Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

2006, US, directed by Robert Altman

Although I can't help thinking that A Prairie Home Companion's appearance on many a 2006 "Ten Best" list has more to do with the recent death of Robert Altman than with the film itself, it's still a lovely end to a career, with many treasurable small moments that illustrate the director's great eye - when he's on form - for the details of human foibles. The film is a loose adaptation of writer-presenter Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show, and purports to be the story behind the radio show's final broadcast (the portrait of rapacious capitalism destroying folk culture loses much of its sting, though, in the face of the show's continued real-life health despite its unfashionable style). Though Keillor loves his radio, his script also reveals him as an afficionado of the backstage tale: this is a film by and about show-people, and the actors look as though they're having tremendous fun with the material (though Meryl Streep's character eventually becomes wearing, she does belt out a great tune); it's especially enjoyable to see some of the radio characters given life (Kevin Kline is spot-on as detective Guy Noir). Although the set-up doesn't parallel the real-life history of the radio show, there's an unforced poignancy over the whole film that's utterly convincing and ultimately very moving - and that's inevitably bound up with the knowledge of Altman's own passing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

You Only Live Twice

1967, UK, directed by Lewis Gilbert

Watching the Bond films in order of release, it's not really surprising that Sean Connery took a break from Bond after You Only Live Twice: he seems less than inspired in this outing, something which I'm sure contributed to the film's relatively limited commercial success notwithstanding the exotic Japanese location. The film is also considerably less jokey in tone than its immediate predecessor, Thunderball, a film absolutely riddled with throwaway one-liners and a massive box-office hit to boot (the attitude towards women, though, is if anything more unreconstructed here).

You Only Live Twice was one of Roald Dahl's only screenwriting forays, and the results aren't especially happy (though Dahl claimed that much of his work was discarded): the closing stages, though they provided great materials for the Austin Powers spoofs, have a few too many holes even by Bond standards. It's a shame, really, because there are some interesting possibilities: when the film slows down occasionally and pays attention to the details of Japan it's really quite absorbing, while I've always preferred Bond when he reins in the punchlines and tones up the fighting skills (the ninja sequences are especially fun, and notable in that martial arts films had not yet made it big in the West).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin

2006, US, directed by Paul McGuigan

Rating: ***


Although it owes obvious debts to Tarantino and The Usual Suspects, Lucky Number Slevin is still a pleasing jigsaw-puzzle gangster flick, while the eminently guessable resolution isn't a major handicap. Director Paul McGuigan is clearly enjoying himself, using the extreme edges of his widescreen frames so that characters occasionally look as though they're about to bump into the sides of the screen, while the production designers get to have fun with the wacky wallpapers that decorate each interior (and which lend the film a casually retro feel). The pacing is surprisingly slow for this kind of thing: there's a languid atmosphere, in which characters are allowed to take their time to indulge in the telling of tales, but the action, when it occurs, is forceful. Josh Hartnett's face is a little more lived-in, especially around the eyes, than is usually the case (he looks vaguely like Benicio del Toro - though he's a lot more comprehensible than del Toro's character in The Usual Suspects); he, too, reveals his layers slowly, and quite convincingly. Despite the narrative puzzles, the film itself is refreshingly open about its influences - never more so than when Robert Forster pops up, near the conclusion, to reveal the intrigue in Jackie Brown style.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Once Upon a Time in China

1991, Hong Kong, directed by Tsui Hark

Like many a Western viewer, I first discovered the Chinese/Hong Kong epic genre through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although exceptionally entertaining, it isn't really representative of the genre as a whole: this 1991 entry gives a much better impression, including with regard to the specifics of Hong Kong filmmaking style (all of the dialogue, for example, has been dubbed in post-production; it's amazing to me that this was still true for high-profile films in 1991, although that changed soon after). The Westernisation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is also, in retrospect, obvious in the tightly plotted action and character development, whereas I confess I was occasionally confused by the developments here, especially in the twenty minutes immediately after the opening credits (the pre-credits sequence sets up what sounds suspiciously like a major plotline quite efficiently, but the film then goes in other directions, spiced up by brilliantly choreographed set pieces). The film is a mix of historical commentary (with a nationalistic flavour: plenty of derogatory references to the colonial masters and equally rapacious American traders, and I'm sure better knowledge of Chinese history would have helped me), spectacular sword and kung fu action and, almost improbably, melancholy reflection on the changes occasioned by the modern world. Though the film as a whole is sometimes scattershot, Tsui Hark has an extraordinary gift for filming action sequences: no matter how complicated the action, it's always clear who's doing what to whom, and he makes great use of the acrobatic skills of his performers, most obviously Jet Li at the height of his powers but also, among others, the excellent Biao Yuen.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Waking Ned

1998, UK/France/US, directed by Kirk Jones

Rating: ***


A thick slice of Blarney, Waking Ned manages to transcend a welter of clichés with some charming performances, flashes of morbid wit, and beautiful cinematography. The film centers on the fictional village of Tullymore, where one of the residents has won the Lotto (the Irish national lottery); after some time, it becomes obvious that the winner is the recently deceased Ned Devine, and two of the villagers hatch a plan to claim the winnings in his stead. The opening 30 minutes are quite slow-moving, especially given the lighthearted genre trappings, but things warm up considerably when the deception begins; the two lead characters don't, however, have the mettle to be cute hoors and they re-evaluate their plan mid-way through (in ways that underline their very specific sense of community, though it's hard to reconcile the plan with the realities of modern Ireland). Director Kirk Jones has a good eye for both landscape and village life (even if that vision is somewhat outdated): the film, shot on the Isle of Man rather than in Ireland, verges on the painterly at times, which is a useful distraction from a flat romantic sub-plot. Ian Bannen and, especially, David Kelly are both excellent in rare lead roles, usefully mixing comedy and a touch of pathos, while the wake of the title is surprisingly affecting (and intermingled, Godfather-style, with other happenings, including one incident of the blackest comedy).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Days of Being Wild

1991, Hong Kong, directed by Wong Kar-wai

Much of the aesthetic that is familiar from Wong Kar-wai's later films is already present in this, his second feature; although the projected sequel to Days of Being Wild was never made, it's not hard to see In the Mood for Love as a kind of surrogate follow-up, especially given the way that Tony Leung pops up so mysteriously at the end of this film. As in his subsequent work, Wong's control of mood and pace is absolute: he's a master at atmospherics, especially a kind of languid dreaminess that proves almost overpowering for his characters, as if they're perpetually trapped in hot, clammy torpor. Wong uses music especially effectively in establishing and sustaining mood, here employing local versions of various Western classics that underline the period setting (the early 1960s) while keeping the viewer off-balance. It's hard not to see a kind of nostalgia for that period in Wong's work, especially given that he's returned to the era subsequently. The Hong Kong of 1960 comes across as strangely empty - surely at odds with the reality of the time - and is contrasted here with a version of the Philippines which is generally bustling and vibrant, though at least some of the characters carry their anomie with them (as did the players in Happy Together, despite their Buenos Aires setting). The cast is something of a who's-who of Hong Kong cinema of the period: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Jackie Cheung all get to display a more downbeat side.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Journal d'un curé de campagne

1950, France, directed by Robert Bresson

Bresson's great strengths as a filmmaker are underlined, for me, by his ability to make unlikely converts, whether to his exceptionally austere brand of cinema (at least after Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne) or to his intensely personal vision of suffering and redemption. This is the first film in which he fully expressed those cinematic and world views, and it remains one of his most powerful works.

