Monday 5 August 2013

The Conjuring [2013]

THE CONJURING is an American supernatural horror movie that was directed by James Wan and originally released by Warner Brothers in July 2013.  It stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston.  It relates the supposedly true story of husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren who in 1971 were asked to look into an alleged haunting at the Perron family home in Rhode Island.  It's not often that a film on general release gets my attention but THE CONJURING has been attracting excellent reviews, unusually for a horror flick, so I thought I had better run the rule over it.

Having watched it I'm moved to ponder just how many films these reviewers have actually seen because to my mind THE CONJURING offered almost nothing that hasn't been done many times before in countless other, better movies.  Indeed, the same director's last film - INSIDIOUS [2010] - is much much better (and also stars Patrick Wilson) but got none of the hoo-hah that this one has enjoyed.  It's basically a haunted house story and while there's nothing wrong with that it is a very familiar set-up so you'd think that the director would feel obliged to come up with something new to bring to the table.  However, what we in fact get is a bunch of over-familiar situations handled with professionalism but no flair.

This is one of those movies that makes you jump but doesn't send any chills down the spine or give you that prickly feeling in your scalp.  Which means there are plenty of shock moments - usually engineered in the editing room - but no fear, dread or atmosphere.  It's curiously constructed too, keeping Farmiga and Wilson off screen for most of the first half hour (bar an irrelevant subplot concerning a separate case) before building to an abrupt, muddled and unsatisfying conclusion.

One of the few dissenting reviews I'm aware of came from horror fan Mark Kermode who said that he went in wanting the film to be great, wanting to be scared, but just wasn't.  I know how he feels; genuinely frightening films are such a terrific experience and yet so few and far between that when you hear of one which promises to deliver exactly that and then doesn't it's a bitter disappointment.  It's not that THE CONJURING is a bad film - the four leads are engaging enough and there's a nice line in humour - but it's achingly average and certainly not worth the attention it has been getting.

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are the creative brains behind not only INSIDIOUS but also SAW [2004] and its subsequent franchise so they're no mugs but I'm afraid this one is a spurned opportunity.  Far be it from me to tell you what to see but my advice would be to give this a miss at the cinemas (and in my humble opinion horror just doesn't work in cinemas anyway) and rent it only if you must but please don't do so if you've haven't already given INSIDIOUS a go first.  Timely advice, if I may be so bold, because I notice on imdb that INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is now complete and scheduled for release in the UK next month.

[stills to follow]

Sunday 4 August 2013

Johnny Got His Gun [1971]

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN is an American drama that was written and directed by Dalton Trumbo and premièred in May 1971.  It stars Timothy Bottoms with Jason Robards Jr, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi and Kathy Fields.  The film relates the thoughts and memories of a young American soldier grievously injured in WW2 and now a permanent resident in a military hospital.  The twist, if that's the right word (and I'm not sure it is), is that young Joe has lost both arms and legs as well as eyes, ears, nose and mouth.  He is entirely reliant on the nurses who provide his 24-hour care and his only sensory inputs are vibrations, such as footsteps, and when people touch him.

Aside from its unusual set up, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN is notable for a couple of other reasons.  First, it is one of very few American films that is both anti-war and atheist; and secondly it was the first and last film to be directed by Trumbo, who earlier in his career had been a prolific screenwriter until he fell foul of the appalling anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.  Metalheads may also be aware that this film was the inspiration for Metallica's song 'One' and indeed footage from it was used in the accompanying video.

The hospital scenes make effective use of monochrome photography
Unlike, say, Lewis Milestone's PORK CHOP HILL [1959], which tries to have its cake and eat it by pushing a superficial 'war is hell' message but at the same giving us plenty of 'war is heroic and makes a man of you and is essential to sustain our freedom' propaganda, Trumbo's film is explicitly anti-war throughout and features no more than three or four minutes of war scenes - and even those are non-action sequences. One might say that describing it as 'anti-war' is insufficient; perhaps a more accurate term might be 'humanist' because Trumbo's pacifism is inextricably linked with his belief that there cannot be a merciful God who would permit the suffering that war must perforce entail.

Colour is used for thoughts and memories, such as this scene between Joe and Christ in his workshop
To explore this idea Trumbo uses the device of imagined dialogue between Joe, fellow casualties of war and Jesus Christ, played as a kind of well-meaning but ineffectual hippy by Donald Sutherland, who is managing their transport to the afterlife.  Joe asks Christ for help in determining whether he is dead - and truly conversing with Him - or merely dreaming.  After a lengthy discussion, Christ concedes that Joe is only dreaming and that He can offer no help; effectively, Christ - at least in Joe's mind - accepts that He does not exist.  Such a message would be almost inconceivable in current American cinema, even though US citizens are today engaged in largely pointless conflicts much as they were when JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN was first released.  It would seem that, at least on the political right, war and religion are very much part of the American way.

