Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

2009, US, directed by Guy Ritchie

Guy Ritchie discards most of the mythology of previous Holmes screen adaptations, most obviously the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films of the 1930s/1940s and the Jeremy Brett television series of the 1980s, in order to reinvent Holmes and Watson for a new generation - a little like the recent retooling of the James Bond franchise, with this film making no secret of its sequel ambitions. That kind of reinterpretation is hardly a new thing for Holmes given that Universal set its Holmes-Watson films in the 1940s after it acquired the rights to series from Twentieth-Century Fox, which had retained the Victorian setting for two outings in 1939. Indeed, this film's wacky plot seems like something plucked from one of the early 1940s Holmes movies, which were filled with wartime spies and similar shenanigans.

The new film comes close to obliterating the distinction between Holmes and Watson, here seen as far more of a complementary pair rather than as brains and charming-though-limited sidekick. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since there was always something vaguely patronising about Holmes's relationship to his doughty, and doughy, assistant. Here, Jude Law's Watson is more than able to puncture his colleague's often overbearing manner, while Robert Downey Jr's Holmes is able to use his intelligence both to direct his eye and his impressive fists. While there's not a whole lot of time to think during Ritchie's breathless telling of the tale, there were a few rather enjoyable touches of grimy authenticity in his version of Victorian London - authenticity wasn't much in evidence in the Rathbone-Bruce years - particularly the presence of plenty of Irish accents among the minor players, as opposed to the exclusively Cockney voices heard in many other screen adaptations.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


1947, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

Duvivier's first film back in France after his wartime exile in Hollywood is a cracker, a tremendous study of both individual loneliness and group behaviour that's a pointed commentary on much that occurred in France during the wartime years: the central character, M. Hire, played by Michel Simon, is Jewish, although that's more explicit in Georges Simenon's original novel than in the film. Whereas the residents of Hire's neighborhood view him as a shady, malevolent force, Duvivier depicts him as a bringer of light, constantly opening curtains and speaking his mind in the face of hostility, veiled and explicit.

While there are moments of melodrama, most notably during an outing to a country house that recalls the traumatic broken engagement of Great Expectations, though Hire is no Miss Faversham, for the most part Duvivier hews to a realistic depiction of one Parisian neighborhood. The film occasionally recalls the feel of Clair's Sous les toits de Paris, in which everyone knows everyone's business: indeed, there seems to be an explicit reference to the earlier film through the presence of a man selling sheet music and singing from his merchandise, while both films were entirely filmed in studios, well away from the streets they depict.

I couldn't help seeing a wink to Duvivier's previous Simenon adaptation, La Tête d'un homme, too: like the earlier film, Panique contains a climactic scene which concludes, with deep irony, in front of a closed-up pharmacy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Miss Potter

2006, UK/US, directed by Chris Noonan
Although the film works on a small scale, beginning with a beguiling set of closeups of Beatrix Potter at work, it has a surprisingly ambitious purpose. That's in keeping with the personality of Potter herself, a far more interesting person than her children's books might imply, who fought against social strictures both in her choice of career and marriage partner. It's entirely to the film's credit that it sticks closely to the actual details of Potter's life rather than restricting the timeline to conform fully to the conventions of the happy ending (although given that fidelity it's odd that the filmmakers choose to alter Potter's age, making her several years younger than she was in 1902).

Renée Zellweger again pulls off a fine English accent - quite different from her work in the Bridget Jones movies - and strikes more sparks with her Down With Love co-star Ewan McGregor, while Noonan, who surprisingly hadn't directed a movie since his 1995 hit Babe, captures the atmosphere of Edwardian London in warm tones, making judicious use of a few animated grace notes and balancing whimsy and seriousness very capably.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


2009, US, directed by James Cameron

For a movie like Avatar, the instantaneous reaction seems to be essential: the studios want "the numbers" immediately, while newspapers and bloggers fall over each other to be first to pass judgment on the hotly-anticipated commodity, often denouncing the wave of publicity while reinforcing it in other ways. There's not a whole lot of room for a step-back-and-consider-it view in a world of excessively rabid fans and sometimes almost equally knee-jerk objections; the sheer quantity of discussion is daunting, and the opinions often so fiercely held that there's a feeling of needing to defend oneself in advance from whichever group your own view appears most opposed to.

As a story, and a political allegory, Avatar has its problems. As efficient as Cameron's setup is in the first twenty minutes, wasting virtually no time with extraneous exposition, the later storyline seems excessively simplistic, almost as though scenes which supplied more nuance had simply been excised in editing. It's hard, too, to decide where Cameron comes down on the virtues and vices of military technology, or whether he's simply indicating that at times you've got to join them if you want to beat them, undermining the rather idealized depiction of "the natives" that he's worked so hard to create over the previous two hours.

As a spectacle, however, that makes use of the very latest in movie technology, however expensive, I found the film completely immersive: the world of the film is so richly imagined that your gaze is constantly wandering from one wonder to the next, while the use of 3D draws you entirely inside that world, creating the sensation that you're part of the crowd at the back of a room - a particularly clever effect - or that floating light particles have literally surrounded you.

