Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook

2012, US, directed by David O. Russell

A film antic enough that we could almost believe we had a wild New Year's Eve instead of packing the kids off to bed so we could watch a rare full-length film without getting up exhausted; wonderful chemistry between the leads, though, of that real movie-star wattage.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

2014, US/New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson

A fairly satisfying conclusion -- although the title pretty much describes what happens, even if we had a hard time keeping track of the exact number of armies involved -- to a somewhat unsatisfying trilogy. Still, it's hard to imagine going back to the well to watch this set of films again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Parallax View

1974, US, directed by Alan J. Pakula

Impossible to imagine this being made in anything like the same fashion forty years on -- there's no way the combination of downbeat tone, paranoia, and astonishing visuals would emerge from the studio system these days. Still one of the most unsettling films of the 1970s, even if much-imitated.

Love Affair

1939, US, directed by Leo McCarey

Most of the films I watched over the past few months are getting short shrift, though I feel a bit more guilty about not giving my full attention to this one: I can't figure out if that's the reason why the film didn't sing for me nearly as much as other McCarey films from the same time period. The stars are charming and the plot complexities quite satisfying but the downbeat tone was a little wearing at times in comparison to the lightness of touch on offer in other films, even those with a poignant overall message.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mission: Impossible

1996, US, directed by Brian De Palma

Seen again for the first time since the cinema release, as a follow-up to reading David Bordwell's excellent blog post on visual storytelling. I'm not a big De Palma fan but for the most part the film remains quite fresh nearly twenty years on, unlike many of that year's other big hits (Independence Day, TwisterJerry Maguire, The Rock, all of which seem more and more obviously formulaic); the set-piece above is especially good, though the TGV-set finale shows its age a good deal more.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Desert of the Tartars

1976, Italy/France/Germany, directed by Valerio Zurlini

A viewing inspired by Judy Dean's excellent consideration of the film as part of David Cairns' 2014 Late Films Blogathon. It has mythical-colonials aspects that pair it very well with the near-contemporaneous Le Crabe-tambour, also featuring Jacques Perrin, though few films can compete with the astonishing locations of Zurlini's film. The picture is imbued with a profound sense of the absurd, with the protagonist discovering that his longer-for escape from the stifling life of the provincial nobility is, if anything, even more constricted with rules. It's also an exceptionally subtle work, with the days becoming months and perhaps even years through a very careful, discreet use of elision; the same discretion marks the film's attitude to death, generally turning away and allowing the characters to their own fates. The cast is quite remarkable, and Vittorio Gassman looks more than ever like something hewn from a Roman coin.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Awful Truth

1937, US, directed by Leo McCarey

Just as perfect as on many previous viewings, with the exception of the very final shot, which comes in sharp contrast to the resolutely non-mechanical interactions of the rest of the film.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Babadook

2014, Australia, directed by Jennifer Hart

I spent the three months from December 2014-March 2015 making a final push to finish my PhD. In had little time to watch films and even less time to blog about them -- and I suspect that for want of brain space, many of the films I saw during that period will be too quickly forgotten, though director Jennifer Hart's supreme control over her material, and her film's extraordinary soundscape, will linger for quite some time.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

He Walked By Night

1948, US, directed by Alfred L. Werker (and Anthony Mann, uncredited)

A fine procedural, in that 1940s docu-fiction mode that came complete with narrator, although the staging by Werker, Mann and cinematographer John Alton is more than strong enough to stand on its own, especially the atmospheric sequences in unusual, semi-desolate Los Angeles locations. The minutiae of the police investigation is fascinating and conveyed very crisply: Jack Webb has an especially nice part as the key tech man, but the scenes of interrogation also have a brisk rhythm that still allows time for the minor performers to sparkle. There's no mystery to the identity of the criminal: we spend a great deal of time in his company, with the tension coming instead from the gradually closing net. The template was, of course, carefully followed by television in the 1950s, including Webb's Dragnet, but it's also the skeleton for big-budget fare like The Day of the Jackal a quarter-century later.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Un Singe en hiver

