Tuesday, March 26, 2013


2009, France, directed by Philippe Lioret

Although it has its share of narrative contrivances, Welcome is, at its core, a carefully observed character study that brings together a teenage Kurdish refugee and a French swimming instructor (Vincent Lindon, as reliable as ever -- craggy, rumpled, gravel-voiced from too many cigarettes) when the young man comes up with a hare-brained scheme to swim the Channel. The opening is especially strong, giving us an unpleasant insight into the realities of clandestine migration and the ways in which the system treats migrants (the system, in this case, extending to the entire community of Calais, which has been transformed by a culture of fear). The missteps come later -- as with most films of this type, the focus is on the European/American who befriends the immigrant, likely partly a reflection of the realities of film financing, but it tends to push the film back on old clichés -- the bedraggled westerner given unexpected insight into his life through contact with the exotic.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Dark Knight Rises

2012, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Where I found the action sequences in the prior franchise entry pretty confusing, here it was the overall structure of the film that I found mystifying at times -- we kept looking at each other as though to ask, "have you any idea what's going on here?" I'm not sure if that's a reflection of the fact that this is the capstone film of the trilogy, and that we needed a little more recent familiarity with the preceding installments, or whether there are structural problems that create that sense of bewilderment. Even with the film's expansive running time, I had the sense that some sequences had been abruptly chopped to save a few seconds here or there -- or perhaps Nolan assumes, possibly correctly, that most viewers can in fact join the dotted lines themselves. That said, there are numerous individually memorable sequences and images -- the sections set in a hellish prison, Bane's masked appearance (Tom Hardy manages to make his character surprisingly nuanced despite having limited face to work with), the sense of a city in lockdown -- but it's almost a relief near the end when the conflict simplifies to the most basic of races against the clock and there's no longer any need to keep up with the multiple storylines.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Hunt for Red October

1990, US, directed by John McTiernan

There's an awful lot going here -- tense developments aboard three different submarines and on board a handful of ships, as well as asides in the corridors of power in both Washington and Moscow -- but John McTiernan makes it work, carefully pacing his material and saving the biggest action thrills to near the end, while extracting remarkable tension from submarine manoeuvres that are mostly in the imagination.

Still, there are some awkward touches -- the filmmakers never quite resolve the issue of whether or not to have their Russian characters speak Russian, and while there's an elegant conceit early on to allow the Russians to begin speaking English onscreen, late on the trick comes back to cause confusion (Sean Connery sounds more Scottish than ever, though, especially when speaking Russian). And at times McTiernan appears not to trust his own instincts: Basil Poledouris's score is overblown, drowning out the dialogue at times, including in sequences where that dialogue would appear to be the main event.

Monday, March 18, 2013


1937, US, directed by Ernst Lubitsch

On this evidence, at least, the famed "Lubitsch touch" depended very much on the availability of comic material -- this more dramatic, even melodramatic, fare feels rather leaden at times, though it's not helped by the presence of Herbert Marshall, who seems constantly on the verge of a refreshing nap, such that it's hard to imagine he was ever catnip to a woman of Dietrich's self-possessed charms. Of course, that's part of the point in this tale of a wife tiring of the splendor in which she has been encased, but the demands of the Production Code entirely bowdlerize the central drama, and the dialogue, for the most part, lacks both the sparkle and the double meaning on offer in Lubitsch's finest films. Still, things do look up occasionally -- Dietrich's account of a dream in which her husband beats her is quite extraordinary, as is the later scene when Marshall and Melvyn Douglas reminisce about their shared wartime love (a Parisian prostitute).

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife

1938, US, directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Lubitsch saves the best for first here -- the opening sequence in which Gary Cooper attempts to purchase a pajama jacket without the pants, and encounters Claudette Colbert in the process, is the film's comic highpoint, both in the repartee between Cooper and Colbert and the interactions with the bemused store clerks and their multiple superiors. Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the scene is a model of construction both in the individual gags and the overall shape, seamlessly moving from shop floor to the upper echelons and back to the customer desk. Thereafter, though, the comedy is stretched somewhat thinner -- Cooper doesn't seem like a natural for this kind of fast-paced dialogue, and while he extracts the occasional well-deserved laugh, such as in a a scene of pantomimed sleep, other lines fall flat on delivery. In any case, a great deal of the comedy is leached out in the often bitter second half, as Colbert does her utmost to extract a divorce from her much-married husband, though she manages to retain a devilish sparkle even when her character has a rather thankless assignment. Thankfully the support players provide plenty of distraction -- David Niven has an amusing turn as does, perhaps less obviously, Warren Hymer as a prize-fighter with a strong sense of the rights and wrongs of his assignment.