Despite the advances in technology, Cameron hasn't forgotten the lessons of his early career, ensuring that you're aware of the location of each character and the perils they face during the big set-pieces, while exploiting the scale of the cinema screen to deliver thrills and a sense of awe that's perhaps not admired by those who value cinema for its artistic potential, but which harks back to the earliest days of cinema and the desire to push buttons in a crowded movie theatre on a Saturday night - the kind of communal experience that's increasingly rare in a fragmented media world. It's a whole lot of fun to emerge into the night and hear a crowd earnestly debating a film, too: disagreeing with decisions, reliving moments, promising to go back the next evening.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bal poussière

1988, Côte d'Ivoire, directed by Henri Duparc

While African filmmaking has generally been dominated by "art" filmmakers, at least up until the emergence of Nigerian video films, there was a brief flowering of more commercially-minded cinema in Africa in the late 1980s: Bal poussière and the 1987 La Vie est belle were probably the biggest hits in so far as reliable measurements can be made. Bal poussière deals with the many of the same themes as more (self-) consciously serious African films: the interactions and clashes of tradition and modernity, the relationships between urban and rural life, and the difficulties presented by institutions such as polygamy.

The treatment, though, is radically different: not only is Duparc's camera more mobile than that of most African filmmakers, channeling the lessons of successful American and French directors, but his film is fast-moving and filled with quickly-drawn characters. There's also a persistent vein of humour that punctuates the pretensions of the pompous, with the audience well aware of the characters' malapropisms and attempts to impress others with half-digested knowledge (one man, a teacher no less, has en entirely misguided understanding of vitamins, while the central character, Demi-Dieu, knows only enough about wine to get himself in trouble). Duparc, who died in 2006, directed a significant number of features by African standards, but his directorial style hasn't tended to be valued by the gatekeepers of the cultural and ideological project of African cinema, which is a shame: there's much to be said for a diversity of expression, not least that it may help to reach a wider audience.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


2009, US, directed by Clint Eastwood

Although the canvas is large - the creation of a new political identity in a country with a terribly troubled past - much of Eastwood's interest lies in the negotiations between individuals, the mundane but critical work of establishing ties to those with who we interact each day. It's a theme not dissimilar from that of last year's Gran Torino, and in some ways the growing trust between black and white South Africans - at least as depicted in the film - is as unlikely as that between Walt Kowalski and his young Hmong neighbours given the weight of the past.

Thus Eastwood spends much time depicting the relationships between Mandela's mixed-race security team, or recording Francois Pienaar's astonishment at the idea that Mandela would have emerged from prison and forgiven his gaolers (with whom, at least in later years, he apparently enjoyed very cordial relations). Although he occasionally takes a step too far - the resolution of the relationship between the Pienaar family and their maid seems unlikely and forced - it's generally a powerful strategy, reminding us that behind change at the national level lies a vast network of minor but cumulatively critical interactions.

On an entirely different level, I was impressed by Eastwood's fluent depiction of the excitement of the 1995 World Cup, and of his ability to depict the most critical aspects of rugby for an audience - I saw the film in the US - not generally familiar with the sport; a scene in which the Springbok players visit children in a township functions both as a symbol of the work needed to begin the process of reconciliation and as a nifty introduction to rugby for the US viewer.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ruggles of Red Gap

1935, US, directed by Leo McCarey

Although the French writer's name isn't mentioned anywhere in either the film or the original novel by Harry Leon Wilson, Ruggles of Red Gap is suffused with the spirit of Tocqueville. Indeed, although the film is often remembered for the recitation of the Gettysburg address, it's even more effective as a demonstration of Tocqueville's belief in the essential equality of Americans, and hence it seems no accident that the book and film begin in France and that we encounter America through the eyes of an overseas visitor, the eponymous Ruggles (Charles Laughton).

The scene with the Gettysburg address - an addition to the original story - also exemplifies the marvelously subtle transitions from comedy to drama to pathos that Leo McCarey so ably manages throughout the film, frequently harnessing Laughton's most subtle actorly instincts to achieve his effects. The recitation itself emerges from a scene of near knockabout comedy, as the (American) characters desperately try to remember the words of the address - only for their English visitor to trump them all.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that some Cahiers critics compared Claude Zidi's film Deux rather favourably to the work of McCarey, noting particularly what they viewed as assured transitions from one mode - comedy - to another - melodrama; that contention seems the more absurd after a viewing of one of McCarey's most sublime achievements.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Le Golem

1936, France/Czechoslovakia, directed by Julien Duvivier

David Cairns examined Duvivier's 1935 feature Golgotha at his invaluable blog Shadowplay, and suggested that the director flings himself "headlong" into the Biblical movie trap, that is, the problem of characterising people in convincing fashion when we're so separated from them in time and space. Although the distance to the events of Le Golem isn't quite as profound, I couldn't help feeling that Duvivier hadn't quite extricated himself from the previous year's trap: as striking as the film is at times, its so lavish with atmosphere and half-digested mythology that there's very little sense of characterisation. The sets are frequently remarkable - the retorts and flames of a legion of alchemists, the crannies of the Jewish ghetto, the interior of an archetypal country inn - but the actors are trapped within the broadest of strokes, compelled toward melodrama and rarely able to articulate more subtle emotional shades (Harry Baur, as the Emperor Rudolf II, descends into a madness that seems occasionally and unfortunately comical). Similarly, while Duvivier uses his camera and framing in the service of the inner lives of his characters in other films here the camera's constant movement reinforces the sense of a whirlwind of events, but to ultimately overblown effect.