Though Bresson pushes harder than most towards an intense, spare cinema, the film isn't without reference points: I couldn't help but think of Clouzot's Le Corbeau as an ailing young priest (Claude Laydu) experiences a chilly welcome from his demoralised new parishioners, caught up in their own village intrigues. At another moment, when the priest is cared for by a young girl after a fall, I thought, perhaps incongruously, of Frankenstein, where another girl seems to be the one person who understands the monster; given the villagers' attitude towards their curé, the comparison isn't entirely inapt.

Bresson's masterful use of close-ups is a key element of the film's success, whether capturing the anguished features of the priest, or in the startling composition of a young woman's pale face emerging from the darkness of a confessional. Though Bresson would no doubt shudder at the word, there's no doubting the importance, too, of Laydu's performance; his face perfectly captures the priest's physical and spiritual torture, while his expression when experiencing a brief taste of something approaching youthful freedom near the end is heartbreaking.

Comment je me suis disputé... ("ma vie sexuelle")

1996, France, directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin's second feature is a crackling comedy of Parisian manners that also casts itself as a generational anatomy. In that, its most obvious precursor (in both length and breadth) is Jean Eustache's 1973 film La Maman et la putain. It's no particular slur on Desplechin to say that he doesn't quite reach the heights of the earlier film; he's still an exceptionally talented filmmaker, with an especially good ear for dialogue.

In contrast to some of - to give just one French example - Eric Rohmer's films, the many lengthy dialogue sequences here hold up under their own weight; Desplechin's characters are a credibly garrulous lot, interacting with one another rather than trading unwieldy speeches. The real reference point, though, is literary: the film unfolds like a good novel, revealing the characters' foibles and their complex interactions at an unhurried pace, shot through with the director's sometimes oddball sense of humour (as well as some extremely witty lines, many of them handed to his own brother, who appears as a budding priest). The film is also a coming-out party for a whole generation of young actors who were hitting their collective stride in the mid-1990's, and many of whom were already firmly established as members of the Desplechin repertory company. Mathieu Amalric, as the lead, Paul Dedalus (a name with obviously literary forebears), has probably never done better work, while actresses Emmanuelle Devos, Jeanne Balibar and Marianne Denicourt give notice of what is to come.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Les Choristes

2004, France, directed by Christophe Barratier

Rating: **

Les Choristes is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, re-using an especially well-worn cinematic chestnut, that of the inspirational teacher. Perhaps school remains a place of negative memories for many people, because the plotline seems to appeal generation after generation, in many different guises (some of them pretty good). On this occasion, though, there's a little too much tugging at the heart-strings and an excess of angelic moppets, while the action is so schematic that the screenwriting devices creak. The film is a remake of an 1945 feature, and the symbolism of the caged birds was probably the more powerful then; here, the analogy to the Resistance is spelled out rather clumsily, while it's not clear why the action has been moved to 1949. On the plus side, the film is a great showcase for Gérard Jugnot, who delivers a nice performance that helps to counter-balance some of the scripted mawkishness. Jugnot is a major star in France, who has worked most often in a broad comic register (he's especially funny in the anarchic films he made with his Splendid theatre buddies, such as Les Bronzés and the Le Père Noël est une ordure) but he's completely convincing here as the quietly insistent schoolteacher, and elevates the film several notches.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Capote

2005, US, directed by Bennett Miller

Capote doesn't attempt to be a comprehensive biopic of its title character, focusing almost exclusively on the period of the author's life devoted to the creation of his best-known work, In Cold Blood, which took him away from his familiar New York social element to the flatlands of Kansas. In this telling, the creation of his 'non-fiction novel' extracts a toll so heavy that it explains his later decline as a writer, while the film uses that process to reveal Capote as a manipulative, sometimes outright deceitful, individual who is often incapable of relativising his own problems despite the terrible series of events that he has set out to chronicle. In choosing to focus on Capote's relationship with Perry Smith - a relationship cultivated to assist in the book's creation - the film gives short shrift to the victims of Smith's (and partner Hickok's) crime; indeed, the film goes from killings to sentencing within 35 minutes, and much of the remainder of the running time takes place in various jail cells. That quibble aside, director Miller does a fine job of compressing events without compromising his eye for the finer details, and without ever yielding to the temptations of hagiography inherent in chronicling (part of) the life of a fascinating, conflicted writer; the painterly Midwestern landscapes also function as arresting intertitles. Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures Capote's mannerisms without allowing his performance to become a distraction: within a few minutes, I'd almost forgotten who was playing the lead as he vanished into the character, allowing the author himself, and his manifest failings, to steal the limelight - as was his wont.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

2005, US, directed by Ang Lee

Rating: ***

Given the tremendous amount of noise that accompanied Brokeback Mountain's release, it requires an effort to examine the film as 'just' a film rather than a social cause célèbre. There's no mistaking the movie's Oscar credentials: serious subject matter; strong acting; and a stately (often excessively so) pace that cries out Academy Award. However, that's not to say that the film is without interest. For starters, Heath Ledger delivers a remarkable performance as Ennis Del Mar, one of two cowboys (the other played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who conduct an intermittent love affair over twenty years or more; Ledger's depiction of a man unable to convey his emotions is unflinching and often heartbreaking (it's a depiction of male emotional closure that's probably recognisable to most people). Michelle Williams, too, is excellent as Ennis's wife; only Williams's face, of the main actors, fully captures the kind of hard-scrabble existence that circumstances like this surely dictate.

On the down side, the line readings by Gyllenhaal and - especially - Ledger are sometimes so gruff that they border on the distractingly incomprehensible. In addition, for all the filmmakers' evident sincerity, and their respectful adaptation of E. Annie Proulx's source material, there's something very Jerry Maguire about lines like 'I wish I knew how to quit you'. That said, the film's sex scenes - particularly in the early going - have a saltiness that's rare in Hollywood films of any stripe, however tame they may seem in comparison to the work of more independently-minded filmmakers. And Ang Lee again displays a gift for re-creating a very specific American time and place in a manner reminiscent of probably his strongest film to date, The Ice Storm.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Bande à part

1964, France, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Shot in just over three weeks, Bande à part has a kind of improvisatory spirit that retains considerable charm: it's constantly on the move, re-inventing itself on the fly with a grab-bag of references (to film, literature, music and the outside world) and occasionally coming unglued as it tries to do a little too much (a problem not uncommon with Godard's films of the mid-1960's). The plot, taken from a pulp novel and centered on a robbery, is of little consequence: the bande à part of the title is composed of three supremely inept burglars (which doesn't prevent the robbery from having a surprisingly brutal streak), who are generally more interested in their own breezy cool than they are in money. Arthur and Franz (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) are both constantly at play, acting out their fantasies of gangsters and cowboys; it's no wonder that Odile (Anna Karina) is bemused - as evidenced by her comment directly to the camera - when the boys announce that they need a plan. Needless to say, they are far too distracted by themselves to actually plot things out in any great detail: the meeting to discuss the plan devolves into the film's most beguiling scene, as the trio dances the Madison (with a voiceover from Godard himself making clear that they are as disunited a group as you'll find in cinema, as apart from each other as they are from society more generally). It's interesting that a film which Godard has filled so copiously with reference points has also ended up as one of his own most quotable films, with references popping up in everything from Wong Kar-wai to Ferris Bueller's Day Off; that said, his vision of a wintry, unglamorous Paris, barely developed since the war, is absolutely his own.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Thunderball

1965, UK, directed by Terence Young

Though it was a massive financial success -- out-grossing, in raw dollars, entries that came years later despite ticket inflation -- Thunderball is an undeniable disappointment given the standards set by the first three films. It's the first Bond movie to break the two-hour bar, and the padding shows particularly in the lengthy, unexciting underwater fight sequences (which are sometimes laughable; director Terence Young was apparently unenthusiastic about the underwater fights, and it's a pity he didn't stand his ground).