1962, France, directed by Henri Verneuil

A meeting-of-the-generations picture, the only time that Gabin appeared with Belmondo, the most iconic actor of the New Wave, and their distinctly different styles work very well here: Gabin's mostly disciplined technique -- there's a good deal to Farran Smith Nehme's comment that Gabin lets the action come to him, both in the film she's discussing and in his broader career -- contrasts with Belmondo's bundle of nervous energy, although one of the film's great pleasures is the way that the two quite different actors move toward the centre as their characters develop an unlikely friendship. The pair seem to have an entirely unforced camaraderie onscreen, though Belmondo suggested in an interview that Gabin barely spoke to him when he wasn't delivering a line; the magic of the movies, indeed. Verneuil is not an especially innovative director, but he did have a fine sense of how long to allow a scene to play out, and the set pieces are especially well-calibrated -- drunken antics can easily become tiresome, whether onscreen or off, and Verneuil knows just when to cut away to the next scene while still indulging our desire to see the actors play broad strokes. After the fun, the ending is surprisingly poignant -- something of a rueful hangover and yet invested with a great deal of affection.

Friday, November 28, 2014


2006, US, directed by John Lasseter

I've seen the beginning of this a half dozen times with my older son -- and heard the beginning another half dozen times while driving -- so it was mostly just a relief to find out where the story went. As with most Pixar films, I find the artistry extraordinary but the overall effect so calculated that it leaves me a little cold.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Le Chat

1971, France, directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre

A brutal film that has virtually no violence -- though animal lovers should beware -- as Gabin and Signoret embody the daily realities of a marriage that has long-since collapsed into a horrible kind of co-dependent enmity. At one point, Gabin flicks a folded-up piece of paper at Signoret in lieu of more civilized communication, but it feels as though he has delivered a slap. Both actors are in fine form, navigating a horrible kind of waltz around each other, both within the home that seems increasingly small and on the streets of the compact neighborhood where they can't help but cross paths. The neighborhood, on the western fringes of Paris, functions as an effective metaphor for the collapsing relationship: the film was made right at the time when entire quartiers were being razed to make room for the edifices of La Défense, and the background construction creates a maddening modernist soundtrack.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

L'Année sainte

1976, US, directed by Jean Girault

This is a contribution to the fifth annual Late Show blogathon, hosted, as ever, by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

The final card in many careers is a dispiriting one: there really aren't that many people who go out on a genuine high, and Jean Girault's lightweight comic fable about two escaped prisoners disguised as members of the clergy was never likely to restore Gabin to the glories of old. In truth, the actor seemed to have been playing out the string for more than a decade by the time the end came. The 1970 Simenon adaptation Le Chat, starring opposite Simone Signoret, was one of his best postwar films, as Gabin himself recognized, but it's a rare highlight for the period after 1963, which marked the close of the second great phase of his career (perhaps not quite as glorious as the pre-war phase, but fine nonetheless, with even the lesser films brisk and well-constructed and with Gabin still magnetic despite the advance of middle age).

The saddest thing about L'Année sainte is how diminished everything seems. Gabin had been convincing in roles far beyond his years since at least the early 1960s where the role called for it -- he's quite brilliant as the apparently retired politician of Le Président, for instance -- but here he is very visibly decrepit himself. The sequence where the camera lingers on him as he struggles with a a set of stairs would seem almost cruel if had been shot by a more skilled director, whereas in Girault's case I suspect that it just didn't occur to him to do anything more creative.

Gabin was never an especially vain actor onscreen -- he makes no attempt to conceal his jowled face or his ample belly in something like Un Singe en hiver, playing opposite Belmondo in his absolute prime -- but the passage of time never seemed like a distraction in such roles, and in many films he projected a continued energy that belied his chronological age, with the decisive, overbearing farmer of La Horse perhaps the exemplar in terms of his later career, although he shows quite the turn of speed in Un Singe en hiver when running from exploding fireworks.

But Gabin is only a symptom of the larger malaise, in which the overall cheapness of the enterprise is revealed by the frequent shots of an airplane with obviously different logos depending on whether it is shown in flight (in the livery of the fictional Air Italia) or taking off (when it's interchangeably a Pan Am 'plane and a KLM airliner). Such technicalities wouldn't seem so significant except that they are so glaring, as if to signal that the filmmakers have virtually nothing invested in their product.

The same is true of the appearance of the glorious Danielle Darrieux. There's no real reason for her character to exist since she barely contributes to the plotline, but once the filmmakers invent her they barely trouble themselves actually do anything meaningful with the actress, one brief, nostalgic scene between Gabin and Darrieux perhaps excepted.