Monday, November 16, 2009


2008, US, directed by Clint Eastwood

Although it didn't receive the plaudits showered on Gran Torino just a few weeks later, Changeling is a still a very confident bit of filmmaking by Clint Eastwood, a smoothly narrated slice of 1920s Los Angeles in which police abuse runs rife (some might argue little has changed except the nature of the abuse). I'm rarely a fan of Angelina Jolie's work, but she's generally strong here despite the fact that she doesn't look as though she belongs in the period. Eastwood is canny in using Jolie's status as a sort of tabloid ur-mother to underline the plot, drawn from real events, which concerns the disappearance of a young boy and the substitution, by the police, of an entirely different boy some months later under the guise of a successful resolution to the case. The film is especially assured when it reveals the sinister story that's likely the missing boy's true fate - the performances in the scenes between a cop and a troubled young boy are mesmerizing - and Eastwood adeptly captures the political feel of the era, with radio addresses a key component of public discourse.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Letty Lynton

1932, US, directed by Clarence Brown

I must confess that I'd never even heard of Letty Lynton when the (now-unveiled) Siren advised us to pounce on the scratchy version that some kind soul posted to Youtube earlier in the year, and which has since disappeared once again. Letty Lynton is, as the Siren notes, "legendarily unavailable" due to a plagiarism dispute dating back to the 1930s. The resolution of that suit led MGM to withdraw the film from circulation, so goodness only knows what circuitous route the Youtube version travelled over the years. The film was huge in its day, with Joan Crawford's most impressive gown, by Adrian, provoking a boom in dress sales roughly opposite to the way that Clark Gable's unclad appearance in It Happened One Night caused undershirt sales to collapse.

Letty Lynton dates from before the introduction of the Production Code, and as such the themes and resolution are more openly adult than was subsequently to be the case. There's no ambiguity whatsoever in Letty's unmarried relationship at the opening of the film, for instance, while there's little in the way of moral condemnation of her actions either then or later in the action. That, indeed, is what most obviously marks the film as belonging to the pre-Code days. It's also a smartly directed bit of work, moving swiftly from South American club to ocean liner to New York glitz, and the film's climactic scene is brilliantly staged; there's a terrific shot of Joan Crawford as she darts back into the room at the end of the sequence. As I noted in the comments at the Siren's place, it's worth reading David Bordwell on the artistry of 1930s film production in tandem with Letty Lynton and other films of similar vintage, for he highlights the kinds of smart, underplayed artistic choices that were part of the fabric of studio filmmaking at the time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Terminator

1984, US, directed by James Cameron

Although the visual effects for the scenes set in 2029 are almost quaint now - closer in spirit to Ray Harryhausen than to the CGI transformations of which James Cameron has been a key supporter - the core of The Terminator remains intact: a trim, single-minded chase movie which ably builds on the heritage of genre cinema. The reference points to John Carpenter's movies are particularly obvious, whether in the set-piece assault on a police precinct or the tense sequence with Sarah Connor's roommate which recalls something of Halloween.

Like Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break a few years later, what's critical in the action sequences is Cameron's sense of placement, and our consequent awareness of the physical peril in which his characters find themselves as their cars and bodies whip across the screen. The script, too, is smart, and indeed smarter than in several of Cameron's subsequent, longer films: it's taciturn for the most part, particularly when it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger's eponymous character, but witty in dealing with the problems that confront Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) when he must not only present Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) with an outlandish tale but must also ensure she believes him to be entirely serious and sane.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


France, directed by Claude Zidi

Deux earned Claude Zidi a full review and an interview in Cahiers du cinéma after fifteen years of directing popular comedies that barely rated a mention in that august journal, and I had the impression before seeing the film that Zidi had somehow played the Cahiers "game" by making the kind of film that might be expected to appeal to the magazine's writers. The final product, however, seems in many ways as broad as most of his other projects - with the style and content less suited to each other on this occasion.

The film conceived as something of a reflection on modern love - the way people interact now, or rather the way they did in 1980s Paris - although Deux takes the form of a melodramatic fable chronicling the encounter between music promoter Marc (Gérard Depardieu) and real estate agent Hélène (Maruschka Detmers) rather than a realist anatomy of relationships. Cahiers compares Zidi's work on the film favourably to American studio directors of the 1930s like Leo McCarey, but his tonal shifts are far less fleet of foot and he's rather heavy-handed with the use of camera and music to underline his characters' emotions (one crane shot over the Canal Saint-Martin drip with the clichés of the romantic comedy rather than serving as an insight into Marc's situation). Once the film decamps to the suburbs, Zidi attempts to invoke the anti-bourgeois attitudes of Claude Chabrol, for whom he worked as a camera operator throughout the 1960s, but without little of that director's more incisive social commentary. Indeed, Marc's reaction to the idea of a meeting with the parents - indeed his behaviour when confronted with any notion of convention - comes across as an (apparently unintentional) parody of Chabrol.

