CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: May, 2016

“Time of the Wolf” (2003)

"Time of the Wolf" poster

 

I completely understand the appeal of stories set in the aftermath of apocalyptic events. Whether with movies, books, TV shows, or what have you, people jump on any opportunity to fantasize about a world without rules, to picture society stripped of all pretense and imagine how they’d survive in the wake of its collapse. The premise conjures a liberating rush that can be really something, but for yours truly, the meat of tales revolving around the end times tends to lie within the process of getting to that point, rather than when things have long since gone kablooey. Case and point, 2003’s Time of the Wolf, in which art house icon and unlikely Twitter parody target Michael Haneke shares his view of how mankind might react as decency and decorum crumble around it. By supplying the audience with the bare minimum of exposition (or, depending on how you look at it, none at all), Haneke leaves them as lost as his characters and grasping for some semblance of order while such concepts are swiftly becoming distant memories. Such ambiguity doesn’t always work in Time of the Wolf‘s favor, yet what the film does accomplish on the little it gives itself to work with is nothing to turn your nose up at, either.

In the not-too-distant future, an unknown crisis has gripped France — and quite possibly the planet, too. Livestock are dying off in droves, clean water has become increasingly scarce, and those who haven’t succumbed to some disease or another are hell-bent on protecting what little they have left. Unfortunately, Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) hasn’t much to her name anymore, with her husband murdered and supplies stolen by squatters in what they’d hoped would be their sanctuary. Left alone to care for her children (Anaïs Demoustier and Lucas Biscombe), Anne has no choice but to press on and scrounge for whatever can keep her family as afloat as possible. Eventually, the group makes its way to an old railway station populated with other survivors, all of whom are waiting for something — be it rescue or death — to happen. But as the more grim of the options looms closer, Anne struggles to instill a sense of optimism within her kids and help them hang onto their humanity.

Time of the Wolf is the sort of movie more apt to chill you to the bone with instances of quiet coldness than with montages of leather-clad marauders or rioting in the streets. The first, incredibly disturbing scene sets the tone for the sort of receptions the Laurents will be largely greeted with, as most of the populace has become numb to compassion and dismiss any pleas for assistance that come their way. With an atmosphere so bleak, it’s natural for viewers to react with outrage, but the story finds a compelling edge with the understanding that Haneke brings to the proceedings. Yes, supremely unfair things happen to Time of the Wolf‘s protagonists, yet we’re always reminded that everyone is in the precise same boat. From the wounded Anne to the closest thing the film has to “villains,” Haneke sympathizes with virtually every character in this universe, acknowledging the horrible losses that have come to drive their current actions. This surfaces in both subtle and more overt ways, with the same applying to how he proposes his players deal with all of the heartache afoot. Nearly each of its frames possesses someone shedding tears, pleading for answers, or both, and yet the picture posits that as long as there’s at least one soul determined to push on regardless, it’s inspiration enough for others to follow suit. It isn’t always obvious, but Haneke feels more as if he’s studying this fragile balance with hope for the future, rather than acting as a cruel cinema god raining punishment for punishment’s sake down upon his own creations.

However, while it effectively communicates the kind of widespread shock such a cataclysm as the one depicted might bring about, there’s something a little underwhelming about how Time of the Wolf plays out. Numerous scenes seem as though they belong in an apocalypse-themed Slacker spin-off, with the Laurents serving as our guides to a host of personalities and subplots that only pop up for a few brief moments at most. Even in their fleeting amounts of screen time, a nice chunk of these tangents are fascinating and heartrending, and yet the leads never quite capture our interest as fully. This isn’t to mean that the Laurents aren’t enthralling characters in the slightest, especially when the cast (the indomitable Huppert, in particular) is so clearly crushing it and selling every ounce of their anguish. But with Haneke visibly indecisive over whether to give Anne and the kids the closest to closure the flick has or treating them as fairly as anyone else, they don’t entirely click as the audience surrogates they’re meant to be. Time of the Wolf gives the impression that it would’ve been better off had it comprised itself of little moments scattered across a greater canvas of tragedy, instead of trying to highlight a few certain figures at the same time and come across distracted in the process. Also, while there are no major issues with the plot storing so much of its background in the dark, we do run into the occasional spot where uncertainty just isn’t enough to go on, when but a hair more of clear prodding in the story department could’ve improved the narrative’s sense of progression.

