Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mini Review: Caged (1950)

Directed by John Cromwell
Starring: Eleanor Parker, Hope Emerson, Agnes Moorehead
Grade: B+

Courtesy of Goatdog (thanks, Mike) I was able to catch this great film about the many failures of the prison system. I mainly wanted to see this for Eleanor Parker's oscar-nominated performance, which I was unable to judge when I rounded up Oscar's 1950 Leading Ladies more than a few moons ago. After seeing it I'd probably place her a respectable fourth, given the incredible quality of the line-up, and she weighs up at about as good as Caged itself.

The best parts of Girl, Interrupted, a film admittedly not about prison but bearing similar themes, are a) the acting, and b) the way in which it's made. This is a similar story. Caged features a great ensemble, and its noir-era melodrama always works well in the film. However, it does seem a little too eager to state its message that the prison system creates criminals rather than reforms them (an admirable one I know -- especially for the era), and presents this very baldly. Not the worst crime in the world, but because there's so much the film can be admired for (brave themes, dark sequences, unsympathetic characters) it does act as a slight let-down.

Politically speaking it also gets to the brunt of why the prison system is the way it is, but the real key to Caged is its community, which feels united by necessity (against a thoroughly hideous prison warden) rather than any token need to create characters to root for. Parker's Marie gets immersed in this community, and despite her key moral shift not as incremental a process as I would have liked, is a believeable victim of her mistakes. Thus, Caged does its job.

The Folly of a Monster Love

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring: Amber Heard, Anson Mount, Michael Welch
Grade: B

Fans of teen slashers should look no further than All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, released earlier this year having been banded around the festival circuit since Toronto in 2006. Slasher flicks are hardly festival fare, but if Lane is to be compared to recent interpretations, such as Prom Night, earlier this year, and Rob Zombie's Halloween remake of 2007, it's with more than a degree of admiration.

Mandy Lane (Heard) is the object of randy-high-school-jock desire, turning heads with her beauty and crucially, her purity. While other girls show less grace and discretion Lane is the inpenetrable figure that everyone wants to penetrate. The good girl. The ultimate trophy. And while she glides around looking unfathomably pretty boys drop like flies at her feet (one literally, from a porch roof to a messy end) in acts of foolish devotion. So enter a boozy drug-fuelled weekend ranch party to mix things up, and in Texas Chainsaw Massacre style a Lane-obsessed psycopath to prey on her friends in typically merciless fashion.

While for a hefty chunk of its modest eighty minutes running time Lane remains a routine onslaught of teenage death below Mandy's towering pedastal of objectification, Jacob Forman's first script is both amusing and curious, linking all but Lane in a thinly-veiled high-school-clique way that does work as a group dynamic, if occasionally in a little too repetitive manner. The depiction of Lane as a shrinking violet though, as opposed to the naive Straight-A student so blatantly capable of being manoeuvred, is by far the most interesting element of the film. Heard's poutless lethargy borders on dull at times but rather than accept this as a fault of her's I think it more likely that this be part of the film's ironic twist that Mandy Lane was never worth pursuing in the first place.

In this type of film it's all too easy to iconise your title star as a person above all the others. While that may be true in terms of intelligence and beauty, Lane is not your typical heroine, and rather than scrap like your hapless female victim, it's much easier to accept that she isn't a victim at all, and someone you're probably never going to understand.
In the end, Levine, who often channels the stylistic prowess of Gus Van Sant and Quentin Tarantino in the film (a curious mix, I know) creates an exciting and -- particular in its final moments -- successful re-work of the slasher. Like the classic Scream films Lane revels in its knowledge of the genre and knowing that it ultimately has something different to offer, but instead of helping us feel sorry for the objectified Mandy Lane, makes us feel like all the boys do. Powerless.