May roundup (1) — latest : SILVER RIVER (1948) [7/10] and SECONDS (1966) [4/10] – online Sat.23.May

Published on: May 6th, 2009

reviewed below :
Silver River by Raoul Walsh (1948)
Seconds by John Frankenheimer (1966)
The Swamp (La cienaga) by Lucrecia Martel (2001)
The Holy Girl (La nina santa) by Lucrecia Martel (2004)
X-Men Origins : Wolverine by Gavin Hood (2009)

: [7/10] : USA 1948 : Raoul WALSH : 109m (
BBFC) : seen at the Cinemateca Portugesa, 29th April 2009 (paid  ‚¬2.50)
   In the United States of 1870 – just after the Civil War – silver was worth 1/14th of gold. Doesn't sound like much – until you compare the figure with, say, 1940, just before the States entered World War II, and the gold/silver value-ratio was a whopping 97/1.
   This is the backdrop for Silver River, an entertaining, very ambitious and largely successful western about a very ambitious and, for most of the running-time, very successful individual. Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) gets drummed (or rather "cashiered") out of the Yankee army after he burns $1m in cash – a justifiable action, as it happens, as we see in the all-action prologue (this turns out to be the action highlight of an otherwise pretty talky movie, most of which transpires indoors.) But even General Grant got ejected from the same army not once but twice – as he himself (Joseph Crehan, uncredited in one of his nine outings in this particular role) reminds McComb when invited to the latter's fancy Nevada mansion.
   It's here that McComb – who, as we've seen, quickly segued from gambling ("I never take chances – it's too risky!") to casino-running to banking to more lucrative speculations - envisions a brilliant future for himself founded on his nearby silver mines. And, as Grant notes, America's imminent greatness relies heavily on such brute-capitalist entrepreneurship: emerging onto the world stage in the aftermath of war, the USA must become "the great creditor of nations" and lay the "foundation of a vast empire"… "a whole new world created from a silver river."
   But McComb, an engagingly languid and unflappable sort who's soft-spoken and (like the similarly atheistic Clark Gable in San Francisco) partial to milk rather than anything harder, but who is handy with his fists in a pinch is in for a "decline and fall." Irreligious, solipsistic and unprincipled ("man is only lonely when he depends on other people – I don't"), his delusions of grandeur (asked "do you think a castle will blend with this landscape?", he quickly replies "I intend to fill it!") blunt his moral sense, and he semi-indirectly causes the death of a business associate whose wife (Ann Sheridan) he has romantic designs upon.
   Afflicted by conscience-pangs just a little too late, the by-now-tyrannical and paranoid McComb - sagely counselled and later strenuously denounced by his drink-sodden lawyer-chum Plato (Thomas Mitchell) – realises that there's a mighty big cloud on his big-sky horizons and that he's heading for a dramatic come-uppance. This duly arrives, in what amounts to a combination of Greek/Shakespearean tragedy and rousing frontier legend. 
   Having more in common with, say, There Will Be Blood (or even McCabe and Mrs Miller or Citizen Kane) than the quaintly parochial horse-opera "oaters" one sometimes associates with the Western genre, the fast-flowing Silver River founders slightly in its final act – when Walsh hesitates from really letting McComb get his proper just desserts – and would have definitely benefited from giving the spirited Sheridan rather more of an active role in the drama. Flynn, however, is notably well-used: he was entering what would turn out to be a precipitous decline (this was to be the last of his seven collaborations with director Walsh) and his slightly faded charm and virility make him ideal casting for a potentially great man brought down by his own casual, instinctive hubris.  23.5.09
SECONDS : [4/10] : USA 1966 : John FRANKENHEIMER : c106m (BBFC) : Cinemateca Portugesa, 30th April 2009 ( ‚¬2.50*)
   Clapped-out, terminally-dissatisfied middle-aged Manhattan commuter Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, 50 at the time of filming) is approached, out of the blue, by a mysterious corporation who have mastered (well, nearly mastered) an all-body rejuvenation procedure. Extensive plastic surgery and various physical enhancements result in the flabby, grey-haired Hamilton starting a "new life" with a new identity: dark-maned, well-toned California beach-pad resident and quasi-boho artist 'Tony Wilson' (played by Rock Hudson, 40). Nightmarish complications ensue.
   Despite its renown as a landmark in 1960s dystopian/paranoid sci-fi, Seconds has aged about as well as Arthur Hamilton. The sole notable exception of opening titles designed by (who else?) Saul Bass: a chromey-monochrome flesh-squelch in hyper-intense, woozily-distorted closeup. The early stretches strike an agreeably unsettling comic note, with the hapless Hamilton being rather effortlessly manipulated and persuaded by the seemingly all-powerful corporation – these sequences a kind of Kafkaesque missing link between The Outer Limits and Being John Malkovich, by way of Philip K Dick.
   But when Wilson supplants Hamilton, the tone becomes much more serious – and the picture falls apart as quickly as our protagonist's (elaboratedly and implausibly) faked-up alter ego. He stumbles into a romance with fellow beach-comber Nora Marcus (a ropey Salome Jens), the duo attending a thuddingly unconvicing West Coast bacchanal (a dire scene that stops the picture dead in its tracks) before a tipsy Tony  wigs out at a party (a sequence which seems to go on forever) with dire consequences.
   Randolph (who departs the movie too soon) and Hudson are both very good, while James Wong Howe's over-the-top, inventive cinematography is never less than diverting – the picture remains of considerable technical interest to anyone involved with this aspect of the medium. But the legendary DoP's Oscar-nominated contributions can't hide or compensate for the deficiencies of Lewis John Carlino's screenplay (by all accounts an improvement on David Ely's 1963 novel), which is more concerned with allegorical/philosophical speculations than coherent narrative or character development.
   It's a reactionary kind of cautionary tale – the moral ("Wilson disintegrates under the stress of his open and unfamiliar world of freedom and nonconformity") being that you should stick with what you've got, no matter how much fun the Kids around you seem to be having – that adds up to a rather portentous and shallow use of potentially fascinating science-fiction tropes. 23.5.09

