Friday, April 30, 2010

Un Revenant

1946, France, directed by Christian-Jaque

It's unfortunate that the New Wave critic-directors' dismissal of some of their predecessors - the cinéma de papa directors - has been so influential, for its surely one of the reasons that filmmakers like Christian-Jaque, who might well have been celebrated in the Hollywood system, remain under-appreciated today. There is certainly an unevenness to the director's career - as was also true of a director like Julien Duvivier - but there's great skill and assurance to his best works.

The film opens with a back and forth dialogue between brothers-in-law which is constructed like a tennis match, and to which the observers in the room react like spectators in the stands at Roland Garros, revealing from the beginning both the artifice and subtle humour that will underpin much of the film. There's similar, if slightly showy, skill in shots that illustrate the objects in a young man's bedroom, each held to embody one of his qualities or defects, or the sequence, late in the film, where a character takes her leave of Lyon with the camera moving from one bourgeois face to the next while she delivers imaginary farewells.

Of course, the film isn't all, or even principally, about visual style: the dialogue by Henri Jeanson, who worked with Carné and Duvivier among others, bursts at the seams, and Louis Jouvet and his co-stars clearly relish many of the lines with which they're provided. There's a neat counterpoint between two of Jouvet's scenes, with an early sequence where he barely allows a young woman to answer a series of strange questions complemented by a scene late on when Jouvet meets with Marguerite Moreno, in one of her final film roles, who refuses to allow him to intervene for even a syllable.

As with much French cinema of the wartime era, it's tempting to read Un Revenant in terms of its real-world resonances. The film was Louis Jouvet's return to French cinema after an extended absence - he spent most of the war touring South America, having objected to German efforts to censor the works his theatre group wished to present - but the plotline, in which Jouvet, a successful theatre director, returns to Lyon, location of his youthful dreams but also of a profound betrayal, might also be read in terms of the journey from occupied Paris to Vichy France, a revisiting of France's now-sullied past. Certainly, it's hard not to imagine that contemporary audiences did not experience the film that way, and the brief background glimpses of Lyon are a fascinating, unspoken window into the city as it was then.

Thanks to David Cairns for providing a copy of Un Revenant; I think the film could benefit from one of his patented blogosphere revivals!

Friday, April 23, 2010

In the Loop

2009, UK, directed by Armando Iannucci

An extension of the BBC political satire series The Thick of It, broadcast between 2005 and 2009, In the Loop is a fine, pointed addition to the faux-documentary genre, presenting the behind-the-scenes events as policy doves and hawks duke it out in Washington and New York with a junior British minister called into play as a key tool (we realize this, but the hapless fellow hasn't a clue what he's gotten himself into).

Although the film never presents itself as an actual documentary, with the usual interviews to camera and so forth, the camerawork and cutting techniques, with brief insert shots of overlapping action, owe much to the documentary style, even if the camera ends up in unexpected locations (the aftermath of a drunken transatlantic fumble, for instance).

Even the poor on-camera behaviour might not seem like a credibility stretch to anyone who has seen the terrific Australian documentary Rats in the Ranks, from 1996, in which the participants in a small-town mayoral race display their cutthroat sides for all to savour. In the Loop, though, has the market sewn up on creative, sustained profanity in the form of a succession of Scottish press handlers, played by Peter Capaldi and, in an especially psychotic turn, Paul Higgins.

The unvarnished cynicism here takes its cue from the process which led up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, although Iannucci and his writers also imply that there's a degree of sheer incompetence that acts in concert with the Machiavellian strategizing of various people in government on both sides of the Atlantic. They also have considerable fun dragging their minister back to earth with a constituency dispute involving a dodgy wall - the constituent, perfectly played by Steve Coogan, intervenes at the most inopportunely amusing of moments.

Monday, April 19, 2010


1986, US, directed by Jim Henson

Although it's as technically adventurous as The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson's subsequent film doesn't stand up nearly so well to the test of time, partly because it's impossible to take David Bowie's villain seriously - unless being wildly camp is an unfamiliar form of skulduggery - but more fundamentally because the connective tissue featuring a very young Jennifer Connelly is very dated, with Connelly herself not an especially convincing performer at that stage of her career.

The opening scenes feel as though they are lifted from a 1980s teen film, albeit one without the sharp writing and pacing of the genre's most successful entries; indeed, the sequences underline how much more at ease Henson seems when working with puppet/muppet performers rather than actors. Several of the subsequent scenes featuring Connelly in the eponymous labyrinth feel as though they've been drawn from Sesame Street, with the dialogue infused with that air of earnest explanation so familiar from the television series. Although there are several dazzling sequences - especially the scene that channels M.C. Escher's perspective experiments - the singing interludes too often seem unintentionally comical, while there's almost never a real sense of danger that would give the film some edge.

The Dark Crystal

1982, US, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz

As soon as Avatar colonized screens worldwide, various corners of the Internet sprang to life with speculations and allegations regarding James Cameron's inspirations. From my reading, the main issue seems to have been a lack of appropriate credit, although movies haven't usually been in the business of footnoting their sources and have always, for better or worse, been avid recyclers. Given the amount of Webprint spilled earlier in the year, I'm surprised, then, to find so few comparisons between Avatar and Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal - which, no doubt, has its own lengthy list of inspirations (most obviously The Lord of the Rings books).