Still, Time of the Wolf displays more tact and craft than those big-screen bummers content to cruise by on autopilot. Other flicks have smeared sadness across the screen and left it at that, but as downplayed as Haneke’s approach can be, he makes an effort to do something constructive with his tour of duty in the trenches of misery. Though it doesn’t entirely stick the landing, Time of the Wolf has plenty of thought-provoking ideas and powerful imagery to go around anyway.

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“The Assassin” (1952)

"British Noir" cover art

 

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

 

"The Assassin" poster

 

Renzo Uccello is sure causing a lot of fuss for a dead fellow. It’s he whom private investigator Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) has flown all the way to Venice to seek, so that he may be rewarded for an act of heroism performed during World War II. Everyone that Mercer meets insists that Uccello perished in an air raid, but our man is inclined to disagree…especially since the first one to come to him with information on the guy ended up taking a beating from some goons. The gumshoe suspects some sort of cover-up afoot, one that involves an art restorer (Eva Bartok) and a string of bodies that conspicuously starts piling up after his snooping commences. However, the closer Mercer comes to finding out what business Uccello was involved with, the bigger a target he becomes not only for some shady underworld types but also for the police, who view his own dubious wartime past as reason enough to pin a number of heinous acts on his head.

The Assassin sort of plays out as a budget version of The Third Man, though that’s no condescending slam. As in Carol Reed’s masterwork, the specter of war is always lounging about the background of this picture, informing the premise of battle having seemingly turned an upstanding dude onto a life of crime. Our story is also set at a point when wounds between once-warring nations were still a touch fresh, giving the authorities some subtle motivation to keep a closer eye on Mercer while he tries to dig up some answers. Observant overtones like these are present throughout The Assassin, but the movie’s ultimate trouble lies with its refusal to accomplish anything of importance with them. The narrative swiftly falls into a repetitive “Where’s Renzo Uccello?” refrain, as if having the characters constantly question the mystery man’s whereabouts is enough to boost the viewer’s concern. Very little oomph has been integrated into the plot’s diversions, with the suspicion cast on Mercer’s checkered history coming off as a transparent attempt to throw us off the scent from the get-go. The film as a whole is simply neither dramatically-satisfying or particularly suspenseful, although the Venetian locations are quite nice, and Todd does a fine job as the exasperated private eye.

While the lion’s share of its frames might be doused in that inky blackness that sets every noir fan’s heart aflutter, The Assassin‘s journey down the corridors of man’s dark side is a bit of a snoozer. It spends a criminally-lengthy amount of time running in place, shirking one chance after another to make deeper connections with the story elements at hand, until the audience is too disinterested when some plot twists finally are dumped in their collective laps. The makings of a cracking continental thriller are here, but unfortunately, The Assassin ends up feeling about as generic as its title.

“Golden Salamander” (1950)

"British Noir" cover art

 

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

 

"Golden Salamander" poster

 

It was supposed to be a simple job. Mild-mannered archaeologist David Redfern (Trevor Howard) had been sent to northern Africa, on an assignment to supervise the return of some highly valuable artifacts. But while he initially ignores an accidental run-in with some gun smugglers, he’s inspired to take action by an inscription on one of the statues in his care…as well as by fetching barmaid Anna (Anouk Aimee). Anna’s brother (Jacques Sernas) has fallen in with the gang, and to save the family from future heartache, David offers to help hitch him a ride to freedom back in Europe. But this scheme doesn’t cotton with the crooks, whose ringleader (Walter Rilla) and chief enforcer (Herbert Lom) are itching to exercise deadly force on anyone who dares meddle with their plans.

In proper noir fashion, Golden Salamander tells a story in which everyone would’ve been better off minding their own business. After wrestling not long at all with his sense of moral responsibility, David thrusts out a helping hand without pondering the consequences such an action would bring, all the death and grief in which he’d play a sizable role. Even the bad guys, as suspicious as they are of what our protagonist may or may not know at the start, are shown to have likely left him alone and probably not even hurt anybody else, if his mouth had remain shut. Golden Salamander is brave to wallow in the negative repercussions of playing hero as it does, but alas, its time entrenched in the darkness is more fleeting than few would enjoy. For as long as it features David kicking himself for what he’s done after tragedy strikes, the film doesn’t devote nearly enough exploration as it should into the idea of his newfound backbone stemming in large part from his affections for Anna. Just the faintest notion of casting our hero as a leering old man selfishly cozying up to a young girl is touched upon before it’s disregarded, in favor of painting theirs as a more conventional romance, complete with beachside make-out sessions and frolicking (which, no matter how great of an actor as he was, was not one of Howard’s strong suits). The third act lapses into a fairly tedious cat-and-mouse game between David and the gunrunners, and although it’s not without its suspenseful moments (particularly when Lom’s henchman chases our leads into the middle of a boar hunt), an eleventh-hour and ill-supported twist comes out of nowhere to leave viewers puzzled for all the wrong reasons.