The series also shows the first signs of slipping into self-parody, especially in the guise of Adolfo Celi's SPECTRE No.2, while the quota of throwaway one-liners is significantly higher. Sean Connery is absolutely at ease as Bond here, with the character now clearly moving more towards the smooth than the brutal end of the spectrum; he spends a tremendous amount of time in beach-wear chasing women notwithstanding the imminent destruction of a major city, but also finds time to win at cards. The sequences which outline the SPECTRE plot to steal nuclear devices, remain gripping (the scenes on board a NATO plane are especially good), while the SPECTRE board meeting is also enjoyably dry, but overall the extended running time undercuts those early highlights.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Powell and... Dwyer?

I'm departing from the movie diary format today to post a brief entry in Andy Horbal's film criticism blog-a-thon over at No More Marriages. I came to film in quite a different context - and through different critics - than many of those to whom Andy's blog is playing host. As a consequence, I'm taking a personal tack that pays tribute to two newspaper writers who first made me realize that film was something to think about rather than simply watch, even if I've moved on to other writers over the years.

Growing up in Ireland, the first place I turned for writing about film*, in the early 1980's, was Michael Dwyer's Friday review column in The Irish Times. One of my earliest critical memories is of him raving over a film he'd seen at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, a trifle by the name of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, which I then had to wait seven long months to see on my ninth birthday (on his ninth birthday, my friend John, who was apparently born with critical faculties already formed, was purchasing a Dead Kennedys LP). The following year, Dwyer wrote from Cannes about Fanny and Alexander; I confess that Bergman's work was not my 1983 birthday movie.

Dwyer's cinematic tastes are canonical for the most part (with a sometimes embarrassing weakness for any film with an Irish connection), but following his work week-by-week before I could see most of the films he wrote about (it wasn't until I was 14 that I moved to Dublin and could contemplate seeing anything beyond the most mainstream releases) already gave me a sense of the possibilities out there, of a world of film that went far beyond what was playing in the smaller towns where I lived. Unable to take in many of the newer releases, I turned to the capsule reviews he and others supplied for the TV listings page and began my education, checking out older movies on weekend afternoons and foreign or offbeat choices at night (while Britain's BBC2 and Channel 4, which we could receive, had the most consistently interesting options, films like Two Lane Blacktop or Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, the Irish channel RTE2 occasionally threw out offerings like Yaaba or Good Morning Babylon, all of it great fodder for a growing teen and, unlike American broadcast TV, presented without cuts).

Sometime in the late 1980's, I also became aware of the weekly capsule reviews in the British newspaper The Sunday Times. At that time, they were being written by the estimable Dilys Powell, a woman who casts a long shadow over mainstream British criticism but who's barely known in the US. Powell was the film critic for The Sunday Times for almost 40 years, from the late 1930's to the mid-1970's. She later worked at Punch magazine, and at The Sunday Times she wrote capsule reviews of movies screening on television right up to her death in 1995. Powell was certainly a product of her upbringing and time but unlike many other critics she remained open-minded throughout her writing life, interested in new films and willing to re-consider her old positions (most famously in her apology - an extreme example of the better late than never variety - to Michael Powell, whose Peeping Tom she and others had so comprehensively trashed in 1960). When I was 15, Ms. Powell's capsule review of My Life as a Dog prompted me to see that film on TV. I was so impressed - hardly a surprise that a coming-of-age film might appeal to a teen - that I wrote to her, thanking her for selecting the film as her weekly capsule. A few months ago, clearing out old things at my parents' home in Dublin, I came across her gracious note of reply, written in a hand spidery with advancing age; she had even taken the time to include a photocopy of the press pack for the film, dating from its original release.

The brief note seems like a small treasure now, but within a couple of years of its receipt, as a callow college student writing on the film page, I felt a vague sense of shame that I had followed the work of anyone so middlebrow; the newspaper crew had a highly-developed sense of its own worth. Such feelings notwithstanding, I was unable to fully conceal the sense of excitement I felt, as a 17-year-old student reviewer, at attending the same screenings as Dwyer and the remainder of the Irish reviewing establishment. My early reviews for the student newspaper reflect as much as anything else the novelty of watching movies for free, and first thing in the morning to boot (unfortunately, they also reflect the tendency displayed by too many critics to re-hash the plot ad nauseum rather than actually attempting anything approaching critical analysis).

In writing about Dwyer and Powell, I'm not attempting to add them to the pantheon (though both warrant more than just cursory mention in their respective national traditions, and for reasons that go beyond their weekly reviews). I am, though, pointing up the value, that hardly needs to be re-emphasized here but seems to be losing traction in the print world, of access, wherever you grow up, to film writers who have a truly broad and deep appreciation of cinema (in Powell's case, of course, acquired through her own longevity as much as anything else; she was writing crisp reviews in her ninety-fourth year), writers who have an appreciation of cinema that goes back beyond their own teenage years.

Perhaps most of all, Dwyer and Powell's work points up the importance of access to writers who are more interested in film - in watching film, and in participating in a dialogue on film - than in the sound of their own voices; neither critic's writing is ever a distraction from the business at hand. Over the past year the conversation in which many of these blogs (written by people more interested by film than in their own wit) participate has refreshed my sense of film as something worthy of analysis and thought in a way that reminds me of the thrill of first disagreeing with Michael Dwyer and Dilys Powell 20 years ago - and knowing why.

* I should note that the reason I turned to any writer at all was the influence of my father, a committed film watcher himself, who allowed me to stay up long past my bedtime on various occasions, as he opened my eyes to black-and-white cinema before my 10th birthday!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Casino Royale


2006, US/Germany/UK/Czech Republic, directed by Martin Campbell

It's no mean task to breathe new life into a franchise that's in its forties, but the producers cannily brought back several of the key personnel (most obviously director Martin Campbell) who dragged Bond into the modern era with 1995's Goldeneye, and give them further freedom to develop a new tone (with another new Bond). Where Pierce Brosnan's Bond played the smooth angle to the hilt (with Brosnan later trashing that image in films like The Matador), Daniel Craig (whose features might have typecast him as a Boer cop) brings back some of the raw thuggery of the first Bond films. The fights here are as brutal as the famous sequence which pitted Connery against Robert Shaw in a cramped train compartment in From Russia With Love and serve as a salutary reminder that violence, even in a Bond movie, shouldn't be taken too lightly. The early going also features some spectacular parkour stunt-work, performed by Sebastien Foucan who, unusually for a stunt player, gets an opening credit for his work.

Just as the violence is a touch more realistic, the plotting focuses on a criminal banker whose interests lie in financial gain rather than the kind of world domination that became so laughably repetitive in previous entries; it's a refreshing return to earth, not least because it eliminates silly sequences in which Bond escapes from elaborately choreographed death and destruction. It takes some time to get used to Daniel Craig as Bond: he's not just new but genuinely different (as my wife commented, it's not hard to imagine that "James Bond" is itself a code name, just like 007, since there's no sense of a past history), but by the end of the film Craig has made the role convincingly his own. He's surrounded by an unusually good group of supporting actors, who are, crucially, given interesting things to do; Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen are especially strong. The main flaw is length; like many recent Bond entries, Casino Royale overstays its welcome and there's a tacked-on sense to some of the closing sequences, where you constantly expect the closing credits to roll.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

