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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Sanctum, The Mechanic and Inspector Bellamy

Sanctum (One and a Half Stars)

U.S./Australian: Alister Grierson, 2011

In Sanctum, a terrible movie shot in an amazing natural wonder, six hapless characters/explorers, mostly Australian, are trapped in the Esa-Ala caves of Papua, New Guinea. Those Esa-Ala caves, at least, are really something. One of the world‘s largest underground cave systems, they’re captured here both by state-of-the-art 3D cameras that keep prowling past the stony walls, diving into the rivers, and by microphones that pick up every natural sound, every splash, every dying scream, and, unfortunately, every line of dialogue.

But, for all the good that director Alister Grierson and producer Andrew Wright and their unfortunate choices for co-writer and story writer (themselves), get out of the deep splendors of Esa-Ala, they might as well have shot everything in front of a papier mache cave wall, beneath plastic stalactites, and in the studio tank, or wherever Edgar Ulmer was when he made the 1966 cheapie, The Cavern.

Except for its cinematography, which is sometimes amazing — although darkish in a way that makes you wonder why they wanted to take 3D cameras down there in the first place — Sanctum is a truly bad movie, a torment to sit though. I saw it myself at 7 p.m., February 1, on the night of the great recent Chicago snowstorm, supposedly the third worst day of weather in Windy City history, and I was actually thankful to escape into the blizzard.

That snowstorm had more suspense and entertainment value than Sanctum“ Much more. It had snappier dialogue, better comic relief (I met two people on skis after the show, moving up Columbus Drive toward the Sheraton), and more shocking twists (my cab got stuck in the snow and I had to abandon it). And it didn’t even have Jim Cameron as an executive producer.

As for Sanctum it’s hard to fathom how a movie with writing this clumsy and corny and acting this stridently hammy could have emerged from anywhere but Schlockland, or even blown out of a cave.

The story, supposedly inspired by a real-life underground exploring experience of producer/story-writer Wright (I‘ll bet the real-life tale was more interesting), sends the main characters down into the caves, for a pointless-sounding expedition involving retracing an exit route.

Along for this obviously cell-phoneless, unprotected jaunt (tracked somehow by mysterious monitors) is the cave-obsessed, tyrannical head spelunker Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), his more idealistic and endlessly grinning son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield, a hot Australian TV star), the sleazy, babbling American moneyman Carl Hurley (played by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffud), Carl’s hot girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), and Frank’s mournful-looking pal Crazy George (Dan Wyllie).

These people do a lot of jabbering and screaming — and in Josh‘s case, smiling, during the movie’s painfully hearty opening. Then they plunge down the cliffs and into the caves, only to be trapped there when an unpredictable tropical storm (no reliable weather forecasts, apparently, in Papua) floods the caves, seals up the exit, and forces them all to somehow find another out, in the general direction of the sea.

All the while, Frank keeps bullying everybody, displaying heartless callousness, and acting like he had a stick shoved up his sanctum sanctorum. Frank is a bastard even to gorgeous Victoria, whose hair gets stuck to a cave side at one point, and he keeps rhapsodizing about the wonderful world below, his citadel, his church. Obviously there are father-son issues here that may dwarf the whole survival problem. (At one point Josh calls Frank a hard-ass Nazi.)

And one wonders why Carl, jerk as he is, would take along his mistress Victoria (inexperienced in cave-survival, if not mistressing), unless he planned to murder her. (Or she him). Why not a family counselor? Or a steadi-cam operator? Or a couple of mechanics with lots of explosives? (See below.)

Every once in a while, in a laudable gesture toward cultural literacy, ubermensch Frank recites a bit of his favorite poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s lyrical dream-epic “Kublai Khan,” savoring lines like (as I remember) “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree/ Where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.” Ah, Coleridge! If I were Roxburgh, I’d savor them too. They’re better than the rest of the lines he’s got.

