic, of course, but as a light-weight (and light-hearted), entertaining crime story, it does what it no doubt intended to do.

(Another poster to note here. This one has a kind of art deco train and three people, only one of whom looks like the actors involved. In fact, the man seems to me to resemble George Raft more than Lloyd Nolan...)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951)

Directed by Robert Wise; produced by Robert Bassler

After spending six years in a German concentration camp, a Polish woman (Valentina Cortese) takes a desperate gamble. She impersonates her recently deceased friend in order to start a new life in the United States. Vowing to take care of her late friend’s child - too young when parted from his mother to remember her - the refugee begins to enjoys the wealth, prosperity and happiness her new persona brings, until she suspects that something is wrong, even dangerous, in her surroundings.

Viewers may see The House on Telegraph Hill as derivative of both Rebecca and Suspicion. Certainly, it has elements of both, and if one hasn’t seen either of the earlier films, this one will be gripping and intriguing. But even if one is familiar with the two Hitchcock movies, The House on Telegraph Hill will hold its own. I believe its climax is more thrilling than Suspicion’s (and truer to the atmosphere and characters of the film), though you may have just as difficult a time determining who is up to what.

The direction cannot be faulted. Wise creates a tense feeling inside the title house, a house which is not really that frightening (unlike the one in his later The Haunting). This was, pardon the pun, wise, as the house in this movie is not the home of ghosts, but is seen as a welcoming place by the heroine. When she feels something is amiss, it is clear the problem lies with the people, though which ones may be tough to guess until the end. There is also a good scene in which a car’s brakes fail on the precipitous streets of San Francisco; it will cause more than one viewer to hold his breath.

The story is a good one. Cortese may be seen as a schemer but, I imagine, half a decade in Belsen would make anyone jump at a chance for security and happiness, especially if, as she believes, no one will be hurt by it. She is, however, a decent person, and tries her best both to fit and be a good member of her new family. The clues to a sinister plot in the background are well-laid, and the plot doesn’t point to anyone in particular for some time. When the revelation comes, it comes with a casualness which is both intended and startling. The principal complaint with the storyline is with the coincidence of the U.S. Army refugee placement officer (William Lundigan) re-appearing as a long-time acquaintance of Cortese’s husband.

The acting is most satisfactory. Richard Basehart gives his usual strong characterization as a lawyer who swiftly falls in love with the immigrant he at first questions, then befriends. Fay Baker’s performance is strong but perhaps too reminiscent of Judith Anderson’s housekeeper in Rebecca, though her motives are quite different. Lundigan may seem to be a routine love interest, but he may be perceived as too flippant, the way an unlikely suspect is in a mystery, though this has more to do with the directing and writing than his acting.

All in all, The House on Telegraph Hill is an atmospheric, well-executed thriller, taking full benefit of the directing and the leads’ talent.