Monday, November 28, 2011

Standard Operating Procedure

2008, US, directed by Errol Morris

I couldn't help feeling that this was a major missed opportunity. Sure, it reawakens the outrage that many of us felt as photos of abuse and apparent abuse appeared from Abu Ghraib, and suggests that the photos were evidence of a much more systemic set of attitudes to Iraqi prisoners. However, Errol Morris's unrelenting focus on those photographs contributes to lack of accountability further up the line, because we cannot see those people committing or ordering criminal acts, as opposed to what we can see in the photos of lower-rank personnel. By limiting the consideration to the examination of the pictures we see, there's little sense of what went on outside the frame because that evidence would take a very different form. As an aside, although I've generally enjoyed Morris's visual style in the past here I found the shots of his interviewees were often distractingly unflattering, whether through choice of close up/angle (Lynndie England comes off particularly badly) or background (which does no favours for Janis Karpinski, for instance).

Friday, November 25, 2011


2010, US, directed by Tony Scott

Tony Scott's last couple of films have taken place over a compressed period of time, and Unstoppable extends that trend to its logical conclusion, with a story told virtually in real time as a runaway train thunders toward a grimy Pennsylvania town. Despite the presence of Denzel Washington on his fifth outing for Scott, the trains dominate the screen for much of the running time, colour-coded, and no doubt colour-corrected, against the striking rust-belt locations.

Washington's character seems like an extension of the solid career man he played in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, albeit this time at the controls of a train rather than in the operations room; that job is taken here by Rosario Dawson, who is terrific as a straightforward woman focused on solving problems rather than respecting hierarchies. Despite the film's physical drama, Scott is also strikingly attentive to workplace details: these people, concerned about office politics, union policies, and chilly corporate decision-making, are nicely drawn despite the film's adrenalized presentation, although the corporate types are, for the most part, rather less subtly drawn.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fire in Babylon

2010, UK, directed by Stevan Riley

A terrific portrait of the fearsome West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, set against the backdrop of the cultural and political ferment from which bubbled forth reggae's global rise and the raw-edges of The Harder They Come, Fire in Babylon is a little lacking in broader cricket history, never mentioning, for instance, the deeply controversial "Bodyline" tour of the 1930s, which soured Anglo-Australian relations to an astonishing degree over the use of physical intimidation (by England). As the film tells it, the lethal West Indies fast bowl attack was developed as a response to Australia's fiery tactics, accurate enough for the short term, but an irony indeed when seen in the context of vociferous Australian objections to such intimidation in decades past.

Such tactics were a major innovation for a Windies team still emerging from the colonial shadow, ay a time when they were often dismissed as fun-loving calypso cricketers. As the film tells it the 1976 tour of England marked a major turning point in Caribbean identity, including for those in the diaspora who had endured two decades of unwelcoming treatment in the alleged mother country. Indeed, the team's performances seem to both feed off that broader awareness and contribute to it, most often in brashly joyous ways.

For the sportsmen themselves there was clearly much more on the line during the period, most notably during that 1976 tour of England, during which the athletic young West Indian players made England look, quite literally, like a bunch of old men - surely sowing the seeds for a major change in training and conditioning by cricket players. The players weren't just making a sporting point: England's captain, the South African-born Tony Greig, made a spectacular, if likely inadvertent, miscalculation when he commented that he intended to make the West Indies "grovel" during the course of the series. That he made his comments at a time of great unrest in South Africa - the Soweto Uprising began during the tour - only reinforced the sense that the West Indies were playing for rather more than sporting victory, and even in the interview 35 years on there's an icy tone to Viv Richards's comments when asked about Greig's ill-chosen words. It's one of the highlights of the film, giving a glimpse of the steel for which Richards, who played without a helmet, was known.

Poster art credit: Bose Collins

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Story of Temple Drake

1933, US, directed by Stephen Roberts

This Paramount pre-Code isn't as snappy as its Warner Brothers counterparts, with the action dragging on toward the end, but there's no shortage of hair-raising content - rape, murder, drunken lechery, prostitution and gangster shenanigans, all wrapped in an old dark house that might have wandered in from the back lot at Universal.

Miriam Hopkins, whose work is mostly unfamiliar to me, plays the eponymous Temple Drake, a carefree and rather careless party girl who ends up way over her head when a night-time escapade goes wrong. I haven't read the William Faulkner novel, Sanctuary, on which the film is based but as the film tells it Temple is essentially the architect of her own unpleasant destiny. While individual responsibility is surely no bad thing here Temple is required to destroy her honour, in the eyes of her peers, despite being one of the film's primary victims.  The content may be modern, then, but the sexual politics certainly aren't, although arguably not much has changed for many people similarly victimized.

The central sequence in a decrepit mansion populated with bootleggers is terrifically atmospheric - sheets of rain, wonderful use of shadow, sweaty, perhaps crazed, characters - and there's an interesting slice of class tension at work, too, with Temple suddenly exposed to a part of the Southern underbelly usually only seen in her grandfather's courtroom.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


2008, Ireland, directed by Nino Tropiano

A compelling documentary on what might seem a small phenomenon, the Italian chip shop owners of Ireland, Nino Tropiano's film nicely opens links to much bigger questions of emigration and integration, with many of his subjects remaining far more connected to their ancestral villages in Casalattico, in the interior of the Italian peninsula, than to their new home. Although the film doesn't explore the theme to any great extent, it also functions an interesting corrective to the idea that Ireland was only a place to emigrate from; clearly, for some, the grass was greener there than in their home countries.

The film doesn't claim to tell the full story of the Irish chipper - there's no mention of Beshoff's or Burdock's, two of the most famous of Dublin chippers, both founded by Russian immigrants - but it fleshes out the extremely tough realities behind an order of post-pub chips, and the challenges of passing along a family business at a time of great change in Irish society (where "authentic Irish-Italian" chippers are increasingly staffed by new migrants from neither of those countries). Chippers is also something of a tribute to the efforts of Barbi Borza, very much the centre of Ireland's Italian community for many years, and an enthusiastic amateur historian; it's through his good offices that Tropiano gets his access to the community, though the corpulent Borza, no great advert for the virtues of chipper food, sadly passed away in early 2007 before the film was released. Perhaps appropriately, though, he was on his home turf of Casalattico at the end of his life.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Le Corniaud

1965, France/Italy, directed by Gérard Oury

Although they had been paired onscreen briefly a couple of times before, this was the first occasion on which Louis de Funès and Bourvil shared top billing, and the collaboration was such a success that they were reunited the following year for an even bigger hit, La Grande vadrouille. That title, which roughly means the big trip, could just as easily have been used here, as Le Corniaud takes the two men on a peripatetic journey from Naples across the south of France.

Although Gérard Oury tends to emphasize his actors' less subtle comic stylings -- Bourvil's exasperated sighing with hands flung in the air, De Funès's rubber-faced mugging -- there are more graceful moments, too, particularly near the end when Bourvil soft-shoes away from his pursuers, his gait reminiscent of Jacques Tati. That moment is the more enjoyable because it's where his character finally turns the tables, revealing himself as something more than the titular sucker.

The film looks terrific thanks to Henri Decaë's scope photography -- I love the shot above where de Funès is just about visible in the background, crammed into a small car, while the oblivious Bourvil chatters away to him by means of a radio phone, but Decaë also does nice work with colour in other sections of the film, notably in a campsite sequence with brightly-lit tents. He had quite the career, switching back and forth between nouvelle vague directors and French (and later American) commercial cinema with ease.


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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