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.


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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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States