2006, US, directed by Ron Howard

Rating: ***


After all the baying at the time of The Da Vinci Code's theatrical release, it's no surprise to discover that underneath the noise this is a solidly-told version of the blockbuster book, a tad too respectful of the source material (like the first Harry Potter films), but good, honest fun nonetheless (and it never seems to take the pseudo-religious shenanigans too seriously, unlike some viewers). Director Ron Howard's film choices aren't always inspiring, but he's a more-than-competent Hollywood storyteller, who marshals disparate plotlines with skill; despite what some critics wrote, the narrative is clear, and the visual methods used to convey the various puzzles are sometimes very effective. That said, there's no doubt that it's overlong, mostly as a result of the filmmakers' unwillingness to jettison aspects of the book: the series of puzzles that remains quite intriguing on the page is repetitive onscreen (unlike, say, the boxing matches that punctuate Howard's Cinderella Man). Tom Hanks is fine as Robert Langdon: he's not stretched by any means, but he's well cast as a figure of trust. Audrey Tautou, by contrast, seems less at ease as Sophie Neveu. She's perfectly suited to gamine roles, but she seems out-of-place here, especially when she's weighed down by some clunky dialogue, while it's frustrating that Neveu often defers to Langdon though she's supposed to have abundant smarts of her own. The supporting cast is dependable if not much more; Ian McKellen plays a cinematic version of who we think Ian McKellen to be, which I suppose is fun if you can get paid for it, but he's too good an actor for that kind of thing. A gaggle of familiar French faces also get some screen-time, and presumably fatter-than-usual pay packets.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Click

2006, US, directed by Frank Coraci

Rating: **


Another of Adam Sandler's attempts to move beyond the infantile comedies of his early career, Click squanders an intriguing concept by failing to decide between drama, sentiment and crass laughs. Sandler plays a workaholic father who acquires a remote control that allows him to control his entire world, an intriguing philosophical dilemma which the film does try to grapple with, but which is constantly undercut by crude humour (not to mention the fact that it's hard to feel all that sorry for a character who uses the device to behave like a bully even at moments when he's supposedly absorbing the Life Lessons that the remote confronts him with). Sandler isn't a dislikeable performer - he was especially good in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore as a foil, while Spanglish wasted a good outing - but the supporting characters are given almost nothing interesting to do, and his own familiar shtick is over-extended without the presence of some of his familiar cast-mates. Notwithstanding the inconsistent tone, director Frank Coraci's work is much more polished here than in The Wedding Singer, no doubt partly the result of a bigger budget, though it's still hard to figure out why a film like this costs $75 million or so to get to the screen.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Déjà Vu

2006, US, directed by Tony Scott

Every 'serious' film fan probably has a few pleasures that will never make the year-end lists at the highbrow movie publications, though usually they're labeled 'guilty'. I have a particular, and guilt-free, fondness for Tony Scott films, which often seem to boil down to boys-with-toys exercises wrapped up in slick, if nonetheless carefully imagined, visual style. 

On one level, it seems absurd to see the credit 'A Film By Tony Scott', but at the same time it's hard to ignore the unity of purpose, both aesthetically and with regard to content, that runs through so many of his films. This film, like the increasingly prescient Enemy of the State in particular, returns to the territory of super-secret spy agencies, and although the film has fun with the possibilities therein, it's also uneasy about the consequences of such abilities to penetrate the veil, even where the intentions are good. Here, a government agency has enlisted a group of academics and most of the electricity in the New Orleans area to create a time-travel window that may assist in the investigation of a major terrorist outrage. 

Unlike, say, the generally light-hearted consequences of time-travel in Back to the Future, there's a haunting sense of loss over every glimpse into the past, and Scott uses lighting and colour with skill to delineate the different moods (Scott never tires of visual experimentation, perhaps a result of his advertising background, but here the effects serve a purpose, whereas I found them ultimately distracting in his previous collaboration with Denzel Washington, Man on Fire). Past and present come together in an absorbing and original chase sequence that delivers the thrills you'd expect from such fare (along with the often questionable use of major disasters for entertainment purposes), but it's the rich atmosphere that lingers after the credits roll.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Lost in Time

2003, Hong Kong, directed by Derek Yee

I'm not all that familiar with the 'relationship drama' genre of Hong Kong cinema, but this is a well-regarded 2003 entry, and if the set-up is a little contrived it still features two fine lead performances. Cecilia Cheung gets her first really meaty dramatic role as a young woman dealing with the consequences of her fiancé's death (particularly caring for his young son and trying to pay the bills on his minibus servcie), and she acquits herself well: the sense of frustration and confusion her character experiences is palpable, though there's also a vein of grit that's very appealing. She has able support from Lau Ching-Wan, more familiar from action and comedy roles, as a sympathetic minibus driver who takes her under his wing; his unconventional looks are especially charming in this film. Lost in Time doesn't do anything radically new - although the very slow romantic burn is a nice contrast to the wham-bam style of Hollywood - but the gentle pacing allows us to build up a credible sense of the two main personalities, and director Derek Yee has a nice eye for the small details of the minibus trade (that, in itself, is a nice contrast to the usual movie professions, and adds considerable local colour). The film also looks extremely good: Kwon-Man Keung's cinematography has the clean appearance of a much bigger budget.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Brassed Off

1996, UK, directed by Mark Herman

One of the angriest, and perhaps one of the best, British films of the 1990s, Brassed Off gulls you with the promise of a Northern comedy in the mould of The Full Monty, complete with a romantic subplot, and rams those expectations back down your throat as it delivers a blistering attack on the dismantling of the British coalmining industry by the Thatcher government (and its successors). The film focuses particularly on the communities affected by hundreds of pit closures, and paints a vivid picture of the crumbling of one small town faced with the end of its mining industry - and as a consequence, much of its community fabric, exemplified by the local brass band.

The film shares the same unpatronising view of working class life as the films of Ken Loach, and although there's a small amount of sugar-coating, the sense of anger and hopelessness isn't radically different. Director Mark Herman, who has returned to similar territory a number of times with less success, judiciously balances the comic and dramatic elements, creating a real sense of the human consequences on single-industry towns; the closing sequences, filled with fury and pride, are extremely moving, without the film ever losing its bitter sense of humour. Pete Postlethwaite delivers one of his finest performances as the stubborn conductor of the brass band, with able support from a large gathering of character actors; Postlethwaite's climactic speech is, even on film, a show-stopper (I first saw the film in a packed cinema in Leeds, where clearly more than a couple of people in the audience identified with the onscreen action).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

2005, US, directed by Andrew Adamson

Rating: ***

I wonder if there's something in the British character that has inspired the writing of so many rich fantasy epics, whether the series from which this film is derived, or the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or His Dark Materials cycles. It's hard to avoid the sense that in some small way, the more elderly epic literature is still alive through these modern interpretations (while much has been made of the Christ allegory in this particular film, it wears the story lightly, using the strengths of that shared mythology to powerful effect without ever seeming overtly religious). Despite such lofty underpinnings, the film is clearly family-minded, at least in the early going, as four London children discover another world through the back of a wardrobe in the country house to which they've been dispatched to escape wartime bombing. Once they confront an evil witch, however, we're left in no doubt as to her wicked intent; the manner in which she deals with enemies is especially chilling. In bringing C.S. Lewis's story to the screen, the filmmakers clearly owe a debt to Peter Jackson, both in terms of shooting locations and with regard to some of the hordes of the evil armies. The battle scenes, though, have an energy all their own: the sight of the advancing army led by the two boys, cheetahs darting out in front, is absolutely thrilling, and the fighting quickly leaves childhood behind. The young performers are winning without being excessively winsome, while there are nice voice performances from Ray Winstone, Dawn French, Liam Neeson and Rupert Everett, who lend their talents to several animated characters. Director Andrew Adamson is best-known for Shrek, so it's no surprise to hear him coax good work from these actors, but he also handles the large-scale live action work with surprising skill given his inexperience with such fare.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Back to the Future

1985, US, directed by Robert Zemeckis

There's no point in pretending to be objective about Back to the Future: I was hooked from the opening credits in 1985, and the film remains, to me, as fresh as it was more than 20 years ago; it's one of the best pop films of the 1980's, and underlines the fact that a Hollywood entertainment can be made with care, craftsmanship and intelligence.

