Friday, May 30, 2014

Dark Waters

1944, US, directed by André de Toth

A Southern Gothic that's a good deal stronger on atmosphere than it is on plotting, with a Gaslight-esque storyline that is abandoned for a climax that is both compelling and somehow more conventional than the psychological confusion that has preceded it. de Toth extracts considerable spooky value from the shadows and heat of the bayou, as did Robert Siodmak the previous year in Son of Dracula, but Merle Oberon is a touch too helpless for my taste, while Franchot Tone's role is too blandly one-sided; much better is Thomas Mitchell, cast somewhat against type in a role that Sydney Greenstreet might also have enjoyed, while Elisha Cook Jr provides reliable nastiness entirely in keeping with his standard onscreen persona.

I'm including this in my Watching Movies in Africa project but it's yet another cheat -- like both And Then There Were None and Son of Dracula, the film was banned by the Gold Coast Board of Control in 1946 during a period when the censor was especially strict. It was condemned on the grounds that it was a horror film, though despite some superficial similarities of setting with Son of Dracula the description is inaccurate. The censor also took exception to "a series of close-ups showing the agonies of persons trapped in quicksands" (sic); accurate enough, though also a series of shots that could quite easily have been excised without the need to condemn the film as a whole.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


2004, US, directed by Ray McKinnon

A very affecting slice of Southern Gothic that manages to invoke many common images of the American south without ever belittling the setting; indeed, as much as several of the characters are spectacularly unpleasant there's a frankly celebratory aspect to the film, too, particularly with regard to landscape and some of the region's small pleasures (music on a porch, a catfish fry). There's a little too much going on at times -- one subsidiary plotline seems awkwardly shoehorned in and adds little to the main narrative, as though it was pared back late in the day -- but for the most part, Chrystal works as a fine and sometimes blackly funny bit of authentically regional cinema, the kind of thing that is inevitably produced outside the Hollywood circuit these days.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The FJ Holden

1977, Australia, directed by Michael Thornhill

Something close to an anthropological look at late-1970s suburban disaffection, Michael Thornhill lets his camera linger on the minutiae of teenage behaviour, whether it's wandering the mall in search of a meal or a girl or the parties and drinking that punctuate a generally humdrum existence on the working class fringes of Sydney. While the acting is at times a little rough around the edges, it also manages to capture some of the awkwardness of the teenage characters, uncertain of their thoughts and with the men certainly unable to communicate their feelings in any meaningful way. As in Puberty Blues the women, although almost always in subservient roles, take some small steps toward liberation, and are at least able to articulate some of what ails them, unlike the beer-drinking males who seem doomed to tread in their fathers' footsteps.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


1974, Australia, directed by Sandy Harbutt

The definition of uneven. There's great footage of offbeat Sydney locations and biker action around the city ranging from large parades to fiercely competitive street races shot in effectively adrenaline-inducing style. By contrast, almost every line is delivered like an absolute clanger, particularly from the lips of virtually all of the actors playing bikers. As a narrative, the film starts out well enough, with a stereotypical 1970s political killing/head trip scene followed by a lean sequence in which bikers who may have witnessed the killing are picked off one by one. The snappy rhythm quickly dissipates, however, and the rest of the film is an uneasy blend of languid observation and exploitation thrills with very little convincing connective tissue -- the undercover cop who works with the bikers seems to do virtually nothing of actual investigatory value, but he does have a good time on his Kawasaki.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie

1972, Australia, directed by Bruce Beresford

The ne plus ultra of the ocker comedy, despite mostly being filmed in the UK: the titular character is the distillation of every cliché about the beer-fueled Australian boor, whose success with the opposite sex is confined purely to his own imagination, and who remains a rather childish character, essentially good-natured if completely unredeemed by any great social value. While the film purports to cast aspersions on Barry and his ilk, it also reveals its own essential conservatism and conformism in its treatment of the more socially transgressive characters that Barry encounters, particularly the queens and lesbians who make their homes in one of the many bars on Barry's itinerary. What does remain fun is Barry's inexhaustibly colourful vocabulary: even if the film makes rather repetitive hay with this, some of the expressions are quite wonderfully inventive and Barry Crocker has a terrific ability to string them together in increasingly frantic efforts to make himself understood. The finale is, well, unique in advertising the saving powers of a cold Foster's.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Alvin Purple

1973, Australia, directed by Tim Burstall

Part of a wave of films that took advantage of greater latitude on the part of the Australian censor, Alvin Purple is a pretty straightforward sex comedy -- with all that this implies in terms of easy laughs, acres of flesh, and a fairly freewheeling attitude to plot. While the film is a good deal more liberal with the nudity than British counterparts like the Confessions series -- there's also none of the double standard in which the men keep their clothes on while the women disrobe -- that is about the scope of its ambition, unlike, say, French cinema around the same time, which responded to a loosening of the censorship reins with films like Les Valseuses or, even more determined to upset bourgeois norms, Catherine Breillat's debut Une Vraie jeune fille. Until near the end, there's very little that seems distinctively Australian about the film, though the courtroom scenes have an oddly meta quality where they seem to be commenting as much on the real-life process of liberalization of local mores as the on-screen antics. Completely unrelated: an amusing sequence involving a car chase through a drive-in cinema, where the film may well have played on its release.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Puberty Blues