Zidi's primary point is that modern romance is a series of negotiations, in the business sense - negotiations about time, money, property, priorities - and both characters accept this basic premise even if they need to engage in negotiations to come up with mutually acceptable merger terms. It's fortunate, then, that they encounter one another, but there's no sense in which these characters might reveal wider social truths, even their verbal sparring is at times quite enjoyable (Depardieu in particular seems to relish some of his lines, although the Cahiers comparison with the jousts of the likes of Tracy/Hepburn/Grant only reveals this film's relative impoverishment). Indeed, it's precisely any sense of relationship with the real, lived world that the film lacks: several of Zidi's earlier films, L'Aile ou la cuisse or Les Ripoux for instance, have at least some anchor in the actual time and place where they are set, even given their broad plotting and characterization.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

2006, Japan, directed by Mamoru Hosoda

I'm not all that familiar with the conventions of anime, so it was useful to have a pre-screening introduction from two local academics - MIT's Ian Condry and Susan Napier from Tufts - in order to get a few pointers. They both focused on the inspiration behind many anime films, as well as the kinds of characters seen in anime - young woman endowed with unusual powers, for instance, as seen in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. As useful as that scene-setting was, I wouldn't have minded hearing something about the aesthetics of anime too, and particularly the apparent "disconnect" between the fairly simple character drawings and the often beautifully complex backgrounds (there are several excellent montage sequences where the animators really get to show their artistic skill, and I love the repeated images of the city skyline, as in the above still, in which traffic inches along the highway). Equally striking are director Mamoru Hosoda's assured shifts in tone - from tense sequences with cross-cutting action to very amusing exploitations of the film's time-shifting plotline to a poignant conclusion.

(The only downside with the screening was the fact that the white subtitles were almost invisible against pale backgrounds - a particular problem given that many conversation scenes took place on a dusty baseball diamond).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Point Break

1991, US, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

With the advent of mobile phones and the Internet, films from the 1990s, especially cop/FBI films, seem extraordinarily quaint in some respects just fifteen years on, but Kathryn Bigelow's flick retains virtually all of its freshness given her breakneck pacing, contempt for procedural detail, and kinetic action construction. Although there are aspirations to something more than just another high-energy film through the deconstruction of action tropes and the riffing on the not-always-that-subtle-to-start-with gay subtext of many a male-bonding flick, what really marks the film as different is the sheer adrenaline on display: Bigelow makes you feel as though the action is real both by asking her actors to take unusual risks - they jump out of planes and surf big waves - but by cutting her shots together so that we're always aware of where the characters are and whether or not they're in peril. She has a terrific sense of space, and an ability to convey that to the audience; that's something at least as valuable as any effort to comment on the action genre more broadly, since I'm not always convinced she's telling us things we hadn't known before (it's hard to imagine anyone watching, to give just one example, the slow-motion-in-the-rain antics of Lethal Weapon, four years earlier, without at least wondering about the "subtext").

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Haunting

1963, US, directed by Robert Wise

As much as I admired Robert Wise's direction - his sense of pace and the rhythm of movement from longer shots to extreme close-ups are both exceptional - and the idea of a haunting that's grounded both in the physical (a haunted house) and the psychological (a troubled, perhaps susceptible woman in whose imagination the entire film may well be happening), I still found myself somehow on the outside looking in, not so much unconvinced as perhaps left a touch cold by Wise's very measured, even scientific gaze.

There's human suffering to spare - both in flashback and in the very vivid present of the film - and I had the sense that the filmmaker was sitting there observing, fascinated, but never compelled to intervene. It's an unsettling feeling, and perhaps ultimately a matter of taste; I found, for instance, the directorial gaze in Requiem warmer, more humane, even if that film makes no more attempt to provide a final "explanation" for the extraordinary story it narrates.

That said, The Haunting remains full of extraordinary moments: a woman tumbling backward down a staircase (the shot is quite brilliant, the camera towering over her and creating a sense that the twenty or so steps are stretching away to infinity), a close-up of Nell's face (or rather Julie Harris's face) as she cowers terrified in her bed, the camera prowling around the edge of a door from which unearthly sounds emerge, or even just the exquisitely careful placement of characters in the shot as they all await who knows what fate.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Damned United

2009, UK, directed by Tom Hooper

Peter Morgan seems the obvious choice to adapt David Peace's novel about Brian Clough's brief 1974 tenure at the helm of Leeds United for the screen, given that he's produced a string of scripts imagining the backstories of real characters and events. Although the film has the air of reality about it, with statistics from various league seasons appearing on the screen, and individual matches dramatized with reasonable fidelity, Morgan has relatively little interest in the details of the actual chronology. Like all of his scripts, this is about power dynamics - between manager and boardroom, rival managers, or boss and underling (most of all the latter, given the unique real-life relationship between Clough and his longtime assistant Peter Taylor).

Despite all of the factual manipulations - Clough's stint as manager of Brighton and Hove Albion becomes Taylor's stint at the same club, for dramatic purposes - Morgan and Hooper tap into something essential about the standing of English football in the 1970s, when an Irish player was about as exotic as the imports got (Clough persistently addresses Johnny Giles simply as "Irish"). They've a great sense of the details of football of the period - the crumbling venues, the appalling pitch conditions, the ashtrays and orange segments in the dressing room, Jimmy Hill's chin on Match of the Day - and yet those are ultimately only the backdrop against which a story of ambition almost Shakespearean in contour plays itself out, as Clough tries to extricate himself from the shadow of Don Revie, his legendary predecessor at Leeds, in order to construct the mythology he feels himself to be worthy of.