As with half a dozen of his later films, Gabin shares the lead with a much younger actor, on this case Jean-Claude Brialy, although unlike Gabin's film with Belmondo or the several pictures he made with Alain Delon, Brialy is mostly called on to react to Gabin rather than to do much of interest himself. It was hardly the most glorious of decades for Brialy, either: he made very few films during the 1970s, after a great run from the late 1950s through the end of the subsequent decade, and this is at best a forgettable entry in his filmography, though the line where Gabin summarily rejects a third cellmate on the basis that he's gay acquires a certain frisson from the knowledge that Brialy was comfortably out far earlier than many actors.

It's tempting to read a greater degree of meaning into some of the other lines, too, particularly Darrieux's comments about having known Gabin's character in his pre-war glory, while there are perhaps allusions to Gabin's mortality -- nothing too surprising, given that he had suffered from health issues for several years, and indeed hadn't made a film for a couple of years by the time this opportunity came along. If the film doesn't mark a glorious ending to Gabin's career, it does at least have an amusing finale, and Gabin gets to deliver the payoff line with a flash of the old energy that made him so compelling across four decades.

Incidentally, Jean Girault has his own Late Films story, as something of a career-ending specialist: he died during the filming of Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes, the fifth and final entry in that series of astonishingly popular films that starred Louis de Funès, which also became de Funès's last picture since the actor died a few months later. De Funès marks roughly the edge of the boundary of my enthusiasm for French popular culture: he's an actor whose appeal often eludes me, especially when he is not paired with another, less rubber-faced performer (he was excellent with Gabin and Bourvil in La Traversée de Paris, though). His final film was hugely popular in its year of release, but I could barely make it past the half hour mark, blogathon or not.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Razzia sur la chnouf

1955, France, directed by Henri Decoin

A tough, and tough-minded, film -- laconic in its brutality, and once you've seen the ending, deeply unsettling in its view of right and wrong. Gabin is at the height of his postwar powers, entirely convincing as the gangster taking over a drug operation after a previous operator proved disloyal to the boss, and dealing with the unpredictable men charged with dispensing violent internal justice (most notably Lino Ventura, who is mostly called on to be a distilled version of the carved-from-stone type he played so frequently in those years). This is the strongest work I've seen from Henri Decoin, both in terms of content and shadowy staging: the tone is more consistent than in any of the other Decoin films I've seen, and when the director slows the rhythm down it's with purpose, adding nuances of shade to Gabin's character in particular.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

La Horse

1970, France, directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre

The first of two films Gabin made in quick succession with Granier-Deferre, the second being  Le Chat: both pictures feature Gabin characters absolutely unwilling to deviate from their self-appointed paths, and neither of them especially sympathetic. Here, the actor plays a prosperous Normandy farmer dealing with an unwelcome intrusion from the criminal underworld -- and while he's an unpleasant martinet in his dealings with his family, the same qualities seem to act in his favour when dealing with uncompromising thugs. I suspect that Granier-Deferre is attempting to make some kind of point about the social climate of the time, in which defenders of a certain kind of France dealt with the threat represented by the 1968 generation, although the director's thinking is muddled enough that no-one, and especially not Gabin, comes off looking good from the encounter. The actor manages to get through the entire film on the strength of essentially one expression, which is entirely consistent with his character, and in the face of the almost complete lack of reaction or willingness to deal everyone else has little choice but to compromise.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Le Président

1961, France, directed by Henri Verneuil

Although based on a Simenon novel and imbued with a good deal of tension, Le Président is a political film rather than a crime piece, and one that's deeply rooted in the realities of French political life between the twenties and fifties, particularly the country's chronic political instability. Gabin plays the retired elder statesman who is still connected to current political life, and he's at the top of his game -- he plays nearly twenty years older with a great deal of ease, as an entirely convincing amalgam of various French politicians (Clemenceau being the most obvious reference point). It's a rare film that's quite this interested in the intricacies of political manoeuvring, and it helps to have a passing familiarity with ways in which governments were formed and dissolved in France, but the performances are ample compensation in themselves, with Bernard Blier especially notable in support. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cops and Robbers

1973, US, directed by Aram Avakian

This one would never have made it past the Hays Code: altogether too much unpunished crime, and worse, there's an insouciance about the thumbing of noses to the authorities -- which is exactly what makes the film rather pleasurable. It's nothing like as strong as Avakian's later 11 Harrowhouse although it does share some of the same shaggy dog spirit and it's hard not to enjoy the constantly jawing protagonists whatever their attitude to the law. The 1970s New York setting is used to the full, with Avakian finding original settings for much of his action, and building up a rich backdrop of distinctly local visual and aural detail. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Maigret voit rouge

1963, France, directed by Gilles Grangier

A straightforward Maigret adaptation: the dialogue is more Audiard-esque than Simenon, while the plot casts the Europeans as gangsters in a fairly genteel register in comparison to their more violent American counterparts. Still, Gabin undoubtedly lifts things: he has a wonderful eruption late on that's perhaps not entirely in keeping with Maigret's character but allows the actor a little bit of a stretch, and he draws the eye every time he's onscreen.

