Tuesday, July 20, 2010

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

2006, France, directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Aka: OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions)

Not quite the comic diamond I anticipated, OSS 117 is nonetheless a clever, detailed spoof of both the original OSS117 character - subject of several rather more self-consciously serious French films - and, more prominently, of the James Bond films and their surrounding mythology. The filmmakers are attentive both to the conventions of 1960s spy yarns - the exotic locations, patronizing sexism and colonialism, absurd villains - and the minutiae like the terrifically artificial back-projected driving scenes, during which the actors are constantly whirring the steering wheel even on apparently straight roads. Jean Dujardin is perfectly cast as OSS117, playing the part absolutely straight while also very obviously having a terrific time, his very unsecretive agent making one cock-up after another, in a spirit of blithe indifference. Even if film just outstays its welcome, recycling several set-ups and jokes a couple more times than strictly necessary, it's still streets ahead of most Bond-style spoofs.

Friday, July 16, 2010


2010, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is, obviously enough, a director fundamentally concerned with structure - here he makes that theme explicit by anchoring his film in dreams that are designed by an architect - but he hasn't quite managed to balance that concern with the demands of the Hollywood star system, which compel most big-budget filmmakers to place a star front-and- centre on the posters and in the action. The problem with that is that Nolan is at least as interested in the intersecting stories that radiate out from the film's central focus, but is compelled to keep Leonardo DiCaprio - or previously Christian Bale - on the screen at the expense of other narratives which are given tantalizing introductions. In some ways, Inception showcases a possible solution, particularly in the climactic dream sequence, whose multiple layers and players allow Nolan to make use of parallel tales where the leading man's absence is not only justified but required.

Still, the scenes that introduce characters like Eames (Tom Hardy), Miles (Michael Caine) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), promise much more than the film can ultimately deliver, evoking parallel or past stories that we're ultimately not allowed to pursue (this is where the video-game comparison, widely made but rarely explored in depth in writing on the film, most obviously breaks down, given the side missions that are such a feature, and pleasure, of many current video games). Those piquant introductions have to serve as character development, too, as our own imaginations are asked to fill in the gaps in the characters' past histories. The same unfulfilled promise is evident in the early demonstrations of dream architecture, the fantastical manipulations of space when Cobb (DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) walk through Paris, bending the streets in on themselves to create infinite mirror images. By contrast, the final, lengthy dream sequences almost never play with space in this way - although Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dances beguilingly through the hotel corridors, the building itself remains reliably intact.

All that said, what ultimately makes the film successful on its own terms is its ability to sweep the audience past those blind alleys as the film unfolds. There are enough other elements to both engage and impress that the questions, for the most part, don't arise until the conclusion of the film, given the degree of engagement required to keep track of where the various characters are at any given moment. Nolan is not at his best when shooting elaborate action scenes, with his quick-cutting style rendering the action overly confusing, although the slower rhythms of the hotel-corridor sequences are much more effective - Arthur seems genuinely to be in peril in these scenes, whereas the snowbound mountain setting in which Cobb subsequently operates is standard-issue James Bond (unsurprisingly, given that Nolan is paying conscious homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but you wish that the reference wasn't quite so literal).

Although the film has only been on the world's screens for a couple of months as I finally get a few notes together, it has already generated some excellent online commentary, at least some of which certainly shapes my thoughts. I found the two blog entries, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson especially interesting; they link extensively to Jim Emerson, who didn't much care for the film but still found it worthy of dissection. David Cairns enjoyed the film rather more, but he's not blind to the film's flaws.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Funny People

2009, US, directed by Judd Apatow

It feels as though there's more than one film rather clumsily shoehorned together here, with a whole new storyline injected quite late in proceedings, as the film changes direction and the central character, a misanthropic comedian named George Simmons (Adam Sandler), re-appraises his life. As Scott Foundas's Village Voice review notes, the film can't withstand this abrupt shift, which brings with a new subplot, a raft of new characters, and a change of location. In a sense, of course, those events are all obstacles to the consummation of the film's central bromance, between Simmons and his sidekick/assistant/writer Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) - the kinds of obstacle that pop up, right on cue, in the late acts only to be resolved or forgotten in time for the crucial reunion that allows the end credits to roll.

But the film takes so long to get to that point - 145 minutes makes for a very long comedy - that it's difficult to still care for the characters by the concluding sequences. By that stage, the fresh interactions between Rogen and his roommates Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, often extremely funny, seem a distant memory, replaced by interminable and no longer especially amusing penis jokes (a drinking game based on references to genitalia would result in hospitalization).

There are, of course, some compensations, particularly the aforementioned trio of roommates, while the interactions between Simmons and his doctor, the priceless Torsten Voges, are extremely amusing. The photography, too, is beautiful - Janusz Kaminski finds something new and gleaming in the light of both northern and southern California, particularly in the sequences around Simmons's house, such as the gorgeous overhead shot of an intensely blue pool that almost fills the screen.


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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