Kudos to Golden Salamander for wading into thematically-murky waters to begin with, but audacity only gets it so far. At some point, the plot has to make good on its ambitions, and while the performers pitch in to bestow some personality upon the proceedings (be it Aimee’s innocent charm or Lom’s menace), the audience is often left without meaty material on which to mentally chew. Try as it might to make the noir grade and subvert some thriller conventions, an “A” for effort is about the highest mark Golden Salamander ends up with.

“Snowbound” (1948)

"British Noir" cover art

 

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

 

"Snowbound" poster

 

Just when Neil Blair (Dennis Price) thought he was out of the spy game, along comes queen and country to pull him right back into it. The Second World War may be over, but there’s still work for the Allies, as Blair learns after being summoned by his old superior (Robert Newton) to take part in one last mission. Under the pretense of researching a screenplay, our man is asked to keep tabs on what a so-called contessa (Mila Parely) is doing at an Italian ski resort. But what Blair stumbles upon instead are various peculiar personalities gathered at the chalet, from an exceptionally-shady Greek fellow (Herbert Lom) to a glad-handing chatterbox (Marcel Dalio). Each of these individuals has a secret motive for being where they are, and as a fierce blizzard shuts them inside over the course of a few days, our intrepid agent aims to sniff out the truth before a new evil gets unleashed upon the world.

If you think that applying elements of espionage to the structure of an Agatha Christie mystery sounds like a dandy proposition, then you’d be right — but it’s too bad that Snowbound abandons this potential by the third act. The isolated locale, ensemble of suspicious parties, and stalwart hero we’re to cheer on are all present and accounted for, as are the palpable presences of both literal and figurative claustrophobia. It’s not enough that Blair must carry out his assignment in a frigid setting that could spring unforeseen doom on him at any moment; there’s a whole cabin full of folks who could turn deadly on a dime, should his snooping hit a raw nerve. But unfortunately, as the custom has been with many a thriller, the more you learn about what’s up in Snowbound, the less fascinating it becomes, only this flick’s clumsy method of explaining itself leaves it at a particular disadvantage. It’s a puzzling and frankly aggravating case of stringing the viewer along on tidbits of information to great success, then bringing the whole game to an anticlimactic close by having a single character pop up and lay everything out in one mother of an exposition dump. Despite the best efforts of the standoffs and confrontations that proceed said reveal, much of the picture’s tension is irrevocably deflated, although it’s to the credit of the likeable cast (especially Price and Newton) that our disinterest doesn’t completely take over.

As with They Met in the Dark, Snowbound‘s spy shenanigans skirt what constitutes a noir, but thanks to its rampant subterfuge, chilling atmosphere, and abundance of creeps on the hunt for a mythical MacGuffin, it more or less passes muster. Though more clever steps could have been taken to help the audience have fun assembling its main mystery’s pieces, the film’s spry performances and wintry environment save it from being overwhelmed by an avalanche of total mediocrity. It’s not something espionage buffs have to bump to the tops of their to-watch lists, but Snowbound can be gripping when it puts a little craft into it.

“Comin’ at Ya!” (1981)

"Comin' at Ya!" poster

 

It’s gotten to a point where I’m not entirely sure 3D movies are that fun to make, let alone watch. The gimmick remains one of Hollywood’s most resilient cons, with the worst of those flicks that lean on it filling your mind not with wonder but images of stagehands rolling their eyes and chucking garbage at the camera. When you get the impression that not even the people who are supposed to be in on the charade can believe what they’re selling, the experience becomes doubly miserable. Whether it’s founded or not, this is the sort of feeling that resonates throughout 1981’s Comin’ at Ya!, the brainchild of third-tier spaghetti western auteur Tony Anthony. While the film’s advertising promised a rollicking ride with all manner of perils spilling off of the screen, what Anthony delivered was something more akin to a somber, Jodorowsky-style art house piece. However, that Comin’ at Ya! dared to perform this bait-and-switch isn’t the reason why it turns out to be such a bust; that responsibility falls squarely upon both the picture having no content to support its aesthetic ambitions and the use of 3D ranking among the least enthralling in the hook’s history.

