Monday, April 22, 2013

April Apocalypse part IV: Francoblivion

When you think of a post-apocalyptic film, the setting that usually comes to mind is typically urban in nature, like the vacated freeways of Los Angeles in The Omega Man, or the deserted streets of London in 28 Days Later. If it's a non-metropolitan locale you imagine, it's probably the barren Australian outback of Mad Max 2 or the Italian rock quarry landscape of Warriors of the Wasteland. One of the last things you would think of would be a medieval castle in rural France. However, that is exactly the location of the 1981 Christian de Chalonge film Malevil. The movie takes its name from the fictional castle and surrounding community of farms in a modern day, agrarian section of France. Based on the novel by Robert Merle, who is most known for Day of the Dolphin and Weekend at Dunkirk, the movie paints a vivid picture of a small, family-like community enduring, and subsequently recovering from, a nuclear attack. Unlike many pessimistic post-apocalyptic films of the time, such as Threads or Testament, the French production presents a less nihilistic view of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. The film begins with beautiful establishing shots of the countryside which contrast mightily to the ash-strewn aftermath imagery of the subsequent apocalypse. Along with the way, we meet the some of the denizens of Malevil.

Lead character, Emmanuel Comte (Michel Serrault), is the mayor as well as a local farmer, winemaker and the castle's owner. After running errands, which include helping his elderly housekeeper La Menou (Émilie Lihou) to force-bathe her lovable, mentally challenged, adult son, Momo (Jacques Villeret), Comte holds a council meeting among his friends and neighbors in the castle's wine cellar to iron out some local improvements. Attending the meeting are Bouvreuil (Jean Leuvrais) the persnickety town chemist, Colin (Jacques Dutronc) the electrician, and Peyssou (Robert Dhéry) a neighboring farmer. Just after the meeting ends and everyone takes a wine tasting break, a bright flash of light is seen through the crack of the cellar door followed by a sudden rise in temperature. This section of the film is excellent as there is no dialogue inserted to state the obvious. The film explains everything through the characters' mute behavior, bursting wine casks and subsequent outdoor visuals which are particularly effective in establishing the destruction.

Despite the devastation, other survivors are found in and around Malevil like the veterinarian (Hanns Zischler) who was in a protected downstairs animal corral when the explosion struck and young Evelyne (Pénélope Palmer) who was in a nearby cave. When still other groups are subsequently discovered, complications and conflicts ensue. What's interesting and refreshing was there were no long philosophical debates that sprang out of the conflicts. The characters pretty much did what was practical rather than ideologically or morally sound. There weren't any high-falluting speeches about the brotherhood of man or struggles of conscience and so on. This sense of practicality logically fit right in with the rural environment, the main character's nature and the overall theme of the story. It's a bit of a simplistic and well-worn theme of simple country folk being wiser than their urban counterparts, but it's effective in Malevil at least until the end when the point gets needlessly hammered home. The minimalist approach used by Christian de Chalonge, who also co-wrote the film, works well throughout  with images and behavior given precedent over dialogue at the small cost of some overt exposition and character development. In one scene, while out looking for a mare, Colin and Emmanuel come across a figure aiming a rifle at them. Colin instinctively shoots the person only to realize it's a charred corpse. Colin calmly takes the rifle off the dead man and they continue their search for the horse. The entire seen is played out silently, with the exception of Colin's gunshot, and needed no additional explanation or enhancements. The music is similarly subdued when present but it's just outright absent most of the time. I counted only four instances of very brief musical interludes in the entire film with two of those coming from radios or loudspeakers within the story. This absence gave the film a curious aloofness and haunted quality which I found very effective in setting the tone. The imagery spoke for itself and needed no further comment or underscoring from characters or music.

