Thursday, November 29, 2012


2012, US, directed by Ben Affleck

My first career was in the Irish diplomatic service, and my first overseas assignment was to Bonn, in 1999. That was the year that Bonn relinquished its title as capital of Germany, the status transferring back to Berlin. I spent my first couple of months cleaning things up in anticipation of that cross-country move, delving into the deepest recesses of the archives. In one of the dustier corners of the safe, there was an envelope containing a letter advising us of what to do in case of a true emergency -- the outbreak of war, a violent uprising, and so forth. I imagine that a similar envelope was ripped open in Berlin at some point in the 1930s, as diplomats wondered what the future might bring.

Despite Ireland's rather unthreatening reputation, and the likely lack of too many black diplomatic secrets in Bonn, the instructions went into surprising detail about things we should destroy -- break, burn, shred and so forth. As the American Embassy in Tehran was invaded in the early stages of Argo, the memory of that carefully folded letter came flooding back, only here the diplomats were acting on  their instructions. Notwithstanding the film's apparently careful prologue, providing some insight, however historically haphazard, into the background of American-Iranian relations, that moment ultimately encapsulates the central focus of the film: a group of embassy staffers focused only on their own immediate safety, with virtually no sense of the outside world.

That's exactly the criticism that some have directed at the film, that it fails to address the realities of Iran at the time, but it seems to me that this misses two key points, first that the central group of housebound Americans is by definition oblivious to much of the truth of the Iranian experience of the time, and second, that diplomats, more broadly, are probably some of the more poorly placed individuals to give you a textured sense of life in any particular location, particularly if you're looking for a picture of things across the socio-economic spectrum.

Of course, the problem with any form of filmed history, no matter how many caveats the filmmakers place at the beginning of the film, is the danger that people will make the mistake of reading the mythology as fact, but I'm not sure where the filmmakers's responsibility ultimately lies here: there's no conceivable way that they can provide the "true truth" of even the experiences of the Americans at the heart of the film, never mind the "true truth" of the Iranian revolution. Certainly many, if not most, of the Iranians encountered by the viewer are less than pleasant, though again that's hardly an unlikely reflection of the actual experiences of a group of nervous diplomats trying to effect an escape from a regime which is complicit in the hostage-taking of many of their brethren, and comes back to the fact that whatever the broader bookends of the film it is ultimately telling a very narrow story, a caper that's beautifully paced and cleverly constructed, and as fictional as it gets in Hollywood history. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Campaign

2012, US, directed by Jay Roach

As a post-Thanksgiving diversion, this was amusing fare, the usual over-the-top Will Ferrell antics balanced out considerably by Zach Galifianikis' much calmer approach (though it's hard now not to notice the possible influence of Jack Black's work in Bernie, which was on the festival circuit before The Campaign began shooting: the characters are similar, but the performances even more so). The film never attempts to be anything more than the ne plus absurdum of state political races, except for the treacly concluding sequences, which seem to completely undermine the lower, dirtier, meaner tone of everything that came before -- sitcom redemption once the penis jokes have run out.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


2012, UK/US, directed by Sam Mendes

Given the number of variations over the years both in personnel and style, I find myself increasingly confused by the complaints accompanying each Bond release that the movie in question doesn't adhere adequately to some cherished formula. While certainly an entry like Quantum of Solace seems to veer far away from what the series does most effectively, for the most part surely part of the pleasure comes from the ways in which novelty is grafted to a familiar template. In that regard, Sam Mendes's entry is one of the best Bonds in quite some time, referencing and celebrating some of the most cherished moments from the past -- a wonderful thrill passed through the audience when the Aston Martin makes an appearance, and the rejuvenated Q got some of the bigger laughs -- while deepening and humanizing Bond as a character without making him an especially gentle or even necessarily likeable individual (he is, after all, a tool of his masters, and generally a very willing one at that). The film does find some nobility in the character, though: there's a lovely, almost painterly shot near the conclusion where Bond, seen from behind, looks briefly like a medieval knight kneeling before an altar, and the reference is entirely apt -- a fighter in service to his paymasters, loyal to the end.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Big Miracle

2012, US, directed by Ken Kwapis

Big Miracle unspooled immediately after Liberal Arts on the same long plane flight, so I was primed to see it, too, as a celebration of ostensibly simpler times, particularly when it comes to the communication arts, though that's literally the case here since the film focuses on an episode in late 1988 when there were just three major television networks in the US, whose anchors still commanded much of our attention. The film is surprisingly good at times in its commentary on the cynicism of all the players in the unlikely coalition that formed to free three trapped whales -- Ted Danson is cartoonish as an oil-company villain (probably because Danson is far too benign a presence to really convince in the role), but Greenpeace hardly emerges with a saintly reputation either as the film notes, accurately enough, how environmental crises can be highly useful to the institutional needs of NGOs, too. The film also makes intelligent use of the actual news footage, while commenting on the strange priorities of the news media -- though of course the filmmakers then eat their cake by making this film rather than something more genuinely challenging.