I kept hoping Frank would fall asleep, and have a dream where he recited the whole poem, animated in 3D — and never wake up until the end of the movie. No such luck. Instead we stayed trapped down there, waiting for the light to break through the stately dome, through cliches measureless to men, caught by a sunless 3D camera.

Movies about people crawling around huge underground cave systems and diving into underground rivers aren’t exactly my cuppa, Esa-Ala or no Esa-Ala.. But I loved Andrzej Wajda‘s Kanal, where the characters are mostly crawling around in the sewers of Warsaw, and I liked Danny Boyle‘s 127 Hours, where one man was caught in a crevasse — which proves that almost any bad fix can play well in a movie, if you squeeze the human value out of it. As it was, the snowstorm outside just blew Sanctum away.

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The Mechanic (Two Stars)

U.S.: Simon West, 2011

Remember 1972? The great movie year of The Godfather, of Cabaret, of Deliverance, of Frenzy, and Junior Bonner, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fellini’s Roma Cries and Whispers, Solaris, Ulzana‘s Raid, The King of Marvin Gardens, Avanti!, Sleuth, and Play It Again, Sam? One minor pleasure of that superb movie year was The Mechanic, an over-violent and somewhat sleazy, but cleverly written and acted thriller about an aging hit man (Charles Bronson), his young, amoral protege (Jan-Michael Vincent), and their adventures in assassination-land.

1972’s Mechanic was coldly filmed by the straight-ahead action director Michael Winner (Death Wish). But the story and script were unusual. They were by the gifted and sometimes lyrical playwright-turned-screenwriter Lewis John Carlino, who wrote (and sometimes directed) interesting, offbeat films like Seconds, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, The Great Santini and Resurrection. And Carlino’s script for the first Mechanic has a classical sense of structure, irony between the bloodlettings, and a surprise ending that few forget.

I suppose it makes sense that, if you were going to remake a movie these days from 1972 (which is really one of the all time great movie years, along with 1925, 1939-1941, 1946, 1956, 1962 and 1974), that it would be something like The Mechanic that was formulaic, but knowing. Even so, it reportedly took 17 years to put this show together, by the original producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (and Chartoff‘s son William) — with Carlino getting a co-writer credit (with Richard Wenk) and Simon West, of the ridiculous but high-grossing Lara Croft, Tomb Raider directing.

It figures. This kind of cold, cynical, head-bashing entertainment — with two protagonist/“anti-heroes” who would be villains in most other movies (except that Bishop tries to avoid sadism and at least shows qualms killing good guys) –is exactly the kind of gaudy, slick, bloody show many filmmakers try to make these days. The Mechanic’s brutal vision of a world of guilty “haves” and triumphant opportunists, as well as its chic, punchy style, are both, unfortunately, “state of the art.”

It even may be possible for somebody to see the first Mechanic as a movie ahead of its time, or a story that hasn’t aged, or a movie that just needs a little Simon West Con Air flash and dazzle to get contemporary again. I see it more as an okay second or third tier picture that was a precursor of bad times ahead. Bad times that include this remake.

In 1972, Bronson — post-Once Upon a Time in the West, post-Rider on the Rain, his stardom here and abroad near its peak — played Bishop, the cool killer who dispatched an old friend, Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), then took Harry’s son Steve (Vincent) under his wing to teach him the bloody tricks of his trade.

In the new movie, Bishop is played by Jason Statham, Harry by Donald Sutherland, and Steve by Ben Foster (the young soldier in The Messenger). The relationships are similar, but the only one of these three that betters his predecessor, and not by much, is Sutherland. Playing a part like this, Sutherland‘s eyes are like great baggy pools of sarcasm and what-the-hell amusement, and his wry delivery is dead solid perfect. He’s become an invaluable Michael Caine-Gene Hackman shot-of-reality style character actor. (Sutherland‘s 1972 movie, by the way, was the anti-Vietnam War show, F.T.A.)