THE SWAMP : [7/10]La ciénaga : Argentina (/Fr/Spn) 2001 : Lucrecia MARTEL : 100m (BBFC) : The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 10th May 2009 ( £4.00)
    Beguilingly evocative debut from writer-director Lucrecia Martel is yet another Argentinian film chronicling dysfunctional family life. But the approach this time is distinctive, unusual and oblique: a collection of characters and scenes that doesn't much trouble itself with narrative concerns.
   It's never easy to work out who's who, or what their relationships – biological, social, romantic, professional – are, but this is entirely in keeping with the way the film makes the viewer feel like a ghostly eavesdropper, granted privileged access to private spaces. In real families the members don't need to identify themselves or explain their positions within the family-tree, and what the film loses in terms of intelligibility – it pretty much defies synopsis – it gains much more in terms of verisimilitude, mood and atmosphere.
   Martel skilfully moves between elements of her sprawling ensemble, with fiftyish, wine-quaffing Mecha (Graciela Borges) the closest thing the picture has to a leading character. An impoverished quasi-aristocrat, Mecha spends most of her time and energy on criticising her long-suffering domestic staff – the younger members of whom seem on very intimate terms with Mecha's own kids. Adding to the sense of barely-controlled domestic chaos are the restless offspring of Mecha's cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran), who resides in more conventional circumstances in the nearest big city but is a frequent visitor to Mecha's quietly decaying rural estate. 
   Shot on what looks like mulchy 16mm (interiors and exteriors alike are oppressively crowded with detail) The Swamp is, as its name suggests, an immersive and sensual experience – sometimes nightmarish, sometimes comic, constructed as a series of short, offhand, self-contained sequences that don't seem much on their own but slowly achieve a deft, cumulative power.
   Intricate sound-design and a nosey, prowling camera takes us right into Mecha's stagnant, back-of-beyond backwater – featuring the most toxically uninviting swimming-pool this side of Clouzot's Les Diaboliques. Characters young, old and in-between loll around on beds and sofas - many of them becalmed by idle torpor, unfulfilled passion or excess alcohol, experiencing what William Burroughs, in his letters, was fond of terming "stasis horrors."
   On TV, regular news reports provide updates on an apparently miraculous manifestation of the Virgin Mary – the apparition glimpsed, in a typical example of Martel's deadpan drollery, on a rooftop water-tank. But faith, of any kind, in anything or anybody, seems at best a distant folk-memory - especially among Mecha's "friends", an alienated group of zombified self-medicators who, one suspects, would be right at home in the hellish, opulently cannibalistic "community" described in the closing chapter of Jim Thompson's novel The Getaway (such strongly rancid meat that it was unsurprisingly omitted from Sam Peckinpah's movie-version.)
   While an implicit, ironic indictment of a certain decadent stratum of Argentinian society, the film ultimately seems less an exercise in geographically-specific socio-political analysis than a densely-textured, close-up examination of the universal dynamics within extended family groups (a southern-hemisphere precursor of Joanna Hogg's Unrelated, perhaps.) The results, while objectively somewhat repellent, have a paradoxically easy-going intensity that ensures we're consistently engaged – and at times enthralled – even when we're not sure what, if anything, is actually going on. 11.5.09