Director Robert Zemeckis sets up the story with remarkable economy, packing a tremendous amount of information into the early scenes without ever allowing the action to seem cluttered. He and script-writer Bob Gale then allow themselves full rein to have fun with the consequences of sending their lead character back to the 1950's; while virtually no time-travel tale stands up to microscopic scrutiny, they tease out the implications of the journey with some care, and have a great eye for the little details that separate the decades. The performances, though, are what truly breathe life into the film. It's hard to believe that Michael J. Fox was simultaneously shooting episodes of the sitcom Family Ties given the energy he pours into his portrayal of Marty McFly, while he is given able support by Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover, who delivers one of the most enjoyably odd performances that you'll see in a mainstream feature. Threaded through the film, there's a hint of social commentary, most especially about the nefarious effects of the television on the American family, but there are also a few subtle pointers that the American economy of the 1980's isn't quite as balmy as its 1950's counterpart, however hard President Reagan (the butt of more than one joke) might have tried to sell that illusion.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tracker

2002, Australia, directed by Rolf de Heer

I find that Rolf de Heer's films are sometimes more interesting on paper than in the final execution, but if anything the reverse is true in this case: The Tracker is a fully realised revisiting of the (Australian) western, with a stunning central performance by the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil; he's had a run of strong material in the past decade, but this film allows him to finally fulfill the promise shown in Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabaout. The action is stripped down to the point of mythology, underlined by the characters' names (The Tracker, The Fanatic and so forth), as an Aboriginal tracker leads three white men in search of another Aboriginal man, who is accused of killing a white woman.

The white men vary in their view of native Australians, but none of them is unable to confront the contradiction between their view of Aboriginal people as savages, and their reliance on the tracker's acute intelligence and knowledge. The tracker himself fully exploits this contradiction, unsettling the men with his self-awareness, and wickedly black humour, while also making use of the white men's fear of the Australian bush (the malevolence of the outback is a recurring theme in Australian cinema, crystallized in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock but appearing in completely different contexts like that of Wolf Creek too). De Heer's script avoids easy answers, and is careful not to portray the Aboriginal people in insultingly saintly ways: violence is not unknown in their culture, either, for example. Visually, the film is stunning, and arresting in the way in which it cuts away to paintings at moments of violence. The soundtrack also contributes to an uniquely textured film, with Gulpilil's intelligent performance adding rich layers of emotional nuance.

The Navigators

2001, UK/Germany/Spain, directed by Ken Loach

Rating: ***
The Navigators is Ken Loach's largely successful attempt to provide a sense of the human losses created by the privatisation of British Rail in the mid-1990's, focusing on the workers in one small Yorkshire maintenance depot as they deal with new market realities in the post-Thatcher era. Although the film slips occasionally into didacticism for the most part it has the authentic feel of the trackside, with convincingly salty banter from the generally solid acting crew. Loach's sense of the destruction of craftsmanship and skill in the new economic circumstances is acute, and quite moving, while there's real anger in his portrait of the means by which, increasingly, the costs of employing people are being passed on to workers themselves rather than being assumed by the employer. Loach does tend on occasion to reveal his own class prejudices, with the salt-of-the-earth working men contrasted somewhat heavy-handedly with the out-and-out misbehaviour of senior management; like his fellow Englishman, Loach isn't skilled at rounded portraits of even the middle classes. The final plot developments are telegraphed rather obviously earlier in the film - and are a bit too rigorously deterministic - but the point about the disastrous consequences of rail privatisation on every level is well-taken - and underlined too frequently by British newspaper headlines.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Breaking News

2004, Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To

Perhaps Johnnie To was working, even by his standards, to an especially demanding schedule when making Breaking News, for it's a truly stripped-down affair, with a perfectly-paced 90-minute running time and action that takes place over the course of just a few hours (although it can be confusing to keep track of the various branches of the Hong Kong police that move in and out of the story, the plotting is generally pretty solid as well). To indulges himself with an eye-catching seven-minute opening shot that must have required a great deal of careful choreography, but doesn't relax afterwards: his command of the material is assured throughout, deploying cramped space to great atmosphere-building effect, and marshalling knots of police and reporters in clever formation. The film unspools, for the most part, inside an apartment building where some gangsters have taken a family hostage and in the police command station where the spin doctors are hard at work selling their version of the story to the assembled cameras. While the film is occasionally a touch simplistic in its commentary on the machinations of the media machine, the general point that such manipulations aid little in the construction of a truly participatory democracy is sharply made given the local context. To rarely lingers, though, on such ideas, given the headlong pacing and tightly-constructed action sequences.

The World's Fastest Indian

2005, New Zealand, directed by Roger Donaldson

Based on a true story, The World's Fastest Indian is the enjoyably shaggy tale of Burt Munro, a New Zealander who set land-speed records on a souped-up elderly motorcycle while of pension age himself. As with any Rocky-esque tale, there's a dose of sentimentality here, but it doesn't overwhelm the film, which is driven by a solid performance from Anthony Hopkins as Munro. He's a shy, half-deaf fellow, stubbornly determined to live out the dream of racing his bike across the salt flats at Bonneville, in Utah. Getting that far, though, takes up most of the film's running time, and the film unspools as a light-hearted road movie in which Munro, the innocent abroad, disarms all those in his path with his quiet, humorous manner; although it's hard to believe that the reality was quite as kindly, the film tends to sucker you in with its easygoing charm. The movie is a return to form for Roger Donaldson, who is capable of excellent work (whether in the early New Zealand films Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace or the Cuban missile crisis re-enactment of Thirteen Days); he's never tempted to force the pace, even if he does press the "emotional music" button a bit too readily. It's not hard to understand why the film did well in New Zealand: the notion that an old fellow from Invercargill could beat the world with a bit of Kiwi ingenuity and boot polish tends to burnish the national self-image; it's equally appealing to those, like myself, from other small former British colonies (especially when Munro casts aspersions on the "pommies").

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Borat

2006, US, directed by Larry Charles

Rating: ***

While I can't help but admire those who sit down and write up 1,200 word reviews of Borat complete with an analysis of the film's distinctly Jewish sensibility, I can't help thinking that Borat wouldn't mind deflating such work given half a chance. After all, if you think a movie is funny, just say so. The film is uproarious - even when audiences are wincing at some of the material - but it's not going to change the world, and it doesn't contain evidence of much beyond tremendous comic chutzpah on the part of Sacha Baron Cohen. After all, even if they haven't been strung together in 80-minute form before, many of the jokes are familiar to those who've seen Borat's British and American TV appearances; the thin additional plot isn't a major innovation. For every Bible-thumpin', rifle-shootin' racist homophobe the filmmakers manage to turn up (not, let us say, the most innovative of satirical targets), they also inadvertently emphasise, time and again, that most people (in this case Americans, but the original targets were Brits) are polite and hospitable folk who bend over backwards to accommodate an unusual guest. In the end, it's best not to look too long or hard at the social satire, or indeed the somewhat queasy methods by which the spontaneous materials were acquired, but sit back and enjoy some bad-taste comedy in the dark of a packed movie theatre.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Fulltime Killer

2001, Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai

Early in Fulltime Killer, one of the protagonists mentions a film he had seen a few years previously. "Not the best movie, but I like the style," he opines, and it is as good a way as any to summarize the present film. Explicit movie references abound - everything from Le Samouraï to El Mariachi by way of Léon - in a cheerful acknowledgement of the constant borrowing that characterizes Hong Kong cinema (with the favour returned by Hollywood, France and other movie producers). The film boasts a top-notch opening in a Malaysian train station, swiftly followed by an over-the-top-notch entrance from the second lead (Andy Lau), who wreaks havoc in a Thai police station. Throughout the film, there's a self-conscious effort to formulate the bloody assassinations as opera, a leaf taken from the John Woo playbook. If Fulltime Killer never quite lives up to the promise of that pair of opening sequences, it's still got style to spare and directors To and Wai never allow the action to flag, which helps to paper over the flimsy plotting, while co-lead Takashi Sorimachi (also, like Lau, a pop star) is excellent. This is, incidentally, the first Hong Kong movie of any stripe that I've seen since reading David Bordwell's Planet Hong Kong. I can't recommend the book highly enough as a tool for thinking about that territory's film production; that it's also a supremely enjoyable read is a huge bonus.