Novel vs Film

Overall, I found the writing and the tone of the film much more honest and believable than Merle's novel. I also found it much more efficient, direct, surely paced and thematically relevant. Christian de Chalonge deserves much credit in going a different direction by getting rid of all the book's interpersonal chafe and keeping the edible bits. The book, in contrast to the film, is nothing but character development focusing especially on male/female sexual politics within Malevil. Many times in the novel the Comte character beds one of the few available women and advocates polyandry to his fellow survivors. I found this utterly distracting, irrelevant and more than a little misogynistic. Apparently, so did the screenwriters as they got rid of three of the book's prominent female characters, along with their subplots, and dropped Comte's sexual escapades entirely from the film. It made for much more efficient storytelling skipping the male fantasy and female soap opera-type melodrama. There is just the slightest hint of female machinations in the film, from the rescued character of Cathy, but it is completely understated and understandable as she is trying to save her female friends and it fits neatly into the plot without being sleazy. Also, I was pleased with the film's treatment of the Evelyne character who went from a dull, lovestruck, underage nymph in the novel, to a vital, confident, kick-ass young women in the movie. There are only two areas where I'd give the book the advantage over the film. One is in the character of Fulbert who is played by the great Jean-Louis Trintignant. Fulbert is a much more malignantly evil character in the novel whereas Trintignant just looks tired and unthreatening in the movie. I can't blame the filmmakers for casting him as he's legendary but he just didn't bring the thunder in this instance. Second, although the book's ending just kind of fizzles out, the movie tacks on an unneeded denouement which really feels forced and unnecessarily preachy thematically speaking. There was a very good natural ending at the hour forty-five minute mark, but the filmmakers had to throw in some heavy-handed irony that just felt very out of place given the subtlety of the rest of the film. Despite this, I think it's still a strong, artistically sound effort and worth tracking down for fans of P/A movies.

Final Scores 
Film: 7.50/10
Novel: 5.75/10

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April Apocalypse part III: Poodle-geddon

"I want an orderly nuclear holocaust."
-Robert Klein, Child of the Fifties

About ten years ago, I was taking a back road in to my former job when I came across a single police car blocking the way. Being a little-trafficked side street in an industrial complex, I was the first vehicle to encounter the roadblock. I knew better than to ask the lone officer manning the barricade what was going on (cops hate that question even more than "Do I smell bacon?" and are prone not to answer it) so instead, I asked if it was OK for me to turn around and exit the area. The officer, looking extremely put-upon, did not reply. Just then, two more cars rolled  up behind mine with both drivers giving the universal palms-to-heaven questioning gesture of 'what's going on?'. Since the cop next to me continued to stand like a statue hit by a curare dart, I began directing traffic by motioning the drivers to turn around and go back the way they had come. I followed suit and the cop never moved maintaining his perpetual 'why do I get stuck with the crap details?' demeanor. When I got to work, I found out there had been a hazmat containment situation in one of our neighboring industrial sites. The cop had set up his roadblock directly downwind of it. Smooth. The road he had blocked had a ninety degree turn further down where it intersected with a main thoroughfare, so he would have been safer blocking it there and subsequent traffic could not have even entered the area.
It was after this encounter that I realized there were incompetent law enforcement officers in the world. Make no mistake, I understood this prior to this incident in an intellectual way, but it's one thing to be cognitive that there is such a thing as the world's worst dentist, it's quite another to be sitting in his chair.

Nine motorists and passengers run into the same situation I did in Fredric Gadette's 1962 atomic scare movie, This Is Not a Test. The film takes place on a lightly traveled piece of highway in the hills of the fictional "Del Oro county" California. It begins with Deputy Sheriff Dan Colter receiving orders over the radio to set up a roadblock at a predesignated point. A group of characters soon coalesse there only to discover the end of the world is nigh. Deputy Dan, played by the unfortunately-named, Seamon Glass, looks much like a punch-drunk boxer in a Looney Tunes short and sounds like he founded the Steven Seagal school of broadcasting. The first two people to encounter the officer at the blockade are kindly grandpa/chicken rancher Jake Saunders (Thayer Roberts) and his pretty, adult granddaughter, Juney (Aubrey Martin). They cooperate with the Deputy and Grandpa Jake even helps out by laying down some highway flares.

The next couple to come along aren't nearly as cooperative as the Saunders owing to the massive amount of booze they seemed to have ingested. Actress Mary Morlas as Cheryl Hudson gives one of the most over-the-top drunk driving performances ever as she seems to take orgasmic delight in operating a vehicle under the influence. Her boyfriend, gambler Joe Baragi (played by character actor Michael Greene in his first role) is a slick talking hepcat who has just made a big score and thinks booze is also groovy daddy-o. You dig man? Deputy Dan has more than a little trouble keeping these two live wires corralled and sober.