Monday, November 03, 2014


1982, Australia, directed by Phillip Noyce

Like Noyce's earlier Newsfront, this is strong on ideas but not always entirely convincing in execution, partly on this occasion because of the imbalance in acting talent: Judy Davis is a formidable performer cast in a no-nonsense role, and pairing her with the rather pallid Richard Moir in a milquetoast part was always going to be a tricky marriage. In addition, Davis's story, as a journalist/activist in the complex political terrain of a major Sydney building project, is a good deal more interesting than the moral qualms that Moir navigates, although that narrative does give some additional insight into the shadings of grey attendant on any politically sensitive undertaking. Visually, Noyce does a fine job -- the very striking scene when Moir drives to the scene of a fire is a good example -- with his camera doing a good deal of quite mobile work that serves to accentuate the overall thriller vibe. I also liked the sense of connections only partially made, to ensure that the viewer remained an active participant; in an interview Noyce remarked on this as something characteristic of the time in which it was made, and that he'd probably be asked to make things a good deal more emphatic if he made a similar story now. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


1974, Australia, directed by Tim Burstall

With Alvin Purple director Burstall at the helm, I anticipated a film far more ocker in spirit than the reality, which is more social commentary than broad laughs, consistent with the 1970s oeuvre of writer David Williamson. It's by no means a perfect film in terms of its social attitudes -- among other flaws there's a reasonable amount of what a later viewer might call "mansplaining" in the title character's interventions on behalf of feminist groups, something that's characteristic of Williamson's writing more generally.

As acute as he is in examining the Aussie male of the 1970s and 1980s, Williamson is a good deal less clued-in (or perhaps less interested) when dealing with the Aussie female, and the conclusion is, to say the least, rather jarring: it's difficult to say whether the brutal event or its insouciant aftermath is more unsettling. Jack Thompson is quite brilliant in the lead -- it's not at all hard to see why he became a star on the strength of this and the subsequent Sunday Too Far Away. There's something amazing in seeing an actor transform into something more than just an actor before your eyes: I was distracted by Errol Flynn in Captain Blood for exactly that reason -- not only is he visibly becoming "Errol Flynn," but he knows it full well.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Sapphires

2012, Australia, directed by Wayne Blair

A bit of a genre mishmash, crossing Good Morning Vietnam with The Commitments and adding a dash of Rabbit-Proof Fence, with the result about as confused as you might expect, and miles away from the true story that inspired the film. The film is a good deal better on Australian soil than Vietnamese, with the outback setting quite nicely evoked in both its positive and negative aspects, while the actors, particularly Deborah Mailman and Chris O'Dowd, are both energetic and effective. There are some very amusing moments in the first half, too, as the musical act slowly takes shape, and before the film enters bumpier territory with respect to the Vietnam war backdrop.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

A New Leaf

1970, US, directed by Elaine May

I couldn't quite decide whether it was my sense of humour or an unfamiliarity with Elaine May's work, but it took me a while to get into her gently scathing satire, with its two richly-drawn central characters, played by May herself and Walter Matthau. The latter is highly enjoyable in a buttoned-down mode, but the real revelation to me was May's apparently substantial influence on Wes Anderson. I think it says a great deal about the relative oblivion into which May has fallen that this connection isn't made rather more often. I remember David Ehrenstein commenting somewhere that in a sense Anderson's great obsession is the preservation of good manners in all situations, and Matthau's character in particular could very easily slot into a Wes film. Visually, I was on the fence, though: the film certainly seems quite typical of its time period, with striking -- even grotesque -- closeups, although sometimes this has terrific comic effect, particularly in the shot where Matthau reacts with great alarm to the possibility of an ample bosom being unveiled in his direction.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Double Indemnity

