Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Possum

1997, New Zealand, directed by Brad McGann

Like many short films, Brad McGann's Possum bears little resemblance to his subsequent feature work, at least in terms of tone; there's almost no narrative, with instead a focus on intense atmospherics. Set in the New Zealand bush, at some indeterminate time in the past, McGann experiments with sepia-toned imagery and, especially, an intense and occasionally disturbing palette of sounds to evoke a backwoods nightmare, in which a disciplinarian father attempts to rule over his meagre kingdom, including a daughter who is closer to the animals that surround the hut than to her relatives. Although it's hard to grasp what McGann's ultimate purpose is - the narrative doesn't help much - the film insinuates itself into the mind, and the overall atmosphere of dread plays cleverly with audience expectations.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In My Father's Den

2004, New Zealand/UK, directed by Brad McGann

Brad McGann's only feature film - he died in 2007 - is a compelling exploration of the consequences that follow from the return of a prodigal son, Paul Prior (Matthew Macfadyen), to his small hometown in New Zealand. The film is an adaptation of Maurice Gee's 1972 novel, though McGann, who also wrote the screenplay, changes Gee's template considerably, moving the action from Auckland to a lightly-populated area of the South Island, bringing things up to the present day, and constructing something of a mystery/thriller by holding back key information that Gee reveals as early as his first page.

McGann releases details sparingly, constructing his film as a kind of puzzle assembled from pieces of the past and present, with Prior's attempts to forget his youth - by running away to London - undone by his decision to return home. The film is extremely successful in evoking both the contemporary period and Paul's younger days; McGann has an acute sense of the differing emotions of youth, and captures the mixture of regretful nostalgia and frustrated ambition at the heart of small-town entrapment. He also makes good use - without slipping into excessive prettiness - of the often desolate landscapes of Otago farm country (Stuart Dryburgh, who shot several key Kiwi films of the early 1990s, makes a nice return home himself as cinematographer).

It's hard to write about the film without an awareness of McGann's very early death, and a sense that he was already a director of considerable skill: there's a unobtrusive intelligence at work, for example, in the way he moves his camera to add new information - a concealed boy, a piece of jewelry - rather than adding in an additional cut that might seem a distraction. He also has a great deal of confidence in his ability to stitch his material together: he doesn't signal the shift between time periods heavy-handedly, and yet it's always clear what is happening and how each new snippet of information contributes to the complex, richly detailed portrait of small-town and family life (the only exception is, perhaps, the role played by Miranda Otto; she's a fine actress, but she can't do much with a character never intended to be more than a cipher).

Monday, December 22, 2008

In Bruges

2008, UK/Ireland, directed by Martin McDonagh

Given his background as a playwright, it's no surprise to encounter Martin McDonagh's finely-honed banter and careful plotting, but his first feature also confirms the visual promise of his short Six Shooter, displaying considerable confidence with the camera (making liberal use of the architectural and artistic resources provided by the eponymous Belgian city). Despite the shift of medium, there's a considerable degree of continuity with McDonagh's stage work, particularly the fascination with violence - indeed, several of the film's most striking shots, such as an overhead view of the aftermath of a pair of killings, are of acts of violence or their consequences.

McDonagh's protagonists are a pair of London-based Irish hitmen - a strong double act from Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell - and he walks a fine line with his leads: they are, after all, gangland killers, and while, as Gleeson says, they generally kill pretty nasty people, they're still in the killing game, and hardly model citizens. McDonagh teases out some of their self-justifications with considerable black humour but also allows them surprising insights into their own morality (and mortality); less comfortable, perhaps, is the way in which the introduction of their more obviously psychotic boss (played by Ralph Fiennes, channelling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast) allows them to seem relatively cuddly.

There's an ever-so-slightly mechanistic quality to the script, which seems to preordain some of its own action, and yet there's great pleasure to be had in seeing the pieces click perfectly together, like a well-engineered heist flick (Spike Lee's Inside Man springs to mind). The film's most enjoyable elements, though, are the smaller details of McDonagh's dialogue: the occasionally absurd tangents that the characters depart on, their pitch-black asides even at the most serious moments, even the way in which he captures the differences in British and Irish swearing (and, equally important, the different attitudes to that swearing). Gleeson and Farrell are excellent foils for each other, the bearish older man and the bundle-of-nerves youngster - with their diametrically opposed views of what might constitute fun - and Farrell's performance has considerable nuance; he hasn't been this good since 2003's Intermission, where he stole the ensemble show with some choice line deliveries.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jinx Sister

2008, New Zealand, directed by Athina Tsoulis

Shot on HD video, Athina Tsoulis's second feature is a domestic drama about a woman returning to her family after ten years in Los Angeles, years in which she has done everything possible to forget her past, discarding her accent, personal history and, at times, her dignity as she seeks to erase unpleasant memories (the film opens with a startling scene as the protagonist, Laura, played by Sara Wiseman, picks herself up after an unwise night on the town).

The film is primarily concerned with the idea of reconnecting - with family and with country, and the scene where Laura drives from the airport to her hotel cleverly captures the way in which she tries to come to terms with the accumulation of little details that has transformed the streetscape since she last visited Auckland. The film is set in a low-key, predominantly Maori southern suburb, away from the bright lights and with its own distinct community ethos, which Tsoulis transfers nicely to the screen.

At times, the domestic dramas, as Laura attempts to renew contact with her sister, shade into melodrama, though one such twist is followed by a scene of such honest insight into the characters' lives that ultimately it's a powerful addition to the film. For the most part, the performances are nicely judged, too; veteran William Wallace is especially good, and has a moving scene with relative newcomer Jarod Rawiri, while Sara Wiseman makes the most of her starring role, revealing a few rough edges but rising to the challenge of drawing us in to the story of often unsympathetic character.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rain of the Children


2008, New Zealand, directed by Vincent Ward

An unusual film in which director Vincent Ward returns to the territory of his first feature, In Spring One Plants Alone, a documentary which he began filming when he was just 21, about an elderly Maori woman, Puhi, and her adult son. At the time of the original film, Ward was primarily interested in Puhi for the ways in which she represented a continuation of traditional Maori life. Raised in a very rural area himself, Ward spent almost two years in Puhi's community as a young man, and he re-uses much of his older footage here, as he links Puhi’s hardscrabble later years to the extraordinary story of her youth, a story which he says he sensed but did not understand as a younger man.

