Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Captain Blood

1935, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

You get the sense that Errol Flynn knew exactly what kind of opportunity had landed in his lap when he was cast as Captain Blood: he blazes across the screen, investing every line with a kind of larrikin enthusiasm, moving from high drama to comedy to swordplay with consummate ease, a gleam in his eye in almost every shot. The only downside is that the film flags somewhat when he's not onscreen, despite gripping battle sequences and a rollicking, partially fact-based plot.

Michael Curtiz shows his stripes in the early going, in the carefully-staged court sequences - great shadows loom over the spare set as the accused sweat in the makeshift dock - and on board the ship that takes Flynn and his fellow convicts to the Caribbean, the light from the water outside dappling Flynn's face. However, the grim tone of the first twenty minutes or so fades pretty quickly against the boisterous action, and even unpleasant events - such as Blood's all-too-abbreviated encounter with the dastardly Levasseur, played by the Basil Rathbone in love-to-hate-him mode - are quickly put aside by the demands of the plot.

This film is part of my Watching Movies in Africa project and I couldn't help wondering how African audiences must have reacted to the film's depiction of slavery. While the precipitating events at the beginning of the film are accurate enough, and resulted in the transportation of hundreds of white Englishmen to the West Indies, the film almost never shows any black slaves although they would have been in the overwhelmingly majority on the plantations; indeed, the black extras mostly serve as domestic servants rather than as field-slaves, although they are never individualized in the film. Captain Blood played at the Picturedrome theatre in Kumasi (Ghana) in January 1951, advertised with the slogan "Robin Hood in Captain Blood".

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Sassy Girl

2008, US, directed by Yann Samuell
The first five minutes of My Sassy Girl put me in mind of a director with a severe case of Amélie overload - hardly surprising when I discovered the perpetrator was Yann Samuell, who displayed the same affliction in his 2003 Jeux d'enfants. Nominally a remake of a Korean film I've not seen, great chunks of this effort feel like retreads of Samuell's first film. Where he could previously rely on Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard, both strong actors, to help paper the cracks here he's working with Elisha Cuthbert and Jesse Bradford: pleasant enough at times but not really capable of investing this silliness with any conviction. There are lots of visual ideas at work, but Samuell needs to work on the basics before thinking about the decorations: the plotting is nonsensical and Cuthbert's character is so fundamentally unsympathetic that the entire premise is fatally undermined.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


2009, US, directed by Tony Gilroy
Despite the thoroughly of-the-moment narrative strategies, Duplicity seems to have been carved from old-fashioned Hollywood stone: two eye-catching stars, the kind of satisfyingly convoluted double-crosses Chandler might have enjoyed, and a script bristling with verbal darts. The structure is occasionally a little exhausting, dispensing information in fits and starts, and playing games with the viewer that would have earned a reprimand from S.S. Van Dine, but Gilroy makes excellent use of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen - there's a real sense that the two actors enjoyed working together - and he's as assured on caper-ish territory as he was on the chillier ground of his previous Michael Clayton. There's not much substance here to the portrait of corporate shenanigans, in contrast to the previous film, despite the enjoyable irony in the idea that corporations have acquired all the security paranoia of Cold War rivals; Gilroy deflates much of the film's satirical bite when we discover the enigma at the heart of the plot.

Friday, March 20, 2009


2008, UK/Ireland, directed by Steve McQueen
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Steve McQueen's debut film is the way it imagines a world which remained visually off limits during the course of the Troubles. When I was growing up, Bobby Sands and H-Block were a constant presence in graffiti slogans and on the news, but the cameras never went inside the walls of the Maze prison where the hunger strikes took place. Sands and his fellow hunger strikers exist for most of us in just a few grainy pictures, often from happier days on the outside.

Here we see not just cells and inmates but the detailed rituals of life behind the bars of Long Kesh: the methods by which messages were smuggled into the prison, the ways in which the prisoners dressed and communicated, the often brutal searches by guards. There's a stunning extended shot during which a guard bleaches a prison hallway and then methodically brushes urine toward the camera, encapsulating the constant back and forth struggle between prisoners and authorities as well as the deadening repetitiveness of life in prison, during which time seems to extend without end.

By contrast, apart from intermittent snippets of Margaret Thatcher on the soundtrack, there's little sense of the outside world and the political and social context in which the protests took place. It's as if the film is less concerned with politics than with re-creating a set of extreme human experiences. While the policies of the Thatcher government were clearly problematic, both at the time and in retrospect, she's the easy target in some ways, too. The film doesn't quite play fair by demonising her intransigence while failing to mention that at least some of the IRA prisoners were less political prisoners than out-and-out thugs (and Thatcher came awfully close to being blown up just a few years later in a Brighton hotel; I've no sympathy with her politics but none for the idea of bombing her hotel, either).

Hans Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521)
Steve McQueen: Hunger (2008)

There's a tendency, too, to reinforce the mythologies which the IRA adeptly employed in the course of the hunger strike, most notably in references to Christ's suffering. McQueen's apparently unsentimental depiction of the effects of the hunger strike aestheticizes Sands's body, reinforcing the sense of noble sacrifice without always subjecting his cause to rigorous examination: one shot is almost a literal copy of Holbein's profoundly unsettling painting of Christ's body as it lies in the tomb. There's more balance, and often brutal honesty, in the extended debate between Sands (an extraordinary performance by Michael Fassbender) and the prison priest, which highlights the critical role of Catholic clergy as mediators in the Troubles: you wonder if the reputation of the Catholic Church survived in Ireland for a few extra years by virtue of the often selfless interventions of individual men and women of the cloth in the North. McQueen creates a fascinating contrast between an ultimately pragmatic priest and Sands,who is driven - at least in this telling - in large measure by faith in his cause rather than by reason, and who is unwilling to question whether he's a leader or a pawn in manoeuvres happening far above him.