1944, US, directed by Billy Wilder

I hadn't seen this for years, and it looked quite wonderful on the big screen. As much as I remembered the performances, particularly the against-type turn from Fred MacMurray, I had forgotten just how spectacularly sour the film is -- a disturbing portrait of two people who deserve each other in the worst possible sense. It's a film that casts a long shadow, too -- it's not hard to find traces of the flinty personalities across the Atlantic a couple of years later, in fare like Macadam.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

1973, US, directed by Peter Yates

A very fine Boston film, one I can't believe I'd allow to escape me for so long. I've an ongoing correspondence with a film-loving friend, and this film provoked one of our few mild disagreements: where he was lukewarm owing to the faded "insouciance and swagger and magnetism" this was, for me, precisely what makes the film compelling, the viewer's awareness of the star's past greatness functioning as a very useful backdrop for a character who is a mere shell of himself. It's also an absolutely fascinating picture of early-1970's Boston, with Yates's outsider eye as useful here as it was in San Francisco a few years earlier for Bullitt. At times, the procession of low-rent diners and bars -- and low-rent patrons -- reminded me of Cassavetes circa Minnie and Moskowitz, although the tone is quite different.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Les Marmottes

1993, France, directed by Elie Chouraqui

I'm not quite sure why this one remained on "to see" list so many years -- perhaps a friend had mentioned it back in college, or perhaps it was the rather wonderful cast list (including the object of a major 1990s crush, Virginie Ledoyen), but there's no getting around the fact that the film was a major disappointment. The characters are far too self-absorbed to make them worth caring about, and the storyline is filled with highly artificial narrative turns over the course of a Christmas family gathering (at the well-heeled end of the spectrum); very few of the actors poke through the material, either, to get at something more interesting, though there are very occasional moments that hint at an alternative outcome (the lively opening that promises rather more than it delivers, or the deeply uncomfortable scene when one character goes rather too far in divulging a fantasy). Ms. Ledoyen is, predictably, lovely, but even she couldn't revive the film; even so, co-screenwriter Danièle Thompson clearly liked her work here since she recycled elements rather shamelessly two years later in the Christmas-set family drama La Bûche.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Les Salauds

2013, France, directed by Claire Denis

Not, I think, Claire Denis's strongest work but certainly bracing in its view of human nature, and in that respect the film leaves a deep mark; the soundtrack by regular collaborators Tindersticks is both hypnotic and distressing at times, really adding to the saturated atmosphere. However, the central depiction of the rich as terrible human beings is perhaps lacking in a certain originality. More worrying was what seemed like a degree of predictability. The problem isn't so much repetition -- Denis has used some of the same techniques over and over, often to invigorating effect -- but rather the way in which things like the appearance of her fetish actors came to seem distracting -- oh look, right on cue, here's Alex Descas. And Grégoire Colin! Vincent Lindon, though, is brilliant -- the most exhausted looking man in French film since Alain Delon's heyday. Lindon hasn't always been in perfect films, but his performances over the last ten years or so are never the weak point. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Picture Show Man

1977, Australia, directed by John Power

A feather-light film by comparison with much of 1970s Australian cinema, this is still a wonderfully enjoyable romp -- exploring a more distant cinematic past to that of Newsfront with some of the same peripatetic spirit but less ambition to social commentary. The great pleasure is seeing John Meillon in a very rare front-and-center role: so memorable as a sidekick or character actor in everything from Wake in Fright to Crocodile Dundee, here he even gets to show off his song and dance skills. Harold Hopkins is well cast as his son, too: sometimes, he's a bit too caffeinated for my taste, but the youthful energy works well on this occasion. Less successful is the return down under of Rod Taylor as Meillon's nemesis: Taylor seems removed from the spirit of the enterprise both in accent and attitude and I'm sure a locally-based actor like Ray Barrett could have done more with the role.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

L'Etoile du Nord

1982, France, directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre

Although it has a reasonably interesting colonial/exotic backdrop, Pierre Granier-Deferre is no Bertrand Tavernier (think Coup de Torchon), or even a Pierre Schoendoerffer, and his film shines brightest when it's at its most conventional, as a two-hander between two old pros, Philippe Noiret and Simone Signoret (in her final film role). It says much about the actors that they can infuse such potentially mawkish material with real conviction, enough to earn a charge of genuine emotion at the film's conclusion. Incidentally, I can't watch one of Signoret's later roles without thinking of Farran Smith Nehme's acutely insightful comments on the actress's attitude toward her changing looks.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Le Crabe-tambour

