1981, France, directed by Patrice Leconte
David Bordwell has an illuminating and amusing post on movie titles (how many writers on film have a breadth of reference that extends from Rodney Dangerfield to Robert Bresson?), and when it came to scribbling some notes on this film it struck me that there was a wave of outsize French comedy titles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of them are attached to Patrice Leconte's earlier films: in addition to this movie, he directed Circulez y'a rien à voir, Ma femme s'appelle reviens and Les vécés étaient fermés de l'intérieur. Others got in on the act with Pour 100 briques t'as plus rien, Les hommes préfèrent les grosses, T'empêches tout le monde de dormir and other titles in a similar vein, though the number of syllables in the titles in no way guarantees the thoughtfulness of the end product.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
1981, France, directed by Patrice Leconte
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Tandem marks a concerted attempt by Patrice Leconte to move away from his earlier, broadly comic films to a style more concerned with detailed character development and a greater degree of visual sophistication (the film announces this intention right from the opening, with a lovely tracking shot that progresses from the side of a busy road right onto the blacktop, as we watch a car approach). While Leconte had already moved beyond the sketch-based comedies that made his name, this film shows a greater degree of control over tone, working carefully in a bittersweet register that largely skirts sentimentality.
The film is focused on Michel Mortez (Jean Rochefort), a middle-aged radio presenter who travels the length of France with his down-to-earth quiz show, with his driver/engineer Rivetot (Gérard Jugnot) in tow to smooth out glitches both electronic and interpersonal. There's an essential ambiguity in Mortez's - and the film's - attitude to the provinces where he makes his living. Mortez is a master of surviving the incessant round of local dignitaries he encounters, but views his Parisian apartment as a kind of refuge from what he must endure while on the road. Similarly, the small towns we see throughout the film are generally presented as grim places where little happens (or, indeed, has ever happened: Mortez's patter is brilliantly modeled on real radio shows, highlighting each community's points of pride, while implying that such local fervour is misplaced).
Friday, July 25, 2008
It's tempting to read Guillaume Canet's film as the revenge of the provinces on those who've constructed their settled adult existences in Paris - you can't, as it were, escape your origins even if you leave them far behind. The film begins with the disappearance and apparent death of a young woman, whose husband (a paediatrician, played by François Cluzet) is left to pick up the pieces of his life. However, events quickly throw that (only marginally successful) effort entirely off balance, in a manner that initially implies one of those vast international conspiracies so beloved of the movie world. It's bracing, then, to see the tentacles of the French country bourgeoisie, rather than a Jason Bourne-esque rogue agency, emerge from the shadows, and the revelations come thick and fast in the film's finale, with versions of the truth piling up on each other.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Though Claude Miller's primary cinematic mentor was François Truffaut - Miller even filmed one of Truffaut's scripts, for La Petite voleuse - Miller has clearly paid attention to the work of another nouvelle vague stalwart, Claude Chabrol, for he invests this potentially mechanical cat and mouse thriller with a chilling sense of dead end provincial life. The film doesn't have quite the bite of films like Le Boucher or La Cérémonie, which showcase Chabrol's fine eye for the details of the French class structure, but it breathes some of the same air, while Miller steadfastly refuses to sensationalise his material, preserving a spare tone when referring to the crimes that underpin the action.
The film is centered on a confrontation between a policeman (Lino Ventura, in one of his last really meaty roles) and a lawyer (Michel Serrault) who is the prime suspect in a series of murders. It's not entirely a face-off between the two leads, though: Guy Marchand has a nice part as Ventura's colleague, and Romy Schneider, in her penultimate film, makes a short but critical appearance as the lawyer's wife, giving her own version of the events that have led to her husband's extended interview.
Ventura and Serrault are well-matched, with Ventura playing the burly cop as a by the book kind of fellow, despite the fact that Ventura was no stranger to more rough-edged roles, some on the other side of the law entirely. Serrault, for his part, makes intelligent use of his own ambiguous sexuality, allowing the lawyer to appear alternately emasculated and potentially possessed of terrible demons (it's a much subtler performance than that he gave in the Cage aux folles films around the same time). The film doesn't, ultimately, have quite the same sense of personal investment that Miller has brought to other projects, especially his wonderful first film, La Meilleure façon de marcher, but it's an effective guessing game with a stunning conclusion.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The index of films is finally up and running: all the films I've written about now appear on the list, complete with links back to the original entries. Particular thanks to my wife, who did the vast majority of the (tedious) work to get the index up to date, and who created all of the links; she also spotted various errors into the bargain, so the whole blog should be much improved in the next few weeks.
