Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Descendants

2011, US, directed by Alexander Payne

In its own small way, a film of some historical moment: it marked the first time we managed to attend the same cinema screening since the birth of our son. After about twenty minutes, we were reflecting that the choice of film was perhaps inapt, given that much of the film revolves around a foundering marriage -- albeit with one of the parties in a hospital bed, beyond reach of any words -- and the challenges of dealing with children. The early sections are only very lightly leavened with humour, as the film sets up both the familial dynamics and the film's other major plotline, regarding a swathe of pristine Hawaiian property primed for development.

The opening is strikingly low-key, as if reflecting the shock that George Clooney's central character is presumably working through, and it's his slow re-emergence and emotional re-connection that gives the film much of its narrative momentum. Still, between Payne's previous films and the bait-and-switch trailer, we hadn't expected to feel quite so glum, and it's not until the arrival of an unexpected newcomer, in the form of a high school goof, that the film finds a new tone with which to play, gradually blending together the entirely serious familial themes with a vein of oddball humour that's further amplified by the irascible, and sometimes plain asshole-ish, father-in-law played by Robert Forster. Clooney tamps down his charm, at least in so far as he can, creating a rather fine portrait of middle-years confusion that looks rather more effortless than it presumably is; he's starting to remind me a little of Clint Eastwood in his gradual growth into an older persona, looking forward rather than back to his youthful glories.

The Woman in the Window

1944, US, directed by Fritz Lang

When the Siren dispenses advice I find that it's worth following, and thus I watched The Woman in the Window before reading her recent piece on the film's ending; I second her counsel for anyone who would prefer not to find the film's dénouement unknotted before its time (in other words, stop here if you want to enjoy the ending unspoiled).

Although that conclusion has been much discussed across the decades, I'd successfully managed to avoid any knowledge about the outcome until this point, and was drawn into the film's hypnotic rhythm unawares. Although less sweaty than films like The Window or Rear Window -- the window in question here is of a different order, but still, what is it about windows in New York? -- it's very much a classic of the New York summertime, with unexpected occurrences multiplying in the humidity.

The entire film flows from one small decision, wherein Edward G. Robinson, who plays a married college professor -- "Assistant Professor," his character insists at one point -- takes an attractive woman up on her offer of a little conversation. The professor quickly finds that he has bitten off much, much more than he's bargained for but also discovers within himself a surprising seam of ice-cool criminality, all rendered the more ironic since his academic specialty is supposed to be the murderous mind.

The aforementioned ending reveals the entire film, virtually from this crucial moment, to have been a dream in the professor's apparently fevered mind -- if only he'd take off that jacket, perhaps he'd have avoided all of his problems. Retrospectively, the dream framework renders much of the film more logical, particularly the presence of a friend who also happens to be a DA feeding Robinson information on the case, and giving him the sense of an ever-tightening noose. From what I can tell, the framework -- revealed in a beautiful bit of camera trickery in which Robinson's face is framed, silent-movie style, while the room around him is transformed -- was always intended by Lang, rendering the film, in a sense, as the lengthy buildup to a terrific punchline. His delivery is spot on -- the sense of gathering doom is seamlessly constructed, while the apparently inoffensive Robinson's turn toward amorality is one of the film's nicest frissons.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Un Carnet de bal

1937, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

I hadn't realized that Duvivier's film has an episodic structure, so my hopes for scenes in which Louis Jouvet faces off with Harry Baur, Raimu or Fernandel came to naught -- each plays in his own discrete segment, as another of the men featuring on a long-ago dance card wielded by the lovely Françoise Rosay. Jouvet does play in later films with all three actors, so there is that to look forward to; this is ultimately hardly the best showcase for all of the various players, since some of their sequences are very thin indeed. Jouvet, as Jo, a lawyer turned criminal, gets one of the best parts -- the kind of thing that Humphrey Bogart might have played in an American film a couple of years later, layered with world-weary gestures, though there's something very Jouvet-ian about the precise way in which Jo outlines the various articles of the criminal code, which he cites to his partners in crime as a means to ensure the lightest possible sentence in the event of a criminal mishap.

The Baur and Fernandel segments are fairly unmemorable, at least as far as the actors are concerned, though the ecclaesiastical backdrop in the Baur section makes for some interesting set design; Raimu's segment is rather stronger, not least because the sequence is constructed in such a way as to actually give his character some depth. The whole affair threatens to go in an entirely different direction in the startling section featuring Paul Blanchar as a back-street abortionist and tortured addict, wrung out from years in the colonies; the entire segment is shot off kilter, in keeping with Blanchar's state of mind, and it's as though the tale drifted in from an entirely different movie that happened to be shooting on an adjacent, and much grimier, sound stage. The segment is so distinctive that I looked back through the rest of the film to see whether or not Duvivier had used similar, if less obvious, ways of marking the visual signature associated with each entry on the dance card, perhaps like the technical challenges Claude Chabrol assigned himself when shooting his Lavardin films, but I didn't pick up on anything obvious.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Lady Vanishes