1977, France, directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer

A compelling film on several levels: the colonial backdrop is convincingly sketched, while the film's structure, filled with flashbacks to several different time periods, plays with the viewer's sense of time in ways that ensure you are constantly on your guard. Despite the obviously constructed aspect to the story, there's also a realism that's at times almost literally queasy, since the film's present is set on board a naval vessel patrolling the stormy waters off the Newfoundland coast. Best of all, though, are the performances -- Jean Rochefort in a performance of extraordinary restraint, even by his standards, but with fine support from both Claude Rich and Jacques Perrin, the latter playing the kind of character who would seem to belong to high mythology if it weren't for the fact that he's based on a real French officer.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

2013, UK, directed by Declan Lowney

A rare big-screen adaptation that works rather well, mostly because Steve Coogan's character works so well in any format -- radio, TV, film -- since his monstrous self-absorption and complete obliviousness to the rest of the planet remain intact. The plot, of course, is entirely absurd, purely a vehicle to place Partridge in circumstances that allow him to confirm exactly what we already know about him, but the pace of the jokes is all that really matters, and the quality control in the form of writer Armando Iannucci, whose work has served Coogan so well through his career, is very much in evidence here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

World War Z

2013, US, directed by Marc Forster

Like almost all such films, this is much more effective in the sections where it reins in the scale -- the CGI set pieces look exactly like CGI set pieces, whereas the sequences with a limited cast and a cramped setting are taut and nervy. Those sections, and the dilemmas they portrayed, linger surprisingly long in the memory -- it's still a blockbuster in scope and execution, but there's something more ambitious at the core.

La Maison des bois

1971, France, directed by Maurice Pialat

Pialat's 1971 television series is an immersive, all-encompassing work, set in a small French village during the Great War and using the experiences of a handful of Parisian children sent to live with a rural family as a means to sketch French society of the time. The format is perfectly suited to Pialat's expansive, quietly observational style -- there's ample space for the privileged moment and for scenes to unspool in unhurried fashion, whether it's the lazy Renoir-esque summer picnic (with it's comedy interstices) or the tableau of weary, homesick soldiers passing through. Pialat finds ways to insert all of the key elements of wartime village life -- the home guard, the church, the school, even the local aristocracy. It's only when the film leaves the rural setting that it stumbles: the seventh and final episode seems awkwardly tagged on, undercutting the poignancy of what came before. I've read online that Pialat himself didn't like the episode, though can't find a source for that; whatever the reasons, it feels like the work of another, with far less of the subtlety that makes the remainder of the work so compelling.

Friday, August 15, 2014


1976, France, directed by Maurice Ronet

An intriguing film, originally made for French television but then given a cinema release, that does a fine job of imagining the Herman Melville short story at feature length. The original plot is very straightforward, perhaps best suited to short length, but Ronet expands by giving us more insight into the life of the narrator, Melville's employer (beautifully played by Michel Lonsdale, in what seems like a tailor-made role for one of such lugubrious appearance). The overall mood of ennui really gets under the skin -- it's a film that becomes more distressing the more you allow it to leach into your own emotions. Until I came across the adaptation, I had no idea that Maurice Ronet, whose piercing blue eyes enlivened so many films in the 1960s, had done any work behind the camera, but he's absolutely assured in his maintenance of tone here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Le Cave se rebiffe

1961, France, directed by Gilles Grangier

A straightforward crime caper, but the level of professionalism on both sides of the camera ensures that it's never less than a pleasure: Gilles Grangier is no great stylist, but he keeps his story in crisp forward motion and Michel Audiard's script, if not quite as pearl-filled as in something like Les Tontons flingueurs, still has great fun with criminal argot (you really need to tune the ears in to pick up the sense at times). Gabin apparently refused point blank to leave his beloved Normandy estate for the tropical location shoot where we were supposed to first meet his character, yielding some unconvincing South American decor, but he's otherwise in fine form. Jean Gabin was only 53 when the film was made, but he plays much older -- he was never really afraid of embracing his changing physique and the roles that came with it. And Bernard Blier, perhaps because he was prematurely bald, never seemed young to start with -- whether he was playing a student in the 1930s or a rumpled policeman in the 1970s he looked remarkably similar.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cat People

