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.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Matador

2005, US, directed by Richard Shepard

Rating: ***

Although it's neither as slick nor as hip as it would like to think, The Matador is lifted well above average by Pierce Brosnan's delightfully rumpled performance as an assassin who's experiencing something of a mid-life crisis. The film's morality doesn't bear much examination - it's queasy at best, and downright tasteless in a montage sequence that outlines Brosnan's global exploits over a six-month period - but there's tremendous fun to be had with Brosnan's characterization of Julian Noble, whose verbal ineptness continually causes offense to those he attempts to befriend. His meeting with the milquetoast Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) isn't especially convincing but once the two are thrown together, Noble's attempts to come across as a halfway decent human being generate much uncomfortable humour. While John Cusack's similar character in Grosse Pointe Blank was far too cute to be convincing, Brosnan summons up the essential seediness of his chosen profession, turning his Bond and Remington Steele personae on their heads, and showing a considerable grit in the process.

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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States