Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Der Räuber

2009, Austria/Germany, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg (aka The Robber)

Even by the standards of the existential crime film, this is stripped down stuff, never touching on the central character's motivations except to suggest that his compulsions are somehow innate and not subject to any form of self-regulation. He does what he does because he has to, and he does what he does well, though without any obvious pleasure, whether the activity in question is marathon running or robbing banks. The apparent lack of depth, though, is deceptive: it's precisely by the absence of apparent motivations that the viewer is drawn to psychologize and provide explanations where none are offered. There's nuance, too, in the robber's halting relationship with an old friend, their awkward early interactions reinforced by Heisenberg's clever blocking -- much is transmitted just by the ways in which these two people negotiate the same space.

Monday, April 15, 2013


2012, UK, directed by Dustin Hoffman

Julien Duvivier took a story about a retirement home for actors and produced La Fin du jour. Dustin Hoffman, armed with a tale about a retirement home for musicians, produces Quartet. Much as I'm loath to snidely dismiss any project that consumes months or even years of the participants' lives, there's no danger that La Fin du jour will be eclipsed as a work of art on the strength of this contribution. Quartet is thin gruel indeed -- you'd have imagined an actor of Hoffman's standing would wish to give his remarkable cast rather more to do.

Django Unchained

2012, US, directed by Quentin Tarantino

A disappointment, and in many ways a mess -- not only is Tarantino's thinking on matters racial entirely muddled, to be charitable, but his film has little of the structural finesse of his earlier work, whether it's the interlocking stories and alternate versions of a Jackie Brown or the careful block-building of Inglourious Basterds. As Jim Emerson observed in his comments on the film, Tarantino constructs a terrific early set piece in a bar and never comes close to that level of skill and suspense in the remainder of the film (I did like the opening, too). Indeed, in retrospect, the entire first half of the film comes to seem motivated almost entirely by the need to acquire a bankroll for the subsequent search for Django's wife, and yet that search is absurdly attenuated that it undercuts almost everything that came before.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Side Effects

2013, US, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Soderbergh is surely one of the most intelligent of current mainstream directors, wrestling with interesting conceptual problems -- not least how to tell certain kinds of stories -- while delivering satisfying narrative entertainments. There's a satisfaction in the neat, finely-honed outcome here that's complemented by a fascination with the intricate putting-together of the overall puzzle; you want to re-watch the film immediately to figure out what you could have known when, and just how the director signals certain ideas (through colour scheme or shot selection, for instance) or conceals little pieces of information from the viewer. And yet it's not just an exercise in careful narration, or for that matter in trickery. Soderbergh makes especially adept use of the interiors in which these characters live, work, and play. The spaces in which their lives unspool -- spaces of privilege, for the most part -- come to function as important adjuncts to the characters, and there are a couple of exhilarating shots where he takes us around Rooney Mara's apartment in quite deliberate fashion to give us a sense of the proximity of a number of key events. He also has a knack for working with fine casting directors -- the smallest parts are always worth looking it in a Soderbergh picture, with cops, janitors, co-workers all neatly sketched.

Sunday, April 07, 2013


1995, US, directed by Amy Heckerling

One of the great teen films, along with Heckerling's own Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Heckerling manages to retain our sympathy for her characters despite their uniformly privileged status. It certainly didn't hurt that the 1995 audience was fresh from a decade of Beverly Hills, 90210 melodrama, and indeed several of the gags make reference to that show. The film feels considerably less episodic than Fast Times: there's never a free moment here to indulge in a scene for its own sake, partly because the focus never strays from Cher (Alicia Silverstone).

Indeed, I can't recall many Hollywood films that have no scenes whatsoever that don't involve the protagonist, even if on a few occasions her presence is over the telephone. Cher comes across as a very canny young woman, eagerly manipulating her ditzy image but absolutely in control of her actions: in her own way, she's a surprising avatar for girl power, with no one, save a street punk with a gun, likely to put one over on her.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Pitch Perfect

2012, US, directed by Jason Moore

Entertaining, but quite honestly ten days later I can't recall the details well enough to post anything insightful, except to note that the film tries to include a couple too many supporting characters and then can't manage the logistics of giving them each something unique to do -- a point made rather flagrantly when they are dismissed as individuals in a scene where they are supposing to be opening up about their unique traumas.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Day of the Jackal

1973, UK/France, directed by Fred Zinnemann

The 1970s were very strong on the big screen police procedural, and this to my mind remains near the top of the heap, partly because it's really two procedurals in one -- the criminal at work and the police on his trail, with the structure lifted from Frederick Forsyth's detail-heavy/character-light novel. The central character, played by Edward Fox, is quite deliberately a cipher, a point underlined a touch obviously in the coda, but this does remove the need to give him much in the way of depth; by contrast, the very occasional suggestions of actual real lives for the other characters are quite welcome even if left mostly undeveloped.

As a piece of film construction, it's deeply impressive, bringing together multiple sources of information efficiently and clearly -- even when we're switching locales, we're always aware of where we are and why it matters, and Zinnemann establishes his locations with minimal fuss, with none of those ungainly and often-parodied datelines. More awkward are the many different accents -- both because of the actors themselves and individual performance decisions, some nominally French characters speak in flawless British accents whereas others add hints of local colour either because they are, say, French or because they somehow feel as though adding a Gallic burnish helps their credibility.

At times, it's what Zinnemann doesn't do that's at least as important: unlike in many of his earlier films, or in Hollywood filmmaking generally, he avoids musical emphasis designed to amp up the emotional impact, for instance -- a decision that seems to parallel the Jackal's completely emotionless killings. The silence, or the use of background noise alone, is especially effective in the film's final, extended set piece, which uses a real parade as a backdrop for the climax, Zinnemann's often mobile camera especially good at picking up little details of the Parisian streets to lend texture to the central narrative. Those sequences reminded me, of all things, of Maurice Pialat's L'Enfance nue, of all things -- that film also opens with a real parade, albeit on a different scale, but it, too, serves to anchor a carefully constructed narrative with an air of authenticity.


List of all movies

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