Puhi was linked to a charismatic Maori leader, Rua Kenana, who led a group of Tuhoe Maori as “chosen people,” one of many such groups which developed in the wake of nineteenth-century missionary activity; Rua‘s group considered themselves to be lost children of Israel. Puhi, who was born around 1900, married one of Rua’s sons, who was killed when their community was raided by colonial police. Puhi was also believed to carry a curse, one which trailed her and her descendants, and Ward’s film is ultimately an attempt to understand the nature of these powerful beliefs. Many of the contemporary Tuhoe interviewed by Ward struggle for words when trying to convey the nature of their beliefs about the curse, though none deny that there is a form of curse, and Ward probes repeatedly as he tries to deal with forms of belief outside his own experience, while also relating some of Puhi’s struggles to more Western views of mental health.

The film is a blend of footage from the late 1970s, modern interviews, and re-creations of events from the early twentieth century, and at times it is very successful in conveying the realities of Rua’s self-appointed mission, while also serving as an extraordinary window into the Puhi’s modern life, a life which involves phones and cars and yet which seems, in other ways, barely touched by modernity (it would be interesting to see the full original film to get a better sense of Ward's original preoccupations). As a search for explanations, however, it's not always completely successful - at times, you feel as though Ward is repeating the same questions both to his interviewees and to himself without ever making much progress in his own thinking - but it is a heartfelt attempt by a Pakeha New Zealander to grapple with the complex belief systems of some of his Maori compatriots, and a compelling meditation on the nature of history itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baby Mama


2008, US, directed by Michael McCullers

Yet another movie-on-a-plane, though I must confess quite a pleasurable one: it's silly, unrealistic, and often very amusing, and it boasts a fine set of performers. Tina Fey plays a successful executive who hasn't met the right guy with whom to have children, and embarks instead on a surrogate pregnancy, throwing her together with Saturday Night Live colleague Amy Poehler, one of that show's brightest contemporary lights, as the aforementioned birthing assistant. The film's essentially yet another variation on the old mismatched buddy theme: in this case the slovenly Angie (Poehler) and the micromanaging Kate (Fey), who come to know one another better, etc. What makes the film palatable is the cast: Fey and Poehler are both excellent, but they get strong support from actors as diverse as Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, Greg Kinnear, and Romany Malco; Weaver and Martin both nail particular kinds of self-absorbed professional success in very amusing fashion.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cocktail

1988, US, directed by Roger Donaldson

Not a film that I expected to see again in this lifetime, but it was hard to resist the lure of an outdoor screen in Fiji, whatever the film on offer; it was somehow appropriate that the screen was behind a bar. It's hard to assess what went so wrong with this film: Tom Cruise was at the top of the film world after Top Gun, while Roger Donaldson had just made the fine Washington thriller No Way Out - and a number of strong New Zealand films before that, including Sleeping Dogs, the country's first modern feature film - but their collaboration is an absolute mess.

Cruise is an actor who needs a strong director - Oliver Stone showed what the actor was capable of delivering the following year in Born on the Fourth of July - and while Donaldson had done good work with Kevin Costner and several Kiwi actors, you wonder if Cruise's box office success and the meddling of studio executives made it hard for the director to rule the roost; there are moments of truly sublime silliness, with Cruise pouting his way through key scenes. Perhaps, though, it was all about the paycheck: the script, after all, is dreadfully trite, and it's hard to imagine it was ever any great shakes. The various relationships never ring true - Cruise and his mentor Bryan Brown profess their undying friendship, and yet never seem to actually like each other all that much - while the resolution is so rushed you wonder if a chunk of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor. It's mostly interesting, at this remove, for the glimpse of late 1980s New York; the film breathes something of the striving air of Wall Street, particularly that movie's sense of compromised morality amid attempts to cash in.

Monday, December 08, 2008

WALL-E

2008, US, directed by Andrew Stanton

Another movie seen on a plane, I'll have to return to this film at a later date. I found it captivating, with an intriguing storyline that included some pointed commentary on the future of (American) society, while the long wordless sequences were especially, compelling, but the visual qualities of the film, a critical component of all Pixar movies, were so compromised by the screen on the plane that it would do the film an injustice to see it only in that format.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Get Smart

2008, US, directed by Peter Segal

I loved the Get Smart TV show when growing up: it played on Saturday mornings in Ireland, and we'd be up early to follow Maxwell Smart's antics, miming the pratfalls afterwards. The biggest problem with this remake - apart from the usual redundancy of such ventures - is that it feels nothing like the TV show: the original was anchored in the Cold War-James Bond heyday, whereas this Agent 86 has to deal with an entirely different world, a contemporary reality close enough that the film seems shy about making Smart truly incompetent (something the old show was much less wary of). Indeed, the character, played here by Steve Carell, is more like Bond with slapstick - accident prone but still capable of saving the world, whereas the original Smart was a danger to all around him.

Like other action comedies, the film is also all at sea when it comes to establishing a consistent tone: the genuine violence of some scenes sits very uneasily with the comedy (Bad Company has similar problems), another issue more or less absent from the more cartoonish original. While Carell is an appealing performer, he can do this kind of deadpan silliness in his sleep; his role feels very underwritten, or perhaps overwritten into oblivion, whereas other cast members, notably Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a pair of geeky sidekicks, get more consistent material, which they milk to good effect.

Fred Claus

2007, US, directed by David Dobkin

Every American holiday season brings at least one new heartwarming Christmas tale, and Fred Claus was 2007's entry, offered a year later on a December plane ride from Boston to Los Angeles. Perhaps under the influence of Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa, the film attempts to recast the Christmas mythology somewhat, with Vince Vaughn playing Santa's ne'er-do-well older brother, a Chicago resident with a succession of outlandish get-rich-quick schemes. Vaughn is good at this kind of part, delivering his trademark page-at-a-time monologues - though Wedding Crashers director Dobkin relies much too heavily on Vaughn's ranting ability - and looking suitably disheveled.

When push comes to shove, though, the sweetness quotient is turned to high, with life lessons learnt on predictable cue, and any grit and bite excised (before that, there is a very amusing sequence, featuring Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin, when Fred attends a meetng of "Siblings Anonymous"). Dobkin has assembled a very solid supporting cast, including Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey, but their roles are almost all very limited; you wonder what, apart from the paycheck, attracted an actor like Paul Giamatti, normally more judicious in his choice of parts.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sunshine

2007, UK, directed by Danny Boyle

While it's made with great skill, and with careful attention to the realities of life on a spaceship, I spent most of the running time of Sunshine thinking of the other films it reminded me of - surely not the makers' primary intention. While it's hard for any film of this nature to escape comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey, the parallels occasionally seem distractingly obvious, while other scenes are reminiscent of Alien or Solaris (particularly the visual tones of Steven Soderbergh's remake). At times, the film cries out for the occasional touch of humour: it examines human beings on the literal fringes, and there's something elemental in many of the character outcomes, but along the way they come to seem lacking in certain of the qualities we take for granted back on earth (as in his earlier film with Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later, Cillian Murphy gives an deeply committed, physical performance, but his character here responds to extraordinary circumstances in a much more self-consciously serious manner).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Disco Pigs


2001, Ireland/UK, directed by Kirsten Sheridan

Despite two very committed performances from Cillian Murphy and Elaine Cassidy as Pig and Runt respectively, Disco Pigs tends to betray its stage origins rather too often to fully convince in its own cinematic right. While Kirsten Sheridan displays considerable imagination in opening the play up in visual terms - the opening, which narrates Runt's birth, the succession of shots of joined hands, the striking images of Pig and Runt alone on the beach - she is somewhat hamstrung by the decision to hew closely to the play's text, which is characterised by the unusual language that the lead pair use when speaking to each other.