Both films feature fairly simple, quasi-mythological narratives set against richly-imagined backdrops, but what continues to make The Dark Crystal dazzling nearly thirty years on is the complexity of the hand-crafted special effects and the extraordinary muppet-style characters. While the central story is quite straightforward, a quest tale in which a young man must prove himself, the backdrops are utterly beguiling, with eye-opening, and often amusing, creative touches. Several of the jungle scenes seem to have reproduced rather faithfully, albeit in digital form, in Avatar, which seemed to only reinforce for me the sense in which each film allows the viewer to become lost in a lush, detailed alternative world for a couple of hours (I know that some people had difficulty moving their gaze around the 3-D Avatar but allowing my eyes to wander throughout the backdrops was one of the film's chief pleasures).

The Square

2008, Australia, directed by Nash Edgerton

Although Nash Edgerton's debut feature feels a little derivative - the debt to the Coen brothers is clear both in his view of humanity and the noirish subject matter - he makes excellent use of his unusual setting, on the southern fringes of Sydney. The location is exploited to atmospheric effect - overhead shots of a burning house, the road bridge that's a feature of local life, the channel across which a dog repeatedly swims - and Edgerton creates a credible local world of work, criminality and evening outings that makes no reference to the nearby big city.

It's unfortunate, then, that the storyline isn't all that compelling: as soon as the main character, Ray (played by David Roberts, primarily an Australian television actor), makes his first unwise decision you sense that the house of cards is about to collapse, and the characters are generally so unappealing and self-serving that it's hard to invest emotionally in their machinations. There are strong moments, like the scene in which Ray tries desperately to call off a plan he's set in motion, or the blackly humorous sequence in which a dog makes yet another channel swim, which show that Edgerton may have a better film in him if he's armed with a more interesting script.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

L'Assassin habite... au 21

1942, France, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

David Cairns, who runs the wonderfully eclectic shadowplay, seems to have a knack for drawing my attention to compelling French movies set largely in boarding houses, and I have him to thank again for pointing me to Clouzot's first significant work as a director, which, naturally, takes place in yet another boarding house, the Pension des Mimosas (presumably a pretty direct reference to Jacques Feyder's film of the same name).

Even by the standards of the genre, Clouzot's house is peopled by an eye-catching array of residents - a dollmaker, a failed novelist, an exotic illusionist, a returned colonial doctor - into which a flamboyant detective introduces himself in the hopes of catching a particularly elusive murderer, who leaves a calling card on each of his victims. Although France was under German occupation when the film was made, the capital is transfixed not by the Wehrmacht but by the elusive M. Durand, who seems to be able to attack at will; the opening sequence dramatizes his latest crime, in a tense bit of filmmaking that takes us from a cozy bar to a fearful street.

Despite the heinous crimes that set the film in motion, the tone shifts to a lighter register for most of the remainder of the action, with Pierre Fresnay's cocky Inspector Wens a comic foil rather than an embittered noir detective; Fresnay has to adopt the disguise of a minister to infiltrate the boarding house, where he also has to deal with his girlfriend's attempts to use Durand's infamy for her own career ends.

Although it hardly has an edifying view of human nature, the film is far less bitter than Clouzot's subsequent Le Corbeau, which dealt obliquely with the impact of the Occupation on a small French town. The comic/morbid tone may well have inspired Claude Chabrol's films featuring the equally unconventional Inspector Lavardin: the second of the films features a character not unlike the oddball dollmaker here, although in Chabrol's version the eccentricity is dialed up a notch since the character, played by Jean-Claude Brialy, makes models of eyes rather than entire people.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Up in the Air

2009, US, directed by Jason Reitman

Although I can understand why many people find Up in the Air just a little too satisfied with itself - an accusation that can also be leveled at Jason Reitman's previous outing, Juno - I'm more intrigued by the aspects of the film that strike a chord with audiences, perhaps especially because we saw it in a packed local theatre more than three months after it was first released.

As much as George Clooney's character, Ryan Bingham, is an exaggeration, with his extraordinarily peripatetic existence and his strange, apparently pointless quest for ten million airmiles, his life takes place in the kinds of spaces and locations that the rest of us are familiar with. The film is filled with anonymous offices, interchangeable airports, overcrowded planes and generic motels - but also, on the more positive side, with the kinds of family gatherings more familiar to many viewers than those in majority of Hollywood features, with their glittering tablecloths and vastly overdone weddings.

The film's also surprising successful, in certain scenes, at capturing the reality of mundane office employment - employment which may nonetheless be tremendously important, both financially and psychologically, to the employee. The film doesn't really spring any narrative surprises (the characters experience adversity and epiphany on cue) but the fact that it manages to anchor that narrative in a world not unlike the one in which we live the rest of our lives - burnished with better lines and good-looking actors - perhaps explains why an April crowd was on tap for a December movie.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

2008, US, directed by Nicholas Stoller

While there are several very amusing patches in Forgetting Sarah Marshall they're diluted by far too much padding in a two-hour film that sorely needs the attention of a dispassionate editor. Even assuming that the plot isn't a big deal here - it's not - the film is stretched out far beyond what the material allows: like Judd Apatow, from whose stable the film comes, Nicholas Stoller is so generous in ensuring that each performer has a scene or two in which to shine that he fails to keep any overall sense of rhythm to proceedings. That being said, Russell Brand - playing a character, rocker Aldous Snow, not all that dissimilar to the Russell Brand of British tabloid lore - is exceptionally amusing, the one character who might profitably have been given more screen time (and, right on cue, the character is due to re-appear in a 2010 film).


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States