Les Vacances de M. Hulot

1953, France, directed by Jacques Tati

Although Jacques Tati is often seen as France's supreme comic filmmaker (at least outside France, since so many of that country's huge comic hits are barely known in the English-speaking world), it's interesting that his influence often seems most obviously apparent in British comedy. It's hard to imagine performers like John Cleese or Rowan Atkinson without Tati, and more specifically without Monsieur Hulot and the chaos that constantly accompanies him. For all the manic energy of a show like Fawlty Towers, it's also based on the kind of acute human observation that makes Les Vacances de M. Hulot such a treasure: Hulot himself, with his Tintin-esque hairdo, is a wonderful creation, but Tati is just as fascinated by the other residents of the beach town where the film takes place, casting his generous eye over everything that happens, and weaving gags from the most unlikely sources. Those visual jokes emerge organically from the loosely connected scenes: there's no obvious punchline much of the time, emphasizing that the humour is really just a lightly burnished version of reality rather than something that draws attention to itself. Tati also pokes gentle but insistent fun at the regimented nature of French holiday habits: Hulot, by contrast, seems to take things as they come, and the disruptions that follow him have the happy effect of shaking up everyone's routine. The gags are beautifully constructed - the timing is perfect, scene after scene - but the film also looks wonderful: Tati is a true visual artist rather than just a simple humorist.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

L'Année dernière à Marienbad

1961, France/Italy, directed by Alain Resnais

One of the most challenging films to emerge from the French New Wave, L'Année dernière à Marienbad pushes back conventional notions of cinematic storytelling, prioritizing form absolutely above content. The script, by novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, is a carefully constructed set of themes and variations, rigorously structured, and employing repetition to create a disorienting atmosphere. The nominal plot involves a man's attempts to convince a woman that they met a year before - and perhaps had an affair - but the script is far more interested in playing with our own expectations than in resolving this essentially simple problem. The film is shot in stunning black-and-white by Sacha Vierny, with Resnais employing an exceptionally mobile camera that glides up and down the corridors of the luxury hotel where the film is set, caressing the architectural details and the rich decorations. Although the film's concerns are not those of a more conventional narrative, it nonetheless creates an unsettling sense of oppressiveness, underlining the essentially joyless interactions of this group of wealthy vacationers, whose days are filled with empty pursuits. It's hard to avoid the sense that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet probably aren't the most entertaining pair with whom to share a drink - unless, perhaps, the film also functions as a kind of wicked joke at the expense of our intellectual pretensions.

Le Goût des autres

2000, France, directed by Agnès Jaoui

Rating: ***

It's refreshing to see a smart, talky French film that's not set in Paris, but rather in a fully realized provincial town with its own distinct artistic milieu (the film was shot in Rouen, not entirely out of the Parisian orbit but large enough to have its own set of priorities). Like her more recent, and even more polished, Comme une image, Agnès Jaoui's début feature tells several interlocking tales, with a local bar forming, in many ways, the intersection point. The script, by Jaoui and partner Jean-Pierre Bacri, isn't quite as openly comic as some of their other collaborations, but their generous view of humanity - the willingness to see both flaws and generosity in almost everyone - is intact. The rich characterisations surely helped, too, in attracting such a wonderful cast: it's not hard to imagine actors clamouring for a role. Bacri, one of the cinema's great curmudgeons, is predictably top-notch in a self-tailored part, and he's well-complemented by Jaoui's radiant barmaid and the less familiar Anne Alvaro as the object of his character's affections. Gérard Lanvin and Alain Chabat form an amusing tandem as Bacri's bodyguard and driver, respectively; Lanvin's world-weary charm integrates surprisingly well with Chabat's naïveté, and it's nice to see both of them working with an intelligent script, given how sorely under-used their skills are on occasion.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

2005, US/UK, directed by Mike Newell

Rating: ***

The running time creeps back up again with the fourth installment of the Harry Potter film franchise, after a relatively breezy third episode, but that's hardly surprising given that this is the point at which the books become unwieldy (in the literal sense): even at over two-and-a-half hours, great chunks of the source material are omitted. There's no time at all to re-capitulate events from the previous films, which means that some references and characters are pretty confusing, and major on-the-page events are compressed into a few brief scenes onscreen (that's especially true of the abbreviated treatment given to the Quidditch World Cup).

The young actors are all more than familiar with the material at this point, and their acting talent is also that much clearer as they grow into the more adult parts; Daniel Radcliffe is fine as Harry, but Rupert Grint and Emma Watson outshine him as his best friends Ron and Hermione, and both are particularly good in the scenes, midway through the film, centered on a gala dance. As with the previous films, about half of the British film industry seems to appear in the adult roles, with Ralph Fiennes and Irishman Brendan Gleeson the key additions this time around (familiar faces like Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman get minimal screen time, though, which is unfortunate). As you'd expect, the action moves along nicely with veteran director Mike Newell at the helm: the main focus is on an event called the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and the key scenes of the contest are quite dramatic (particularly the menacing appearance, near the end, of evil wizard Voldemort himself), as befits the increasingly ominous overall tone. Newell also ups the local colour of the series, with some amusing little details - like the tea-lady on the train - drawn from a very recognizably British reality.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Gremlins

1984, US, directed by Joe Dante

Gremlins is one of those huge 1980's hits - like Ghostbusters or E.T. - that has been happily interpreted and re-interpreted by critics, who see everything from an allegory of parent-child relationships to an environmental commentary in what is, at heart, a great big B-movie that takes most of its pleasure in playing with a host of venerable Hollywood traditions, from monster movies to Christmas tales, with a few buckets of exploitation-grade goop thrown in to the mix. The gooey violence, in particular, reveals director Joe Dante's low-budget origins, and there's a great sequence where Mom defends herself in the kitchen that parallels any number of women-in-peril scenes; this is one mama the gremlins do not want to mess with. The opening parts of the movie, set in a backlot Chinatown and snow-covered small town, are especially good; the local colour is sketched in with economy and wit, setting up the perils to come. Dante also shows a healthy disrespect for convention: the small-town idyll is punctured by a freeloading cop and tales of rent problems and factory lay-offs (despite the film appearing during the alleged Reagan boom years). While the special effects inevitably seem rather quaint now - some of the effects were old-school in 1984, never mind in the age of CGI - Gremlins remains a tremendously entertaining comedy/horror blend, and it's a movie-lover's delight, with direct or indirect references to dozens of films (everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to, in one of the movie's funniest jokes, Cocteau's Orphée). The scene, near the end, when the gremlins sit, rapt, in a movie theatre singing along to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is, perhaps, a touch of genius.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Touki-Bouki