1943, US, directed by Jacques Tourneur

A genuinely strange film, an intense psycho-sexual horror that doesn't seem to have raised the concerns of the Production Code despite it being unambiguous that the plot revolves around a (married) couple debating whether or not to sleep together because of the woman's unusual beliefs about her ancestry as one of the titular cat people. Thwarted passion is the order of the day, against a backdrop of increasing tension and atmospheric staging (most obviously in the nervy stalking scene on a dark city street, but more subtly and insistently within an apartment that comes to seem like a deadly trap). The storyline is something from a fever dream, but it's acted out and directed with enough conviction that it starts to convince -- or at least to convince that the characters are convinced of what they are experiencing. Still, what's most unsettling is not the horrors that the film puts front and central but rather a story that is unironically predicated on finding a method to dispose of one wife to free a man so that he can be linked up with the one he was always destined for; no-one quite seems to notice how creepy this is (such logic is hardly unique in films of the time: Pillow of Death could excuse a grave robber/stalker his misdeeds just because he's in love).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Les Sous-doués

1980, France, directed by Claude Zidi

As an undergraduate, I did a project on French comedy films -- the kind that never get exported, but which make a mint at home, and sometimes elsewhere in continental Europe. I watched a ton of the big hits before I had ever really had a proper education in the broader swathe of French cinema, and going back now to some of my subject matter is a little dispiriting: a great many of the comedies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in particular, are desperately flat, carelessly shot and with little rhythm. This film, most notable perhaps for an early Daniel Auteuil appearance, feels like a subpar set of sketches in the café-théâtre format; it makes you yearn for an earlier generation of comic filmmaker, a Gérard Oury or an Edouard Molinaro, directors with a much stronger sense of structure and pace whatever their other flaws.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Criss Cross

 1949, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Though Burt Lancaster was a more experienced actor by the time of this second collaboration with Robert Siodmak, I prefer him in The Killers: I could never quite believe him here as an armored car drive back in town after two lost years, quickly back in the saddle of his old job and his old obsessions.

It doesn't much matter, though, given the film's many other pleasures -- a whiplash plot that requires serious attentiveness on the part of the viewer, some exceptionally fine location work in and around Los Angeles (often in parts of the city that no longer exist), equally alluring interior photography that showcases Siodmak's skill with unexpected and striking framing choices, and a brutally cynical ending that's surely one of the bitterest in all of noir.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Killers

1946, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

I went on a little run of Siodmak pictures over the last couple of years but never found the time to re-watch some of his best-known films, including especially the pair he made with Burt Lancaster, who made his debut here. There are two films here, the first a little jewel of a short in which a pair of hired killers waltz into town in search of Lancaster's character. Virtually the whole sequence takes place in the confines of a diner, shot in ways that make the claustrophobic space seem far larger than it is, and the story climaxes with a shooting. The second film is a procedural, replete with carefully dovetailed flashbacks that provide us with the back story for the shooting; while the structure is familiar from latter-day TV shows like Without a Trace or Cold Case the execution here is wonderfully calibrated in its careful drip of information. Siodmak's mastery of pace and visual tone is as expected; much more surprising is the fine use of location footage, particularly for a precisely choreographed heist.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Selfish Giant

2013, UK, directed by Clio Bernard

Something of an object lesson in how to film an impoverished community without being either sentimental or patronizing -- with the very obvious precursor being Ken Loach's near-peerless Kes over forty years ago, and not just because the two films happen to feature young protagonists. Bernard clearly knows her milieu, never flinching from depicting the details of tough lives on the margins but also avoiding wallowing in the struggles she depicts. Her two central characters are troubled and yet also rounded, resourceful lads buffeted for the most part by adults who are generally at their wits' end psychologically or financially (often both). The young boys seek validation where they can, and there are moments of great tenderness here and there despite the rough backdrop in which they live -- and honour from unexpected sources. While Bernard's storytelling is resolutely realist in tone she's also adept at finding visual beauty in unpromising settings, and when she very briefly departs from the realist mode late in the film, in a wonderfully judged sequence that parallels the opening of the film, the moment has a rare punch.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Quai d'Orsay

