Monday, February 29, 2016

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles directed a number of great films in his lifetime and lost a great number of them as well to the vagaries of financing, post-production turmoil, and other behind-the-scenes issues. Chimes at Midnight (1965), reportedly Welles' personal favorite of his own work, was considered lost for a number of years, caught in a quagmire of ownership, but it has been restored and released by Janus Films and is now touring the country. I caught a screening of it at Ohio State University's Wexner Center for Arts on Sunday.

Chimes at Midnight combines the plots and characters of five plays by William Shakespeare to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff (Welles), a fat, old knight always scheming, getting into trouble, drinking, owing money, and leading astray the Prince of Wales, Hal (Keith Baxter), much to the dismay of Hal's father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud). When war breaks out in England, Prince Hal must decide which of these father figures he's going to emulate, and his decision has dire consequences for Falstaff.

Falstaff is regarded as one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters. He's boisterous, loud, merry, a good-natured scoundrel in a manner of speaking. He's a braggart and a coward, one utterly shameless and driven by his desires, a man who inspires both affection and frustration in those close to him. In the text, Falstaff is a comical character, but by making him the focus of the film, Welles brings to the forefront Falstaff's tragic nature. He's goes from this massive, looming figure who dominates the frame to a reduced, pitiful creature who looks small and feeble at the base of these grand castle halls and rows of footmen.

Welles imbues the film with his trademark virtuosity and style. From the boisterous inn of Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford), where Falstaff and his cohorts always look ready to break into song and dance, to the vast castle throne room, where the frost is visible on King Henry's breath and the walls dwarf these rigid, royal men, Welles' camera captures the nature of these places perfectly. He also uses his usual wide angle, low angle perspective that emphasizes depth of frame, baroque scenery, and distorted faces. A showoff, flamboyant style to be sure, but it's nothing if not visually distinctive and dynamic.

The most impressive sequence is the battle between Henry's forces and those of the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Welles buries his camera in a sea of men, mud, and mist and cuts curiously between dozens of little clashes, along with the comical Falstaff running and hiding like a goof. This gives the battle a strong sense of chaos, as well as the impression that there are thousands of troops fighting. One can see the influence this had on a number of battle scenes in later movies.

Welles plays up the tragic nature of Falstaff but doesn't forget his humor. Before the battle, we see the knights lifted by a pulley so they can mount their horses, a feat out of reach for the rotund Falstaff, who falls a great distance in a bit of physical comedy. After the battle, when Hal finds what he thinks is the corpse of his friend, the sight of steam rising out of Falstaff's helmet visor generated a laugh from the audience I was with.

If you're a fan of Welles or Shakespeare, you'd be well served to seek out Chimes at Midnight. A few technical flaws remain (some characters are clearly not speaking when we hear them), but the filmmaking prowess on display and the exploration of the Bard's themes are superlative, and the performances are excellent.

The Thing (2011)

Many filmmakers I admire, particularly in the science fiction and horror genres, hold up The Thing from Another World (1951), produced by the legendary Howard Hawks, as a watershed movie, the film that was their favorite monster flick growing up. Watching it now, I can say it holds up remarkably well, even if a lot of its material has since become stock.

Likewise, John Carpenter's remake from 1982, while not warmly received in its time, is today regarded as one of his finest efforts and a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia, and practical special effects. Carpenter did not direct a beat-by-beat redux of the original, instead pursuing a different story that was more faithful to the original novella, John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There."

Whether you prefer the Hawks version or the Carpenter version, I think we can agree that despite the similar set up - alien monster at an isolated, wintry scientific outpost - the two movies are their own entities with distinct styles, scares, and themes. Which brings me to the prequel/reboot version of The Thing produced in 2011. Apart from an increased emphasis on computer-generated special effects and pumped up action scenes, this most recent version does very little to distinguish itself from its forebears, resulting in an overwhelming sense of pointlessness.

If you remember in the Carpenter version, the thing, an alien lifeform with the ability to perfectly imitate any person it killed, infiltrated and wiped out a Norwegian camp in Antarctica before reaching Kurt Russell and company. We didn't see this, but when the American crew investigates the burned remains of the Norwegian outpost, prior to learning the true nature of the threat they're facing, there is an ominous foreboding, a notion that what happened here will soon happen at the American camp.

This version, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, offers a depiction of what happened at the Norwegian base while finding a way to shoehorn in American characters, including a paleontologist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a helicopter pilot played by Joel Edgerton, and a researcher played by Eric Christian Olsen. Right off the bat, I'm questioning this setup. Norwegian scientists discover a UFO in the Antarctic ice, and they bring in 20-something Americans? I'm all for international cooperation, but this feels like pandering to American audiences that might hesitate to see a film about a bunch of Scandinavians.

Still, as contrived as this feels, the idea of being one of only a few Americans at an isolated base where everyone else speaks a language you don't understand has potential, and the movie, to its credit, has some of that paranoia but not enough. The scenes of the characters becoming suspicious of each other and turning on one another feel perfunctory and rushed in this version, almost as if the filmmakers wanted to hurry along to the action scenes as soon as possible. Some scenarios and imagery from the original are repeated here without much variation (though I did like how they replaced the blood test with an examination for dental fillings), and they just feel overly familiar. These new characters discover what we in the audience already know from having seen the earlier movie.

In Carpenter's take, destroying the monster was relatively easy. Finding out who was who was the challenge. The thing transformed into hideous incarnations when exposed but never did so unless threatened. Here, the alien is not so opportunistic, attacking the humans out in the open and putting itself at risk for no real good reason. This leads to a lot of chase scenes, as the humans run, hide, and fight back, but this turns the alien into just another generic freak monster, no longer the cunning, elusive adversary.

Much of this version feels tailored to show off new CGI effects, and admittedly, some of the designs are cool. The monsters has all sorts of claws, tentacles, limbs, and other nasty features, and had they been done practically, with rubber and animatronics, they might have been truly terrifying. But even five years later, these CGI effects already look dated. Not once was I ever convinced the characters were really interacting with an alien creature. It looked like a cartoon superimposed over the film after the fact.

The actors do what they can; the Antarctic setting looks convincing isolated, cold, and rugged; and it is cool to finally get inside the UFO. There are some neat references to the Carpenter version, and the end credits reveal additional footage that perfectly ties into the opening of the original movie. The problem here is overfamiliarity. It's the same old thing.