Hooper's eye for detail extends to the film's visual scheme, starting with the witty title shot, and extending through the use of weather and light as a way into Clough's mind. The sun during a triumphal visit to Spain seems as though it's been turned up an extra notch (just as many a Brit, suffering through the greyest months, probably experienced it at the time), while the northern rain washes away any joy in life and the depths of night in Clough's lonely hotel room are a literal long night of the soul during which the man edges toward at least temporary madness. Morgan and Hooper also do a fine job of conveying Clough's ahead-of-his-time sense of the growing importance of television as a means of setting the agenda, and even now Clough's extraordinary, preening on-camera persona remains virtually unique among managers in the English game.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

L'Enfance nue

1968, France, directed by Maurice Pialat
Although it's a little rough around the narrative edges in the concluding segment - the protagonist's final transformation seems abrupt, signaling a more radical change in character for which we haven't been fully prepared - Pialat's L'Enfance nue is an extraordinary feature début, a film of deceptive simplicity that's both visually compelling and politically bracing (I suspect Pialat wouldn't have found much merit in criticisms of the narrative progression, in any case).

Pialat's pursuit of a clear sense of place and time is announced in the opening images, depicting a union march, presumably an actual event, before transitioning to the story of a young boy moving through the fostering system. In many respects, Pialat's primary fascination is with France's institutions and the way in which the country treats its citizens and, indeed, makes them into citizens in the first place. He provides a detailed depiction of the world of fostering and child services, making clear both the problems and benefits - to the foster parents - of the system (and using real childcare workers as actors). That portrait prefigures, among other things, the school scenes in his subsequent work, the First World War mini-series La Maison des bois, scenes that are again about the ways in which the state instills ideas of citizenship.

Equally striking is Pialat's deeply humane view of his characters, and his avoidance of miserabilism even while acknowledging the difficult, financially strained lives he depicts. There's an exceptional warmth to the way in which he captures many of the conversations, an ear for the rhythms that sustain life - the courtesies and moments of humour that pepper every day (the two old women laughing over the discovery of a skin magazine, or the scene in which one of the women sings, in a quavering voice, songs of her youth). That ear for dialogue and the "privileged moment" finds its visual counterpart in Pialat's ability to direct the eye to unexpected splashes of colour - as seen in the yellow, blue or green in the stills above, for instance, or the careful composition of the shot below, with a band of brightness sandwiched between dark hats and grey skies. There's nothing heavy-handed about this use of colour, grounded in Pialat's training as a painter, but it equally gives the lie to the idea that there's something artless about his work.

Monday, October 19, 2009


2008, US, directed by Edward Zwick

Edward Zwick's film explores some of the same mythologies referenced by Simon Schama's 1995 book Landscape and Memory, which mentions those Jews who fled for the forest and fought back against the German war and extermination machine, with little support from either local populations or Soviet partisans. The band at the centre of Defiance was led into the forests of western Belarussia by the Bielski brothers, adept in using the depths of the forest to conceal their less than legal activities.

While the film recounts the group's very difficult experiences deep in the woods, it's also very much about the brothers attempts to define their own identity, as well as the group's attempts to establish what Schama referred to a "primitive community of equals." The Jews who found themselves in the forest were almost all forced to adopt unaccustomed roles - the intellectual who is converted to manual labour, the young woman who goes on frightening food runs through the forest, the vaguely criminal brothers suddenly compelled to think of themselves, for the first time in years, as Jews rather than simply locals.

Although it's a film of action - set pieces and constant threats and movement - it's also thus very much about ideas of Jewishness, although sometimes in rather heavy-handed ways; Zwick is almost too eager to assure us of the Bielskis less-than-pristine methods, while the central conflict between the brothers and their own ideas of how to behave in wartime is pretty standard Hollywood psychology of opposites. Still, the film is a useful glimpse into the mythologies of northern Europe, cannily exploited by the guerrilla bands as they moved along the fringes of the broader conflict.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

La Tête d'un homme

1933, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

Quite a shift from his previous film, Poil de Carotte, this is one of the earliest appearances of George Simenon's Maigret character: Jean Renoir and Jean Tarride both filmed Maigret stories the previous year, and those were, as it happens, the only other Maigret films of the 1930s. The film isn't a whodunit - we know more or less from the beginning of the movie who is responsible, and Maigret (played by Harry Baur) quickly sees the lie of the land - but rather a how-can-I-prove-it, which allows for frissons aplenty as we follow the apparently remorseless killer.

Whereas Poil de Carotte focused particularly on inner lives, Duvivier is more interested here in power relationships and how the different characters interact with one another. He underlines these relationships through the placement of his actors - like above, when prime suspect Heurtin, played by the apparently massive Alexandre Rignault at the very beginning of his film career, shrinks back from the much smaller Radek (Valéry Inkijinoff). Maigret, too, dominates Heurtin, with the inspector quickly realizing that Heurtin's bulk is not matched by his wits. Later in the film, Duvivier shoots Heurtin in a manner that explicitly equates him with Frankenstein's monster as incarnated in the 1930s Universal movies directed by James Whale. There's a brief scene where the "monster" looms over a young girl, swiftly followed by a shot where Heurtin, barely visible at the bottom of the screen, is overpowered by villagers who misunderstand his motives.

That scene is fascinating, too, for the image it conveys of the area surrounding Paris. It's a desolate landscape, more like something we would associate with the northeast of France, rather than the revivifying impression we often get of the Parisian fringes, such as in Duvivier's own La Belle équipe a few years later. The country scenes have none of the life we find in the cafés of Montmartre throughout the film: there's a similar contrast between suburbs and city in Godard's Bande à part. Duvivier also draws an amusing parallel between the insalubrious place Radek spends most of his time and the break room where the Parisian police gather to smoke, drink, and generally let off steam.