1938, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I hadn't seen Hitchcock's zesty comedy-thriller for nearly twenty years, and so had completely forgotten the opening of the film in a small alpine town: fully a third of the film unspools before the characters ever make their way aboard the train where the plot kicks into full gear. There's nothing wasted in that extended prologue, though: the overnight antics in a crowded hotel set up a multiplicity of later onboard relationships, while it's also a healthy reminder that Hitchcock had a surprisingly light touch with comic business, at least in this phase of his career, whether in the form of the buffoonish Englishmen abroad duo of Caldicott and Charters or the delightful Margaret Lockwood as the eponymous lady, utterly unflappable in any circumstances.

There's constant back and forth between the films in Hitchcock's 1930s output -- spies, overseas jaunts, dramatic train rides all feature in other decades, though the director varies the tone across films, going from high seriousness in much of a film like Sabotage to an almost farcical note here. After seeing most of those other films again in fairly ordinary small-screen versions it was wonderful to see the film in a crisp big screen print: the opening scene-setting shot in the mountains is particularly impressive on the larger canvas, the camera moving down from an overview of the snowy town to the ground-level details with a dash of humour.

Friday, March 16, 2012

La Belle équipe

1936, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

I'm starting to see Bertrand Blier every time I cue up a French film from the 1930s. First Les Bas-fonds put me in mind of Tenue de soirée, and now Jean Gabin has me thinking of more or less any of Gérard Depardieu's roles for Blier -- Gabin's opening scene here, full of bluster and physical energy is like every entrance Depardieu made for Blier, a force of nature constantly pushing at the bounds of the screen. Gabin plays a much more reliable type than that generally essayed by Depardieu in oafish mode, but the similarity perhaps owes something to both actors' origins in the music halls (or their rough 1960s equivalent the café-théâtre): they're always ready to improvise to catch the eye, and are as adept with movement as they are with dialogue. Gabin even throws in a song and, later, a dance, lovely moments that recall the versatility of a Cagney on the American screen. Even with company like Charles Vanel or Raymond Aimos, another Duvivier regular, Gabin commands the attention: although the film wasn't a huge success in its time, it's a terrific vehicle for the actor's particular charm.

More or less from its release in 1936, and increasingly so as the decades advanced, La Belle équipe was co-opted as a film of the Popular Front, even though director Julien Duvivier denied any political intention. I can certainly accept his contention that the film wasn't intended as an analogy for the Popular Front itself -- whether with its original, wholly tragic ending or the bittersweet replacement, it's not constructed in any sense as a blunt allegory. However, it's hard to avoid the regular references to the politics and policies of the time, or the celebratory references to earlier republican ideals (the toast to Léon Gambetta, for instance) -- as though Duvivier, a highly adaptable filmmaker, and his fellow script-writer Charles Spaak breathed in something of the air of the times and infused it into their film almost without realizing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mystery of the Wax Museum

1933, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

The second and last of Michael Curtiz's eerie two-strip Technicolor films, Mystery of the Wax Museum reunites much of the talent from the first such outing, Doctor X, including players Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Like the earlier film it's a somewhat unlikely mix of creepy horror -- sometimes very creepy indeed, between macabre plotting and some hair-raising makeup work -- and rat-a-tat Warner Brothers comedy. Where Doctor X featured Lee Tracy in the role of a newspaperman, Mystery of the Wax Museum uses Glenda Farrell in similar fashion, though Farrell emphasizes her character's street smarts rather than the Tracy pratfalls that were such a distraction in the previous film. Indeed, her character is much more engaging than Fay Wray's despite Wray's higher billing; the scream queen has so little screen time it's hard for her to do much with the part except squeal for all she's worth when Curtiz gives the signal.

Warners weren't best known for their horror movies, and the script uses the competition for comparative purposes: the monster at the heart of the film is likened to Universal's Frankenstein, though the horrific visage on display here makes that fellow "look like a lily," presumably to prove that Warners did everything better. As was the case on Doctor X, art director Anton Grot runs riot. The wax workshop above looks like it something that could have cropped up in a villainous lair from a Bond movie, while the waxwork tableaux are wonderfully weird -- even more so when they use actual people rather than wax figures. Grot was one of the first people inducted into the Art Directors Guild Hall of Fame, hardly surprising given his obvious influence on later generations (Ken Adam, I'm looking at you, among others); there's a Rube Goldberg-esque craziness to some of the contraptions on display here.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Les Bas-fonds

1936, France, directed by Jean Renoir

I'm slowly watching my way through Louis Jouvet's filmography, and Renoir's film is the first I've seen that really gives extended rein to Jouvet as a film performer rather than as an actor replaying stage material; I haven't see his performance in Robert Siodmak's Mister Flow, which appears to have been filmed earlier the same year, though it sounds as though it was something of a troubled production [I've since plugged that particular gap]. Here, he's paired with Jean Gabin, who plays more or less the same -- immensely charming -- character from films like the same year's La Belle équipe.