While effective on stage, Enda Walsh's language often seems jarring on film, even when it also serves to reinforce the ways in which Pig and Runt diverge from the reality around them; born at the same time, and living next door to one another, they've developed a strange symbiosis which comes under threat when adulthood approaches. There are nonetheless moments when the language does acquire great power, particularly in a soliloquy, beautifully delivered by Murphy, where Pig narrates his vision of his developing relationship with Runt. The language is no barrier, either, to the emotional conclusion of the film, laced with shocking violence and a strange form of compassion that underlines the unique bond between Pig and Runt, who both understand that there is only one method of controlling what they have, however inadvertently, unleashed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Quantum of Solace

2008, UK/US, directed by Marc Forster

Although at least some of the familiar Bond tropes are present here -- most notably Bond's ability to show up in virtually any context wearing Savile Row's finest suits -- the second Daniel Craig entry continues in the back-to-the-origins mould of 2006's Casino Royale. At times, there's a sense that the filmmakers are struggling with the arc of the entire series, as if they want to go back to a metaphorical fork in the road in order to choose instead a path more like that of a John Le Carré rather than the path that led, eventually, to the naked self-parody of the Roger Moore era (even so, there's a hat-tip to the Connery Bonds in the form of a death scene that evokes Goldfinger).

It's hard, though, to mesh the dour realism of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold with the glitz of international jetsetting and the kind of high-octane thrills that bookend, and punctuate, the film; while the film feels populated by characters who might actually be people, they're still people with an unlikely ability to survive the worst possible physical abuse with barely a scratch, and given the requirements of the Bond genre, the brooding can't be allowed to run the show (even if the throwaway one-liners are almost completely absent). Still, one of the film's most enjoyable sequences is on a melancholy transatlantic flight, as Bond and his old pal Mathis drink themselves through the night, wondering what might have been, while the film's coda tries to ground things once again in the kind of chilly Eastern European setting so well employed by Le Carré.

As this installment's main villain, Mathieu Amalric is surprisingly adept at menace given his vaguely nebbish persona in other appearances; the script is careful to portray his amorality in terms of both political and personal power, with those around him easily sacrificed to his larger ambitions. This new Bond's take on geopolitics also tries, in its own way, to turn back the clock, counteracting murky American dealings in Latin America and intervening on the side of the weak: the Americans can't be trusted for a moment, a point made rather obviously, even if Bond's paymasters need the information accumulated by their US counterparts.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Alphabet Meme - Double the Fun

I must enjoy these list things more than I'm willing to admit, for it's been rather enjoyable to put together an entry in this meme, which originated at Blog Cabins (thanks to Thom for the tag). There are rules (see below), but I've broken the very first one by deciding to frame this as a series of 26 double-bills: some logical, some incongruous, some wilfully perverse, all of which I'd pay to see.

Angst essen Seele auf (1974, West Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)/The Apartment (1960, US, Billy Wilder) - Acute social commentaries in very different clothing.
Baara (1978, Mali, Souleymane Cissé)/Back to the Future (1985, US, Robert Zemeckis) - Malian social realism to finely-wrought Hollywood escapism: a pretty good primer on cinema's range of possibilities.

Chinatown (1974, US, Roman Polanski)/Le Corbeau (1943, France, Henri-Georges Clouzot) - A pair of jaded worldviews.

The Dead (1987, UK/Ireland/US, John Huston)/Destry Rides Again (1939, US, George Marshall) - A film that defines 'elegiac' in more than one sense, and the funniest western of them all.

L'Eau froide (1994, France, Olivier Assayas)/El Espiritú de la colmena (1973, Spain, Victor Erice) - The most wonderful party scene committed to film, and one of the most haunting films of the 1970s (Spirit of the Beehive).

Footlight Parade (1933, US, Lloyd Bacon)/Flirting (1990, Australia, John Duigan) - Busby Berkeley! Jimmy Cagney! Joan Blondell! And the most sweetly romantic of coming-of-age films.

The Godfather (1972, US, Francis Ford Coppola)/Goodfellas (1990, US, Martin Scorsese) - Enough mob action to go ungently into the night.

Horse Feathers (1932, US, Norman Z. McLeod)/His Girl Friday (1940, US, Howard Hawks) - The gamut of classic American film comedy, from the anarchic style of the Marx Brothers to the high polish of Hawks.

The Invisible Man
(1933, US, James Whale)/Inside Man (2006, US, Spike Lee) - I'm really quite pleased with my cleverness here; neither film is the director's best, but this is a delicious combo.

J
aws
(1975, US, Steven Spielberg)/Journal d'un curé de campagne (1950, France, Robert Bresson) - Now that I think about it, you'd really have to flip these around: there's no way I'd be able to handle Bresson after Brody and Bruce.
The Killing (1956, US, Stanley Kubrick)/Key Largo (1948, US, John Huston) - A tense, claustrophobic combo.

The Lady Vanishes
(1938, UK, Alfred Hitchcock)/The Lady Eve (1941, US, Preston Sturges) - There's not a lady in sight, when you think about it.
Le Mépris
(1963, France, Jean-Luc Godard)/Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, UK, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) - I'm not sure whether Godard or the Monty Python troupe would take greater offence at this pairing.
La Nuit américaine
(1973, France, François Truffaut)/Notting Hill (1999, UK, Roger Michell) - A pair about the ways in which we love movies and their stars; the second is pure fluff, but very well done fluff.

O
ut of the Past
(1947, US, Jacques Tourneur)/Out of Sight (1998, US, Steven Soderbergh) - Straight-up noir, and noir with a chaser of humorous romance.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg
(1964, France, Jacques Demy)/Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2002, US, Gore Verbinski) - Oh come on, you know this would be a fun evening!
Q
uai des brûmes
(1938, France, Marcel Carné)/The Quiet Earth (1985, New Zealand, Geoff Murphy) - Both, in their different ways, about the depths of loneliness.
La Règle du jeu
(1939, France, Jean Renoir)/The Red Shoes (1948, UK, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) - Out-and-out perfection, in two very different registers: stunning black and white and delirious colour.

S
haun of the Dead
(2004, UK, Edgar Wright)/Singin' in the Rain (1952, US, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly) - This was awfully hard to resist: two utterly different films made with skill and humour, and both in their ways absolutely in love with the movies that inspired them.
T
welve Angry Men
(1957, US, Sidney Lumet)/Todo sobre mi madre (1999, Spain, Pedro Almodóvar) - One's sober, the other's sobre; Lumet to Almodóvar, another pair that gives a sense of cinema's possibilities.
Utu
(1983, New Zealand, Geoff Murphy)/Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi) - Mizoguchi is about the last director you'd associate with a quadruple-barreled shotgun, as wielded by Utu's Bruno Lawrence; this is an especially unsubtle/subtle pairing.

Vertigo (1958, US, Alfred Hitchcock)/Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953, France, Jacques Tati) - After Hitch's icy take on obsession, you'd need a laugh, wouldn't you?

W
alkabout
(1970, Australia, Nicolas Roeg)/Winchester 73 (1950, US, Anthony Mann) - Two great films about the brooding power of landscape (among other things).

Xala (1974, Senegal, Ousmane Sembène)/X-Men (2000, US, Bryan Singer) - A marriage of convenience given the lack of suitable X candidates: Xala's a forceful critique of colonial and post-colonial Senegal, X-Men's an intelligent superhero flick that takes itself less seriously than those Batman movies.
Les Yeux sans visage
(1959, France, Georges Franju)/Y tu mamá también (2001, Mexico, Alfonso Cuarón) - French body horror avant la lettre offset by one of the most enjoyably picaresque road movies of recent years.
Z
appa
(1983, Denmark, Bille August)/Zan Boko (1988, Burkina Faso, Gaston Kaboré) - I didn't have as many Z options as I'd like, but these are fine films: Danish coming of age (the first of a pair of movies by Bille August), and an extremely incisive examination of the confrontation between tradition and modernity in Burkina Faso.
The Rules:

1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.

2. The letter "A" and the word "The" do not count as the beginning of a film's title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don't know of any films with those titles.

3. Movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgment to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.

4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number's word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under "T."

5. Link back to Blog Cabins in your post so that I can eventually type "alphabet meme" into Google and come up #1, then make a post where I declare that I am the King of Google.

6. If you're selected, you have to then select 5 more people.

Re Rule 6: if you think this looks like fun, you are tagged.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

2007, US, directed by Craig Gillespie


One of those films which I quite enjoyed as it was unspooling, but which began to rankle with me almost as soon as it ended. On the surface, it's about a troubled young man, Lars, who has serious difficulties with communication (people keep saying he's fine, which is patently not true, though since the film is set in a Midwestern town with Scandinavian blood in most veins, perhaps they're simply being stoic), and who provides Ryan Gosling with an opportunity to do some acting of the tics-and-hesitations variety, much less subtle than his usual skilled work (thankfully, though, we're a long way from I Am Sam-era Sean Penn).

Really, though, the film's main aim is to craft a portrait of the small town as the perfect, socially-harmonious location (the ironic thing is that the film most often held up as the ne plus ultra of the genre, It's A Wonderful Life, has a strikingly dark core), where all races (yes, we have multi-lingual communication and parties attended by a virtual kaleidoscope of local residents) work in harmony, and where even the strangest afflictions are gently tolerated. Of course, in a way, the town's method for dealing with psychological trouble is more old-fashioned than new age (and you could argue that allowing the troubled to remain part of the community rather than locking them up in an asylum is a lot more humane), but the film insists on the population's modern tolerance in so many other respects that it's hard to give it credit on this score.

It's a shame, because there is an idea here, an exploration of a deep, bone-chilling loneliness, that's very compelling - the more so for the fact that such loneliness could exist in an apparently functional community. Of course, no-one comments on the fact that it's only when a fellow-resident goes completely off the rails that the community feels compelled to assist, while they ultimately seem to spend less time caring for Lars than they do for the blow-up doll who becomes the unlikely object of his thwarted affections. To the film's credit, however, although religion is an important aspect of Lars's self-experssion, it doesn't take the easy route of blaming his predicament on a moralizing church environment; this isn't the Lars (von Trier) of Breaking the Waves, but rather the Lars who experiences some of his most understanding treatment from his fellow parishioners, and the film's portrait of the impact of the church is strikingly positive. 

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Vendredi soir


2002, France, directed by Claire Denis

Although it's exceptionally atmospheric, and lushly beautiful at times, Vendredi soir feels like a minor entry in Claire Denis's oeuvre. It has less resonance than films like Beau travail or US Go Home, perhaps partly because her characters are such blank slates, with little existence beyond the fringes of the film, while the running time ultimately feels over-extended, as if it surpasses what she has to say on this occasion.

The film takes place over twelve hours or so, in the midst of a Paris transport strike, narrating the briefest of trysts between Laure (Valérie Lemercier - best known as a comic actress, and an interesting, and successful, choice here), who is trying to cross Paris by car, and Jean (Vincent Lindon), the hitchhiker she picks up (in almost every sense, ultimately). It's a tryst that taps into a not-uncommon fantasy and it may, indeed, be entirely within Laure's imagination; there are worse ways to while away the boredom of being trapped in traffic.

Laure does at least have the benefit of a modicum of back-story, via a fleeting introduction and an even more fleeting coda; the film begins with her lover's voice on an answering machine, a little like the disembodied voice which speaks to the young woman at the beginning of Denis's earlier Keep It For Yourself. Jean, however, exists almost entirely in terms of how Laure sees him, and since the characters barely speak to one another, we as the audience learn little about him (he exists more as a set of physical impressions, whether it's through his exhilarating style of driving, his languid smoking, his raspy voice, his soft-edged smile).

Plot is not the key concern here: rather, we understand this Friday evening in terms of its sensual textures, whether it be in the discreetly-filmed love scenes, or the colours and sounds of a gridlocked Paris. Denis does capture the feel of the city in a form of benign lockdown with remarkable skill - I lived in Paris through the major 1995 transport strike, and there was a sense in which strangers became accomplices in navigating the clogged streets - and yet at times it's hard not to feel that watching someone stuck in traffic is not a whole lot more interesting than being stuck in traffic. Denis keeps the viewer in the car longer than is perhaps warranted, though it's also a form of tease for what's to come.

(The film was shown at the Harvard Film Archive as part of a Denis retrospective: is it just me, or would it have been a nice touch of humour to screen the film on Friday rather than, as the HFA chose, on Saturday?)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Keep It For Yourself

1991, US/France, directed by Claire Denis

A 40-minute "short", Keep It For Yourself was originally commissioned as an advertisement for the Nissan Figaro, a car that was scheduled for release in the US market but was ultimately never sold outside Japan. Denis was assigned to shoot her film in New York, with other films to be made in Paris and Tokyo, though I've no idea whether either was made, nor if Denis's film bears any resemblance to the original commission.

There's more than a hint of Jim Jarmusch in the film: shot in black and white, John Lurie is on the soundtrack, Jarmusch's brother Tom is involved behind the scenes, and the plot (very loose) recalls Stranger Than Paradise at times, as we follow a young Frenchwoman on her first visit to the US. We're in the New York of the early 1990s: rubbish-strewn, graffiti-scratched, and apparently crime-ridden, but Denis also portrays the city as a place of unexpected tenderness, humour, and care beneath the hard carapace. In a way, it's her Valentine to the city, and our first real sight of the place comes via a stunningly beautiful shot of a building-filled skyline, as the protagonist watches from a moving train.

(In case there's any doubt, the picture above is not from Keep It For Yourself - I couldn't find any stills - but rather of Claire Denis at work on, I think, L'Intrus; the photo appears all over the web, and I don't know to whom it is credited).

US Go Home


1994, France, directed by Claire Denis

US Go Home is Claire Denis's entry in the (legendary) French television project "Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge." The project - which took its title from a Françoise Hardy song - brought together nine directors, each of whom was asked to make a one-hour film about the time when he or she came of age. Several of the films were released as longer theatrical features, but Denis's entry, the final film in the series, adheres to the prescribed length, as well as to the project's other requirements, including the need to include a party scene.

The film is rarely screened, so it was a particular treat to see it and then hear Denis speak about the film afterwards (the Harvard Film Archive recently did a retrospective of her work). She commented that the apparent restrictions of the format were paradoxically liberating: although the project was initiated by someone else, she felt a great freedom in making the film. That sense of freedom is apparent on the screen: it's a beguilingly loose work, atmospheric and intoxicating, with the actors given much room to express themselves. That's particularly obvious in a wonderful early scene in which Grégoire Colin (very much part of the Denis stable ever since, though some of his appearances are the very definition of "fleeting") dances to The Animals' Hey Gyp.

Denis holds the camera on the actor for the entire length of the song (nearly four minutes), allowing serendipity to take some hand in the results (she highlighted particularly an accident where Colin knocked over a lamp, the kind of happy accident that occurs later in the film, too, when Alice Houri has trouble getting a cigarette to light). The scene is a precursor to the extraordinary final sequence in Denis' subsequent Beau Travail, where Denis Lavant dances alone in a discotheque (both actors use cigarettes as props, too). Denis said that the scene was filmed on the first day of the shoot, just a week after she had first met Colin: he was a last-second replacement for an actor who had broken his leg, and she wanted to test him, partly because he was already a trained actor (unlike Alice Houri) and partly because he was so shy. She also noted that allowing the camera to roll much longer than is usually the case creates a certain kind of tension on the set, and she lets other scenes in the film play out at length to see what emerges from the performances.

The core of the film, like that of Olivier Assayas's L'Eau froide, another film in the series, is a long party scene, shot in the half-light of a hazy late night, couples forming and separating, songs cascading one after the other (music is critical to the film, with the final song, by Nico, marking the literal end of an era). Denis captures, with her usual acute sense of atmosphere, the strange sensations of a party that goes on long into the night, with alcohol and cigarettes taking their toll, the guests falling asleep in chairs and in one another's arms. The strange night continues as the Houri and Colin (who play, as in Nénette et Boni, sister and brother) encounter an American soldier (Vincent Gallo) driving around alone in the forest near Rungis, where Denis first lived in France, and concludes with a beautifully composed pre-dawn shot that brings the characters back home.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Beau fixe

1992, France, directed by Christian Vincent

When Beau fixe, which centers on four female medical students, was released in 1992 it seemed like essential viewing, for I was bewitched by a French doctor-to-be at the time. However, the film was never released in Ireland, and it's probably a good thing, too, for it might quickly have ended the infatuation, given that the four young women for the most part appear in a less-than-positive light: they're self-involved and often callous, and quick to betray each other's friendship.

The set-up is like something out of Rohmer: the quartet decamps from Paris to the sea to study for their exams, and they proceed to bicker and break up, all the while toying with the unexpected guest (a cousin of one of the women) with whom they are forced to share the house. Indeed, it's the arrival of Francis (played with a strikingly Tati-esque sense of the awkward by the gangly Frédéric Gélard) that reveals some of the group's least appealing characteristics: even while they differ on other points, they're united in their contempt for the unfortunate young man.

Paradoxically, though, Francis comes to seem the most fully realized of all the film's characters: even when the extremely capable actresses (Isabelle Carré, Estelle Larrivaz, Judith Rémy, Elsa Zylberstein) breathe life into individual scenes, the characters and their interactions have a mechanical air about them. It's only late in the film that we get a better sense of the women (Elsa Zylberstein's character especially) as actual people (a problem to some degree shared by Christian Vincent's previous film, La Discrète). That said, there are some highly enjoyable individual sequences, especially one where the girls watch childhood home movies, filled with a warmth absent from other parts of the film.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

L'Intrus

2004, France, directed by Claire Denis

While Claire Denis' films are frequently more focused on the careful creation of mood and atmosphere than they are on narrative, L'Intrus is unusually elliptical, moving between past and present, imagination and reality, in ways that can make it difficult to tell how particular fragments of the film relate to each other. Denis also chooses to underplay moments that might seem important in a more conventional narrative: an act of violence in this film happens with so little forewarning, and so quickly, that the viewer is caught completely off guard, and needs to re-evaluate what seems essential.

It's not that Denis' film doesn't have a narrative structure - you could probably boil it down to a one-liner that would satisfy even a Hollywood executive from The Player, though he might find it lacked action - but rather that you're never quite sure where in the progression you are. It's a little like dealing with a length of string that has been chopped up and reassembled - but without all of the original pieces, and with some segments deliberately transposed.

In parts, the film reminded me of the intense, absorbing films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: one sequence recalls the forest scenery of Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours, in which the characters wordlessly revel in the sensations of the woodland setting. Indeed, words are at a premium throughout: the central character, Louis Trebor (played by Michel Subor), prefers action to speech, mostly choosing to keep silent. At times, his brooding presence recalls his near-contemporary Philippe Nahon, though Nahon's best-known roles, in Gaspar Noé's films, involve a torrent of (voiceover) commentary. Denis uses sound and its absence as essential elements of her film's texture, with the human silences contrasted by both the repeated themes of Stuart Staples' music and the multitude of ambient noises that are amplified to create a rich soundscape (the sound editing in many of Denis' films is remarkable).

The film is structured around a journey, albeit one which is as much metaphorical as real, a journey deep into the self, and an exploration of one man's deepest motivations. His thought-processes jump from one period of his life to another - there are some carefully tinted sequences that evoke him as a younger man in the Pacific - but also unstitch the scars that mark his life, as he attempts to understand his connections with those around him. While his ultimate destination, in Tahiti, obviously evokes the journeys of Paul Gauguin, seeking something authentic in the Pacific that he was unable to find in France, there's also an aspect of Christopher McCandless to Louis's behaviour, with caution thrown to the wind.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Landmark Theatre - Cambridge

It occurred to me recently that I've been going to the cinema for 30 years now, starting with a long-ago screening of The Cat From Outer Space at a movie palace that no longer exists in Fermoy. Over the decades, I've been fortunate to see films in some wonderful (and occasionally less-than-wonderful) venues, in a tremendous range of cities: small theatres, giant auditoria, outdoor screenings in parks. I'm hoping to add some especially interesting venues on an upcoming trip, and thought it might be fun to give an account of some of the theatres, old and new, where I catch movies.

I'm starting close to home, and while the theatre isn't as interesting as some, it's a venue I find myself in quite frequently: Cambridge's Landmark theatre, part of a smaller US chain that specializes in foreign and independent titles. Landmark has two theatres in the Boston area (neither technically in Boston, though the Cambridge one is about as close as you can get), and Cambridge is much the more "arthouse" minded of the two (as I write, their other local theatre is showing the latest James Bond), with nine screens showcasing primarily fare plucked from the festival circuit, including quite a few documentaries.

The theatre is a step above the usual multiplex, with nice seats, and a much friendlier vibe: the staff are far more engaged than at the minimum-wage multiplexes, and the lobby is clean and inviting. Still, there's not a whole lot of atmosphere here, and it doesn't help that the theatre is located in a part of Cambridge that was once an industrial wasteland - though now it has been colonised by MIT and many tech-heavy companies. That said, one of the things I like best about the theatre is the proximity to good food and drink (Landmark has the usual range of popcorn and sweets, but nothing exciting). Just up the street, for instance, theres Hungry Mother, a top-notch seasonally-inclined new spot (with hipster stylings), and in the nearby courtyard there's Cambridge Brewing Company, one of the best (the best?) microbreweries in the Boston area. Both places have deals with Landmark (we especially like the deal whereby you get a free beer if you get dinner at CBC after your movie...),

Slumdog Millionaire

2008, UK/India, directed by Danny Boyle (and Loveleen Tandan)

It took me a while to come down from the adrenaline high of Slumdog Millionaire to construct some coherent thoughts: like Danny Boyle's earlier films Trainspotting and 28 Days Later the movie hits high gear fast - think of the opening scene in Trainspotting with Ewan McGregor running down a street and freeze-framing in front of a car - and sweeps the audience along somewhat breathlessly to the finale. Just as Trainspotting went beyond cinematic chutzpah to reveal something of the lives of the drug-addled in Edinburgh, Slumdog Millionaire aims to capture the spirit of Mumbai's streets, tracing the city's rapid development - as well as its official change of name from Bombay - since the early 1990s. 

In that, it covers some of the same ground as Mira Nair's 1988 film Salaam Bombay!, also focused on street children, but a much calmer depiction of the lows and occasional highs of life on the edges of Indian society (before the country's major economic changes). Boyle and his screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are, of course, from outside India, but their film doesn't simply come across as a collection of cliches assembled by outsiders: the vibrant images, for instance, are inspired by Bollywood cinema as well as by the splashes of colour in Indian rituals such as Diwali, and are thus grounded in an actual Indian reality. 

The film's set-up exemplifies the idea of a country on the move, straddling a traditional world and a new, globally-minded culture dominated by the young, with the hero, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, one of the few cast members not based in Indian) a teenager who is appearing on the Indian version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The film is structured around the questions that Jamal is asked: each answer reveals something of his life, for we discover the circumstances where he acquired these fragments of knowledge. It's a little articifial at times - and the filmmakers chafe at their own restrictions, cutting some segments to the bone in order to get back to the main storyline. Still, for the most part it  works, constantly returning us to the nervous movie theatre where Jamal progresses through the game, all the while pitting his wits against both the computer and the host (Anil Kapoor, who hits just the right notes of insincerity as he tries to ensure that the show remains focused on him). 

Since the film opens with a rather brutal scene of police torture, the early sequences on the game show tend toward the light-hearted, as if to soften us up for even crueler realities later: a vignette centered around a rumored appearance by the Indian movie megastar Amitabh Bachchan is one of the funniest movie scenes I've seen in a long time (Amitabh was actually the first host of the real Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?). Later answers reveal a much darker side to Jamal's life, and while there's a sweet romance at the centre of the film, Boyle rarely soft-pedals reality, showing us brutal acts of violence, and the systematic destruction of childhood innocence; what makes Jamal remarkable is not that he remains innocent but rather that he retains an almost infinite capacity for hope, an idea that's both hopelessly old-fashioned and absolutely compelling to watch. That capacity drives him far more than does the promise of riches, an idea that the other characters can barely understand - and which even the filmmakers occasionally have difficulty following through on.

This is unashamedly rousing film entertainment, effectively casting a spell over the audience, and tapping into the best of popular Hollywood (and Bollywood, to which it pays particular tribute in the unexpected and utterly captivating closing credits sequence); while the visual style (a mix of lighting styles, camera angles, fast cuts and slow-motion effects that might make Tony Scott jealous) is clearly Boyle's, much of the credit for the tremendous performances from the younger cast members goes to his co-director/casting director Loveleen Tandan, no stranger to cross-cultural productions on the subcontinent.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Samoan Wedding

2006, New Zealand, directed by Chris Graham (original title: Sione's Wedding)

Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding - the comparison clearly occurred to the marketers who changed the original title - Samoan Wedding is also set amongst an immigrant population, in this case Auckland's Samoan community, a group so tightly knit that the film barely features a white New Zealander. While the film's focal point is a wedding, we spend our time not with the betrothed but rather with the groom's older brother and his three buddies, a quartet known only for their ability to create trouble.

Although united in their foolishness - as documented in a very amusing sequence early on, where old wedding videos chronicle their destructive antics - the four aren't cut from exactly the same cloth; they span the spectrum of employment and employability, from a shy mummy's boy (when he hasn't had a drink, that is) to a player who just can't settle down.

These characters are painted with a deliberately broad brush: the film never tries to conceal the fact that we're likely to recognize these types from other movies, nor that we can guess exactly what may happen to at least some of the bros (especially quiet Albert, played by co-writer Oscar Kightley). Instead, director Chris Graham concentrates on keeping the pace sharp - the film never flags, quickly moving from one set-piece to the next, and cross-cutting between the different characters as they resolve their dilemmas - and the lead actors milk every scene for all its comic potential.