1973, Senegal, directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty

Although it's an exceptionally challenging, and provocative, piece of work, Touki-Bouki retains an extraordinary freshness and power more than 30 years after its release; there's still a palpable sense of anger at Senegal's post-colonial circumstances. The country's relationship with its former 'master', France, is at the core of the film, particularly expressed in the conflicted hopes and dreams of young Africans, torn between tradition and the promises (or illusions) of wealth and opportunity as embodied in the idea of France (or more specifically Paris; Josephine Baker sings "Paris, Paris, Paris" to ironic effect on the soundtrack). Although Diop Mambéty's vision is disorienting and experimental, the tale at the heart of his film is simple, with two young lovers figuring out how to get ahead. The film is shot through with a vein of rich, black humour, and if it lacks the perfect humanist simplicity of his beautiful final work, La Petite vendeuse du Soleil, it does nonetheless have a sense of visual poetry that's often quite mesmerizing. In many ways, too, the film is a keystone to understanding Diop Mambéty's later works, especially Hyènes. Those who are sensitive about the conversion of animals into meat should probably give the film a wide berth, though; the film is blunt about the realities of life in both broad and specific terms.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Goldfinger


1964, UK, directed by Guy Hamilton

The Bond franchise really swung into high gear with Goldfinger, which features some of the most memorable moments of the series as a whole: the Korean killer Oddjob, with his lethal hat; Gert Fröbe's tremendously villainous Goldfinger; and perhaps most of all, the sight of Shirley Eaton covered head to toe in gold paint, and draped, dead, on a bed. The plot features the usual control-the-world megalomania (although Goldfinger's desire for economic rather than military control is an interesting wrinkle), while Connery looks to be having as much fun as ever delivering smart one-liners (others, too, get their share of enjoyable zingers). He also gets to take advantage of a large complement of Bond girls, who are treated with spectacular disdain -- with the possible exception of Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore, whose name hardly helps her to be taken seriously, but who makes a case as more than just eye-candy. Despite some dodgy back-projection, the stunt work is entertaining, especially in the car-chase sequences, while Ken Adam's sets are, as ever, excellent: the Goldfinger house, with its secret panels and moving walls, is particularly fun.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Le Corbeau

1943, France, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

A spectacularly bitter piece of work from one of cinema's great pessimists, Le Corbeau is also a fascinating allegory about Occupation France, made for a German-controlled company in 1943. The film is set in a small town in the Paris region, where a writer of poison-pen letters has created a toxic atmosphere of suspicion; the epistles implicate virtually every one of the town's public figures. Although the director's usual despair in humankind is foregrounded, the very specific wartime context also lends his portrait of incestuous small-town life unusual depth and power. The script, by Louis Chavance and Clouzot, includes a wickedly satirical portrait of petty officialdom, noxious at the best of times but especially odious in the context of collaboration with the German authorities (who remain, however, invisible; indeed, the war itself is primarily an offscreen presence), but also comments presciently on the kind of mob justice that characterized, however understandably, the period immediately after liberation. There's an especially delicious sequence subverting the French classroom experience, with an extended dictation that ropes in the town's petty dignitaries. Among a host of striking images (perhaps most notably that of a letter falling from a church gallery), Clouzot makes especially brilliant use of shadow and silhouette; although the action mostly takes place during the day, the film was a major influence on the development of film noir, both visually and in that genre's view of the human condition.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

District B13

2004, France, directed by Pierre Morel (Original title: Banlieue 13)

Rating: ***

Yet another French action film bearing Luc Besson's fingerprints, this is a showcase for the physical skills of athlete David Belle and stunt performer Cyril Raffaelli; the storyline, such as it is, is absolutely subordinate to the extended action sequences. Belle is the inventor of a kind of urban sport called parkour, which basically involves climbing up and jumping off large buildings, and the opening sequence is an excuse to watch him throw himself around with abandon. He plays Leïto, a good-hearted resident of a benighted neighborhood in the Paris suburbs circa 2010, enclosed behind concrete walls in the hopes that the lawlessness can be confined and that the criminals will take each other out. Events throw Leïto together with Cyril Raffaelli's supercop, who is introduced in equally spectacular fashion, for a showdown with the baddest badass in District B13 (for our viewing pleasure). Although events in the French suburbs make this seem vaguely topical, there's really no credible political commentary (the resolution is insultingly pat), just vast amounts of gunplay and stunt action. The action sequences are shot with minimal special effects work, but the editing is so frenetic that it's often hard to appreciate the physical skills on display, which short-changes Belle in particular; the sequence which introduces Raffaelli, though, is brilliantly choreographed. Still, for completely mindless action entertainment, this is about as good as it gets this side of an old-school Hong Kong action movie; the bodycount is similar, too.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

2006, UK, directed by Kevin Macdonald

Set in Idi Amin's court, The Last King of Scotland is Kevin Macdonald's first fiction feature after two solid documentaries (Touching the Void and Four Days in September). He's less assured here, despite working with some historical characters - most obviously Amin himself, played with swagger and intensity by Forest Whitaker - as the latter half of the film sprawls out of control, stretching belief to breaking point. James McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who heads to Uganda on a whim, and swiftly ends up as personal physician to the recently enthroned Amin, a man capable of warmth, generosity and, in the next instant, thuggery of stomach-churning proportions. To its credit, the film doesn't make Garrigan especially likeable: he's flip and wilfully oblivious to the fates of others, ignoring the realities around him until it's far too late. Unfortunately, the dangerous bedroom liaison in which Garrigan indulges doesn't have the ring of truth to it, even for a larrikin like him, and seriously undermines the film. In its attempts to craft a boozy white-man-loses-his-innocence tale, the film skates cursorily over the real events of Amin's Uganda; that's most egregiously true in the use of the Entebbe hijackings as a backdrop, but the expulsion of the Indian population, a forced migration that's still rippling around the globe, is also dealt with in summary fashion, while the horrors endured by the Ugandan population are relegated to a brief montage (though whatever the filmmakers' narrative shortcomings, they deserve credit for shooting their film on location). Whitaker's burly performance will attract the lion's share of critical attention, but Simon McBurney and an unrecognizable Gillian Anderson are also excellent in support; McAvoy's performance, by contrast, didn't seem best-suited to the rest of the film.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Thank You, Mr Moto

US, 1937, directed by Norman Foster
Rating: ***

Often lazily lumped together with his cinematic contemporary Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto has little in common with the affable Chinese detective save his Asian origins (and the fact that both were played by Caucasians). Although Moto has moments of great generosity towards those fortunate to be called his friends, for the most part he's a cynical operator, acting in his own interests (or those of his shadowy employers), and quick to kill if the need arises; the need arises a number of times in this swift-moving tale of ancient Chinese treasures and the many Westerners who'd like to obtain them. More than anything else, this kind of serial film was killed off by the advent of television, which is a shame given the craftsmanship of even these humble B-pictures (and this looks great in a cleaned-up DVD version). One wonders if the shows that function as abbreviated versions of the classical formula film (like Law & Order) will stand up as well 70 years after the fact.
For those who like to keep tabs on that kind of thing, this is old Hollywood at its casting best: Lorre, a Hungarian, plays the Japanese Mr. Moto, while the excellent Korean-American actor Philip Ahn is cast as a Chinese prince, and Pauline Frederick, a Bostonian, appears as his mother, in her last film role.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Punishment Park


