Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Le Cave se rebiffe


1961, France, directed by Gilles Grangier

A straightforward crime caper, but the level of professionalism on both sides of the camera ensures that it's never less than a pleasure: Gilles Grangier is no great stylist, but he keeps his story in crisp forward motion and Michel Audiard's script, if not quite as pearl-filled as in something like Les Tontons flingueurs, still has great fun with criminal argot (you really need to tune the ears in to pick up the sense at times). Gabin apparently refused point blank to leave his beloved Normandy estate for the tropical location shoot where we were supposed to first meet his character, yielding some unconvincing South American decor, but he's otherwise in fine form. Jean Gabin was only 53 when the film was made, but he plays much older -- he was never really afraid of embracing his changing physique and the roles that came with it. And Bernard Blier, perhaps because he was prematurely bald, never seemed young to start with -- whether he was playing a student in the 1930s or a rumpled policeman in the 1970s he looked remarkably similar.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cat People


1943, US, directed by Jacques Tourneur

A genuinely strange film, an intense psycho-sexual horror that doesn't seem to have raised the concerns of the Production Code despite it being unambiguous that the plot revolves around a (married) couple debating whether or not to sleep together because of the woman's unusual beliefs about her ancestry as one of the titular cat people. Thwarted passion is the order of the day, against a backdrop of increasing tension and atmospheric staging (most obviously in the nervy stalking scene on a dark city street, but more subtly and insistently within an apartment that comes to seem like a deadly trap). The storyline is something from a fever dream, but it's acted out and directed with enough conviction that it starts to convince -- or at least to convince that the characters are convinced of what they are experiencing. Still, what's most unsettling is not the horrors that the film puts front and central but rather a story that is unironically predicated on finding a method to dispose of one wife to free a man so that he can be linked up with the one he was always destined for; no-one quite seems to notice how creepy this is (such logic is hardly unique in films of the time: Pillow of Death could excuse a grave robber/stalker his misdeeds just because he's in love).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Les Sous-doués


1980, France, directed by Claude Zidi

As an undergraduate, I did a project on French comedy films -- the kind that never get exported, but which make a mint at home, and sometimes elsewhere in continental Europe. I watched a ton of the big hits before I had ever really had a proper education in the broader swathe of French cinema, and going back now to some of my subject matter is a little dispiriting: a great many of the comedies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in particular, are desperately flat, carelessly shot and with little rhythm. This film, most notable perhaps for an early Daniel Auteuil appearance, feels like a subpar set of sketches in the café-théâtre format; it makes you yearn for an earlier generation of comic filmmaker, a Gérard Oury or an Edouard Molinaro, directors with a much stronger sense of structure and pace whatever their other flaws.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Criss Cross


1949, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Though Burt Lancaster was a more experienced actor by the time of his second collaboration with Robert Siodmak, I prefer him in The Killers: I could never quite believe him here, as an armored car drive back in town after two lost years, quickly back in the saddle of his old job and his old obsessions. It doesn't much matter, though, given the film's many other pleasures -- a whiplash plot that requires serious attentiveness, some exceptionally fine location work in and around Los Angeles (often in parts of the city that no longer exist) and a brutally cynical ending that's surely one of the bitterest in all of noir

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Killers


1946, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

I went on a little run of Siodmak pictures over the last couple of years but never found the time to re-watch some of his best-known films, including especially the pair he made with Burt Lancaster, who made his debut here. There are two films here, the first a little jewel of a short in which a pair of hired killers waltz into town in search of Lancaster's character. Virtually the whole sequence takes place in the confines of a diner, shot in ways that make the claustrophobic space seem far larger than it is, and the story climaxes with a shooting. The second film is a procedural, replete with carefully dovetailed flashbacks that provide us with the back story for the shooting; while the structure is familiar from latter-day TV shows like Without a Trace or Cold Case the execution here is wonderfully calibrated in its careful drip of information. Siodmak's mastery of pace and visual tone is as expected; much more surprising is the fine use of location footage, particularly for a precisely choreographed heist.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Selfish Giant


2013, UK, directed by Clio Bernard


Something of an object lesson in how to film an impoverished community without being either sentimental or patronizing -- with the very obvious precursor being Ken Loach's near-peerless Kes over forty years ago, and not just because the two films happen to feature young protagonists. Bernard clearly knows her milieu, never flinching from depicting the details of tough lives on the margins but also avoiding wallowing in the struggles she depicts. Her two central characters are troubled and yet also rounded, resourceful lads buffeted for the most part by adults who are generally at their wits' end psychologically or financially (often both). The young boys seek validation where they can, and there are moments of great tenderness here and there despite the rough backdrop in which they live -- and honour from unexpected sources. While Bernard's storytelling is resolutely realist in tone she's also adept at finding visual beauty in unpromising settings, and when she very briefly departs from the realist mode late in the film, in a wonderfully judged sequence that parallels the opening of the film, the moment has a rare punch.


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Quai d'Orsay


2013, France, directed by Bertrand Tavernier

I've been fond of Bertrand Tavernier for years: he's a remarkably adaptable director, moving across genres quite effectively, with a very crisp, straightforward style and while some of his films don't quite succeed -- L'Appât, in particular, seemed just a touch too generically anodyne -- there's always a great of interest in his filming choices. Indeed, his interviews about the making of Quai d'Orsay are fascinating in their own right, because the film was based on a graphic novel yet Tavernier abandoned many of the elements of the source material, particularly the lead character's sci-fi fantasia. That seems, to me, very much to the film's benefit, for there's at least as much scope for absurdity and oddity in the reality of one young man's experiences as a consultant in France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tavernier's other great bit of wisdom is to grant full rein to Thierry Lhermitte, who has perhaps never been better than here. He's in scintillating form as the minister himself, delivering a wonderful whirlwind of a performance (sometimes literally, given his propensity to sweep through his office); the only downside is that it makes you wish he'd given as much of himself to many of his earlier roles (or that the raw material was rather better).

Index

List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States