Liberal Arts

2012, US, directed by Josh Radnor

I'd never heard of Liberal Arts before it popped up on an airplane screen, but it proved a more than palatable diversion -- it's a film that's insistently non-zeitgeisty, particularly given its college-campus setting, with no mention of the Internet and barely a cellphone, the characters connecting instead through hand-written letters, books, and burned CDs. The conceit is a little overdone, even in a film that makes no real pretense to realism, and yet the insistence on the idea of communication that requires an attention span has its own attractions. I'm only familiar with Josh Radnor from the occasional episode of How I Met Your Mother: he's a competent director, very generous with his actors, which leads to some enjoyable supporting performances although not every role feels fully conceived, as though there was an idea for a diverting scene or two rather than an actual character. Still, there are a couple of lovely moments scattered through the film, none more so than the sly glance Elizabeth Olsen shoots Radnor's way when she's assessing the impact of her initial romantic forays.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Ne Nous Quitte Pas -- Jacques Brel in L'Emmerdeur

1973, France, directed by Edouard Molinaro

This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon, hosted by David Cairns, the wizard behind the curtain at Shadowplay.

We get our first glimpse of Jacques Brel as he pilots a small car along a road on the way to Montpellier, where he's about to become the titular pain in the rear (particularly the rear belonging to Lino Ventura). There's a gormless look on the face of his character, François Pignon, who has a vaguely Mr. Bean air about him, although Pignon is less of an out-and-out caricature than Rowan Atkinson's creation.

The filmmakers lay things on a little thick for the viewer's benefit, with insert shots of the silly objects that festoon the car and a soundtrack that emphasizes that the man's head is in the clouds. But Brel makes this unnecessary: his expression tells us all we need to know, even before Pignon opens his mouth. He's trouble, and yet entirely oblivious to his effect on everyone around him -- he's unable to understand why, for instance, his wife might have left him (she is sane, we might speculate).

There's nothing especially likeable or admirable about Pignon, who fastens like a limpet on anyone who shows him an ounce of kindness, but the comedy in L'Emmerdeur comes from a different place, that of the ways in which a man like Pignon can create absolute chaos in the well-laid plans of others, in this case a carefully-prepared hitman who only interacts with Pignon in an attempt to ensure that police stay well away from both men, who are assigned to adjoining hotel rooms.

The film marked the end of Jacques Brel's brief, rather unlikely film, unless we count a subsequent appearance as himself, and was one of his biggest hits, surpassed only by Claude Lelouch's L'Aventure c'est l'aventure -- released the previous year, and also starring Lino Ventura. That's a film truly of its post-1968 moment, with a surreal sequence wherein a band of gangsters undergoes an ideological education, but it's ultimately a much less memorable affair, mostly because it lacks the lean rhythm that makes L'Emmerdeur so effective (it has an interminable prologue that last nearly 45 minutes, nothing like the quick set-up here). Brel has far less to do, too -- he's somewhat lost in the large cast, which includes another star of the French musical scene, M. Johnny Hallyday.

Brel acted in just ten films, over an intense six-year span, withdrawing from the screen in his mid-40s after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His decision might have been prompted by an ultimately fatal illness, but the singer was always one to do things on his own terms: he had already more or less ceased live performance in 1966, weary of the constant road routine, though he did continue to record albums almost until his death.

While Brel hardly carved out a screen career to equal his singing work, he made the same intelligent use of his rather unconventional gifts: you'd hardly claim that his voice is the most beautiful you'd ever heard, but it's perfectly married to his material, and similarly Brel makes fine use of his less-than-conventionally-handsome physiognomy. Here he exploits his appearance, particularly those horsey front teeth, in service of his dim-witted character, though elsewhere he convinced as a dramatic lead. That his character's wife leaves him on this occasion for a man who can provide her with a horse of her own is perhaps an unintended amusement, though.

Though L'Emmerdeur is certainly a comedy, the film's setup is unexpectedly grim. Before we've discovered anything about Ventura's character, there's a car bombing gone wrong, which is swiftly followed by an execution. We're in no doubt, then, about Ventura's bona fides: he's something of a Melvillian character, remorseless and taciturn, the overlap surely no accident given that the actor had appeared in two of Melville's films a few years earlier. One of the many oddities in the 2008 remake of the film, directed by Francis Veber, author of the original script here, is the decision to craft an entirely different prologue that undermines any threat posed by the hitman, played by Richard Berry. Like his castmate Patrick Timsit, Berry can't hope to compare with his predecessor -- the comparison isn't even fair. Even more outlandish is the goofy Hindi remake, Bumboo, which totally misses the point that L'Emmerdeur succeeds in good measure because it's played completely straight. (Billy Wilder also remade L'Emmerdeur, as Buddy Buddy -- the director's final film, and perhaps a Late Films entry of the future).