It's an apposite match: despite their differing acting styles, both Gabin and Jouvet were originally men of the stage, albeit the music hall stage in Gabin's case, and there's a joyous complicity to their work together. Both, too, were fairly careful in their choice of work: so many French actors of the period seemed to say yes to every role that came their way it makes Gabin and Jouvet seem cautious by comparison, though each probably had the occasional regret. Their scenes together crackle: they're first brought together in a scene of attempted robbery that foreshadows Blier's Tenue de soirée, in which the putative victims try to get in on the action.

Renoir underlines their complicity with a pair of mirror-image scenes, the first in which Jouvet stands impassively while on the receiving end of a lengthy brush-off by an unseen official, the second with Gabin talking up a storm to a silent police commissioner, again unseen until the soliloquy concludes. The difference between the scenes is key to the characters: Jouvet's Baron ultimately accepts his fall from aristocratic grace, serenely acknowledging an inner truth about himself, while Gabin's hard-scrabble Pepel is always on the make, trying to leave an unwanted life in the lower depths behind. He's almost jealous of his unlikely friend's inner peace, though they do share one treasurable sequence of riverside idyll, where life slows down and the sun and the peacefully flowing Marne come to the fore, washing other cares away for an hour or two.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Kill List

2011, UK, directed by Ben Wheatley

There's no doubt in my mind that Ben Wheatley achieves what he sets out to do here: he's a skilled filmmaker with a terrific degree of control over his material, but ultimately I wasn't quite sure of the point of the exercise, beyond attempting to re-construct a challenging puzzle. It made me wonder if this is how those who don't like Quentin Tarantinto feel, although at least some of those who can't abide Tarantino's worldview -- not a difficult argument to make at times -- don't grant him any filmmaking skill, either, which oversteps the mark. Wheatley's film opens on a jarring note that recalls Chabrol's La Rupture: a frightening eruption of domestic violence, although the scene ultimately plays out in quite different ways.

Still, the Chabrol film isn't a bad reference point: like Kill List, it's a are deeply disconcerting film, which ultimately concludes in bizarrely unexpected territory. The comparison only holds to a certain point,of course; Wheatley emphasizes sound in the creation of atmosphere, constantly keeping the viewer/listener off balance with both the use of sudden intrusions of grating noise and then contrasting that with moments of striking calm. He's also blessed with a number of very fine performances -- as unpleasant as their characters might be, Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley achieve a certain kind of naturalistic charm, at least in their friendship. And while I remain skeptical about the film's overall effect, I must acknowledge that while it was unspooling I was unsettled enough that I briefly became convinced there was a rat running around the cinema; while admittedly this is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility given the venue I suspect that it was a figment of my imagination-under-the-influence.

La Kermesse héroïque

1935, France, directed by Jacques Feyder

David Cairns wrote about La Kermesse héroïque recently for his "Forgotten" column, and I don't have much to add to his account of the film's extraordinary shifts in tone. It's an odd film that only becomes odder when watched with the knowledge of France's subsequent Occupation, although Feyder and screenwriter Charles Spaak, both Belgian, surely weren't attempting anything along the lines of prophetic commentary on their host country. The film opens on the eve of a carnival that's quickly adapted to welcome the Spanish army, which is passing through the region. The women of the town give themselves over fully to the notion that the carnival marks the overthrow, if only for a night, of bourgeois convention. What's subversive is not so much the idea of sacrifice in the service of long-term good but rather that such sacrifice might be welcome and pleasurable given the restrictions of life in this rather dull town ruled by a rather pathetic collection of men. Indeed, the women's sacrifice might not be that great a sacrifice at all...

Feyder gives us a wonderfully rich portrayal of both the town and the visiting Spaniards, finding time to insert numerous piquant details, such as the soldier and townsman who find themselves exchanging needlework tips. It's very consciously a series of tableaux, with the opening sections and later tavern sequences evoking Breughel's paintings of exuberant village life; Breughel the younger appears in the film as both a painter and a young lover, giving Feyder the opportunity to create a literal tableau vivant as we watch the young artist attempt to wrangle a collection of town busbybodies into place for posterity.

I initially watched the film as an early entry in Louis Jouvet's oeuvre. Jouvet's role is minor, if arresting: he plays a less-than-pure monk, assigned a number of delicious speeches, but it's hardly more than a cameo. Still, it's the first time that he played a character who wasn't drawn from one of his stage roles, and while the stage is never far from his performance style -- particularly the way he rolls words around in his mouth -- his work feels more relaxed, and less bound-up by stage business, than was the case in his previous screen performances.


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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