It was supposed to be the happiest day in the life of gunslinger H.H. Hart (Anthony). He and his sweetheart Abilene (Victoria Abril) were finally getting hitched, until the vilest fiends to walk the old west crashed the ceremony. Lowlife brothers Pike (Gene Quintano) and Polk (Ricardo Palacios) shot up the church before nary a vow was exchanged, leaving Hart for dead and adding Abilene to their harem of kidnapped women. With his beloved in danger of being sold into servitude, our hero wastes no time in tending to his wounds, saddling up, and riding out in search of the scumbags who took her. Danger lurks around every corner, with Hart encountering ferocious wildlife, the blistering heat, and swarms of enemy outlaws on his quest for vengeance. But the closer he gets to Pike and Polk, the more determined he becomes to see them both meet the business end of his trusty twelve-gauge.

As Anthony’s Stranger flicks brought a more cynical edge to the spaghetti western, something similarly off the beaten path was to be expected from Comin’ at Ya!, as well. In addition to embracing the grit and ugliness that the genre rarely shied away from, the picture comes loaded with one visual flourish after the next. The action kicks into slow motion as often as it moves at a regular speed, and though not occurring as frequently, the color scheme also enjoys switching over to a black-and-white palette on the fly. But there are these lovely little things called points that are wonderful for movies to possess, and as Comin’ at Ya! has none to its name, all its eye candy is stripped of any narrative value. I’m all for stories that aim to rise above their stations and do more than their time-weathered formulas often allow, so I’ve no issue with Anthony or director Ferdinando Baldi wanting to get a bit experimental with their approach. However, the film’s ocular trickery seems to be informed not by desires to subvert genre tropes or glance at familiar cinematic imagery from a unique perspective but by having seen other, out-there works gather acclaim and wanting a piece of the action. This tries faking profundity in the same way a film student would “artsy up” an unfinished project the day it’s due by running random scenes through weird filters; not only are there no ideas or concepts at play to be enhanced, it just doesn’t even look all that cool.

But if stopping any semblance of flow dead in its tracks to show the cast flopping about in slow motion for the ten-thousandth time wasn’t enough, Comin’ at Ya! really drives that last nail into its coffin by incorporating some of the sloppiest instances of 3D in existence. It’s amusing for a little while (like when the opening credits come written on various objects that Hart shoves at the camera), but the novelty’s welcome wears thin shortly thereafter. There are only so many ways to creatively thrust shotguns or lob flaming arrows in our faces until it all starts to get annoying — and considering what little tact Baldi and company displayed with their editing choices, you can count on that nickel being spent lickety-split. As in most cases, Comin’ at Ya!‘s 3D only distances the viewer from the action rather than making them feel a part of it, with the presentation’s growing absence of charm doing nothing to mask how shockingly cheap many of the effects are. You can tell that the movie was counting on looks to be its greatest takeaway, because no mind has been paid towards helping the story or characters come across as anything but paper-thin. Anthony makes for as appealingly unconventional of a leading man as he did in the Stranger franchise, but the role of Hart is a hollow one, with Abril’s Abilene treated even more thanklessly. The only personalities who come close to leaving some sort of impression are Quintano (who also wrote the screenplay alongside Anthony) and Palacios as the ultra-sleazy villains, although they too haven’t much going for them beyond being exceptionally gross.

Too slow-going to be fun and too thematically empty to stimulate the cerebellum, Comin’ at Ya! emerges as kind of a nothing movie in the end. Much ballyhoo has been made over its cult appeal and impact on ’80s cinema (P.T. Barnum would’ve been tickled by Anthony’s PR machine), but it’s just another spectacle that offers nothing very engaging in the spectacle department. With few genuine pleasures to impart, Comin’ at Ya! has no audience to please but itself.