Bronson played Bishop with his usual taciturn machismo and relish, but Statham, whose best film role was in The Bank Job, is as grim, glum and grinless as if he had just wandered in from a pledge drive for the Black Plague. Vincent (co-star of the John Milius classic, Big Wednesday) played Steve like a nasty surfer, waiting for the next wave or the next orgy. But Foster does it punkish and creepy, with little half grins that suggest a nasty voyeur, set to spy on Vincent‘s orgies.

The plot has become even more schematic and brutal, slavishly dependent on the action scenes we know will keep coming: the garrotings, the drownings, the explosions. Bishop has an evil, ultra-corporate fashion-plate of a boss named Dean (Tony Goldwyn, who acts like a villain and directs like a hero), and Dean hires Bishop to kill Bishop’s best friend (Sutherland), and then sends him off to dispatch a lot of scummy associates, including a slimy gun salesman, another hit man (James Logan as Jorge Lara), and a phony big-time media guru (John McConnell as Vaughn).

These killings are not just violent, but madly, unreasonably, almost laughably violent — not clean and fast the way you’d expect a pro hit man to strive for, but stretched out and operatic, like grudge killings planned by a vengeful psychotic. Or action scenes designed to knock an audience bass-ackwards.

Sometimes, the bloodiness is due to a character point, to neophyte Steve’s inexperience — as when Steve allows the huge and horny Lara to half-seduce him, and then messily battles and stabs him all over Lara’s den of kinky assignations. But mostly, these scenes simply announce themselves as bloody set-pieces. By the time Vaughn is sloppily strangled in his therapy room and Bishop and Steve hurl themselves, on cables, off the skyscraper roof, bullets raining around them, we know that no professional killer or “mechanic” in his right mind would have planned something like this. Especially a fastidious soul like Statham’s Bishop, who lives in a posh hide-away house and whose classical vinyl collection includes Schubert’s Trio in E-Flat, Opus 100.

Why would a pro hit man, even a secretly sentimental one, want to hook up with a mean little nebbish like Steve? There was a deliberate homo-erotic undercurrent to the 1972 Mechanic, and there’s also some in the 2011 one. But here the killings are so overscaled and orgasmic, that one suspects old-time sex has become as out-of-date in this world as Schubert on a record player. The only “sex” we see is the coitus-far-interruptus between Steve and Lara, and one bout between Bishop and a lithe, athletic hooker. The latter is shot like a bullfight, and the former like a slaughterhouse. Bishop’s climatic payoff, leaving the hooker a big tip, is played as a punch line.

The main difference between the 1972 Mechanic, which I half-liked, and the 2011 one, which I disliked, is that the first film, though it rarely strays from it, obviously portrays its world as a deviant (if powerful) one, while the second one acts as if its criminal world has become some kind of evil norm (and, in movies, it has), that the old “straight” world, or even the world of the cops, has become almost irrelevant. (The second Mechanic also blows the ending.)

I found the second Mechanic deeply unpleasant, slick but unentertaining, fast but empty (except for Schubert). And the movie’s fancy, over-rich, over-composed visual style — which some critics have praised — is a lot of what makes it seem so hollow and dead.

Statham is seemingly working in his usual sensitive thug metier, but he sometimes looks as if he couldn’t wait to get out of this life, this movie, while Charley Bronson at least gave his character something extra: cojones and a little mean style. Nether film is a world-beater, but it’s still possible to enjoy the 1972 movie without feeling like a sucker.

I was actually surprised to see that the new Mechanic was the work of the two sometimes great producers who produced the first one, Chartoff and Winkler (Raging Bull, New York, New York, Rocky, The Right Stuff, Round Midnight, Goodfellas), much less that it was a 17 year labor-of-whatever. It’s a mystery. Why would you work so hard to get something made and then hand it over to a director like Simon West, who’s still never surpassed Con Air?

God, I wish it were 1972, when moviemakers wanted to do more than just make a killing, when they wanted to make great movies, tell great human classic stories, and sometimes did, when the pictures seemed alive and vibrant, and not bloody, bad and lifeless, and, what’s the word? Mechanical.