1981, Australia, directed by Bruce Beresford

On the surface a fairly straightforward teen flick, there's a little more going on here than just adolescent antics -- even if there's perhaps not quite as much going on as the filmmakers think. Beresford's general aim is to create a sense of nascent female empowerment in a very male world -- in this case the teenage surfers of Cronulla -- though in order to get to that point we have to watch a movie in which the girls are for the most part subjected to all manner of humiliations, at best (I've no idea what the balance was in the source novel, written by two young women from the surfer milieu). Despite the focus on gender dynamics, and the presence of a genuinely appealing heroine in Nell Schofield (even with the obvious emotional manipulation, her final triumph is quite affecting), in some respects the film is better on class relations, quite acutely commenting on Australia's sense of itself as a classless society that is, of course, anything but. The film is strikingly even-handed in its dissection of class behaviour, too; neither the working class boys nor their largely middle-class girlfriends (and their middle-class families) are let off the hook, and there's an amusing sequence where the two worlds collide over an uncomfortable cup of tea.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Club

1980, Australia, directed by Bruce Beresford

Not unlike their previous collaboration, Don's Party, there's something awkwardly stagey about Bruce Beresford/David Williamson's screen version of the latter's play about the (mostly) behind-the-scenes shenanigans at an Australian football club. The juxtaposition of the very realist setting in the grounds of an actual club and scenes only very lightly amended for the screen is a little disconcerting -- at times, you have the sense that the "exit stage right" directions remain in the film script, while there's a broadness to the caricatures that also seems at odds with the setting. Graham Kennedy's character is especially buffoonish, and only Jack Thompson succeeds in generally surpassing the fairly narrow dimensions of his character, giving the sense of a man who can adapt and evolve. As a social document, it's quite fascinating, though, dramatizing a quite specific period in the history of Australian football just as professionalism was beginning to change the game.

Sunday, May 04, 2014


2013, Ireland, directed by David Cairns and Paul Duane

Natan is as much essay as strict historical document, partly no doubt because of the challenges of presenting a subject who has been either written out of history or, perhaps even more complicated, re-written within history. It's a challenge not made easier by the apparent lack of cooperation from a latter-day guardian of a precious trove of rare documents, too.

Central to the essay, obviously enough, is the person of Bernard Natan, the entrepreneur and innovator who transformed the fortunes of Pathé-Natan in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the film also engages with the broader history of the French film industry in the pre-war era, French antisemitism both before and after the Occupation, the problems of academic scholarship and the nature of historical memory -- as exemplified, among other things, by the fact that Natan's name has disappeared from the very building where he worked in the 1920s.

Natan's story is in a sense both unique and routine -- Natan's particular path through life is fascinating, from his arrival in Paris in the early 1900s to his success as a film producer, but his ultimate downfall owed a great deal to the simple fact of his Jewishness, an inheritance that was used straightforwardly to condemn men, women and children irrespective of the details of their lives in France in the 1930s and 1940s.

Though Natan himself was a complicated figure, who probably engaged in a certain degree of financial sleight of hand in his business dealings -- something to which the country was especially sensitive in the aftermath of the Stavisky affair -- as the film makes abundantly clear, he was singled out for his origins, and even battle wounds in the Great War could not ultimately grant him standing as a Frenchman. Everything that could be flung at him was -- his Jewishness, rumours that he acted in early pornographic films, suggestions that he had somehow taken advantage of Charles Pathé (no stranger to complex business operations and holding companies himself).

Cairns and Duane stitch together a remarkable amount of material in barely an hour, and I occasionally wanted more in one direction or another, though that may reflect the limitations of the available materials. They spend a good deal of time debunking -- thoroughly and necessarily -- the gossip about Natan appearing in porn films, including footage from a variety of stag films of the period, which has the slightly unfortunate effect of leaving that as one of the more dominant mental images from the film.

By contrast, the beguiling sequences of behind-the-scenes footage from the soundstages of Pathé-Natan provide a remarkable window into early sound film in France, very vividly underlining Natan's importance to the period (and they give those scenes a moving gloss by adding a layer of imaginative reconstruction in which we see Natan watching the work in his studio from on high). Indeed, these extracts emphasize just how outsize his contributions were and thus just how thoroughly the historical record was re-written by those who, at least for a time, controlled the levers of power in France. There's also an exceptionally affecting moment where the film makes use of more recent technical innovations to restore Natan's voice to its actual timbre, rather than the deliberately ridiculous version circulated at the time of one of his trials -- a fine tribute to a man so instrumental in pushing the French industry to embrace the coming of sound.

The film suggests an avenue, too, for the viewer to channel his or her anger at the destruction of Natan as a man and a memory -- pushing further to research and restore his importance to his industry, seeking out further testimony from that period of remarkable creative ferment, correcting a historical record far too skewed and too-little examined. In that spirit, one could hope, for instance, that Natan's name gets a mention at the screenings of Raymond Bernard's remarkable, and recently restored, Les Croix de bois at Cannes this May. If that occurs, it will at least in part be due to the efforts of Cairns and Duane to grant Natan his due.


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