1971, UK/US, directed by Peter Watkins

Punishment Park is an odd mixture of the dated and the prescient, capturing both the hysteria that characterized the period during which it was made (the high tide of the Nixon presidency, and the wave of radicalism that parallaled it), as well as the legal shenanigans of the post-September 11 era. The film intercuts a series of quasi-legal tribunals (mostly featuring young "radicals") with scenes from a bizarre form of punishment camp that involves a desert march towards an American flag (perhaps the most thuddingly obvious device in the film), all shot with a single documentary camera (ostensibly from the BBC). While the documentary style works well - the tribunal scenes in particular have the ring of truth - the predictable involvement, later on, of the film crew is less convincing. The acting, mostly by non-professionals, is exceptional. Director Peter Watkins, making his only American film (but by no means his most radical), threw out his script and coaxed improvised performances from his cast, most of whom were no doubt influenced by the stressful conditions of a difficult, compressed shoot; in that, Punishment Park has something of the air of a live-action Stanford Prison Experiment (conducted the summer after the film was made). The film's key point, that governments tend to be quick to throw out legal norms in difficult times, remains, of course, as relevant in 2006 as it was in 1971; the young policeman's retort that international pressure won't change anything is perhaps the most chilling moment of all.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Village


2004, US, directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Rating: ***

M. Night Shyamalan has painted himself into something of a cinematic corner with his successful exercise in branding: he's expected to deliver a slow, oblique, atmospheric build-up, followed by a twist that turns everything on its head. The setting this time is the late 1890's, in a remote American village, surrounded by forests that house dangerous creatures with whom a truce has been reached (this immediately leads to some questions about how the village engages in trade for building materials, but those matters are never really addressed). The villagers all speak as though they've read too many classic novels, although in one way this is an effective device to underline their lack of any connection with changes in the exterior world. While the cast is strong, they don't always have a whole lot to do; Brendan Gleeson and Sigourney Weaver do a lot of standing around looking tortured and not much more, although William Hurt's distinctive voice is well-employed, while Bryce Dallas Howard is impressive as a tomboyish blind girl who is the agent by which the film's 'shock' is revealed. Although the twist is certainly guessable, it's good enough to get audiences sitting up, and it lingers longer than the overblown 'boo!' moment of The Sixth Sense.

The Queen

2006, UK, directed by Stephen Frears

The busy Stephen Frears's latest film is set during one of the strangest weeks in recent British history, the seven days in late 1997 following the death of (the former) Princess Diana, with a focus on the relationship between the recently-elected Tony Blair (enjoying his Giuliani moment) and the Queen (played with surprising warmth, and consummate skill, by Helen Mirren). While the Boston-area theatre audience enjoyed The Queen as something approaching high comedy, this Irish viewer saw a more serious-minded film.

Based on that audience reaction at the screening I attended, it's not hard to see why the film might be accused of pandering to American viewers, but the behind-the-scenes wrangling will be much more meaningful to a viewer familiar with the Blair political team (especially the now-departed Alistair Campbell). Although the film never reveals whether it's with or against the Queen - at one stage, Blair (who is played with great conviction by Michael Sheen) asks that someone "save these people from themselves", while later he launches a passionate defense of the monarch and all she represents - it's a fascinating imagination of what the interactions between the sovereign and "her" Prime Minister might have been as that bizarre week unfolded. The opening sequences are designed as a criticism of hereditary rather than elected power, but the film's central thesis is that Elizabeth II and Blair are both essentially political animals, clever pragmatists ultimately ready to do what's necessary in the context. Peter Morgan's intelligent script makes clear (though not many critics seem to get the message) that viewing the monarchy as an outdated institution isn't necessarily incompatible with a sympathetic view of a woman who is, to an overwhelming degree, conditioned by her upbringing and age to behave in rigidly prescribed ways.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Closer

2004, US, directed by Mike Nichols

Rating: **

Despite the presence of four arrestingly attractive actors, Closer is no-one's idea of a date movie - although Todd Solondz might find it amusing. The four leads - the film was written by Patrick Marber, from his own play, and he's made no attempt to open the action up, notwithstanding some chilly London locations - become involved with and betray one another in what is apparently supposed to be some kind of commentary on contemporary mores but which ultimately becomes a rather numbing and sterile exercise. Marber's characters are uniformly disagreeable; there's no real tension in a film where the principals so richly deserve one another, notwithstanding the excuses they attempt to make for their behaviour. It's a shame, really, because director Mike Nichols wastes several solid performances, especially from Clive Owen, who adds a fire that seems at odds with the very mannered dialogue and which occasionally hints at an actual human soul, if not necessarily a very pleasant one.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Kicking and Screaming


1995, US, directed by Noah Baumbach

Kicking and Screaming is unavoidably reminiscent of Diner (for the 1990's generation), given the echoes of both plot (a group of mostly male college friends attempting to come to terms with the post-college world) and tone. There's an undenial sadness in the eyes of these young people, sure that their lives will inevitably be somehow less exciting - for better and worse - than those of at least some previous generations (one character wishes he were about to go to war - then thinks better of that and wishes instead he was about to retire after a lifetime of meaningful work; the two seem equally exotic).

There's also that Fitzgeraldian worry that everything post-college will "savour of anti-climax", given the way that the college experience has been framed. Although the film meanders a little in the first twenty minutes before finding its bearings, writer-director Noah Baumbach displays a sure touch with dialogue from the first scene (though there's a mannered air to some of the lines, there's also a warm humour on display). The film acknowledges its own indulgence in triviality in amusing ways, and in between the catty exchanges there's a slow, almost imperceptible accretion of more meaningful commentary on a particular post-80's, pre-Internet generation. Although the performances are uniformly fine (and generally quite brilliantly deadpan), Olivia d'Abo is especially notable: she's never been lovelier, or better, at least on the big screen, and there's a sweet poignancy in her final scene that perhaps defines the overused descriptive 'bittersweet'.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Illusionist


2006, US, directed by Neil Burger

An absorbing arthouse/mainstream crossover, The Illusionist is well-acted, beautifully lit and possessed of a rare sense of time and place -- Vienna at the opening of the twentieth century, a place mired in court intrigues. Although the pacing is sometimes languid, Neil Burger never lets the story flag, carefully shading in details of character and allowing the viewer to piece together the central mystery of the film (the fact that it's not hard to guess in no way detracts from the film's interest).

Almost the entire film seems to take place at night, and Burger and his director of photography, Dick Pope, do a fine job playing, literally, with fire, gaslight and shadows. Edward Norton delivers his finest performance since since Spike Lee's 25th Hour as Eisenheim, an illusionist who has mastered the magical arts of East and West, and who discovers a new purpose for his skills on his return to Austria. Norton projects a kind of world-weariness that's mesmerizing in its own way, and that enables Eisenheim to carry off his trickery. Jessica Biel, who plays the object of Eisenheim's affections and, not incidentally, the rumored future crown princess, is luminous, capturing the kind of passion that might well lead a man to sacrifice his career. Paul Giamatti has an interestingly ambiguous role as a compromised police chief in the service of the odious crown prince; although his final scene is perhaps a little obvious, his awakening to the realities of his position is ably sketched.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Topper


1937, US, directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Rating: **

A featherweight comedy, Topper was a huge hit in its day (though it's a little hard to understand why Depression-era audiences enjoyed the antics of some not-always-sympathetic representatives of the moneyed classes), but it hasn't aged especially well. While there are a few sharp exchanges, and some of the banter-between-the-sexes that characterized the best of the screwball comedies, the very slight plotting and excessive length bog the film down. Cary Grant is adequate, but he's still in the process of developing his onscreen persona, and he's offscreen far too much. By contrast, Roland Young (like Grant, another English transplant) as the eponymous Topper steals most of his scenes, most especially one where he tipsily dances around the room (showcasing, not incidentally, the kind of light stage-comedy skills employed so smoothly by many of the Golden Age's actors). In the smaller roles, Eugene Pallette pops up as a hotel detective (a role much beloved of Old Hollywood that you rarely see these days), while Hedda Hopper appears briefly as a socialite; her gossip-mongering career was taking off around this time, although she had regular acting gigs for another five years. In the unlikely event this one gets a 21st-century remake, you can be sure that there won't be such blithe drunk-driving in the opening scenes.

Index

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