THE HOLY GIRL : [8/10] : La niña santa : Argentina (/Ity/Neth/Spn) 2004 : Lucrecia MARTEL : 104m (BBFC) : The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 14th May 2009 ( £4.00)
Absorbingly, beguilingly odd second feature by Martel after The Swamp (see above) is much more conventional in terms of narrative – the plot could, with a tweak or two, be straight from a melodramatic telenovela soap-opera. But it has the same kind of organic looseness and attention to detail, so that we're immersed in the external and internal worlds of the characters – especially 16-year-old Amalia, played by newcomer Maria Alche who's pretty stupendous in a very tricky role.
   Amalia has, like her mother Helena (Mercedes Moran) before her, grown up in a hotel – the pair now reside in a rambling provincial establishment (which, intriguingly, we never get to see from the outside) in a provincial city. Helena specialises in organising conferences, and as the film begins dozens of medical personnel are arriving for her latest event. One of them is a balding, bespectacled Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso), who makes inappropriate physical advances to Amalia. The girl, who is receiving regular religious training, interprets this a sign from God and takes it upon herself to "save" Dr Jano's soul.
   Complications arise when the doctor (who is married) drifts towards an affair with Helena (who is also in a long-term relationship). As has been previously remarked, there is much more "plot" in The Holy Girl than The Swamp, but it's by no means Martel's priority – it's more a case of exploring Amalia's developing psyche as she progresses from youth to adulthood in decidedly unusual circumstances. Martel pays particular attention to Amalia's surroundings – especially the rooms, personnel and atmosphere of the hotel, which has seen better days.
   The director's eye for composition is again striking, including the scenes in which Amalia is with her friends and their heads are positioned so that we can observe their very different reactions to what's going on around them. And again Martel's offbeat approach to dialogue pays dividends, capturing the eccentricities and non-sequiturs which pepper everyday speech but which so rarely find their way into movie-scripts. "Don't put shampoo on the bees!" warns a watchful senorita, concerned that her youthful charges' horse-play is getting out of hand. It's an approach that runs the risk of becoming arch and over-oblique, and doesn't quite all come off, but The Holy Girl is sustained by a refreshing boldness that confirms Martel – along with Lisandro Alonso – at the very front rank of Argentina's current bumper crop of directors. 14.5.09

X-MEN ORIGINS – WOLVERINE : [5/10] : aka Wolverine : USA 2009 : Gavin HOOD : 107m (BBFC**) : Vue cinema, York, 16th May 2009 ( £6.80)
   When asked when and why he had fallen out with his brother Evelyn, Alec Waugh supposedly responded with the question "What makes you think we ever fell in?" A rather different form of sibling discontent is dramatised in X-Men prequel Wolverine, which spans 134 years in the lives of Logan (Hugh Jackman) and his elder bro Victor (Liev Schreiber, still in surly Nazi-smashing Defiance mode), from their childhood in the wilds of the rural Canada in 1845 – as seen in a brief, confusing, heavily Oedipal prologue – to their confrontation at Three Mile Island on, ahem,  March 28, 1979.
   For about 130 of these 134 years, all seems pretty much hunky-bro-dory between the brawny, brawling, hirsute, quasi-lycanthropic duo (despite the Origins promised by the movie's title, the exact nature of said werewolf-ish-ism is never really explained, apart from a catch-all reference to "mutation.") As we see over the opening credits, the pair – quite literally, brothers-in-arms – fight in {1} the American Civil War (despite their oft-cited north-of-the-49th-parallel origins), {2} World War I, {3} World War II and (shades of Watchmen!) Vietnam.
   But despite well over a century of intense uber-soldierly camaraderie, the brothers suddenly - terminally, implausibly - become sworner-than-sworn enemies after a bloodthirsty mercenary-operation in Nigeria. And their ensuing violent blood-feud, with endless snarling and growling on both sides, provides Wolverine with what passes for a dramatic spine. Proceeding with a certain ask-no-questions take-no-prisoners thick-ear brio, the chaotic action set-pieces go some way to compensating for a garbled script and the less-than-inspired direction from Hood – this being a somewhat surprising choice of follow-up to his Oscar-winning Tootsie Tsotsi.
The results are, somewhat surprisingly and even-more disappointingly, rather closer to trumped up B-movie video-game adaptations such as Resident Evil and Doom than anything in the relatively classy X-Men series proper, especially a botched climactic showdown between Wolverine and a super-mutant known as 'Weapon XI', aka Deadpool - formerly the wisecracking Wade (Ryan Reynolds.)
   The latter, one of the most popular characters among fans of the source comics, is reportedly to be the focus of his own spin-off movie – though, given what happens to the character in the latter stages, this will be quite a test for the scriptwriters (unless we're in for a prequel to a prequel.) Here his considerable potential is wasted in particularly profligate manner – likewise Taylor Kitsch's card-sharp Gambit, who only pops up twice but displays rather more charisma than either Jackman or Schreiber, for all their a-huffin' and a-puffin', can muster from much lengthier screen-time. 16.5.09

Neil Young
May, 2009

*nb : full-price normal ticket at the Cinemateca Portugesa!

** X-MEN ORIGINS WOLVERINE is a comic book fantasy movie that tells the backstory of the eponymous mutant hero. After his girlfriend is killed by his brother, Logan (aka Wolverine) goes in search of revenge.
   The film was classified at '12A' due to moderate fantasy violence. The hero is a rough, tough mutant who is predisposed to fight first and ask questions later. He is armed with sharp claws that extend from his knuckles and these he uses to deadly effect, swiping and slashing and stabbing his way through the bad guys who line up to impede his progress.
   The violence is implied rather than explicit, with very little blood despite some suggestive moments. It is also true that the enemies faced by the hero tend also to be mutants, with their own special powers – given that, it is always obvious that we are looking at a fantastic world that has little in common with reality. This acts as strong mitigation to the images on screen.
   The BBFC's guidelines at '12A' state that "violence must not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood." The violence here tends towards the undetailed and there is no emphasis on blood.