Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark 1966 picture 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 film. 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--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 concept of the banality of evil. Whatever qualms a viewer may have about the morality of the film’s one-sidedness and implicit endorsement of the violence of the Algerian nationalists, 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

Movie Review: Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a semi-prequel to his 1979 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 the Alien story elements onto the basic plot of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 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 for humanity to meet them in space. Two years later, a ship from Earth carrying the archaeologists and others arrives in the nearest inhabitable solar system. The film’s version of Kubrick and Clarke’s supercomputer HAL 9000 is the intelligent--and untrustworthy--android (Michael Fassbender) who has overseen the voyage while the ship’s crew has been kept in suspended animation. And as with HAL 9000, he’s by far the most engaging character; the film presents him as an effete narcissist who idolizes Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence. 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 and attention to production detail, 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 visual 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

Movie Review: The Towering Inferno

Producer Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno (1974) is the most prominent of the mid-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 the notoriously earthquake-prone city.) The architect (Paul Newman) discovers that his specifications have been ignored and 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 is cast as his magazine-editor 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.) In his role as the head firefighter, Steve McQueen’s trademark cool is unfortunately indistinguishable from boredom. William Holden, who plays the building’s conflicted 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. However, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Vaughn make it quite clear why they were never able to make the jump from television 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 provided the cinematography for the scenes John Guillerman directed; Joseph F. Biroc shot the ones overseen by Irwin Allen.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Publication Announcement: The Superman Case, and Best Outcomes for Writers on Comics

"The Superman Case, and Best Outcomes for Writers About Comics," my article about Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their conflicts with DC Comics, is now up at The Hooded Utilitarian. Click here to read.