Although the film is generally strong in construction - and there are numerous very striking shots exploiting shadows and space - it does stumble in the relative time accorded to Maigret and his prey. Maigret, as most subsequent adaptations recognised, is a fascinating character, but here we learn relatively little about him apart from gathering that he's a very smart, and rather bulky, man. Instead, we spend much time in the company of Radek, a problematic character: although inherited from the book, he's a rather a stereotypical outsider - he's Czech, although Inkijinoff, who was from Siberia, looks much more obviously "foreign" - intent on corrupting the innocent (in every sense) Frenchman. In addition, Inkijinoff isn't nearly as subtle an actor as his colleagues, so it can be hard to take the character seriously - though the fact that Maigret never under-estimates him helps to restore some balance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


2007, US, directed by D.J. Caruso

Worth a look primarily for its first hour, a generally solid updating/relocation of Hitchcock's Rear Window: the filmmakers re-imagine confinement for the modern teen, as well as voyeurism in a California neighbourhood as opposed to a New York apartment building. That said, the constant shots of binoculars and cameras eventually become a little heavy-handed: we get it, they're spying on the neighbours. If anything, the film is a touch too specific in time and place; you can't help but think some of the references to popular websites will be terribly outdated within five years, never mind 55, but then perhaps no-one sees a long life for this kind of thing. It's a shame, too, that after setting the location up with considerable care, the filmmakers fall back on a very conventional, and completely over the top, dénouement, as if they don't trust themselves to carry off something a touch more subtle.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Poil de carotte

1932, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

It's not hard to imagine that life for many children in the early 1930s was a less than pleasant experience, with terrible poverty taking its toll, as documented in films like La Maternelle (or Wild Boys of the Road, which I haven't yet seen). There's something more going on here, however, with Duvivier exploring a profound disconnect between adults and children, and the terrible suffering that children endure as a consequence. The director previously filmed the same story in 1925, but clearly felt that the material had more to offer.

While the eponymous Poil de Carotte (Robert Lynen) initially embraces his return to the country after the school year, and runs free through the fields, there's a terrible hole in his life the moment he returns home: his siblings are actively conspiring against him, and his parents, whose marriage is a sham, alternatively abuse and utterly ignore him, with the latter fate especially bitter. Duvivier illustrates the physical distance between Poil de Carotte and those whose acknowledgment he craves, but focuses to an even greater degree on his protagonist's psychology. He dramatizes his inner life through clever use of double and triple exposure, showing conversations between Poil de Carotte's "good" and "bad" sides as the boy lies asleep, and conveying his growing sense of helplessness.

Although some adults sense the boy's troubles, and even endeavour to convey this to the parents - breaking class taboos in the process - they're apparently helpless to effect much change, and there's a distressing sense of inevitability, together with an almost brutal honesty about what a desperate child might consider (an echo again of La Maternelle). Those climatic scenes are almost unbearably tense, and Duvivier also introduces dramatic close-ups to underline the enormity of what may occur. As nuanced as the psychological portrait is, however, the scenes of family life seem less subtle: while Harry Baur is simply a gruff, uncommunicative father, Poil de Carotte's mother (Catherine Fonteney) is a harridan, taking out the failures of her own life on her youngest child, and lacking any sympathy even though her own story has many elements of tragedy. That said, there's something bracing in Duvivier's refusal to contemplate even mild sentimentality in the domestic portrait, with the household dissected without pity.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Un Secret

2007, France, directed by Claude Miller

There's something immensely pleasurable in coming across a well-made film, where the parts are carefully slotted together and there's a payoff for investing time and energy in the narrative. I suppose it's the old-fashioned idea of "craftsmanship," something that you find in, say, the works of Peter Weir. It's not all that cool, but it's also a remarkably difficult thing to do given all of the imponderables and unpredictabilities of a film shoot. Claude Miller's films are always characterised by this kind of artisanal care, even when they don't always quite succeed as involving stories. His L'Accompagnatrice, with a similar period setting, never came alive for me, and I've read various critiques that find this film to be similarly lifeless: I wonder if that's the point where taste begins to interact with technique, for I found Miller's film to be entirely compelling even when I had occasional questions about the directions in which the narrative was pointing me.

The film plays with time, interweaving episodes from the war years with events from the 1950s and, more briefly, a single day in the 1980s where many aspects of the story finally come together, although we receive much of our information out of order, so that we're constantly - and quite deliberately - questioning whether we've yet encountered the eponymous secret. There's a careful distinction of each period in visual terms, too, although the bright 1950s scenes are not quite what they first seem, and that shimmering veneer is slowly undermined as the film proceeds.

Although there's a story to be told, and a secret to be revealed, Miller is ultimately more interested in issues of identity. Underneath the polished sets and solid acting, there's something surprisingly bold going on, as the film tries to make the point that Jewish experiences of and in the war years were by no means monolithic; one of the main characters (played by Patrick Bruel, still best-known as a singer in France) chafes constantly both against authority (French, German, familial) and what he sees as the confines of his own upbringing. Part of the challenge for the character is reconciling his own instincts with a Jewish identity that is being forced on him by outsiders rather than because it has any importance for him, and yet inevitably his life experiences confront him with difficult questions about his own sense of self. It's one of those films you can imagine dissecting over a beer afterwards, since it tends to pose more questions that it's fully capable of answering.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


1999, New Zealand, directed by Robert Sarkies (US Title: Crime 101)

It's hard to avoid comparing Scarfies with Danny Boyle's début feature Shallow Grave: a motley collection of flatmates, an atmospheric location, an unexpected windfall, an occasionally unsettling blend of violence and comedy, and plenty of visual style. The key difference, however, is that while Shallow Grave featured a very dead benefactor, here the source of the windfall is very much alive, presenting the flatmates with a major dilemma: he's a nasty bit of work, but they have, nonetheless, taken away his income.