The horrors of war
It's easy to see then how holding views like Trumbo's could get you into a lot of trouble in the US, particularly in the 1950s when rabid anti-Communists spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy were determined to root out anyone whom they suspected of holding views they considered to be un-American. This purge was especially severe in the artistic community where minds were more open and as such more likely to be sympathetic to a liberal, if not left-wing, kind of politics.  The sorry tale of this part of US social and cultural history has been told many times; suffice it to say that Trumbo was one of those who, when called to testify before the Senate about alleged Communists, refused to give evidence and was subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted.  Although Trumbo continued to write screenplays his work was credited to others and it was not until 1960 that the political climate improved to the extent that he could once again receive screen credits in his own right (for Otto Preminger's EXODUS).

Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham
Enough with the history already, let me turn to the film itself.  As you might expect, it's a profoundly humane film that for the most part achieves its aims efficiently.  Timothy Bottoms, here making his feature début, is a fine actor who was perhaps uniquely suited to the role of Joe.  There is something melancholy about his very appearance, a kind of long-suffering but undemonstrative world weariness that is perfect for the part.  On a couple of occasions the voice-over in the hospital scenes doesn't quite work but blimey it's a very tough part and on the whole he handles it very well.  The memory sequences, which are in colour as opposed to the harsh monochrome of the hospital, are very touching and quite unconventional.  For example, when Joe and his girl Kareen are caught making out on the couch by her father, he immediately banishes her to her bedroom before sending Joe in there after her, aware that his departure to France is imminent.

Joe says goodbye to Kareen (Kathy Fields)
Similarly, when Joe loses his father's prized fishing rod while out on their last camping trip together the old man (Jason Robards Jr, in another of his warm and wise paternal roles) consoles and embrace him rather than ruin their trip.

Joe's father embraces him as he confesses to losing the fishing rod
But humanity is ultimately shown to be vulnerable to being worn down by the horrors of war, not just among the victims but also among those untouched by the conflict itself.  The lack of humanity displayed by the military doctors comes not from injury or the privations of the trenches but from a lifetime of thinking with a military mindset.  The film's climax, while inevitable given the film's depiction of a monolithic organization, is incredibly moving; it evokes the same feelings of pity, rage, despair and yet hope for the indomitable human spirit as does Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST [1975], which may give you some idea of this film's quality.

The nurse (Diane Varsi) spells out the letters of 'Merry Christmas' on Joe's chest
A few notes about the credits.  Trumbo I have talked about at length already so I shall just add that he based his screenplay on his own novel.  Oddly, imdb claims that Luis Bunuel was responsible for the Christ sequences but I'm not sure how true that is.  Cinematographer Jules Brenner had an interesting and varied career which included work on such delirious titles as HELTER SKELTER [1976], about the Manson family, Tobe Hooper's excellent mini-series SALEM'S LOT [1979] and Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD [1985].  He also lensed an obscure TV movie called THE NIGHT THEY TOOK MISS BEAUTIFUL [1977] which despite not being very good has somehow stuck in my mind since seeing it as a kid.  The score is by Jerry Fielding who, like Trumbo, had been blacklisted in the 50s.

David Soul (R)
In the supporting cast you may spot a very young David Soul and also Charles McGraw, one of my Dad's favourite actors who is chiefly remembered for a string of tough guy roles in B-pictures in the 40s and 50s, the best of which is probably Richard Fleischer's THE NARROW MARGIN [1952].  McGraw occasionally got small parts in much bigger movies, notably as the gladiator trainer who torments Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS [1960] which was written by none other than Dalton Trumbo.

Charles McGraw as Kareen's father

Friday 2 August 2013

The Hospital [1971]

THE HOSPITAL is an American satirical comedy-drama that was directed by Arthur Hiller and originally released by United Artists in December 1971.  It stars George C. Scott and Diana Rigg.  Among the supporting cast are Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart, Jordan Charney, Roberts Blossom, Katherine Helmond, Frances Sternhagen, Robert Walden and Stockard Channing.  It follows a hectic couple of days in the life of a Manhattan hospital which is beset by problems, not least of which is a serial killer apparently on the loose.

I can't decide whether it's oddly comforting or profoundly depressing that a lot of the issues identified by Paddy Chayefsky in his script are still besetting healthcare some forty years later.  On the one hand, you might feel reassured that today's problems are nothing new and therefore don't indicate an alarming drop in standards; on the other hand it seems the likelihood of these problems being solved any time soon is low. Healthcare delivered to a high standard and representing good value for money appears to be an impossible goal, particularly as money and resources are sucked out of the system by private companies while a growing equality gap pushes more and more citizens into an unhealthy lifestyle.

