Thursday, April 27, 2006

The American Friend

1977, Germany, directed by Wim Wenders (original title: Der Amerikanische Freund)

While The Talented Mr. Ripley gave Patricia Highsmith's character some mainstream cinematic exposure, European directors have had much more fun with Tom Ripley, whether in René Clément's Plein Soleil or here, in Wenders' take on the amoral but really rather entertaining anti-hero. Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper, still clearly recovering from the 1960's) isn't front and center here, though, in this tale of an ailing German picture-framer (Bruno Ganz, terrific) who is drawn into a murky netherworld when a crime boss convinces him that he is actually dying, and promises money to care for his family in exchange for a spot of murder. Ripley plays a kind of go-between, sniffing out especially vulnerable souls, and charming them into performing the most extraordinary crimes; there's a tremendous frisson every time Hopper appears on screen, and yet his Ripley remains utterly beguiling even after the knowledge of his actions. Like many of Wenders's movies, The American Friend spends much time on the move, as if the characters are constantly trying to outrun their own moral inadequacies. Wenders has fun casting his cinematic heroes in small roles (Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Jean Eustache), while the DVD features one of those great 1970's-era Euro-trailers that reveals almost nothing about the movie.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain

1995, UK, directed by Christopher Monger

Part of the post-Four Weddings wave of Hugh Grant films, Englishman is the tale (based on a true story) of a London-based surveying team dispatched to the Welsh border, where they discover that a local 'mountain' is in fact a few feet short of that designation, and is instead a humble hill - news that the locals take great exception to. With a streamlined plot (the villagers hear the bad news and implement a scheme to deal with it), the film's running time is mostly devoted to the local characters (or indeed caricatures): the randy publican; the moralizing reverend; the feisty local lass, and so forth. It's not entirely light-hearted, though, for the film takes place against the backdrop of the First World War, and most of the younger men are absent. The villagers' efforts to reclaim the mountain are with the absent soldiers very much in mind, lending a melancholic note to cut through the whimsy, while the real-life echo in the closing minutes has a surprising power.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Proposition

2005, Australia, directed by John Hillcoat

It's pretty reductionist simply to pigeonhole The Proposition as an "Australian Western", since it adds layers of local meaning to the usual Western tropes, not least an exploration of the relationship between man and landscape that is a recurring theme in Australian cinema, whether dealing with Aboriginal or white characters. Set in the 1880's, the film tells two parallel stories, one involving a British officer (Ray Winstone) reflecting on the meaning of his job in the sweltering Queensland outback (where he and his wife - Emily Watson - attempt to preserve some measure of civility) and the other centered on two outlaw brothers, player by Guy Pearce and Danny Huston. 

Huston's character is an out-and-out psychopath (quite a contrast to the more insidiously nasty character he played in The Constant Gardener), whose brutality is depicted unflinchingly, as befits a film determined to cast aside any romantic notions of frontier life (most of the actors look absolutely filthy throughout the film). Director Hillcoat expertly cuts between the two stories, relieving the thuggery with cool interludes in the Winstone-Watson home (Watson looks as though she's about to float away most of the time), while effectively raising the tension as we move towards an inevitable final confrontation. The performances are very strong: Pearce is elemental underneath the layers of grime, while Winstone is simply outstanding, conveying a moving sense of his character's innate decency and moral dilemmas. Although Nick Cave's script is pared down to the point of mythology, his dissection of the wilder fringes of the colonial era in Australia rings true; the use of old photos over the credits underlines the sense of realism.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Brief Encounter

1945, United Kingdom, directed by David Lean

Although much beloved, particularly in England, Brief Encounter is rather wearing 60 years on. A stagy account of a short affair between two married people, it all seems astonishingly passionless. For all the frantic devotions of love, there's little sense of real physical attraction: it's the least appealing side of British stuff upper lip mythology. While there's something appealingly ordinary about Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, their characters rarely create the sparks that a tale like this requires, while the supporting cast, mostly colourful English 'types', is often quite distracting. The film came out just months after the end of the Second World War, and yet there's little, here, to celebrate about the English way of life; that war, too, is completely, and oddly, absent from any of the conversations around which the film is centered.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


2005, US, directed by Doug Pray

While it's nothing special as a contribution to the documentary format - given the subject matter, it's aesthetically disappointing - Infamy does feature some highly entertaining, eloquent graffiti artists and select examples of their work (on walls, railway cars and more or less every urban surface imaginable). It's hard to know how representative these particular artists are of the wider tagging/graffiti milieu - some of them are clearly at the top of the game artistically (like Saber, based in California), while all are effective commentators on their work and motivations - but there's no doubting their (sometimes misguided) devotion to their work. While artists like Saber or Toomer focus on murals - some of them tours de force of skill and impact - others, particularly Earsnot and Claw, seem to have an obsession with self-publicity, writing their names on everything they see like so much visual litter (Claw, too, gives off the impression of a middle-class girl nursing an obsession with the streets). Whatever you think of them, though, director Doug Pray has found some fascinating raconteurs, often witty and occasionally, unexpectedly wise.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


2005, US, directed by Robert Schwentke

Flightplan starts out as a surprisingly spooky, consciously Hitchcockian movie, only to end up as something far more conventional. It's disappointing, really, that script-writers almost never think beyond the obvious resolution: there's an intriguing idea buried in this film, and it's sustained for two-thirds of the film (to its credit, Flightplan doesn't overstay its welcome, with a lean 86-minute running time). Jodie Foster is quite effective as a woman who's just been widowed, and who is travelling back to the US from Germany in the company of her young daughter (one of the spookier moppets to appear on screen of late); she also just happens to be an airplane engineer who helped design the plane she's traveling on. When she falls asleep, her daughter disappears, and the crew and other passengers give the impression that they've never seen the child on board (her name doesn't even appear on the manifest). Foster doesn't tend to play characters who give up easily, though, and she doesn't go quietly here. In support, Peter Sarsgaard has a rather thin role, but Sean Bean is excellent as the captain, while there's a vein of post-9/11 social commentary that's, thankfully, laid on reasonably lightly.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Return to Me