The index is strictly alphabetical, as if there were no word breaks, and I ignore articles that begin a title ("a", "an", "the" and their equivalents in other languages where I'm aware they are articles). Where a film is reasonably well-known by both an English and a non-English title, it appears in the list twice, unless the non-English title is in an alphabet with which I'm unfamiliar.
Now to get up to date with my most recent viewing!
(Picture from The Ident Zone)
Monday, July 14, 2008
2007, US, directed by Mike Nichols
The storytelling style of Charlie Wilson's War is of a piece with the man whose work it purports to depict, a Texan good old boy who happens to be a liberal Democrat rather than a Republican, and whose hedonistic ways seem tailor-made for a good Congressional scandal (it's hard to imagine him surviving long in the era of the Internet, and perhaps that's a shame). As such, it's a self-consciously rollicking good time which plays fast and loose with the facts, implying essentially that we owe Charlie Wilson for the end of the Cold War (and, less nobly, the arming of Afghanistan). The movie makes use of old mythologies of the west, specifically that of the straight-shooter out to set things right and save the oppressed - and as such radically simplifies the byways of Washington politics.
Some of those simplifications come with the territory of cinema, which often seems better suited to telling tales of individual action rather than collective decision-making. While Nichols and his scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, a man utterly captivated by the corridors of Washington power, make occasional attempts to paint in some of the background complexities, such as in a visit to Pakistan, the film's breezy pacing (not always a strength of Nichols's film work) and frequently comic tone - particularly in one extended sequence where Wilson attempts to fend off a breaking scandal while discussing the details of a CIA operation - generally leave little room for shades of grey. If it were all fictional, this probably wouldn't seem of great note, but the fact that such shenanigans take place against a backdrop of very real conflict is sometimes discomfiting. On the plus side, Tom Hanks, playing a less squeaky-clean character than usual, is surprisingly strong as Wilson, a political player if ever there was one, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as his blunt CIA contact, always ready to cut to the chase.
2004, Burkina Faso/France, directed by Dani Kouyaté
Dani Kouyaté's third feature - after Keita! L'héritage du griot and Sia, le rêve du python - is one of the strongest recent movies I've seen from Africa, a film of tremendous energy and warmth that, sadly, hasn't received the distribution it deserves. While Kouyaté's previous films deal to a great degree with mythologies of the African past - and the ways in which they impact on the present - Ouaga Saga feels more determinedly modern, playing with mythologies of a very different kind, as it draws in images, in particular, from American popular cinema. In that, the film follows in an African filmmaking tradition set in motion by Djibril Diop Mambéty, a tradition likely to co-opt images and ideas from across different cultures - one of Mambéty's films is an adaptation of a Swiss play - and given sustained life by Cameroon's Jean-Pierre Bekolo.
Kouyaté's film makes reference to an extraordinary breadth of cinematic history, challenging some academic analyses of African cinema, which have a tendency to obscure the rich popular cinemas - American and Indian in particular - that also beguile African audiences and African filmmakers (I remember attending a question and answer with the Burkinabé director Fanta Regina Nacro, who mischievously upended a questioner by indicating that the main inspirations for her first short film were not from Africa at all, but rather from Chaplin and Hitchcock).
The first section of Ouaga Saga is reminiscent of sequences in Sembène's novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu and Tierno Monénembo's later work Cinéma, both of which underline the tremendous popularity of cowboy movies; in those novels, the characters throw plot points and favourite titles back in forth in a kind of conversational combat. Here, we see the cinema audience in an early scene transfixed by every gunfight and horseback chase, while later one of the characters - known as Sheriff, and clearly the most obsessive of the bunch - gives an account of a film viewing that conflates parts of The Magnificent Seven with The Wild Bunch and Gunfight at the OK Corral, and many more besides (that the audience is depicted in front of Rio Bravo, a film with little of the kind of action we see imitated, is perhaps just a filmmaker's in-joke).
Kouyaté's reference points aren't limited, however, to westerns, or to the West - later in the film, the title of one of Claire Denis's films, S'en fout la mort, which deals with African immigrants in France, is painted on a minibus, while one of Ouaga Saga's characters dresses in clothes that recall the male protagonist from Mambéty's Touki Bouki. What's remarkable about all this, though, is the expert way in which Kouyaté weaves the cinematic references into the fabric of the film so that they enhance rather than distract from his story: his film breathes deeply of the air of Ouagadougou, insisting on the idea that there's hope to be found in those streets too rather than simply in far away cinematic worlds.
Despite the global points of reference, explicitly celebrated in the film's conclusion, Kouyaté never loses sight of the specificity of his setting, and the economic realities - and institutional challenges - his characters are likely to face, but he refuses to envelope them in miserabilism, adopting instead the kind of upbeat, celebratory tone of the Congolese success La Vie est belle - notably one of the most successful of African films in Africa. If Kouyaté were able to get his film distributed - in Africa and elsewhere - he might find himself with a similar hit on his hands.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Kung Fu Panda opens on a high note, with a stunning dream sequence that's animated in bold colours and shapes by James Baxter, who very consciously channels the story's Chinese setting. After such an introduction, it's hard not to feel a little let down by the return of the film's regular world, which is animated in a much more conventional (digital) style; it has the beautifully rendered down-to-the-last-hair characters familiar from modern computer work, and which sometimes seem more interesting as an animator's challenge than as an artistic achievement that comes fully to life.
That's not to deny, however, the tremendous energy of the enterprise: even if the story is schematic and predictable, the film has great verve, with a brisk running time and several cleverly constructed set pieces (there's a prison escape that's genuinely thrilling, filled with foreboding). As the voice of Po, the titular Panda, Jack Black is excellent, wittily narrating that opening dream sequence - filled with Po's wildest hopes - and capturing the character's almost inexhaustible optimism in the face of what seem overwhelming odds. While there's quite an array of voice talent elsewhere in the film, it mostly seems under-utilised: only Dustin Hoffman as the kung fu master really develops a distinctive vocal identity, world-weary yet willing to take one last spin with a new pupil.
Ah, the things you'll watch late at night on a hotel TV in a strange city. Like many a sleek Hollywood vehicle, Bad Company passes the time effectively enough, but as soon as it's done, it's banished from the brain. Perhaps that's no bad thing, for the film makes terribly light of nasty nuclear-bomb stealing terrorists and messy bloodbaths, as it tries unsuccessfully to graft Chris Rock's rapid-fire patter to an often violent thriller.
The film presents itself as a face-off between Rock and straight-laced Anthony Hopkins, a CIA veteran who barely cracks a smile, but even this confrontation is a damp squib since the pair have relatively few scenes together; the film's (absurd) premise results in Hopkins spending what seems to be much more time watching Rock on surveillance cameras rather than actually acting with him. In any case, while Rock brings some energy to proceedings - making the absolute most of his lines - his co-star mostly looks as though he's sleepwalking his way to a paycheck on this occasion. As the film progresses, the brutality seems ever more jarring when juxtaposed with Rock's routine, while the coda is incongruous, with no justification in what precedes it.
The second of the Narnia films pre-supposes a pretty solid of the back story inherited from the first film, despite subsequently heading off in new directions and introducing additional characters, and I confess that - perhaps because of my jetlag - the early going was something of a challenge as I tried to remember the series's mythology on the fly. The filmmakers clearly assumed that this might be an issue, since there are several expository scenes that regurgitate the key elements for our benefit, rendering the first half hour or so a little flat-footed. The obvious point of comparison is with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, which spent far less time filling in these gaps, though he had the benefit of a clearer narrative quest, whereas the Narnia saga takes place in distinctly different phases, that no amount of scriptwriting ellipsis can avoid. Jackson's films rear their heads during the action sequences, too, since Andrew Adamson has clearly taken a page or two from his predecessor's book, though in truth recent CGI-rendered battle sequences are all becoming rather similar in their use of sweeping overhead shots of digitally clashing armies.
As you might expect from a filmmaker who cut his teeth on the Shrek franchise, Adamson sometimes seems more at home when dealing with the animated animal characters than with the human action. Individuals like the badger Trufflehunter and, especially, Reepicheep, a rapier-wielding mouse amusingly voiced by Eddie Izzard, are nicely rendered, and are also well-integrated with the "real" action. Reepicheep provides essential comic relief against a backdrop that is sometimes surprisingly grim, with the young humans involved in battles and political intrigues that push them to decisions for which they're not yet ready.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
2008, US, directed by Louis Leterrier
If nothing else, the 2007 incarnation of The Incredible Hulk could serve as something of a master-class in the problems of big-budget Hollywood superhero cinema. It starts out brightly enough, with a real and, for American cinema, unusual sense of place in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; director Louis Leterrier makes excellent use of the cramped, sweaty locales in an extended chase sequence (though one can't help thinking that in reality escape would be a whole lot easier in a location that makes the casbah seem like a well-ordered place), while it seems like an authentically teeming place in which to lose oneself in a more metaphysical sense. The film also takes the time to sketch in at least some of the human dilemmas that come from Bruce Banner's unusual situation, while Edward Norton deftly conveys Banner's conflicted feelings over what he himself has unleashed.
However, once the Hulk shenanigans kick in, the film quickly becomes a much more conventional beast. The film is centered around three major confrontations, each bigger than the last, so that it becomes a little like watching an extended boxing bout where the weight class keeps increasing, and the lumbering heavy- and super-heavyweights bludgeon each other repeatedly. Despite all of the manoeuvring, there's inevitably no real sense of suspense - why kid yourself about the outcome? - which in retrospect makes me think that perhaps the abbreviated climactic face-off of Hancock has a certain intelligence, since at least that way we spend more of the film's running time dealing with recognisable human beings rather than CGI effects, however expensive. At times, Leterrier makes reference to monster movies of an earlier generation - a rare quiet scene in the Great Smoky Mountains evokes both King Kong and the memorable, if bowdlerised, scene from the 1931 Frankenstein when the monster picks flowers with a little girl - which only serves to re-emphasise that the contemporary tendency to fling special effects dollars at the screen guarantees little more than a big opening weekend.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
2004, France, directed by Olivier Marchal
It takes a certain degree of chutzpah to include a reference to one of the great French films of the 1940s, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des Orfèvres, in the title of your film. It's especially unfortunate, then, that the connection is so tenuous: despite a fine cast (Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu are both excellent), the earlier film's concern with character subtleties is replaced here by an excess of overwrought plotting and an obsession with firearms (the DVD even includes an extra that details the selection of the film's various armaments, and they are many and various).
There are several nicely choreographed sequences, most notably the film's opening, which intercuts a crime and a celebration, but the film rarely returns to such territory, instead running through an ever more convoluted set of narrative twists. It's a pity that an actual cop can't do more to convey an authentic sense of the French streets and precincts - Xavier Beauvois's recent Le Petit lieutenant somehow comes across as a more accurate glimpse into the world of the police.
Monday, July 07, 2008
France, 1986, directed by Olivier Assayas
It's not hard to trace many of Olivier Assayas's subsequent interests in this, his first feature (after several years as a critic for Les Cahiers du cinéma). Like L'Eau froide, for instance, Désordre deals with characters, who - in contrast to the inhabitants of many French films - tend to have great difficulty expressing themselves in words; there's a pervasive air of modern-day ennui, with the characters often drifting from one thing to the next, demonstrating little sense of pleasure in life, even when they're following the musical dreams that bring them together.
As in his later work, Assayas looks persistently outwards: where later films deal with Asia, for instance, this story of apparently small-scale musicians moves to London and later to New York (a version of New York that hearkens back to early-period Abel Ferrara, but which has essentially disappeared now), the music an international hybrid sung in English (and reminiscent, at least in the oddball stage stylings, of Ian Curtis and Joy Division).
The film opens with a shot of a tiled roof, dripping wet: the shot recalls Hong Kong action cinema, and it's easy to imagine a black-clad fighter emerging from the shadows; the camera tracks down, however, to a more prosaic - though ultimately no less dramatic - scene of petty crime, an event that overshadows the rest of the film, but which Assayas refuses to over-dramatise (the very fact of underplaying the consequences of the scene reinforces their enormity, as well as the human capacity for concealment).
Assayas makes use of a very limited colour palette (unless there was something strange about the copy I saw), leaching out the brightness in favour of a drab, industrialised greys; the rare outdoor scenes take place in overcast, wintry weather (the film might have been named Fin janvier, début février), reinforcing the oppressive atmosphere. While Désordre doesn't have quite the emotional resonance of several of Assayas's later films - unless, perhaps, one identifies with the characters to a greater degree - it's an impressively controlled piece of work that refuses easy resolution.
2008, US, directed by Peter Berg
Though there's no doubt that Will Smith can carry a movie on his own - he had to do all of the heavy lifting in his last couple of outings, after all - he seems to benefit here from the presence of a straight man, in the form of Jason Bateman, an actor who, after an enjoyable television career, is rapidly becoming one of my favourite big-screen character players. Indeed, he cedes screen time to two strong supporting actors, with Charlize Theron also delivering an engaging performance; Hancock, the rough-around-the-edges superhero essayed by Smith, is perpetually ill-at-ease in her presence, giving the film much of its humour and all of its sexual tension.