George C. SCott as Dr Herb Bock
There is a sequence towards the end of THE HOSPITAL when the serial killer, who has at last been identified, breaks down as he / she recounts a seemingly never-ending variety of cases encountered on a daily basis by healthcare professionals.  It's a genuinely moving and horrifying moment which goes a long way to explain the inadequacy felt by central character Dr Herb Bock (George C. Scott), whose impotence becomes a metaphor for his despair and powerlessness.

Diana Rigg as Barbara Drummond
This, er, somewhat unreconstructed idea of power, masculinity and sex being essentially interchangeable is reinforced when Bock is seemingly revitalised merely by dint of shagging free-spirited young hottie Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), who is in the hospital attempting to discharge her father.  Up until this coupling takes place about an hour in, the movie has been a hugely watchable blackly comic drama which, like Robert Altman's M*A*S*H [1970], recognises that the only possible human reaction in the face of such overwhelming problems is gallows humour.  However, after Bock's metaphorical resurrection the film tips over the edge into farce and loses a lot of its power.

Dr Bock bawls out Mrs Christie (Nancy Marchand) as an uncomfortable Hitchcock (Jordan Charney) looks on
It's tempting to read THE HOSPITAL as a state-of-the-nation assessment in the way that Lindsay Anderson's BRITANNIA HOSPITAL [1982] is, explicitly, for the UK.  Indeed, it's always tempting to read films about enormous, dysfunctional organizations as being metaphors for society as a whole.  But I think Chayefsky's script, at least in the second half, focuses too much on Bock's personal struggles and the resolution of the frankly ludicrous serial killer plot for this to apply here.  On top of that I think it would have taken a much stronger director than Arthur Hiller to really deliver Chayefsky's script properly, as flawed as it is.  Hiller, still alive at 89 but now retired, was a journeyman director whose career flitted from project to project for the most part leaving nothing in its wake other than professionally-made but anonymous and superficial movies.  Put it this way, if you wanted to make your film a genuinely biting satire about contemporary society then Arthur Hiller is not your man.

Robert Walden as Dr Brubaker
George C. Scott though is brilliant to watch; he's the type of leading actor I admire hugely, particularly because he is totally unafraid of playing fundamentally dislikeable characters.  There aren't many of that type around any more - the last was probably Gene Hackman and he has sadly retired.  It's difficult to imagine, say, Brad Pitt or Will Smith playing deeply unpleasant men; they're superheroes, essentially, whose persona is that of the ubermensch not Joe Public.  It's not really their fault because that's all that Hollywood requires of them; as far as the money men are concerned, Pitt and Smith were not put on this Earth to play realistic character parts.  And that, sadly, is a reflection of modern Hollywood and perhaps the main reason why I rarely go to the cinema these days; as flawed as THE HOSPITAL may be it is at least a film made by adults for adults, about and directed at recognisable human beings.

Dr Bock lets Dr Welbeck (Richard Dysart) know exactly what he thinks of him
Some notes about the wonderful supporting cast.  Richard Dysart, who plays the objectionable surgeon Welbeck, was a prolific character actor who had equal low-key success in film and on TV; coincidentally, in THE HOSPITAL his character has a heart attack and requires de-fibrillation, whereas in John Carpenter's THE THING [1982] his character administers de-fibrillation, with memorably gruesome consequences. Jordan Charney, who plays Hitchcock the slimy hospital administrator, played the slimy un iversity administrator at the beginning of GHOSTBUSTERS [1984].

Roberts Blossom as Guernsey
Roberts Blossom is a real film geek's actor who played small but significant roles in numerous quality movies and even got to play the lead once, in the Ed Gein biopic DERANGED [1974].

Katherine Helmond as Marilyn Mead
Katherine Helmond is well known for her terrific gallery of weird old ladies, particularly in the great sitcom SOAP and Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL [1985].

Frances Sternhagen (L) as Mrs Cushing and Stockard Channing (R)
Frances Sternhagen was another good character actress, who specialised in no-nonsense spinsters, such as the only person gutsy enough to assist Sean Connery in OUTLAND [1981].  Robert Walden was memorable as Donald Segretti in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN [1976], a member of the White House 'ratfucking' team.  Stockard Channing is most famous of course for GREASE [1978] but is a talented and quirky actress who has probably been under-used in films.

Diana Rigg will always be Emma Peel and, probably for that very reason, had a curiously underwhelming film career.  Which is a shame because she's really good in THE HOSPITAL as the spunky, kooky and sexy Barbara Drummond; she more than holds her own next to George C. Scott and that's no mean feat.