Next up is wealthy, married couple, Sam and Karen Barnes (Norman Winston and Carol Kent). Sam is the rule-following, meek conservative, obsessive-compulsive type. Karen wears expensive clothes and carries a toy poodle named Timmy, but surprises by not adhering to the Lovey Howell stereotype. Also arriving at the roadblock is good-looking, young, easy going, trucker Al and the weird, semi-catatonic hitchhiker he's picked up, Clint. Last to arrive is a porkpie hat-wearing, scooter-driving, young man named Peter.

Initially, none of the characters know the reason they've been stopped. There is a nice little red herring plot point involving a wanted criminal that seems to explain the roadblock, but it turns out it's only a coincidence. As the real reason becomes apparent, a possible nuclear war, the deputy directs everyone to seek refuge. Obviously this doesn't sit well with many in the group who want to make a run for it instead. I don't want to spoil the ending but it is quite satisfying and surprising in more ways than one.

Technically, the film has problems mostly stemming from its low budget. The editing is somewhat choppy with parts of the movie confusing as a result. For example, the unintentionally comic, Conan O'Brien-type stare-down scene between Glass and the poodle near the end of the film made me laugh out loud, only to be horrified moments later when it's meaning became clear. The acting ranges from passable to non-existent. Thayer Roberts is decent as gramps but he, by far, had the most experience of anyone in the cast at the time. Sometimes the bad acting is distracting and goofy, as in Ron Starr's spastic, kamikaze, chicken attack, at other times it's an enjoyable hoot like Mary Morlas' drunk mugging. Overall though, most of the sub-par performing didn't take me out of the movie.
On the positive side, the concept is very solid, the characters distinctively enough drawn to easily differentiate them from one another and the film takes care of business in a very efficient 73 minutes. Yet there's still enough interaction and screen time that no one character gets lost in the shuffle. Scooter-riding Pete seems a bit too much of a plot convenience as he is just used to form the male half of a couple later on, but I liked the relationship that springs up between trucker Al and rich lady Karen which subsequently creates a little love triangle tension. Despite the somewhat low rent look of the film, I was impressed by how many of the scenes were more than adequately lit and didn't appear to be day-for-night filtered shots. In so many low budget films set at night, it's difficult to discern what's going on but that's not the case here as a lot of poor-man process illuminates the proceedings quite well. Another pleasant surprise was the Greig McRitchie score, which starts out big and brassy, but goes quiet and subtle soon after and remains so for the duration of the film. I really appreciated that he never felt the need to musically pound home the point with a lot of overdramatic stings. 

Finally, I wanted to point out the fascinating dichotomy between This Is Not A Test and another atomic scare film that was also made in 1962, Ray Milland's Panic in the Year Zero. In Milland's film, authority, in the guise of the military, is viewed as the heroic restorer of order even though they are more than a little bit responsible for the nuclear apocalypse in the first place. The policeman in This Is Not A Test also represents authority, but an officious, hidebound, misguided type of authority of the "Duck and Cover" school. The individuals who appear to fare best in this film, are the ones that defy authority and strike out on their own. This is a pretty revolutionary theme for a culture that was still relatively conformist at the time of the film's production and I wonder if it accounts, even in a small way, for it not being theatrically released. In any event, both This Is Not A Test and Panic in the Year Zero would make an excellent double-bill and indeed feel like different chapters in the same apocalyptic anthology.

Score 6.5/10

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

April Apocalypse Part II: Day O

Quietly influential on many subsequent post-apacalyptic films, Ranald MacDougall's 1959 melodrama, The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a flawed but interesting entry in part II of my April Apocalypse series of P/A favorites. With a cast of only three actors and set mostly in the heart of a deserted New York City, this movie captured my imagination as a youngster and is, in large part, responsible for sending me down the cinematic, post-apocalyptic path in subsequent years. The film focuses primarily on character interaction touching on gender and racial themes but brings some striking visuals to the table early on as well.

The first third of the story belongs exclusively to the character of Ralph Burton, played by calypso singer extraordinaire, Harry Belafonte. Ralph is a good-natured miner/electrician who is doing some underground work one day when a cave-in takes place. Ralph initially hears rescuers digging for him, but the sounds mysteriously cease after a time. Ralph eventually digs himself out but finds everyone has disappeared. This first half hour of the film is easily its visually strongest and most surely paced section. It also establishes Belafonte's character as not only a competent, resourceful guy, but likable, with a good sense of humor. After traveling to New York City and finding it suddenly has a major housing surplus, Ralph sets himself up with some posh digs, and brings home a grinning, business suit-wearing mannequin he dubs Snodgrass for company. After a time, Ralph begins to feel mocked in his solitude by the presence of the ever-smiling dummy and tosses him out the window which serves as a catalyst to meet another character.