I've read several excellent analyses of Hunger online: I found Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny especially helpful in thinking about the film. [Update June 2011: Sheila O'Malley has a terrific consideration of the acting work in the film's extended central scene.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Inspecteur Lavardin

1986, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

I watched this as part of the run-up to Flickhead's Claude Chabrol blogathon: more will follow in June. This is the second of the Lavardin films that Chabrol made with actor Jean Poiret, after 1985's Poulet au vinaigre
. This sequel of sorts is more squarely centered around the Lavardin character, who didn't appear until almost halfway through the original film.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Trading Places

1983, US, directed by John Landis

There's something very precise about the opening to Trading Places, which uses an apparently ordinary series of establishing shots of Philadelphia to set up the film's key opposition between old money and the gritty lower depths, drawing the viewer almost imperceptibly from background scenery into the worlds of the actual characters. The shots are salso omething of a celebration of the city as it was in the early 1980s, whether it's the small family-owned stores, or the XXX theatres that sat cheek-by-jowl with City Hall.

The film benefits greatly from this sense of place, since it gives the central conceit a very concrete reality: the role reversal literally means a move from one neighborhood to another, a confrontation with another world that exists in parallel while usually remaining invisible. Landis and his stars, Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, milk the confrontation for all they are worth, each actor nimbly taking on the role of essaying both upper and lower class behaviour, and attempting to reveal some hidden truths in the process.

That said, the film remains very much of its time: for all the satire of the tenuous morality of the businessmen, in true Reagan-era style the stock market is still the potential saviour so that anyone with some old-fashioned up-by-the-bootstraps ingenuity can make a killing on pork bellies or frozen orange juice. Still, that doesn't stop you pulling for the little guy, as represented here by Eddie Murphy at the height of his comic skill; he had a glorious if ultimately rather brief run before descending into the most formulaic of fare.

(Sidenote: I was inspired to go back to the film, which I must have seen a dozen times on TV, after reading Dave Kehr's New York Times column a couple of years back; that piece includes a reconsideration of his own earlier thoughts on the film.)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Iron Man

2008, US, directed by Jon Favreau

I thought Iron Man the strongest entry in Hollywood's comic book summer of 2008. It's more tightly focused and less self-serious than The Dark Knight, and much less repetitive than The Incredible Hulk, which was just three increasingly loud rounds in the ring. And in contrast to the other films' conflicted leads, Iron Man allows its protagonist to have fun both in and out of character, even after he's dedicated himself to all things good.

While it's probably unwise to talk too much about realism in a film which involves a man zipping across in the sky in a suit of his own design, there is at least some concern to anchor the film in a recognizable version of the current world, whether it's the dust of Afghanistan or the glitz of California, which gives a dash of heft to the film's implication that American wars are driven these days as much by business needs as by military necessity (though I'm sure Hollywood won't turn down the opportunity to sell its products in Iraq).

The film is driven forward by Robert Downey Jr Mark II, making hay while the sun shines on his revived career as a leading man, and channeling his own playboy persona in the early going. In the end, the film can't help but revert to type, with ever-increasing effects leading to a final showdown, but it's smarter and sleeker than most of its peers and that, in the end, is about all you can hope for when you're in summer blockbuster territory.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Liar Liar

1997, US, directed by Tom Shadyac

Made at the height of Jim Carrey's 1990s arc to the A-list, Liar Liar is solid evidence of the pitfalls of churning out seven movies in four years. There's a terrible sense of diminishing returns as Carrey mugs for all his worth, but he's incapable of escaping the terribly sticky plotline. There's something unsettling about the way in which Carrey's character gets to behave like a nine-year-old even on his good days and still emerge triumphant - and what's with using the word "Creep" as a term of endearment for your child? Carrey's gift for physical comedy still enlivens the set pieces, and the film is at least snappily edited.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


2007, US, directed by Greg Mottola

Superbad hews close to the Judd Apatow TM formula, combining crude verbal invention with what's ultimately a rather sweet centre. Greg Mottola, who helmed half a dozen episodes of Apatow's television series Undeclared, is the director for hire on this occasion, and while he reinforces the sense that he's a very fine director of actors, he could probably afford to be a little less respectful of the script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

The film is rather slow going at first, getting bogged down in lengthy verbal set pieces before setting up a familiar high school party scenario. Jonah Hill, in particular, is called on to deliver a series of turn-the-air-blue rants that might usefully have been edited a little more tightly, not least because the repetition renders the character as something of a one-trick-pony. Once the plot is set properly in motion, with the main characters embarking on a liquor-buying expedition, the film heats up. It's a surprisingly self-aware enterprise at times, with the characters themselves reliving especially hilarious moments either with the aid of CCTV tapes or through their own retelling of the story before it has even come to a conclusion.

Mottola does a fine job, as the action unfolds, of ensuring that each of the central characters has a moment to shine, though débutant Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who tears through the film delivering every line as though it's his very last, threatens to upstage everyone, especially more subtle performers like Michael Cera. There's also an air of warm nostalgia about the film - which recaptures something of the atmosphere of a high school standout like Dazed and Confused, which also took place over just one evening - despite the very contemporary setting, as if the characters are already looking past the end of high school to something more, while Mottola captures the Los Angeles locations with a surprising, low-key glow more usually reserved for small-town life.


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