As the film progresses, it becomes something of Stanford Prison Experiment in miniature, with the house's inhabitants testing their boundaries as they decide what to do with their prisoner, and their loyalties begin to disintegrate as they begin to contemplate more outlandish solutions; the fun is rapidly leached away once they realize the consequences of their actions. The major weakness here, however, is the fact that the roommates haven't all been sketched in with the same degree of detail: the concerns expressed by Emma (Willa O'Neill) and Scott (Neill Rea) are well-grounded in character, whereas the other roommates are fairly one-note caricatures.

The decrepit old house where the film is set provides plenty of room for visual invention, and Sarkies moves his camera around corners and through floors in clever ways, although it's not always that easy to understand the geography of the place. As much as the film recalls Shallow Grave in its plotline, it's not hard to see the more local influence of Peter Jackson; the hidden horrors and visual trickery aren't a million miles from Jackson's Braindead, although Scarfies is a much more coherent bit of work.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

La Rupture

1969, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

The startling opening scene of La Rupture recalls the first few minutes of Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, with both films beginning with sequences of frightening marital strife that apparently conclude in violence. There's no time to settle in to either film, and it's a jarring strategy that ensures we're off balance for the remainder of either film. That La Rupture begins with what seems like an homage to another film is appropriate, too, for Chabrol weaves similar quotations into the remainder of the film - most obviously with the inclusion of a tram scene that references Murnau's Sunrise.

The Hitchcock comparison seems especially apt, given that both films are a blend of themes and tones: Young and Innocent is by turns lightly humorous, tense, and brutal where La Rupture veers from the mundane to the outlandish and drug-addled (with a bizarre film-within-a-film just to top things off). Chabrol's protagonist, played by Stéphane Audran, is a generally credible working mother who finds herself in a strange boarding house filled with comic types (the card-playing old women, the ham actor, the drunken buffoon landlord), and there's a constant sense of being off-balance for we never know quite how a scene will play out: the climactic act of violence comes complete with pop-up comic effects, whereas the matter of a child custody case has more conventional legal discussions and parental jockeying.

Chabrol extends that sense of the unexpected with his filming style, and particularly his editing choices: one shot cuts abruptly to the next, making us wonder how much time has passed or where we are. It's very difficult to make out the geography of the boarding house as a consequence, although the quick cuts do add a great sense of urgency to the film, and particularly help to foster tension when we're never quite sure when a character might reappear to upend carefully laid plans.

(The picture above was taken from Ed Howard's blog; I watched the film on VHS and was unable to get any decent frame grabs).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Strangers on a Train

1951, US, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I watched this in preparation for David Cairns's Film Club, which he cannily amalgamated with his weekly Hitchcock update on this occasion - he's been watching all of Hitchcock's surviving features week-by-week - so this is as much a reaction to that event as to the film itself. David's done such a fine job of detailing the film's many startling moments - the shot that sticks out for me is the wonderful image where Bruno stands on the steps of the Capitol as Guy, by now thoroughly rattled, drives by in a taxi - and strong performances that I'll focus on just a few ideas.

I first saw the film fifteen years ago, and the main thing that remained with me was the frantic carnival finale, still impressively sweaty here. Watching the film again, though, I was struck by some of the correspondences with Dial M For Murder, particularly the long conversations that open - or nearly open - both films and which introduce the murders which then set the wheels in motion. That the conversation in Strangers on a Train takes place on the rails seems crucial: once Bruno (Robert Walker) gets going with his latest "theory" of perfect murder, he can't be diverted, even when Guy (Farley Granger) shows little apparent interest in the scheme. From the first moment the idea is introduced, there's a sense that Bruno's hurtling along an inevitable path, just as the feet that cross the station in the film's opening minutes seem fated to encounter one another.

There are, of course, more superficial overlaps, too: like Tony Wendice in Dial M For Murder, Guy is a tennis player, and post-playing careers are crucial for the two men, and in both cases a particular woman may complicate those off-court plans. Indeed, sport is seen as a way to forge a path into a different social class: Guy can leave behind the small-town sordidness of his soured marriage for a glittering political career in Washington.

There's also something of a precursor to Hitchcock's use of space in Dial M For Murder, through the use of a map that is supposed to assist Guy in carrying out what Bruno sees as Guy's part of their murderous "bargain." Hitchcock focuses on the document twice, the second time using it to trace a careful path through Bruno's house so that when Guy must find his way in the dark we know exactly where he is at all times. There's no map in the later story, but we're always absolutely certain where the characters are, so carefully does Hitchcock define the geography of his set.

Monday, September 07, 2009

State of Play

2009, US, directed by Kevin Macdonald

I've not seen the 2003 BBC drama series on which Kevin Macdonald's film is based so I don't know if it portrays the media in more locally-specific ways, but with the exception of a few tech-friendly upgrades, this American remake could be drawn from the Watergate-era glory days of investigative journalism. While the narrative makes much of the transformations American newspapers are currently experiencing - the grizzled hack is contemptuous of the young hire on blogging duty - in the end, it's old-school journalism that gets the scoop.

Perhaps because the filmmakers are squeezing a mini-series into a shorter running time, the action seems very compressed at times, with barely a moment to try to absorb the shenanigans. In a way, though, that's not a bad reflection of the modern cable-news cycle: every event is immediately transformed into a media happening, with pundits on every channel and a reporting frenzy of satellite dishes, laptops, and jangling phones. The only disconnect is that the central journalist, Cal McCaffrey - Russell Crowe, who is much better employed here than in Body of Lies - looks like he's still working with a pencil and a Rolodex. If only that were enough to save the newspapers...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bienvenue chez les ch'tis

2008, France, directed Dany Boon

France's most successful domestically-produced release (at least since the advent of reliable records in the mid-1950s), Bienvenue chez les ch'tis is a very enjoyable comedy liable to prove a bit of a head-scratcher to much of the overseas audience - not so much because it's not entertaining but rather because it's hard to understand exactly what enabled it to wash away all before it (save for the unsinkable Titanic, the country's "all-time" number one film).

The film's plot is pretty simple: a postal employee is transferred, for complex reasons, from his home region in the south of France to the dreaded Nord - not just the northern half of the country, but the area nestled right up near the Belgian border, painted in such grim tones in everything from Zola's Germinal to Bruno Dumont first two films, La Vie de Jésus and L'Humanité. Indeed, I couldn't help thinking that Boon's film was conceived as a conscious antidote to the latter pair of films, both of which I found relentlessly grim; like Dumont, Boon is a native of the area, with more of a rehabilitative cast of mind.

The film is resolutely of the provinces: about the only thing more dreadful than being sent to the Nord is the idea of a transfer to Paris, and our fish-out-of-water first proves he's settling in when he gets a laugh at the expense of a Parisian transplant to the area. That, indeed, may be one reason for the movie's appeal: in many ways it looks back to a more gentle France, of small-town welcomes, where even La Poste is seen more as an extension of family than as a business. The fault lines of present-day France, at least as they are expressed in newspaper headlines, are completely absent (though the lead performers, Boon himself and Kad Merad, are of mixed ethnic heritage; both have Algerian fathers and French mothers).

The film is very nicely shot by Pierre Aïm, with fluid widescreen compositions; although the plotline has a sitcom predictability, many sequences were clearly conceived with the big screen, or at least a generous widescreen, in mind (as we see in the first shot above), and Aïm does an especially nice job of contrasting the southern light with its northern counterpart. The two leads are infectiously enjoyable, too, with their early scenes together especially amusing - it's not hard to imagine having an awfully good time in a receptive movie theatre - even if the end is altogether too rushed after the exposition gets away from Boon-as-director.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Body of Lies

2008, US, directed by Ridley Scott

This is Ridley Scott's fourth film with Russell Crowe, which makes it hard to understand why he uses the actor so poorly on this occasion. It's not that Crowe isn't suited to buttoned-down roles - Michael Mann's The Insider gives the lie to that idea - but simply that he's offscreen for far too much of the film, and when we do see him his character, one Ed Hoffman, is a relentlessly simplified caricature. In almost every scene of his domestic life, Hoffman has an earpiece to carry on incessant conversation whether he's driving his children to school or wandering around his home; after the first few instances of this we get that he's an obsessive workaholic, and it's time for a degree of character development.

Of course, that addiction to technology is part of Hoffman's distance from other human beings: they are best observed under distant surveillance rather than seen up close in their messy reality, the side of the spy business that concerns, in every sense, his field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio). It's notable that Hoffman appears deeply resentful about those occasions when he must actually travel to the locations about which he's making decisions.

For a film dealing with life and death and, however superficially, contemporary geo-politics, there's also a curious lack of excitement in the film; Ridley's brother Tony gets more thrills out of the weaponry of surveillance in both Enemy of the State and Déjà Vu. It seems to me that it's ultimately a desire to be taken seriously in artistic/political terms that separates the brothers Scott: notwithstanding the derivative, even junky aspects of both of the Tony Scott films, they seem to succeed in unveiling something more essential about the ways in which humans are transformed by observing other humans from a distance (emotional, spatial - even temporal).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jamaica Inn

1939, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Judged as a 1930s entertainment, Jamaica Inn is perfectly serviceable: it's fleet of foot, with several memorable performances, while smugglers and their evil-doings make for inherently rip-roaring misadventures. The problem is that it's a Hitchcock movie, and by 1939 the director had already set the bar pretty high for himself. With a few exceptions, Jamaica Inn doesn't feel like a Hitchcock, particularly following directly on from his sextet of British thrillers. There are several striking shots of Maureen O'Hara - who's wonderfully energetic in her first major role - near the end of the film, and occasional bits of business that showcase Hitchcock's extraordinary ability to create against-the-clock tension (for instance in a hanging that O'Hara's character witnesses) but otherwise the film seems to conform entirely to adventure convention for long stretches.

That seems especially true in the sequences featuring Charles Laughton. While the actor is treasurably hammy, delivering his lines with genuine relish, and occasionally penetrating to an extraordinarily superior state of mind not unknown among the British aristrocracy, his performance belongs in a different film. Each time he appears on screen he unbalances the whole affair, distracting from rather than enhancing a film already over-stuffed with larger-than-life characters (most notably Leslie Banks and Emlyn Williams, the smuggler-in-chief and his sidekick).


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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