Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Wolverine

2013, US, directed by James Mangold

We'd seen all the previous X-Men and related films on the big screen, and couldn't resist taking advantage of some free babysitting to continue the streak. As expected, the film follows a fairly straightforward formula, albeit with a good deal of back story, leading up to a CGI-heavy confrontation, but there's a good deal of pleasure to be had in the middle section, which is less effects laden and with some degree of character development. It's also refreshing that many of the fight sequences involve actual human beings carefully choreographed, presumably in partial homage to the samurai films of the picture's Japanese setting. Despite the star-centric title, there's still room for others to make an impression: Rila Fukushima is especially good as Wolverine's self-appointed "bodyguard." 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

People Will Talk

1951, US, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Somewhere online I came across the comment, in reference to this film, "people will talk...and talk...and talk," and that's certainly the abiding memory after a gap of a few weeks. The plot, or rather plots, are complex to the point of absurdity, and thus necessitate an extraordinary amount of explanation, entirely at odds with the brisk storytelling that I tend to enjoy in classic Hollywood. Though I'm normally a fan of Cary Grant's particular charm, his performance, or perhaps his character, left me cold here: there are far greater riches in the supporting roles, particularly Hume Cronyn as a weaselly academic, Walter Slezak as Grant's avuncular best pal (the bit where he helps himself to sausage and sauerkraut defines scene stealing), and Finlay Currie as Grant's oddball friend/manservant. Early on, and strangely uncredited, there's also a terrific appearance from Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: her sparring with Cronyn perhaps best captures what the film might have been.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Band Called Death

2012, US, directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett

Two parts family portrait, one part fascinating glimpse of musical history, with a dash of insight into the world of the hardcore record collector, the documentary takes us back to Detroit in the early 1970s, where a trio of brothers decides to start a hardcore rock band in deeply unpromising circumstances. The driving force behind the band was the now-deceased David Hackney, who came up with the Death's concept and musical direction, and who refused to compromise even when success seemed to hinge on just that. Despite his death in 2000, David is a huge presence, both because of the wealth of archival material -- we get to hear his voice and read his words -- and because his brothers never attempt to steal the spotlight from him.

The film starts out as a portrait of an unusually close-knit group of collaborators, but as the story unspools Death's status as far more than a footnote in musical history starts to assert itself. Some of the celebrity talking heads are a little bland, there principally for their fame rather than their insights, but others make fine contributions, while Jello Biafra has a priceless scene. The documentary style is a little distracting at times, manipulating family photos in a rather repetitive stylistic gesture, but the raw material ultimately overwhelms these fairly minor niggles, and the story of how the music itself was re-discovered is quite remarkable.


1953, France, directed by Albert Lamorisse

It's not clear to me whether Lamorisse consciously intended his film as a "children's film," but children certainly respond to the picture particularly well: like his subsequent Le Ballon rouge, there's almost no dialogue, and even a very young child can easily follow the action and become quite caught up in the attempts of a young boy to tame a wild horse on the Camargue (the whole film is shot on location, and there's considerable anthropological interest to the portrait of a society that has, presumably, changed quite considerably in the interim). That said, I did have a little trouble explaining the slightly mystical ending, though fairly quickly the request to replay the film overrode any lingering concerns.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


1982, US, directed by Wim Wenders

The troubled production history of Hammett seems to have overshadowed most assessments of its qualities, and while it can be hard to figure out whether the overriding sensibility is that of Wim Wenders or heavily-involved producer Francis Ford Coppola, I still found much to like in the final product, however compromised it may be. Given my love for studio cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, I loved the richly detailed sets, even if Wenders seems to have preferred a location-based approach; the obviousness of the settings somehow enhanced the sense of a plunge into a past time, which perhaps says much about how the movies have influenced (my) perception of the reality of those decades. Frederic Forrest is excellent in a rare lead role, bewildered by many of the narrative twists in fine noir style -- what would The Big Sleep be if you could actually understand it? -- and the support is top-notch: Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Nance and, most startling, Roy Kinnear are among the highlights, though some of the other survivors of old-time Hollywood got unfortunately short shrift in the reworked film, which is a pity. You do wonder what other footage might be out there in a vault somewhere, ripe for the Special Feature picking.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


1973, US, directed by Terrence Malick

Not for the first time, I'm struck by the way in which the felicities of timing can affect how I see a film -- whether it brings other, recent viewings to mind, or whether it triggers more distant memories. I suppose you could argue that if I'm making such mental connections, I'm not really absorbed in the film at hand, but that's just the way my mind works, particularly if it's a repeat viewing. Others have made the connection between Badlands and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, which seems especially obvious in the middle section where Malick's protagonists, played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, create a rural idyll for themselves, though my thoughts turned most insistently to a pair of Australian films, Wake in Fright and Walkabout.

