Monday, July 4, 2011

3 Films: 10 Rillington Place - The Shipping News - Withnail and I

Superman, oh Superman!

"I never said your film reviews suck. I said they were boring."

Blog block and roll. Here are three films I've attached to my soul over the last handful of years. I deem them all worthwhile mental investments.

The decision to abolish capital punishment in Britain in 1965 is partly a result of the wrongful execution of John Evans in 1950, who was convicted of murdering his baby girl and sentenced to death by hanging. 10 Rillington Place (1971) tells that story and the story of the real murderer, serial killer John Christie, who murdered at least eight women in England in the 1940s and '50s, burying some of their bodies in a concealed crawlspace in his apartment after having postmortem sex with them.

The first time I watched this movie online, (I unexpectedly just happened to click it on) I was riveted in my seat like I was 10 years old watching Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho for the first time, my hands clenching the armchairs like I was gripping the safety bar on a roller coaster. It is the dismal, hopelessly horrific dark atmosphere and the snail's pace crawl of it that mesmerized me into equal parts repulsion and fascination.

The horror is heightened considerably by the on-location filming at the very address the main murders took place. 10 Rillington Place is a depressing, very British dark and dingy row of apartment houses with rooms, as the British say, not big enough to swing a cat. The infamous street has since been renamed.

Directed by Richard Fleischer, who directed another fine true murder film, The Boston Strangler (1968), and is the son of cartoon animation pioneer Max Fleischer, the movie boasts an exquisite British cast with Richard Attenborough as serial killer John Christie, certainly one of the creepiest movie villains ever to peer luridly out a window, and John Hurt, as the unfortunate and illiterate John Evans, who rallies a performance that cries out for the abolition of the death penalty. But be forewarned - the film is relentlessly grim.

How I hated The Shipping News (2001). I saw it in the dead of winter in the coldest theatre in western New York, so frigid that the small handful of audience in attendance were hunched over, huddled in winter garb -gloves, scarves, hats - attempting to conserve body warmth, as if we were sitting around a life saving campfire and not looking up at a movie screen. That the movie screen was projecting the winter season in Newfoundland was like experiencing a survival endurance test.

After repeated viewings, (the beautiful blue and white Newfoundland scenery kept getting my attention when it ran on cable), I saw another film entirely. It's a rosy-cheeked black comedy exploring the inherent nastiness of the human condition while mellowing that notion with a life affirming swath of goodness.

Everything that didn't work in the film the first time I saw it nestles into a companionable place when I watched it again and again - the wimpy self-pitying introduction of a boy being taught how to swim by his father who tosses him into the water like he's unloading a sack of unwanted kittens - the mystical subplot of a skinny ghost accompanied by a white dog roaming the stormy nights and seen only by a child with gifted perception - a gay older woman still traumatized by a familial rape in childhood - and several other wayward plot lines which were an attempt at humanist statements but fell short of coherent theme and profoundness.

I was wrong. There is a ghost roaming the stormy night, a special child can hear an old house speak, the scars of childhood can destroy an adulthood, and just because your ancestors were cut-throat pirates doesn't mean you carry the bad seed. The Shipping News is indeed a movie with enough heart and humor to warm the coldest winter, (but apparently not the coldest theatre).

From a popular novel by Annie Prowlx, (Brokeback Mountain) the movie stars Kevin Spacey, no longer too subtle but just perfect as a bewildered man who turns to his new found Newfoundland heritage for guidance, Julianee Moore as a romantic interest with a shameful secret and a recipe for seal flipper pie, and Judie Dench as gay Aunt Agnis.

One thing I didn't miss in that cold theatre was the dynamic portrayal of Petal, the prostitute that marries the protagonist, by Cate Blanchett. All eyes on her in a brief performance that rushes by like a gale wind in hot pants.

There's gay Aunt Agnis in The Shipping News and there's gay Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1986), a semi-autobiographical British film written and directed by Bruce Robinson. I ran across it one day channel-surfing when Jimi Hendrix's All Along The Watchtower blared out of the speakers sound tracking two English blokes sharing a bottle of whiskey while cruising out of London in an old jalopy. I've been laughing at substance abuse ever since.

Heavy pot smoking, booze galore, delicious decadence, a drug dealer who behaves as though he just stepped off a toadstool in Alice in Wonderland, a week in the country and a soft charming center detailing that special time in life when you know it's time to step up to the plate of adulthood or die. Indulge in this film and enjoy but be prepared to take in a little culture on the side. This ain't no Cheech and Chong pot-o-rama.

p>Two young unemployed British actors at the end of the swinging sixties, living in squalor in a London flat, manage through some manipulation to take vacation in the country in the dilapidated cottage of Uncle Monty.

And that's pretty much it. Except that you may never meet a more comical, pathetic and beloved character than Withnail in all of movie-dom. The would-be Shakespearean actor is a feast for the amused mind made celebratory by the fact that this role was actor Richard E. Grant's debut movie performance.

And at the risk of sounding like just any movie critic, (bad grammar keeps me unique), Richard Griffiths portrayal of Uncle Monty, the queer once thespian, eccentric aging faggot, grieved to the soul with dramatic remorse and wailing to the wind lamenting former lovers, is just about the most assured, perfectly nuanced comedic performance I have ever seen.

And I like the character of "I" too - writer Robinson's injection of his young self, played by Paul McGann, the only solid character, although seeming on the verge of drug collapse, we dare relate to.

It's not quite the perfect movie. The sparks subdue a bit by the time Withnail and I get to the country, but their odyssey is a trip well worth taking. Withnail and I secures a strong cult following with websites devoted to it and a deadly game that attempts to duplicate all the drinks consumed by Withnail in the film. My favorite bit - out of alcohol and suffering withdrawal, Withnail consumes the last remaining lighter fluid in a bottle and then reaches for the anti-freeze when "I" warns, "you should never mix your drinks".

Withnail and I was co-produced by the late George Harrison.

No comments: