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.

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