“The Awful Truth” (1937)

"The Awful Truth" poster

 

Of all the cinematic barriers my suspension of disbelief has had to vault over, romantic relationships have been among the trickiest to master. Forgiving flaws in the most ridiculously elaborate heists and accepting the likes of ill-tempered, bipedal raccoons as characters are a breeze, yet having to buy whirlwind courtships that leave two people who barely know one another totally in love raises no end of eyebrows or red flags. This goes double for those tales in which our leads bicker their way through the run time and towards an inevitably joyful finish, despite their verbal sparring offering little evidence of any genuine shared affection. In most cases, these pictures are more concerned with spreading out wacky set pieces than with convincing us viewers that the couple at hand actually belongs together, with 1937’s The Awful Truth being the rare bird that manages to pull off both. While even comedies that touch upon the subject of divorce tend to skew dark and emotionally taxing, this flick exhibits a consistently playful attitude while acknowledging the gravity of the situation it depicts. Its jaunty disposition may seem at odds with the domestic disputes that unfold onscreen, but The Awful Truth comes laced with pearls of wit and wisdom aplenty regardless.

All couples lock horns from time to time, but the Warriners have made a second career out of it. Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry (Cary Grant) hurl little white lies each other’s way on a daily basis, but when both are caught in compromising positions (from which neither is willing to budge or admit defeat), the final straw is drawn. Just as impulsively as they decided to get hitched in the first place, Mr. and Mrs. Warriner climb aboard the bullet train to Splitsville, filing for divorce and quickly seeking out the company of others. But while Lucy and Jerry respectively cozy up to a folksy oil man (Ralph Bellamy) and selection of showgirls, neither can seem to stay out of the same social circles for very long. With bad blood between the two still percolating, the exes-to-be gladly sabotage one another’s efforts at rediscovering romance — oblivious to the fact that doing so is bringing those old fond feelings of theirs back to the surface, kicking and screaming.

Released as Grant was fine-tuning his screwball screen persona, The Awful Truth rests as one of his less manic vehicles of the era (although it still bears a zany streak in its own right). Its comedy of errors is deliberately drawn out over its 90-minute length, with the story savoring the precarious pickles its characters try worming their way out of rather than lob new situations their way rapid-fire. Director Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) gets a devilish kick out of taking both protagonists to task, watching as each slowly twists their knife into the other’s back and smiling as they subsequently flounder in whatever predicament their pride has gotten them into this time. The Awful Truth is in no particular hurry, a move that enables the humor to come across as doubly personal and doubly funny. Of course, the whole thing can only work if its players regard one another with the right blend of scorn and adoration, but fortunately, this ditty has a pair primed for war in its corner. Dunne and Grant execute as delicate of an act as has ever been asked of them, effortlessly getting the audience to believe that no matter how many yanked-out hairs their marriage has left in its wake, the two really are hopelessly daffy for one another. Not laying on the derision too thickly or telegraphing their warm and fuzzy sides too much, the actors supply an engaging battle of wills that has an equal shot at healing or widening their divide come the end.

Also tuned into an appropriately tongue-in-cheek spirit is The Awful Truth‘s Oscar-nominated screenplay. Penned by Viña Delmar, the script palatably paces out its more large-scale hijinks and multitude of cutting barbs. It finds a nice comedic middle ground, feeling lively but never moving so fast that its most scathing witticisms get lost in the shuffle. But while ample room for one-liners is allowed on both sides of the gender divide, The Awful Truth seems to stack the deck ever so slightly in Jerry’s favor, one of the movie’s few (albeit minor) missteps. Between him derailing Lucy’s relationship with Bellamy’s hayseed and her throwing a wrench in Jerry’s fling with an heiress (Molly Lamont), noticeably more screen time is allotted to the former. We’re past the halfway mark before Dunne’s character gets to show her spouse the what-for, though while an improved sense of balance in this area would have been great and maybe even led to more creatively chaotic comedy, one can’t fault the jolly results we do see terribly much. In addition to Grant and Dunne’s escapades, the laughs are further bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast, with Bellamy exuding aw-shucks innocence, Cecil Cunningham offering up snappy words of wisdom of Lucy’s brassy aunt, and Joyce Compton easily stealing her single scene as a chorus girl with a risqué routine.

Gentle as a lamb in comparison to the venomous, no-holds-barred relationship comedies that would spring up in the following decades, The Awful Truth remains as whimsical as it is wise. It’s a meeting of acting, writing, and directing talent all on the precise same wavelength that doesn’t come around very often, creating an entity that’s funny as hell while earning every one of the emotional beats on which it has its eye. Elegant and bawdy just when it needs to be, The Awful Truth comes through as wickedly classy fun.