Here though, we really believe that Ventura is a remorseless killer, who has the professional and personal misfortune to cross paths with a bumbling fool unable to accept the disintegration of his marriage, and obsessed by the shirts from which he makes his living. It's not just the actors and the tight script who sell the tale, though: Molinaro chose Raoul Coutard to shoot the picture, and they use a handheld style that gives a real sense of the cramped interiors and the proximity between the two characters. The shooting style, which frequently follows the actors from one space to the other, gives us an excellent sense of the geography, too -- another flaw in Veber's remake, where it's sometimes hard to tell whether an event is taking place in one hotel room or its neighbour.

Our last sight of Brel suggests that Ventura's travails, already numerous, are only just beginning. Veber scripted, and directed, numerous variations on the oddball pairing theme later in his career, but he was rarely blessed with a tandem that worked quite so well together, perhaps because his own skills as a filmmaker are much more limited than his writing talents. You wonder what Brel might have made of roles essayed by Pierre Richard in particular -- Richard is amusing enough in a kind of puppet-ish way, but Brel has an edge that Veber only rarely re-captured in later films, though that certainly didn't hamper his commercial success.

In semi-fairytale style, Brel lived out his final few years in peripatetic fashion, sailing the world on his yacht, with periodic health-related trips back to France, and while he stepped back behind the microphone a few times, he held firm on his retirement as a film actor.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Please Murder Me

1956, US, directed by Peter Godfrey

A rather nice meeting for two actors probably best remembered these days for small-screen roles -- a hulking Raymond Burr in his pre-Perry Mason days, and Angela Lansbury straying very far indeed from Jessica Fletcher territory, as the fatalest of femmes. On this occasion, at least, Lansbury's not entirely convincing in the role -- as depicted onscreen, she seems far too passive to really make us believe in her character's cynicism, with the spotlight remaining more firmly on Burr (as the shot above might suggest). The set-up is rather a stretch, albeit very much in the noir mould, with Burr narrating events that lead him to make a plea something along the lines of the give-it-all-away title, but the night-time atmospherics and unusual casting make the twists well worth persisting with.

This is an entry in my Watching Movies in Africa project: the film was screened in the late 1950s in Ghana, though I have not been able to gather whether it was a popular offering. I would suspect that the relative lack of action and the sustained dialogue scenes meant it was only screened a handful of times, though as an independent American production it probably didn't cost much to rent.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Son of Dracula

1943, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

As in Siodmak's later Cobra Woman, the absurdity of the script and much of the dialogue is at times quite successfully counterbalanced by the atmospheric staging: whatever the flaws in the raw material, you can't fault the director for a lack of commitment to the end product, probably why something like Cobra Woman ends up as such an intense fever dream despite its patent silliness. Here, there's no Technicolor craziness, but scenes in a prison, where a man seems to be talking to himself, or in the cabin of a gypsy woman on a Southern plantation (there's a mashup for the ages) are wonderfully creepy, deploying shadows and set design to great effect. The count himself is far less interesting, and indeed until the latter stages Lon Chaney Jr has very little screen time -- though his various entrances and exits are cleverly handled with some fine effects work. By contrast, flying bat technology had not appreciably improved since 1931. Among the supporting players, J. Edward Bromberg is most entertaining as Professor Lazlo, a vampire authority conveniently based in nearby Memphis; Bromberg was a future blacklistee, and an authentic Transylvanian, born in Timisoara.

I'm including this in my Watching Movies in Africa project but it's another cheat -- like And Then There Were None before it, Son of Dracula was banned by the Gold Coast Board of Control in 1946, part of a broader discomfort with horror films. Indeed, the censor was so reluctant to pass anything that had received the British "H"certificate in the 1930s and 1940s that exhibitors rarely imported such fare, and when they did, as in this case, a ban usually resulted. It's not clear whether local audiences were all that interested in horror films, since they had so few opportunities to see them, though later audiences loved films like The Exorcist, one of the first films to have an extended run in a single theatre in what was, by then, Ghana. That was not the local exhibition norm, with nightly changes of programme more common. The censors that banned Son of Dracula did not go into much detail about their rationale, observing simply that it was "A 'horror' film to which the Board took strong objection."


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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