L'Affaire Farewell

2009, France, directed by Christian Carion

Though it deals with espionage and the end of the Cold War, and takes us into the seats of power in Moscow, Washington and Paris, L'Affaire Farewell is at its strongest when played as a two-hander between Guillaume Canet, as an initially unwitting go-between, and Emir Kusturica as a bearish KGB agent. The two men are a study in contrasts both physically and in terms of the energy each brings to his role -- Canet all nervous tics, worn away by the lies his unasked-for role forces him into, Kusturica almost wilfully calm, eyes hooded, voice hypnotic as he tries to reassure the younger man, an amateur in the world of spycraft. Where their professional lives are contrasted, though, Carion finds overlaps at home, each man's family life in a delicate balance; there are nicely observed scenes where Kusturica dances to a favourite song with his wife in an attempt at reconciliation, or where Canet seeks to calm his wife's frayed nerves, his promises only reinforcing the sense that he has drawn in on himself as he seeks to deal with his own stresses. Those moments convince much more than do the vignettes of the Oval Office, the Kremlin, or the Elysée -- Reagan in particular comes across as something close to a caricature, though Mitterrand gets to don the statesman's mantle.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Steamboat Bill, Jr.


1928, US, directed by Charles Reisner

A wonderful slow burn -- in so far as film of less than 60 minutes can be such a thing -- with small-scale gags gradually building into some of the most iconic sequences of Keaton's entire career, with buildings collapsing, a jail floating into the river, and Keaton blown six ways to Sunday by the enormous wind machines stationed offscreen. Most satisfying, though, is the way in which Keaton, and director Charles Reisner, marry the comic's daredevil inventiveness with plotlines that sketch both a familial reunion and a nascent romance (which Buster, in the final shot, is determined to consolidate before anyone has a chance to change their minds).

Keaton finds a remarkable pathos in many of the early gags, with his character clearly a disappointment to the father he hardly knows -- a rough and ready riverboat captain who despairs of his ability to mould any kind of man out of the college-boy raw material that he's presented with. The sequence in which the father tries out hat after hat on his son manages simultaneously to comment on Keaton's own iconic headgear, the tense father-son relationship, and class differences, but Keaton then punctuates everything with a gag that deflates everything that's come before. 

While the gags are models of careful construction, the film has an overall visual polish, too, whether in the use of smooth tracking shots or the careful construction of say, the shot where we see Buster's father look out of his jail cell past the sheriff and to Buster, with absurdly upturned umbrella, outside in the pouring rain. A few minutes earlier, there's an equally impressive sequence where Buster watches his father's imprisonment as his (Buster's) girlfriend hovers in the background, the two actors' movements perfectly coordinated in a dance of miscommunication. 

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Navigator

1924, US, directed by Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton

Made the same year as Sherlock Jr., this doesn't soar quite as high for me -- the astonishing inventiveness is there, as are many of the laughs, but perhaps the fact that it's essentially a film built around a prop, however gigantic, robs it of a certain amount of soul. That quality is, for me, at the heart of Keaton's strongest films, and Wes Anderson captured this aspect of Keaton's work rather well in Moonrise Kingdom, alongside several memorable sight gags.

There's something wonderfully ridiculous, though, about the complex setup that Keaton and Crisp engineer to have Keaton and the girl of his dreams aboard an otherwise empty ship -- nefarious agents of obscure foreign nations, shipping magnates, and a foppish family embarrassment all factor into the mix -- but once on board some of the sequences have a brilliance that doesn't always transcend the mechanical, at least from my perspective (the scenes in which Keaton and co-star Kathryn McGuire run up and down the various gangways and passages are amusing but a little over-extended for my taste). By contrast, the sequences in which Buster is convinced that there's another man aboard -- a cutout of director Donald Crisp that floats past his window -- as well as the later scenes on a tropical island, Buster emerging from the sea dressed in a deep sea diver's outfit, restore the sense of absurd invention.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Série noire

1979, France, directed by Alain Corneau

Bleak stuff indeed, made somehow even more discomfiting by an infusion of truly black, occasionally absurdist, humour on top of the pitiless core that Corneau preserves from Jim Thompson's source novel, with the dancing bookends -- one clownish, the other desperate -- reflecting each other and reinforcing the sense that the central character has gone absolutely nowhere. Georges Perec contributes one of his very few films scripts, with his influence most apparent in the repetitions sprinkled throughout the dialogue, Patrick Dewaere's character manically repeating the same idea re-phrased two, three, four times, capturing the feel of 1970s slang very acutely, an effect that's reinforced by the use of contemporary pop music.

Dewaere is quite extraordinary -- the entire film spins on his axis of crazed energy, the character yawing wildly between emotions, most of them entirely inappropriate to the situations in which he finds himself. The camerawork draws us into his mental universe, too, bouncing around with him or bringing us uncomfortably close to scenes of emotional and physical violence (Corneau apparently put mikes on the actors, so we get an intensity of sound, too, that makes it impossible to move away from the action onscreen). Dewaere spares nothing of himself, whether it's the character's drab, unpleasant appearance or his willingness to run headlong into a car for the sake of the film, and while Bernard Blier and a very young Marie Trintignant make an impression, the film remains Dewaere's through and through; it's hard not to perceive some thread between his willingness to invest in a character like this and his own fragile emotional health.


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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