Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Review: A Matter Of Life And Death/Stairway To Heaven (minor spoilers)

In 1946, when they made A Matter Of Life And Death (Stairway to Heaven in the US), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were at the cutting edge of cinema. They were arguably the most innovative directors working out of the United Kingdom, at a time when Alfred Hitchcock was finding his voice with such films as Lifeboat and Notorious, and David Lean was working on that more humble beacon of Englishness, Brief Encounter.

Powell and Pressburger's previous film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, had been heralded for its special effects make up and model work, which still holds up well today. Whether they felt the weight of public expectation, or whether they felt the urge to themselves, Powell and Pressburger pushed the envelope again in service of the story; The set design, use of stock, and in-camera trickery in A Matter of Life and Death came only 13 years after King Kong, but are light years ahead of that film. Thanks to Powell's and Pressburger's mastery of these techniques, and the enduring work of a young Jack Cardiff, on only his second major feature, Life and Death stands apart from other films of the period.

The directors used these techniques to create the quintessential depiction of the afterlife in movies, which has informed popular interpretations of Heaven ever since. The imagery is so familiar to modern audiences that first time viewers may wonder whether they are having déjà vu.

However, some concepts explored in the film may seem quaint by today's jaded standards. The nature of love at first meeting, the debate over the value of a human life, and an utterly non-cynical depiction of God and his angels: all are explored without irony or reservation. The audience's enjoyment depends largely on whether they can see beyond their misgivings on these topics, and view the film as an allegorical poem.

Roger Livesey gives a generous performance as the doctor fighting to save David Niven’s life, but his mannered style does not work as well as it did in Blimp. Marius Goring stands out as the deliciously French Conductor 71; charming, mischievous and petty all at once. Kim Hunter does passable work in a thankless role, but the soul of the film belongs to David Niven, with a portrayal of wonderment and hope that glints through the stoicism which is the stock of his Britishness. It is also worth keeping an eye out for a very young Dickie Attenborough in one of his first film appearances, as a recent casualty of war.

Gentle mockery of our French and American allies runs through the film. Raymond Massey plays a grumbling, recalcitrant Abraham Farlan, sour at the British for being the first casualty of the American War of Independence. Young American airmen stepping through the pearly gates head straight for a Coca-Cola dispenser. A French pilot whitters away at ten to the dozen about the unfair circumstances of his death, to which his British counterpart responds with a pat on the shoulder and "bad luck, old boy". It is Niven's central performance, married to these details, which makes A Matter of Life and Death one of the most quintessentially British films ever made.

The choices made by Powell and Pressburger in direction also mark this film out. Most notably in the earliest days of colour film, which was then a modern marvel, one world was in glorious Technicolor, the other in drab black and white. The stroke of genius was to shoot the realm of the living in colour, and Heaven in monochrome, reversing the expectations of the day.

Of course, now that contemporary audiences are so unused to black and white, it is the scenes in Heaven which feel dislocated and fantastical. In 1946, however, Europe was reeling from the end of the second world war. The vibrance of colour in the movie reflected the keen feeling of the time that life is the most precious thing we have, and that we should revel in it. The only element of the film which hints at the melancholy of death is the metronomic chiming of the piano score in Heaven. Other than that, the film is broadly very hopeful.

My recommendation is to give yourself over to the tone of the film. If you can allow for the ebbing pain of postwar Britain, and you should find this film every bit as charming, warm, and ultimately life-affirming as those who first watched it almost 70 years ago.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Review: Splice (SPOILERS)

Rather like the two scientists played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, Splice is not as clever as it thinks it is.

There is some interesting creature design, if not entirely plausible. This is where Guillermo del Toro's hand is most apparent. Unsurprisingly given his pedigree, this element works very well, but it highlights how short of the mark the rest of the film falls.

The film is particularly gunshipped by a script which confuses a plethora of themes. Even the one-sheet poster (see right) falls prey to this, combining the familial warm fuzzies of Cocoon or Ghost with the pointy-tailed threat of Alien, and the scuzzy, aggro font of a million and one spatter horrors. The visuals are better, under the capable eye of Tetsuo Nagata, although far from the heights of his work on Ma Vie En Rose and Micmacs.

All too often Splice tries to plug thematic leaks by asking the actors to ram a square peg into a round hole; Sarah  Polley suffers bipolar swings between maternal angst and emotionless laboratory genius, which highlights the writers' fumbled attempts to draw out the moral conflicts between science and parenting. If The Godfather had to spell out that "it's not personal, Sonny, it's strictly business" to show just how much of a lie Michael Corleone was selling, then it is remarkably brave of Natali to rely on performances alone to render abrupt character shifts. Even Adrien Brody, doing his utmost to keep the film plausible, cannot pull off a moment that sees him spontaneously decide to have sex with Dren.

"I won an Oscar, what the hell am I doing here?"

Speaking of whom, Delphine Chaneac's performance as the adult Dren brings absolutely nothing beyond stage directions such as "Dren looks hurt", "Dren giggles like a schoolgirl", or "Dren snarls". The whole farrago leaves me wondering if the director actually offered his cast any notes at all.

Finally, this film relies on characters explicitly choosing to pursue or ignore scientific method, as one of the main motivators. Now, I'm no scientist, but from the very first scene it is clear that is underpinning is laughably weak.

I struggled for a while afterwards to understand what the film set itself out to be in terms of genre and aims. I suppose that the only genre which might get away with showing this much contempt for its protagonists is contemporary horror, but even by these meagre standards Splice fails, as it tries to introduce "issues" to build tension, but then handles them incompetently. The result is boredom and so the scares, when they come, are anaemic.

So we have characters who struggle to achieve two dimensions, a shoehorned script and ineffective performances from the two female leads. There are many more flaws besides, but for me, these were the most significant. While I didn't hate the film, it felt like a woefully missed opportunity.

The only people I can see enjoying this film might be genre addicts, whom the visceral creature/horror elements may be enough to satisfy. It is certainly the only aspect of the film which I will remember beyond today.

Weak, weak, weak.