Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Short Take: The Battle of Algiers

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is many things: a fictionalized history of the Algerian War, a study of urban guerilla terrorism, and perhaps the greatest piece of anti-imperialist propaganda in all of movies. After a flashback framing sequence, the picture begins in 1954 with the radicalization of a young Algerian street criminal (Brahim Haggiag), and his recruitment by the Algerian nationalist group known as the FLN. It goes on to show the assassinations and bombings--many carried out by women and children--that target the French authorities and citizenry in Algiers. The French response, including retaliatory bombings, segregation of the city’s Arab population, and the efforts of a French military counterinsurgency, are shown as well. Pontecorvo is entirely on the side of the Algerian nationalists. The film is shamelessly manipulative at times. It dwells on the imagery most likely to inflame a viewer against the French, such as the mangled bodies of the Arab children, and the counterinsurgency’s reliance on torture. The acts of violence against the French are relatively sanitized. Pontecorvo treats them as the culmination of suspense sequences; the climaxes of these scenes evoke catharsis rather than horror. The film also has a great villain in the French colonel (Jean Martin) who leads the counterinsurgency. He’s calm, rational, and completely ruthless; one may take him as an embodiment of the banality of evil. One may have many qualms about the morality of the film’s one-sidedness, as well as its implicit endorsement of the violence of the Algerian nationalists. But there’s no denying it’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking. With this picture, Pontecorvo pioneered the pseudo-documentary cinematic style that has defined political thrillers ever since. And no director has ever handled this style better; one may find it astonishing that not a single frame of newsreel footage was used. The great black-and-white cinematography is by Marcello Gatti. The screenplay is by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Short Take: Prometheus

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a semi-prequel to his 1979 film Alien. The hallmarks are the same: gruesome monsters, body horror, terrific production design, and a strong-willed, never-say-die heroine (played this time out by Noomi Rapace). The major difference is that it takes itself a lot more seriously. The script, credited to Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, aims for gravitas by imposing Alien story elements onto Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s plot for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the prologue, set in prehistoric times, extra-terrestrial beings sow the seeds for future humanity. The film then shifts to the late 21st century, where archaeologists (Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) interpret disparate cave paintings as an invitation by the extra-terrestrials to meet humanity in space. Two years later, a ship from Earth carrying the archaeologists and others arrives in the nearest habitable solar system. The film’s version of Kubrick and Clarke’s supercomputer HAL 9000 is an intelligent, untrustworthy android (Michael Fassbender) who has overseen the voyage while the ship’s crew has been kept in suspended animation. And like HAL 9000, he’s by far the most engaging character; the film presents him as an effete narcissist who idolizes Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. The film’s twist on the 2001 plot is that the extra-terrestrials’ goals are not benevolent. This of course sets the stage for the monster-movie suspense and gross-outs familiar to viewers from the first Alien picture. The creatures and the body-horror moments are really all that carry the story along. The awe, mystery, and grandeur of 2001 is turned into cliché. For all of Ridley Scott’s talent for imagery, he isn’t a deft storyteller; the only dramatic effect he handles well is jolting the audience. Despite actors as capable as Rapace, Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, and Guy Pearce, the cast is a pretty dull bunch. The real stars of the film are the behind-the-scenes artisans: cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max, costumer Janty Yates, creature designer Carlos Huante, and visual effects supervisor Martin Hill.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Short Take: The Towering Inferno

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Producer Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974) is the most prominent of the 1970s wave of Hollywood disaster movies. Much of it is fairly cheesy, but it's still a reasonably diverting time-killer. The silliness actually contributes to the entertainment value. The setting is San Francisco, on the day of the dedication of the world’s tallest building. (Yes, the movie would have one believe this skyscraper would actually be built in that notoriously earthquake-prone city.) The architect (Paul Newman) discovers that his specifications have been replaced with sub-par materials. The dedication ceremony and VIP party go forward that evening, but unbeknownst to everyone an electrical short has set off a small fire in a mid-building storage room. After the party has moved to the restaurant atop the building, the fire spreads and traps them. The film follows the man-of-action architect and the firefighters in their efforts to rescue the partygoers and various others. The all-star cast is a mixed bag. As banal as Paul Newman's part is, he plays it with conviction, and there’s no doubting why he and Faye Dunaway, who plays his girlfriend, were among the most glamorous movie stars of the 1970s. (Dunaway isn’t used for much beyond decoration, but she's such an elegant sight that it seems petty to complain.) Steve McQueen co-stars as the head firefighter, but his trademark cool is unfortunately indistinguishable from boredom. William Holden, who plays the building’s owner, probably gives the film’s best performance; he makes the viewer feel his desire to keep up appearances while wrestling with guilt over the unfolding tragedy. After Holden, the most accomplished work is from Fred Astaire, who delivers a graceful turn as an aging con man. But Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Vaughn make it quite clear why they were never able to make the jump from TV success to big-screen stardom. They’re bland, one-note performers: polished, but without much dynamism or wit. Jennifer Jones, O. J. Simpson, and others do little more than walk through. Stirling Silliphant is credited with the script, which is formulaic in the manner of ‘70s TV adventure shows. The dialogue is especially terrible. Irwin Allen directed the fairly impressive action scenes, and John Guillermin directed everything else. Guillermin’s work isn’t imaginative by any means, but he moves things along at a good clip. The film runs two hours and forty minutes, but the length never feels oppressive. And when things slow down too much, one can always have a chuckle over the characteristic awfulness of the ‘70s fashions: the picture is a treasure trove of dreadful clothes, ugly hairstyles, and eyesore interior decoration. The film is based on two novels: The Tower, by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno, by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. Fred J. Koenekamp handled the cinematography for the scenes John Guillerman directed; Joseph F. Biroc shot those overseen by Irwin Allen.