Grim visions of Mob rule

Image of Nigel Andrews

As a tourist advertisement for southern Italy, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (pictured) is as punchy a backhander as the old slogan “See Naples and die”. Celebrating and execrating the infamous Camorra, it explains why the unwary interloper might do just that: see the south’s best-known city and see nothing again after that. It devotes 137 minutes to the mafia-style brotherhood’s tradition of murder, brutality and crime and its conscription of the helpless – the poor, the young, the immigrant – into its army of illdoing.

Do not expect a cinematic style-plate. The Godfather it is not: no lemon-and-charcoal photography, no Nino Rota score. (No score at all, in fact.) Nor is it City of God: no jazzy cutting and whirlwind camerawork. A succession of seemingly disconnected stories and characters is introduced in brisk, flatly reportorial scenes, in or around a gigantically seedy housing estate.

A bright-eyed 13-year-old boy hopes to become a “Secessionist” gang member, while his lifelong pal sides with the opposing gang. A tailor makes the near-fatal career move of hiring himself out to the Chinese. A waste-disposal racketeer puts lives at risk – everyone’s but his own – by dumping toxic barrels in a local quarry. Two young hotheads, one skinny and brainless, the other a Hawaiian-shirted gun-toter with an uncanny likeness to the young Robert De Niro, are imperilled from the moment they discover and steal a cache of Camorra weapons.

And more, and more. When I first saw Gomorrah at Cannes, where it won the runner-up Special Jury Prize, I called it “a sprawling Mob opera with more subplots than ideas”. It still is, but I am more open to the thought that this might be a rewarding formula. Writer-director Garrone’s non-interventionist style – just deliver the facts, barely disguised as fiction (and drawn from a bestselling book by journalist Robert Saviano, now reportedly in hiding) – has its own kind of nuclear light and heat. Noncommittally he splits the atom of Camorra brotherhood to reveal its destructive, fissile components: propaganda, intimidation, coercion, terror, death. Italy’s legal system can do little about it. To protest is to die (which is another old Italian proverb or ought to be). The remorseless, glamourless scenes – their businesslike realism, their shrugging fatalism, their workaday brutality – come closer than most films to identifying and depicting the “banality of evil”.

City of Ember flies ill-co-ordinatedly into view, like a migratory cuckoo that has missed the last flight to warmer climes. Picture an underground city built by mortals whose sole knowledge of life comes from Delicatessen and Brazil. Picturesque roofscapes; a population cowering in a post-industrial maze of pipework and bureaucratic paperwork. Tim Robbins, an inventor, Bill Murray, a mayor, and Martin Landau, a bum, are the lead grown-ups in a dystopian fable at once overworked and underwrought. Two youngsters (Harry Treadaway, Saoirse Ronan) try to escape to joy and freedom before everything “blows”, upwards from the Mighty Generator, the throbbing thing we keep hearing as a netherworld ostinato.

As a movie, it is a muddle with moments. A story you might think originated as a crumpled ball in HG Wells’s waste paper basket was actually screenwritten by Caroline Edward Scissorhands Thompson, from a novel by Jeanne Duprau. Its release in October 2008 – Meltdown Month – makes its picture of a broken society ravaged by poverty and dysfunction seem more like a documentary than a fantasy. Visually, for all its conceits and curlicues, it seems underfunded. Director Gil Kenan, who made the brilliant animation feature Monster House, does his best. With a better script and bigger budget he will be back with something better.

Production design, properly funded, can make a difference. Mirrors, written and directed by Alexandre Aja, is a batty tale drawn from a Korean horror movie. But if looks could kill, we might all queue up here to be slain. Designer Jan Nemec III, of Terminator 2, took over an entire floor in a Ceausçescu-era state building in Romania, kitted it out as a full-sized Manhattan location, cranked up the nightmarishness, and deserves to win an Oscar.

Burnt-out ex-cop Kiefer Sutherland, a reformed drinker, signs on as nightwatchman in a literally burnt-out department store. What was the cause of this mystery blaze? Why do the mirrors come alive after dark? Who are the screaming people Sutherland sees in them? Is he re-hitting the bottle? Presumably not, since the spooky reflections spread to his home and his child’s bedroom, where mum tries to reassure the boy, calming his fears while corrupting his grammar: “I don’t see anyone but you and I in the mirror.”

Some credit for this stylish screamer goes to Sutherland, forming his doughy-handsome features into an emotional punchbag. More credit goes to Nemec, sowing a harvest of dark invention in the vast spaces. Sinister armies of singed mannequins, wild flourishes of art deco, huge cindery pillars, blackened floors and ceilings. Team Nemec actually built the set, then torched it. Then, with no daylight permitted by the story, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre somehow lit it. You cannot beat Hollywood when it sets its mind on honouring an average story with above-average production values.

It almost does the same in Mutant Chronicles. The script, though attributed to one Philip Eisner, seems not of this world. Did Martian scenarists come to earth during the writers’ strike? Did the ghost of Ray Bradbury get together with that of Alfred Jarry? “The absence of gravity is interfering with my digestion,” intones John Malkovich, setting the plot in motion as a lord of somewhere-or-other. Soon, beefy ex-soldier Thomas Jane, with mystical monk Ron Perlman, Amazonian bimbo Anna Walton and others, are trekking through deserts and caverns to find and destroy the infernal machine that turns men into hideous, murderous necromutants.

Based on a bestselling computer game, the film advances on stepping stones of its mad self to madder things. By the close we are in the bowels of the Earth, where the ragged remnants of the hero’s army battle creatures who might have emerged from a Bosch painting. The digitised, grey-washed settings are semi-defined and magnificent, as if Salvator Rosa had doodled them in a drunken haze. When the ridiculous and the sublime come within kissing distance like this, you know that, script or no script, Hollywood has found a way to have a wonderful time.

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