Defense of the Realm and Duet for One

February 7, 2013

dfenseofrealmDefense of the Realm has the breeding and the instincts of a classic paranoid thriller, along the lines of a Richard Condon novel or an Alan Pakula film. In many ways it resembles Pakula’s All the President’s Men, for this is also a story of an increasingly nasty government cover-up, unraveled by a relentless newspaper reporter.

This time, however, the reporter (Gabriel Byrne) is no white knight. He’s as sleazy as his Fleet Street counterparts when a juicy political scandal breaks, and every bit as willing to gain information in under-handed ways. Actually, that’s what makes Defense of the Realm interesting, above and beyond its status as a ripping yarn; here, the getting of the story provides the reporter with some measure of redemption.

The scandal involves a teddibly important member of Parliament (Ian Bannen) caught sharing the same call girl as a KGB agent. (Not at the same time—Martin Stellman’s sctript isn’t quite as wild as an actual British political scandal.)

Trapped in the middle is an old-guard reporter (the always-admirable Denholm Elliott), who’s also an old friend of the disgraced man. Elliott hints darkly to Byrne that the whole thing is a frame-up, and that evidence is forthcoming that will implicate even bigger higher-ups.

Within a few hours, Elliott is dead—that happens when you hint darkly in stories such as these—and Byrne is compelled to follow the thing through, aided by a secretary (Greta Scacchi) of the disgraced man.

Even when you can’t figure out precisely what’s going on, and that happened to me with uncomfortable regularity, the film does move forward nimbly. Director David Drury, another discovery of that savior of the British cinema, David Puttnam, has an exceptionally sharp eye and a brooding sense of atmosphere. The crucial thing he doesn’t quite achieve is to make the Byrne and Scacchi characters into fleshy creatures. They remain mostly props in the service of this well-tooled movie.

Duet for One was released in Los Angeles late last year, in hopes of picking up an Academy Award nomination for Julie Andrews. Didn’t work, so Cannon Films seems to be dumping the movie, which is adapted from Tom Kempinski’s stage success.

It’s a bravura role, all right, the sort that usually gets an automatic nomination. Andrews plays a world-famous concert violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis. The film charts her downslide, through retirement, anger, and a suicide attempt, and the toll on the people around her: conductor husband (Alan Bates), psychoanalyst (Max von Sydow), musical protégé (Rupert Everett).

It’s a weird movie. Much of it plays as soap opera, redeemed by some of Andrews’ gutsy moves. Eventually the presence of director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) takes over, and a heavy kind of Russian obscurity seeps in.

First published in the Herald, March 14, 1987

Surely Defense of the Realm has a cult following. Drury made a Hollywood misfire (Split Decisions) and then went into the world of British television, where he has thrived.


The Keep

October 9, 2012

The Keep is easily the strangest film to be released this Christmas season. It’s something of an arthouse horror movie, and it’s almost sure to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

The Keep is an ancient castle—nobody seems to know how long it’s been standing—in the hills of Romania. It must be of some strategic value, because German soldiers occupy the fortress (the film is set in 1941), despite the cryptic warnings of the castle caretaker.

The first evening in the Keep, a couple of soldiers pry loose a stone from the wall—a wall that, as the German colonel (Jurgen Prochnow) observes, seems to have been built to keep something in rather than keep someone out—and let fly a maelstrom of special effects: smoke, wind, and bright light.

What they’re really setting free is a creature who may be absolute evil and possess ultimate power. To flex his muscles a little, he starts ripping German soldiers in half, which quickly gets the attention of the S.S., who send one of their slimiest officers (Gabriel Byrne) over to clear up the situation.

The beast can’t actually leave the grounds of the Keep until someone pure comes long to transport a talisman out of there, thus letting the creature off its chain, as it were.

That pure soul is Dr. Theodore Kuzar (Ian McKellen), a medievalist who actually makes contact with the monster. Kuzar becomes convinced that the creature will help destroy the Nazis, and he agrees to carry the talisman out.

But it’s not going to be easy; a mysterious figure (Scott Glenn) arrives in town, intent on stopping the thing in the Keep. He also takes up with Kuzar’s daughter (Alberta Watson), which complicates things when it comes time for the final showdown.

Writer-director Michael Mann had a fascinating feature-film debut with Thief, which played for a couple of weeks in 1981 and then stole away into the night. It was heavily cryptic and very high-tech, but it got under your skin in a weird way.