2000, US, directed by Bonnie Hunt

Since the average romantic comedy is chock-full of coincidence and contrivance, it's critical that two things go right: one, make the lead couple appealing, and two, throw in some entertaining supporting characters. Return to Me does both, and the result is a generally charming film, which does a half-decent job of dealing with the more morbid aspects of its initial set-up. Building designer Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) is devastated when his zoologist wife is killed in a traffic accident. It's not until he meets Grace (Minnie Driver) that he begins to take an interest in life again, but Grace just happens to be enjoying her own new lease on life since she received a new heart from Bob's wife. There's no denying the hokey premise, but the performers are so enjoyable to watch that it really doesn't matter. Duchovny and Driver are perfectly serviceable in the lead roles, and the rest of the cast is tremendous. Usually there are two or three key supporting acts, but here there's an entire Greek chorus, with the grumpy old men (including Grace's grandad, played by Carroll O'Connor) especially amusing.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Man on Fire

2005, US, directed by Tony Scott

A fearsome revenge flick, Man on Fire is a little like Death Wish for the new millennium, with Denzel Washington as a bloody righter of wrongs. He plays Creasy, a washed-up ex-military security professional whose love affair with the bottle has affected his employment prospects. Down in Mexico, an old friend (Christopher Walken enjoying the good life) sets him up with a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of a young businessman. The daughter, Pita, is played by the precocious Dakota Fanning, who steals pretty much the entire movie despite the presence of Washington, some exceedingly overwrought camerawork, and an arsenal of high-powered weaponry. After a tranquil set-up during which we wonder if Creasy might finally have found peace, Pita is, inevitably, kidnapped and Creasy goes on the rampage to ensure that everyone associated with her abduction pays an appropriately gruesome price, sowing havoc on the streets of Mexico City. The film motors along swiftly enough, particularly once the gunplay starts, but the attempts to portray Creasy as some kind of noble samurai are less than convincing. Washington doesn't do a whole lot apart from looking tired; the noise and chaos around him are, indeed, quite wearing.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

On a Clear Day

2004, UK, directed by Gaby Dellal

An enjoyable entry in that peculiarly British genre that mixes kitchen-sink realism with whimsy, On a Clear Day is a modest film set in working-class Glasgow, with a fine lead performance from Peter Mullan. He plays Frank Redmond, who's been made redundant from his shipyard job after a foreign takeover. Like many a unemployed man (or woman) before him, Frank is lost until he hits on the unlikely plan of swimming the English channel - a plan that he assiduously conceals from his wife (played by Brenda Blethyn) and family. The swim is not simply a means to filling in the days, however, for it's also Frank's awkward way of coming to terms with a long-ago family tragedy and with his own communication problems (Peter Mullan spends much of the film looking silently into the middle distance). While the swim is ultimately loaded with a bit too much psychological meaning to be entirely convincing, there's tremendous pleasure along the way from the able cast: Mullan is surrounded by a host of semi-familiar faces, with Billy Boyd (one of the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings), Sean McGinley and Benedict Wong especially enjoyable as several of Frank's pals. There's something appealingly Rocky-esque about the whole enterprise - but give me a thick Scottish accent over the incomprehensible Stallone any day.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

North Country

2005, US, directed by Niki Caro

Notwithstanding a strong echo of the 1983 film Silkwood, North Country is an engrossing, well-acted account of one woman's wrenching battle against a big company - in this case a mine in rural Minnesota where women are a rarity on the workforce; those few women are subjected to the most extreme of sexual harassment on a daily basis. Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, whose response to the catalog of harassment is, ultimately, to file a lawsuit (which becomes a class action). The film is a loose fictionalization of a case that took over a decade to settle (and whose origins go back to the mid-1970's), and it's a powerful indictment of an especially egregious environment of harassment, although the legal decision helped women in thousands of less openly hostile places of employment. Theron does excellent work in the lead role; she's as convincing here as she was in the even lower-rent role that won her an Oscar in Monster, while getting to play someone a whole lot more sympathetic. As is so often the case in depictions of rural America, the supporting cast is outstanding, with great smaller turns from Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in particular. New Zealand director Niki Caro shows herself to have a keen sense of the particularities of this slice of American life, too, even though it's a less obviously personal film than her compelling Whale Rider.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


2005, US, directed by Nora Ephron

I normally have plenty of time for Jonathan Rosenbaum, the movie critic for The Chicago Reader, though his approach to movies is a whole lot more intellectual than mine. He must have been on crack, though, when writing his review of Bewitched. Rosenbaum opines that director Nora Ephron handles her material "with grace and confidence", whereas I hard a time telling that there was a director involved at all. There's a good idea in here - instead of a straight retread of the show, the plot revolves around the cast of a Bewitched remake - but the resulting script is nowhere near funny enough, the romantic spark between the leads is entirely absent, Will Ferrell is plain annoying, and Nicole Kidman is miscast. The supporting cast does the heavy lifting - Hollywood is blessed with an abundance of acting talent to fill in the gaps - so most of the (minimal) fun to be had comes from Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine and Jason Schwartzman.


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About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States