Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Directed by Fritz Lang; produced by Seton I. Miller

A man (Ray Milland), just released from a mental institution, passes the time waiting for his train by taking in a village fête. There he correctly guesses the weight of a cake, thanks to a clue given by a fortune-teller. His new pastry is immediately the goal of several attempts at theft, and he quickly realises that he has stumbled into a plot laid by criminals.

Ministry of Fear falls into a sub-category of adventure film in which ordinary people get caught up in intrigue and action, usually due to unwittingly possessing something that nefarious parties want. There are better examples, such The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, but Ministry of Fear nonetheless provides fun entertainment. Milland is a solid choice for the leading man, stalwart and not one to be pushed around, but with a hint of vulnerability, due to his past. The acting from everyone is good; as is often the case, the supporting performers can lend invaluable support (or ruin an otherwise good film) and here Percy Waram as a gloomy police inspector and Hillary Brooke as an beautiful medium stand out. Strangely, Dan Duryea is wasted in a small role that anyone could have played.

The principal problem is, I think, the script. The story, from a Graham Greene novel, is involving, with aliases and hidden identities all over the place. But it still comes off as rather light. Enemy spies are after something hidden in Milland’s prize cake, but why hide anything in a cake? It’s not as if the cake were being smuggled to Germany; it was simply to be passed from one person not under surveillance to another.

Milland’s character is initially incarcerated for the mercy-killing of his wife. But except for the opening scene and that of a séance, its effects are not really important. Time and clocks figure prominently at first but, like the occult, are not referred to much afterward. I could not help thinking that these themes could have been used for added tension.

The relationship between Milland and his love-interest (Marjorie Reynolds) develops far too fast for credibility. A superior example of time being taken in creating a relationship - producing suspense in romance to parallel that in action - may be found in the aforementioned The 39 Steps. Motivation is also not explored in the villains. More than one is a refugee from Nazi tyranny, yet we are not told if they were imposters all along, if blackmail or pressure was used, etc. Characters are slender in Ministry of Fear.

All that written, there is no denying that the movie is enjoyable. Fun and fast-paced, it may be less successful than some, but is undeniably more entertaining than many. Like Milland’s cake, Ministry of Fear is light, looks good and is tasty, if not quite as filling as one would like.

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.