While the troubled superhero genre is rapidly being done to death - and is killing much in the way of summer movie alternatives - this is a diverting entry: while the climax seems extremely rushed, and not well integrated with the rest of the film, in a way the fact that the film rejects the exigencies of plot in favour of at least minimal character development is a refreshing change. We actually have the time to stop and think about the relationship between Bateman and Theron - which Peter Berg films in warm close-ups, often without dialogue, in contrast to the colour- and soundscape elsewhere in the film - while the film's big twist seems like more than a simple plot device; by the time it occurs, we've established some emotional connection with the characters.
It's a pity Berg can't preserve the human focus for more of the film's running time, because the effects-laden sequences are poorly constructed, and often verge on the incoherent (the high-octane closing sequences of his previous film, The Kingdom were much more clearly staged). I couldn't help but feel a little queasy, too, at the film's central conceit, that is, that even the worst behaviour can be excused away with a little well-directed PR; as the Bush administration's eighth year winds down, it's really not the kind of thought I like to entertain.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
2007, US, directed by Rob Reiner
It's a commonplace to wonder what happened to Rob Reiner's career after such a strong start in the mid-1980s; even with fare like The Bucket List he shows himself, technically at least, to be a more than competent filmmaker in the Hollywood idiom but either he's not offered anything more interesting or he's quite happy churning out mediocre (and sometimes lucrative) movies. This whiled away the time on a long plane ride, but even there I couldn't get over the sheer unlikeliness of the concept, as well as the way in which the film justifies the contemptuous behaviour of one of the characters towards his wife.
Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are both on autopilot, Jack receding ever further into the old roué "Jack Nicholson" character he has essayed so many times of late, while Freeman channels his increasingly familiar "wise black man" persona to the point of self-parody. The film is exceptionally schematic - you can sense each development as it creaks into view, while the central road/air trip is an unimaginative one-place-succeeds-another slide show - and the script's plodding momentum ultimately means there are few real opportunities for the two actors to make things come alive. In any case, they're mostly upstaged by Sean Hayes, who does a fine job with a limited supporting part, injecting a note of venom that's welcome amid the treacle.
Director David Ayer's first big critical success was his script for Antoine Fuqua's 2001 Training Day, and he has been mining the raw-edged turf of LA policing ever since. Though the script this time around originated with James Ellroy, another writer fascinated by violent action and complex plotting - perhaps to excess at times - the film comes across as a kind of sequel to Training Day and as with most sequels the qualities that made the original intriguing have been removed in favour of a much more simplistic set-up. Keanu Reeves's cop, Tom Ludlow, is an almost comically jaded and flawed detective, starting his day by vomiting into his toilet and then heading out for a few shots of vodka behind the wheel (followed by a little of the old ultra-violent policing; the body count is extremely high).
That Reeves happens to be rather good cast against type, pudgier around the edges than normal - the absolute antithesis of the conventional LAPD hero material of Speed - makes it disappointing that Ayer and Ellroy can't do something more interesting with the material. Ultimately, they simply reiterate the by-now commonplace notion that the LAPD is an irredeemably compromised, and often corrupt, society unto itself. Ayer seems to have asked Forest Whitaker (as Jack Wander, Ludlow's superior) to continuing channeling Idi Amin for his role, a kingpin cop who possesses a strange mix of beguiling charm and ruthless self-justification, one eyelid drooping precariously low.
Though the fiendishly clever heist genre is a little overdone in comparison to the actual frequency of such events in the real world, I've always been a fan of the more well-tooled entries, and Flawless is both promising and a little different in its early going. Unlike most such films, the thieves aren't numerous or even in cahoots when the film begins, while they're also not blessed with absurdly expensive gear, just an intelligent plan to which they must carefully adhere. In any case, the film is far less interested in the mechanics of the heist - the only thing that holds the Ocean's Eleven series of films together - than in the characters of the two individuals involved; one of them even makes a specialty of studying the other's psychology. There are also veins of commentary on post-war British society - particularly its healthcare structure - and sexual politics that add a little more depth than usual, though the film can't always deal with such burdens.
Unfortunately, there's ultimately not quite enough attention to the aforementioned mechanics, for the plotting becomes rather muddled - it's as if important bits of information are entirely elided, and the scale of the theft itself simply isn't credible given the time and resources (the film makes the mistake of showing us exactly what's happening, and I didn't buy it). Still, the central performances from Demi Moore - who reminds us that she's a decent actress at heart - and Michael Caine - for whom no reminder is needed - are enjoyable, and just about paper over the cracks while the film is unspooling; Lambert Wilson, an actor I've always liked, is also wonderfully smooth in support.