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Inspector Bellamy (Three Stars)

France: Claude Chabrol, 2008

Inspector Bellamy, an odd but richly drawn, sardonic and compelling detective story starring Gerard Depardieu, was the last feature film directed (and co-written) by France’s Claude Chabrol — a filmmaker whose excellent movies, mostly about crimes and the French bourgeoisie, have charmed, disturbed and held me spellbound for almost half a century. A jolly, witty, ceaselessly active film-making man in real life, directing movie after movie almost to the end, Chabrol released Bellamy in 2008 — and then went on to make two more TV episodes (both mystery stories) before dying at 80 in September.

Long before the end, Chabrol had proved to be the most prolific and productive of all his old “Cahiers du Cinema” critic-turned filmmaker buddies, the remarkable quintet who launched the Nouvelle Vague together: that so-called “Holy Family” of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette — and Chabrol.

Now, only Godard and Rivette are left.

It’s a sad occasion but a very good film. Depardieu plays Bellamy as a solid, bourgeois, randy but dutiful husband and keen-eyed cop, a kind of homey Inspector Maigret with a “soft spot for murderers,“ who runs into two problems on his summer vacation with Mme. Bellamy (Marie Bunel). Those are: the arrival of his drunken ex-con step-brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), and his strange encounter with a natty insurance agent named Emile Leullet (Jacques Gamblin), who may have faked his own death in order to start a new life with his sexy mistress Nadia (played by the very sexy Vahina Giocante).

Bellamy‘s cat-and-mouse relations with the fugitive are mysterious, but almost comical, as if Leullet were a Raskolnikov seeking out his own Inspector Porfiry. And the French Inspector’s savage links with frere Jacques, in the other part of the movie, are dark, deep, profoundly twisted. Inspector Bellamy grips and surprises you, but easily, surely, without any fuss.

Depardieu, who works even more constantly than Chabrol did, rivets you with his casual expertise, but he also almost shocks you with his late-Brandoesque bulk these days. He‘s immense, beyond Raimu. This fiery, consummate actor who, it seemed, could either go savagely modern (as he did with Maurice Pialat), or play all the great French classical stage and literary roles, from Cyrano on, now seems in shape only for a classical role like Gargantua, in a film based on Rabelais.

That doesn’t affect his performance here, which is, as always, effortless, magnetic and inwardly exuberant. The other actors are fine as well, and the movie, shot by Eduardo Serra, has a relaxed roll and rhythm, as if it were a snap to make. Chabrol, who once said that a film without a murder didn’t interest him, has often been called the French Hitchcock. Here he sometimes seems like a Lang, a Preminger, or a Renoir as well.

Despite his age, he’d often been at his best in recent years, in the whole long period from 1995’s La Ceremonie on. I really looked forward to each new Chabrol, which seemed to come as regularly as clockwork or Agatha Christie, dependably chilling, unfailingly brilliant.

Now he‘s gone, and I miss him, just as I miss the two “Holy Family“ members who preceded him in death: Truffaut and Rohmer. They taught us all how to look at movies, and then gave us plenty of movies to see. Especially Chabrol. Inspector Bellamy, his last feature film bow, while not a masterwork, is certainly a master’s work. (In French, with subtitles.)
(Chicago, Music Box)

2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Sanctum, The Mechanic and Inspector Bellamy”

  1. K.Nightir says:

    Ossum 3D movie..!
    More of it.
    lat/long: 67.886,16.239 is of same type cave in the film starts at 1000 altitude and ends at seeabed. A climber’s cave.
    Found 8 major errors rouhglyn in the movie Sanctum.
    SO DON’T COPY THAT DIVING! Ask first what gears and equips needed. Never do those cavedivings alone. Very dangerous..
    Winter is best, when dry inside caves, beautiful ice stalagmites often big.

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