2013, France, directed by Bertrand Tavernier

I've been fond of Bertrand Tavernier for years: he's a remarkably adaptable director, moving across genres quite effectively, with a very crisp, straightforward style and while some of his films don't quite succeed -- L'Appât, in particular, seemed just a touch too generically anodyne -- there's always a great of interest in his filming choices. Indeed, his interviews about the making of Quai d'Orsay are fascinating in their own right, because the film was based on a graphic novel yet Tavernier abandoned many of the elements of the source material, particularly the lead character's sci-fi fantasia. That seems, to me, very much to the film's benefit, for there's at least as much scope for absurdity and oddity in the reality of one young man's experiences as a consultant in France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tavernier's other great bit of wisdom is to grant full rein to Thierry Lhermitte, who has perhaps never been better than here. He's in scintillating form as the minister himself, delivering a wonderful whirlwind of a performance (sometimes literally, given his propensity to sweep through his office); the only downside is that it makes you wish he'd given as much of himself to many of his earlier roles (or that the raw material was rather better).

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Pain & Gain

2013, US, directed by Michael Bay

I make no claims for its profundity but the real-life material and Michael Bay's style are well-matched here -- excess is all his characters can think about, and the onscreen action is surprisingly true to the actual events behind the film, which barely bear thinking about. The problem is that any social insight is undermined by Bay's tendency to amp up Every Single Moment, whether it's with camera swirls or unexpected angles or color saturation (or all of the above and a bit more) -- he's too committed to showing us every trick in his box every time to really dig beneath the glossy surface.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


1980, Australia, directed by Stephen Wallace

Bryan Brown was a busy man around 1980, moving from smaller parts to the big time with Breaker Morant and this very fine prison film, based on an actual prison riot that took place in Australia in the 1970s. Like Short Eyes a few years earlier, the film is written by an ex-con and it's very good on some of the small details of prison life, particularly, in this case, the fine gradations of power not just between prisoners and guards but within each of those groups; also like the American film, there's a bluntness about sex, particularly in the prison context, that's refreshing by more recent standards. Brown sometimes comes across as a rather lazy performer, coasting on his charm rather than pushing himself, but here he's fully committed in a role that's by turns magnetic and unsympathetic.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


1952, USA/Italy/Morocco/France, directed by Orson Welles

Othello is a tough play to love, even by the standards of Shakespeare's tragedies: there's a fascination in seeing unsympathetic characters collide, but it's hard to become entirely caught up in their self-absorption since it is, self-evidently, their own. That, for me, makes Othello himself a particular challenge: he sets himself apart from other men, and when things begin to go wrong for him, even through betrayal by an intimate, it's difficult to make the emotional journey toward sympathy. In some ways, Iago is easier to identify with since his feet are so manifestly of clay. Micheal MacLiammoir does wonders with what is a very difficult part, where he must convince the other characters that he possesses virtues that the audience knows quite well to be entirely lacking in his makeup. Even more dazzling is Welles's ability to maintain a unity of tone across the film's multi-year, peripatetic shoot: while the actors' appearances vary through weight loss/gain or changes in makeup, they appear able to seamlessly draw on the same performances, and Welles makes remarkable use of the various locations in support of his actors. One extended conversation between Othello and Iago gains immeasurably, for instance, for being shot in a single take as the two men walk slowly down an apparently endless set of battlements, while elsewhere the castle interiors taking on the brooding tone of a noir city, where one senses that loyalties can swiftly be exchanged for personal gain.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

L'Inconnu du lac

2013, France, directed by Alain Guiraudie

Formally fascinating, with Guiraidie filming at just a single location -- a lakeside cruising spot -- and using only natural sound. The action is pared down to a series of repeated interactions as each day blends into the next over the course of a week or so of summer, the passage of time marked mostly by the arrival and departure of cars and the greetings that punctuate each morning. The film is also a very personal meditation on gay sexuality on the part of the director, with Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) something of an avatar for Guiraudie, torn by his desire for another man despite his knowledge of that man's actions.

I'm not familiar with Guiraudie's past films -- the clips I've seen suggest a broad, even comic sensibility very much removed from the spare, controlled approach here -- but the evidence of L'Inconnu du lac suggests a director fully in control of his means, carefully orchestrating suspense by revealing just enough of his characters' motivations to create alarm in the viewer, while cleverly exploiting the semi-privacy of the apparently idyllic location so that we're uncertain of what might be hidden at any given moment. The finale departs from the apparent realism of the rest of the film, suggesting instead something of the force of a parable; I found it less satisfying as an outcome, although entirely in keeping with the actions of a character whose essential function is to represent danger, unlike the other more rounded and, in most ways, more interesting participants.


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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