The Keep is also tersely written and enigmatically played, and Mann’s visual ingenuity is fun to watch. He likes to fill his frames with smoke and shadow and diffused light.

The only problem is, the story isn’t really propelled by all this stylization, it’s just decorated by it. I’m not knocking Mann for being ambitious, but there really isn’t enough meat to this tale to justify the pyrotechnics.

One aspect of Mann’s visual conception that is completely successful is the set design—the set for the castle is superb, with its huge stone front and catacomb-like hallways. Mann gets some spooky effects just by looking at the building itself.

And the monster is pretty neat. He’s about 8-feet tall, shaped like a man, with glowing red eyes and mouth. His voice sounds a bit like Kirk Douglas crossed with Debra Winger. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes he walks around without any skin on. But he can get away with it—this monster’s home is his castle.

Give Mann and his monster an A for effort, and keep your eye on this director. Someday he’s going to make a movie as solid as the fortress in The Keep—but slightly more inviting, perhaps.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Well I hope Michael Mann found this encouragement useful! He’s done just fine, to the extent that he has apparently disowned The Keep and doesn’t want people to see it. But I really want to see it again, so something’s going to have to give. I left Tangerine Dream’s score out of this review, which probably reflected my musical tastes (but I do approve of them as soundtrack generators).

Julia and Julia

March 21, 2012

If Julia and Julia finds its place as a footnote to film history, it will be more for its technical significance than for anything else. That’s because Julia and Julia is the first major theatrical movie shot on high-definition video, rather than traditional film stock.

In this case, Italy’s RAI network funded the experiment to test the commercial and aesthetic possibilities. A lot of people have been talking for years about a future in which most movies are shot on a high-grade video (and then transferred to 35 mm. film, so they can be shown in theaters), which is much cheaper and easier to handle than film stock.

If Julia and Julia is the current state of the art, we’d better hold off on the video revolution for a while. Although this movie is photographed by one of the world’s leading cinematographers, Guiseppe Rotunno, and directed by an ambitious stylist, Peter Del Monte, it still has some serious visual drawbacks.

Shooting on videotape produces an image that is flatter, duller and less expressive than the same image on film. (If you can’t imagine the difference, compare a daytime soap opera, shot on video, to most prime-time TV shows, shot on film.) The process in Julia and Julia is sophisticated, and even produces some interesting images until, oh, the camera moves. Or a character moves. Then, to these purist eyes, anyway, the image looks streaky and unstable.

In theory, Julia and Julia should be the perfect vehicle for a video experiment, since the movie itself is a hallucinatory mood piece, and thus a strange look could be highly appropriate. Kathleen Turner plays a bride whose husband (Gabriel Byrne, of Gothic) is killed on their wedding day; years later, in Trieste, she experiences a spooky shifting reality, when she abruptly spots her husband again in their old apartment, living as though they’d been married for six years. She happily goes back to him, but this new life has a twist: She begins to realize that this other existence includes a lover, a mysterious photographer (Sting).

The poor woman bats back and forth between her two realities until we begin to get the idea that, as is so often the case, it’s all in her head. Keeping her husband alive is, on her part, merely an extension of her “passion unyielding to the grave” (as her wedding-day quote has it).

This movie is too obscure, humorless, and self-consciously arty to score a success, and much of it is awfully precious. But Del Monte does get some dreamily effective action going (somewhat in the manner of his puzzle film of a few years back, Invitation au Voyage), and there is something to be said for simply watching good-looking people in unusual roles—Kathleen Turner and Sting are both excellent.

The video process actually undercuts the movie’s stylization. Video’s flexibility has been used for exaggerated, surreal effects in everything from commercials to music videos, and some of that work is very intriguing. Spread out over a full narrative, however, video serves to flatten, to endow the proceedings with ordinariness. In Julia and Julia, the exotic begins to look mundane.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Does nobody remember this movie? Even now, with all the inevitability of digital’s triumph over film? This was much talked-about at the time, a landmark in video’s invasion of film’s turf. I still remember what it looked like, how awkward it was (projected in 35 mm., of course) and how obviously video-made. Too soon, too soon. But surely the time is ripe for Luca Guadagnino to reunite with Tilda Swinton and do a remake of this, on digital, and give it the heavy-breathing treatment it deserves.