Snodgrass facsimiles would show up in later P/A films like The Omega Man, as Charlton Heston's mute, skipper-hat-wearing bust of Caesar, and Castaway, as Tom Hanks' annoying volleyball. Likewise, Bruno Lawrence sets up an entire faux audience for himself in The Quiet Earth. There are also several other aspects of this film that would be repeated in subsequent movies like Dawn of the Dead, I Am Legend and The Quiet Earth. First and foremost, the interracial nature of the last survivors and the oft occurring love triangle can be seen in numerous P/A movies after The World, the Flesh and the Devil. It's easy to understand why, the thematic and dramatic tension fostered by these elements were just so ripe for exploration particularly in the socially evolving 60's and 70's.

In the second act of the film, the character of Sarah Crandall, played by Inger Stevens, is introduced. Sarah has been watching Ralph from afar, but has been to fearful to approach him. When they ultimately meet, they form a friendship that Sarah in a subtle fashion, tries to forge into something more. Ralph is resistant to a more intimate relationship as illustrated in the awkward haircutting scene (a skilled beautician, Ralph is anything but). This is where I really start having problems with the script in regards to character behavior. Having been born a year after the film was initially released, I certainly understand the interracial taboos of its time, however, seeing that Ralph and Sarah are likely the only survivors on the eastern seaboard, who cares if they get down to business? Thematically, it smacks of gutlessness on the part of either the screenwriter or studio not to have these characters at least on their way to consummating their burgeoning romantic relationship. It's not like it would be unprecedented. In George R. Stewart's 1949 P/A novel, Earth Abides, the main character of Isherwood Williams discovers his dusky, last-woman-on-earth love interest is in fact black, and quite logically laughs at his own 'what-will-the-neighbors-say' initial reaction. And Earth Abides was adapted to radio ten years prior to The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Speculative fiction has always been a great place to disguise and discuss progressive social messages and the fact that the filmmakers shied away from even the slightest controversial elements really disappoints.

In the midst of Ralph and Sarah's odd, non-intimacy, the final act of the film kicks in with the introduction of Mel Ferrer's character, Benson Thacker (I was kind of surprised the writers didn't go with Whitman Masterson as a name). Ferrer's character is the biggest, most glaring flaw of the film and makes very little sense as written. Benson is taken in and nursed back to health by the two characters upon arriving in New York after six months on his own. Immediately after recovering, he begins moving in on Sarah. Even though Ralph saved Benson's life and "clears the way" for Benson to start a relationship with Sarah, Benson still has a problem with Ralph! Is it bigotry? No, the characters explicitly establish that color is not an issue. So what is going on? Again, I'm going to blame the people behind the film for lacking the intestinal fortitude to make Ferrer's character either a racist or some other kind of repugnant antagonist. It seemed like they were trying to play Benson as some kind of temporary bad guy which served to confuse more than anything else. But the character does an about face more than once in the film for reasons unknown. I suppose the writers could also have gone for a polyandrous solution to the issue, but being the 50's, I understand this was really out of the question. Instead, there is a completely non-sensicle climax and ending which only serves to frustrate.

But despite the characters' sometimes erratic, inexplicable and illogical behavior in the suspect script writing, there are elements I do love about the film. As I said, the early visual images of an abandoned New York are superbly eerie. I thought I spotted a matte painting or two, but if so, they were so well rendered, I couldn't distinguish them from the actual city shots. There was a stylistic (or budgetary) choice made by someone not to show moldering corpses laying around, and despite their illogical absence, it actually adds to the film's chilling ambience. The pacing of the movie is steady without a lot of wasted time. We get into the story literally seconds after the movie begins with the cave-in and aborted rescue of Ralph and it rarely falters from there on. Harry Belafonte even manages to seamlessly slip in a few songs, a couple when he's alone, one recorded for the Sarah character's birthday, that are quite enjoyable. The three actors are all good looking and charismatic and do as good a job as they can with pretty murkily written characters. Finally, the black and white film is put to perfect use in the bleak P/A setting.
There is one other problem I haven't touched on which is the intrusive, BIG, dramatic soundtrack by Miklós Rózsa. A great composer who has certainly done some inventive and iconic work, Rózsa overplays it with grand, over the top, melodramatic stuff which underlines scenes that needed little, if any, accompaniment or highlighting. The era can't be blamed for his choices as he did some nice subtle soundtracks decades earlier, but he seemed to be stuck in Ben Hur mode here.
Although it's a far from perfect film, in the end, it is quite entertaining and surely paced with an influence on subsequent P/A films that is obvious to see.