All three films share an outback setting, but also a kind of dreamlike quality -- anchored in Badlands by the off-kilter mental states of the main players. Sheen and Spacek are both extraordinary, finding an almost hypnotic state of ennui in their performances, with Spacek's voiceover providing further illustration of her character's dissociation from the events we see onscreen. There's a particularly black streak of comedy to be found in some of her observations; Malick mines some of the same territory in Days of Heaven using another very unusual performer, Linda Manz, though the narrative stakes are different in that film.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

1945, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

The tricksy ending does rather mar what is developing as a hard-nosed bit of bourgeois dissection, though with a little imagination the viewer can imagine what might have been had the movie ended a minute earlier. As much as one might be loathe to imagine an eternally disconsolate George Sanders, it would have made for a bitter little film indeed: the confrontation between Sanders and his sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald) near the conclusion is chilling stuff, with Fitzgerald fulling embracing her character's desire for the final word. Siodmak shows himself to be surprisingly assured as an analyst of small-town life, finding much provincial seaminess beneath the bucolic surface, while also puncturing the snobbery of the town's leading family; he gives full rein to his gliding camera in the family home, too.

Sanders can't suddenly discard his urbanity or his purr, yet he manages to tamp down his playboy image quite successfully to inhabit the skin of the titular Uncle Harry, hemmed in by the restrictions of his life and yet ruminating on an alternative once he sees another future unspool. As ever with Siodmak in this period, the pacing is brisk, with much plot squeezed into the 80 minutes, but he also takes the time to add texture to his portrait of the town -- the mill that dominates working life, the local drugstore, the women's softball game, the church congregation, the mens' club all give a sense of the rhythms of Corinth life.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Spiral Staircase

1945, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

A ripe slice of Gothic melodrama, that throws together a hodgepodge of stock elements -- a mute in peril, an old dark house (with a storm blowing outside, naturally), serial murders, sibling rivalries, an ailing matriarch, a drunken housekeeper, and a smattering of romance -- to quite good effect. At times, it's hard to keep up with the quick switches in tone, whether it's the transition from a bit of domestic comedy to a brutal killing, but Siodmak is entirely aware of the silliness of many of the components and focuses for the most part on maximizing the atmospheric effects. The staring eyeball of the murderer, itself something of a convention, acquires a peculiar malevolence here with the image used in screen-filling closeup at times, while we're kept effectively off-balance by the constant introduction of red herring characters who might, just might, be the murderer.

Monday, July 01, 2013


1942, US, directed by David Hand (supervising director)

I missed out on a great many of the classic Disney films when growing up -- they didn't play on TV, we didn't have a VCR, and trips to the cinema were intermittent when we lived in the countryside. Shay's arrival is looking like the perfect opportunity for us both to get our introductions to the classics. Where he was absorbed by the antics of Bambi and Thumper, especially in the early going, I was bowled over by the extraordinary artistry, especially of the backdrops. DVD seems the perfect way to appreciate these gorgeous paintings, filled with beautiful shadings and exquisite details. I was aware that the film featured a reputedly traumatic sequence, but Shay barely even noticed: it's not played up to any great degree, and is immediately followed by one of the film's most comical sections, where the various animals succumb to spring fever. By contrast, he found the fire sequence impressive though not, I think, overly frightening; he did ask for some clarification during the scene featuring a chase by slavering dogs, but never took his eyes off the screen, and giggled no end during the aforementioned spring fever sequence.

Phantom Lady

1944, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Unusually redemptive in tone for a noir, Phantom Lady has some gorgeously atmospheric passages as well as an extraordinary moment of jazz drumming as sexual frenzy -- though the implication of the scene is that the drummer can't keep up with the vixen after whom he lusts. The storyline is pretty absurd, relying on an exceptional bit of opportunism grafted on top of a stroke of luck, but for the first hour or so Siodmak makes it work very effectively: the wave of guilt creeping up on an old bartender, Tell-Tale Heart style, really gets under the skin, as does Elisha Cook Jr's aforementioned drumming, while there is some exceptional set work on an elevated train platform and in the rain-soaked streets of New York. Indeed, there's a real sense of sweaty summer place -- the city as a friendless nightmare where a man might be condemned for want of an honest word from a stranger.


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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States