There are multiple running jokes - the white boy who's convinced he's authentically ghetto, Stanley's exuberant cross-cultural dance moves ("I think I'm an Irishman trapped in the body of a Samoan") - and some fine physical comedy, and there's even a dash of insight into the community's attempts to integrate locally while preserving island traditions (there's one character who insists on being called Paul instead of Bolo, as if he's uncertain about his Samoan name). That more serious side is very much in the background, however - this is an upbeat portrayal of a minority community, featuring many actors of Samoan origin, rather than a film in the mould of the hard-hitting Once Were Warriors - but there's still a strong sense of the bonds that keep this neighbourhood together, and it's a gentle reminder that New Zealand has more than two sides to its ethnic story.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Moonraker

1979, UK/US, directed by Lewis Gilbert

Moonraker is the only Bond movie I didn't see growing up, and since it's often cited as the nadir of the series -- though how you determine that when it can be awfully hard to tell tongue-in-cheek Bondery from inadvertent foolishness -- I wasn't exactly eager to make up the gap in my viewing. It was a reasonably pleasant surprise to discover that it really isn't that bad. Sure, the reappearance of Richard Kiel's character Jaws is mindless, while the film loses the plot entirely once it goes into orbit -- Bond and Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) make no attempt whatsoever to conceal themselves and yet it takes an age for anyone to cotton on -- but the first hour is solid Bond entertainment.

Especially, that is, for Bond himself: there's an even longer parade of women than is usually the case, so much so that it becomes hard to sort them out, and the unreconstructed nature of the character comes to seem all the more jarring as the world around him changes. On the plus side, Michel Lonsdale is very enjoyable as the slithery, urbane Hugo Drax, delivering even his silliest lines with low-key relish, and playing straight man to the indestructible Bond. Lewis Gilbert, back for his third Bond, films a remarkable number of scenes almost wordlessly, and many of the action scenes have virtually no dialogue at all. At times, this is really quite effective: there's an especially good sequence when James goes exploring Drax's mansion at night, with Gilbert panning the camera away from Bond towards the door to track an unexpected arrival. It's just a shame that as we leave the earth such simple craftsmanship seems to fall away too.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Starsky and Hutch

2004, US, directed by Todd Phillips

It says something about this version of the 1970s cop show - fondly remembered though it only ran, in the end, for four seasons - that I didn't remember I had actually seen the film before until around the halfway mark. I'm not sure if that's a reflection on my indiscriminate movie-watching or the way that the film feels like an extended trailer rather than a coherent story. Like many of the films featuring stars Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, Starsky and Hutch has the air of a sketch comedy: several sequences work extremely well, even when they are completely unconnected to the original TV material (a wacky disco scene, for instance, or a very funny segment that brings the show's latent homoeroticism to the fore), but other sections are terribly over-extended, poor ideas poorly executed. Wilson and Stiller are amiable enough, though they only rarely push themselves, and they are reliant on help from the support cast, especially the reliable Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg and his henchmen, who play their thin material for all its worth.

Friday, September 26, 2008

La Fin du jour

1939, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

It's impossible not to place La Fin du jour in the framework of the end of an era: the film's elegiac quality, not to mention its title, make clear that we're witnessing the conclusion of something precious, something that, as it passes, will transform the world as we've known it. The film was released in France in March 1939, when war was already in the air, and the last hopes raised by the Popular Front government were disappearing into the wind; the film prominently features the song "Le Temps des cérises", emblematic of the French left since the days of the Paris Commune, in one scene that recalls the emotional rendition of the "Marseillaise" in Casablanca (there was even a film with the title Le Temps des cérises in 1937, directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, one of Jean Renoir's collaborators). Duvivier directed another of the key Popular Front films, La Belle équipe, a few years earlier - a film famous, or perhaps infamous, for its alternate endings; there's no similar ambiguity in the conclusion of La Fin du jour.

Duvivier was at the top of the directing game in the 1930s, as the cast lists from his films attest, and La Fin du jour is overflowing with on-camera talent, with a gallery of treasurable character actors crowned by the trio of Michel Simon, Louis Jouvet and Victor Francen (the only weakness is perhaps the young actor who plays Simon's unlikely boy scout pal). The three are brought together in a home for old actors - many of the supporting cast look as though they might have been residents of just such an establishment - where the jealousies, the triumphs and the despair of careers on or near the boards come back to haunt them.
That's not to say that there's anything mechanical about the film, however: these characters aren't simply types but complex personalities, striving to overcome grief or disappointment, or even edging close to insanity after a lifetime of betrayal and self-deception, with the main actors setting even the hint of vanity aside when they portray their characters' more unpleasant tendencies. Still, there's an almost overwhelming sense that they can still preserve something worth saving, something worth the setting aside of petty differences; it's not hard to read the home, threatened from all sides, as a metaphor for the country, and Simon's character, laced with self-delusion and schadenfreude as he is, as the salt-of-the-earth Frenchman willing to make the sacrifices needed to preserve that country.
It's remarkable that the English- and French-speaking cinemas produced, almost simultaneously, two actors as similar as Michel Simon and Charles Laughton, two larger-than-life men who became the unlikeliest of stars in a medium that valued rugged good looks, and both had the ability to play characters far beyond their years: here, Simon plays a man at the end of his life, and he looks the part, yet he was in his early 40s when the film was made, and he was more than capable of casting off the years again when required (he looks far younger in the same year's Fric-Frac). Simon has a magnificent speech, conveying much of what the film implies is worth fighting for, in the middle of the film: each word is perfectly timed, balanced just on the right side of sentimentality. Victor Francen matches him beat for beat at the end, delivering a wonderfully wry and unexpected elegy, a final twist in a battle of wills that somehow seems entirely appropriate.

(These comments follow from David Cairns's admirable attempt to bring La Fin du jour back into public view via his magnificent Duvivier giveaway; you can proceed here for further discussion. Thanks again for your initiative, David!).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Twelve to catch

I'm not as enamoured of lists as some on the movie-obsessed part of the Web - I find the voluminous year-end top ten exercise to be queasily repetitive after a while - but I've been enjoying entries in the recent meme that encourages bloggers to select twelve movies they would like to see from among the many titles that aren't easily available.

These lists are fascinating glimpses into the interests that drive many different lovers of the medium, completely free from any artificial twelve-month restriction, no matter how imaginatively interpreted that time period might be. I'm especially struck by how disciplined other people are in their interests: there are distinct themes - of time period, genre, national origin - running through many of the lists, whereas mine has the look of an accident involving a dozen darts, a couple of beers, and the Time Out film guide. And so, without further ado, I'll pull back the curtain.


Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1980, New Zealand, John Laing) I took a college course on Australian and New Zealand cinema - easily the highlight of my undergraduate education, and a course that strongly influences how I look at movies - and one of the big advantages of the latter country's cinema is that it's pretty easy to see most of the films produced since the modern industry took off in the late 1970s. One of the few exceptions - and, from what I read, a notable one - is this docudrama account of a 1970 double-murder and its infamous legal aftermath, featuring David Hemmings in a lead role. Director John Laing has been behind the camera on various American-financed TV productions filmed in New Zealand; this film, his first, looks to have been the artistic highlight of his career.

Stork (1971, Australia, Tim Burstall) Another film that's a leftover from that long-ago college course, one of the rambunctious and no doubt deeply disreputable 'ocker' comedies that emerged from Australia in the early 1970s and which, not incidentally, helped to pave the way for more artistically-minded film work once it became clear there was a market for locally-produced films (other examples include Alvin Purple, also directed by Burstall, and Bruce Beresford's London-set The Adventures of Barry McKenzie). Since Stork was first out of the traps, it seems only appropriate to start here; I can't help thinking it would be fun to screen this as a double bill with Picnic at Hanging Rock.


Eat the Peach (1986, Ireland, Peter Ormrod) Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s homegrown movies were few and far between, and when something with an Irish connection did appear it was invariably a hard-hitting drama, unlikely to appeal to the average 10-year-old (think Neil Jordan's Angel, Colin Gregg's Lamb, or Pat O'Connor's Cal). Eat the Peach was marketed as rip-roaring fun, the tale of the quixotic attempt to build a motorcycle Wall of Death in the middle of nowhere, but for some reason I never saw it in the theatre and missed every TV showing (usually around Christmas); I suspect that it's an artifact of a pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland that's now long gone and that, as much as anything, makes me curious to finally catch up with it.


Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976, West Germany, Wim Wenders) Despite his status as a critics' darling through the 1980s (he has lost the plot over the last decade or so) it's awfully hard to see Wim Wenders' key early films - titles like this one, Alice in the Cities or The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty. This three-hour meditation on German manhood and society, complete with gorgeous-looking Robby Müller photography (to judge by the trailer) seems the biggest omission of all, and not just because of its running time.
Paris s'éveille (1991, France, Olivier Assayas) Despite pretty glittering critical reviews for his later work, it's tough to get hold of Olivier Assayas's first decade of film work. His debut film, Désordre, captured a certain 1980s anomie and atmosphere with great skill - the film emanates a terrible sadness - but that film and his next four features (including L'Eau froide, which has one of my favourite cinema scenes of all, an extended sequence at a teenage party) are difficult to trace. Paris s'éveille is high on my wish list for its intriguing cast - Godrèche, Léaud, Langmann, Lamotte - and because I love the Jacques Dutronc song with which it shares a title (I wonder if the song appears in the movie).

Is-slottet/Ice Palace (1987, Norway, Per Blom) I stumbled on this film, already half over, late one night when I was in college, and was immediately absorbed by the haunting setting and tone, but decided to stop watching in the hopes of being able to see it from the beginning. Sadly, I've never seen the film pop up again, and despite what seemed an impressive piece of work on this occasion, writer-director Blom appears never to have made another film.

Il Caso Mattei/The Mattei Affair (1972, Italy, Francesco Rosi) Two of Rosi's other semi-documentary features, Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Across the City, made it to DVD a couple of years ago - and deservedly so - but this one is languishing somewhere in a vault. Given the state of post-war Italian politics and business - Rosi's film sounds like a reflection on the 1970s as much as on Mattei's life - it seems like a particularly gaping hole in the director's filmography.

I used to love watching atmospheric old British movies - and their Hollywood backlot equivalents - on television when I was growing up, and while Thorold Dickinson is hardly unknown, I have only been able to find his 1940 version of Gaslight here in the US (as an extra to George Cukor's 1944 American version). I'd love to see The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Java Head, or The Next of Kin, just to name three.

The Phenix City Story (1955, US, Phil Karlson) I recorded this when it played on TV perhaps ten years ago, but when I went to watch the film something had gone terribly wrong with the sound and it didn't seem right to watch it as a silent. However, for reasons I don't fully understand the film isn't commercially available [2011 update: the film is now available on DVD in the US]. It's set in an Alabama town with a sin city reputation, and was filmed on location, a relative rarity; Jonathan Rosenbaum, an Alabama native, rates the movie's unsparing take on local life very highly, and that's a sound recommendation for me.

Heimat 3 - Chronik einer Zeitenwende (2004, Germany, Edgar Reitz) It's cheating a little since this film is mainly seen as a TV mini-series, though it did get a theatrical premiere, and also because I could order the DVD without any trouble, but I wonder how I'd find the time to actually sit down and do it justice. I loved the first two installments -- from 1984 and 1993 respectively -- but these days I just don't seem to have the multiple evenings of free time that this film demands, and watching it haphazardly over the course of months would surely diminish the cumulative effect of this superior soap opera/chronicle/social commentary/historical sketch. I was transfixed by moments -- of human connection and disconnection, or unexpected plot twists -- in the earlier films, and can't help but feel that they were earned by virtue of plunging into Reitz's world for a week at a time.

Le Wazzou polygame (1971, Niger, Oumarou Ganda) It's not news that African films are hard to find on DVD, especially in the English-speaking market (there is a French company with a reasonably impressive roster of films: you'd think that it might be worth their while to add an English subtitle track to some of their releases). We can only see four features by a filmmaker of Ousmane Sembène's stature -- and not always, to my mind, his finest work -- but there are entire directorial careers lost to the watching public, small as it might be. Oumarou Ganda was an important 1970s filmmaker from Niger, whose career was cut short by his untimely death in 1981, and I'm immensely curious to know how his work fit together with other African films of this time. (The film is available at most French cultural institutes as part of an admirable box set released in 2005, featuring all of the winners of the FESPACO film festival, but I haven't been able to track down a copy).


The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, US, Frank Capra) I'm on the fence about Capra -- as his career developed, he became a little too sentimentally overblown for my taste, whereas I love most of what he made in the early 1930s -- but it's extraordinary that this isn't available on DVD given the continued popularity of many of his films. I thought that the 2007 Barbara Stanwyck centenary might have provided an opportunity, but I think I need to call time on that idea.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, US, Leo McCarey) I've seen plenty of appreciations of Leo McCarey's directorial talents around the web in recent years, but this one's here for Charles Laughton, a performer of extraordinary physicality. As with France's Michel Simon, it seems amazing that someone with a physique like his ever became a star at all, but there seems to have been no shortage of outsize roles for him: in the same year he appeared as Javert in Les Misérables and as Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Some enterprising soul uploaded the entire thing to Youtube, but a film like this surely deserves better (I'd love to be able to decide for myself).

(Top picture:
Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road; other pictures are linked to the film immediately below the picture.)

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