Score: 6.75/10

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

April Apocalypse Part I: Life's What You Make It

Like any hack-y, low quality, amateur writer, I'm all about alliteration, so for the month of April, I thought I'd look at some of my favorite end-of-the-world movies in a series called April Apocalypse. In my opinion, the best examples the genre has to offer are films that bring some allegorical elements to the table and comment on society, human behavior, religion, politics or what-have-you. No P/A film that I know of is more ambitious in this respect than Daniel Bourla's 1975 oddity, The Noah. In it, people, cultures, armies, even entire civilizations are created and destroyed by just one character.

In a mash-up of Robinson Crusoe, the Book of Genesis and twentieth century history, writer/director Daniel Bourla creates a film that is both intimate and epic in scope. With a lead character that can easily be interpreted as either the solitary everyman or the lord almighty Himself, Bourla ambitiously critiques mankind, religion, indoctrination, and well, just about everything to do with anthropology. He attempts to relate this monumental allegorical tale through a lone soldier who has survived the apocalypse and landed on a deserted island paradise. The soldier emerges from his small life raft with his gear including, amusingly, a set of golf clubs. The island is devoid of all former enemies but is littered with a multitude of their broken down vehicles and abandoned structures some of which house pictures and busts of ideological leaders. The soldier wastes no time and sets up camp in an orderly, military fashion.

Oscar-nominated character actor Robert Strauss basically puts on a one-man show, with some voiceover and newsreel audio assists along the way, and plays the lead as arrogant, bellicose but ultimately pitiable. Imagine a much angrier, misogynistic, ultra-conservative Tom Hanks (minus the volleyball) from Zemeckis' Cast Away and you'll have an idea of Strauss' character in The Noah. Despite the initial churlish aspects of the soldier, one can't help softening toward him once he meets/creates his companion Friday. Friday, who is voiced by Geoffrey Holder in his maaaavelous baritone, is initially subservient to "The Noah" nearly to the point of noxiousness. But since The Noah is Friday's creator, his eager-to-please attitude makes perfect sense. And the soldier seems only too happy to be worshipped by Friday. As a sign of friendship (or his ever-spiraling decent into madness), The Noah builds Friday his own latrine.

Trouble comes, however, with the introduction of The Noah's next creation - a woman. The soldier tips his hand early on about his feelings on women in monologue statements like "I never had to pay for it in my life" which when a man states this, it generally indicates two things:
1. He has always had to pay for it.
2. He can't relate to women in any way, shape or form.
The woman, Friday-Anne, voiced by the great Sally Kirkland, immediately throws passive-aggressive attitude The Noah's way while simultaneously warming up to Friday. It's exactly the kind of antagonistic relationship I imagine Lilith would have had with God. She never becomes outright disrespectful, but just questions everything in a snarky tone. Of course, the ersatz Adam and Eve are eventually tossed out of paradise in a somewhat darkly comical scene leaving The Noah to start from scratch. His next effort begins with teaching children all the important things.

Eventually the children grow up, form cultures and begin to argue causing an ever-increasing cacophony of voices which The Noah attempts to quell with religious dogma.

Ultimately though, the chaos not only continues, but morphs into 20th century history. As The Noah perpetually wanders through the broken down, abandoned vehicle remnants on the island, the audible history of the past decades play out. By the end of the film, whether you interpret the soldier as a solitary, mad survivor or a lone, flawed god, you wind up feeling quite sorry for him and mankind in general.

Bourla's concept is absolutely brilliant and quite well executed, considering it's his only directorial effort. Strauss is just the kind of range-y character actor to handle a role that is alternately amusing, serious or sad. My only problems with the film were the slow pace and the needlessly long dirge-like, audio stroll through 20th century events. A few minutes of it brought home the point, but Bourla let it play out for nearly half an hour. I can enjoy a prolonged sequence like that in a Béla Tarr film, but it seems excessive here. 
The film has a strange history in that it was made in 1968, not screened at all until 1975 and never released theatrically. It is available on DVD and highly recommended for the patient, intellectual, P/A fan.

Score 7.75