Sunday, September 27, 2009


1999, New Zealand, directed by Robert Sarkies (US Title: Crime 101)

It's hard to avoid comparing Scarfies with Danny Boyle's début feature Shallow Grave: a motley collection of flatmates, an atmospheric location, an unexpected windfall, an occasionally unsettling blend of violence and comedy, and plenty of visual style. The key difference, however, is that while Shallow Grave featured a very dead benefactor, here the source of the windfall is very much alive, presenting the flatmates with a major dilemma: he's a nasty bit of work, but they have, nonetheless, taken away his income.

As the film progresses, it becomes something of Stanford Prison Experiment in miniature, with the house's inhabitants testing their boundaries as they decide what to do with their prisoner, and their loyalties begin to disintegrate as they begin to contemplate more outlandish solutions; the fun is rapidly leached away once they realize the consequences of their actions. The major weakness here, however, is the fact that the roommates haven't all been sketched in with the same degree of detail: the concerns expressed by Emma (Willa O'Neill) and Scott (Neill Rea) are well-grounded in character, whereas the other roommates are fairly one-note caricatures.

The decrepit old house where the film is set provides plenty of room for visual invention, and Sarkies moves his camera around corners and through floors in clever ways, although it's not always that easy to understand the geography of the place. As much as the film recalls Shallow Grave in its plotline, it's not hard to see the more local influence of Peter Jackson; the hidden horrors and visual trickery aren't a million miles from Jackson's Braindead, although Scarfies is a much more coherent bit of work.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

La Rupture

1969, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

The startling opening scene of La Rupture recalls the first few minutes of Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, with both films beginning with sequences of frightening marital strife that apparently conclude in violence. There's no time to settle in to either film, and it's a jarring strategy that ensures we're off balance for the remainder of either film. That La Rupture begins with what seems like an homage to another film is appropriate, too, for Chabrol weaves similar quotations into the remainder of the film - most obviously with the inclusion of a tram scene that references Murnau's Sunrise.

The Hitchcock comparison seems especially apt, given that both films are a blend of themes and tones: Young and Innocent is by turns lightly humorous, tense, and brutal where La Rupture veers from the mundane to the outlandish and drug-addled (with a bizarre film-within-a-film just to top things off). Chabrol's protagonist, played by Stéphane Audran, is a generally credible working mother who finds herself in a strange boarding house filled with comic types (the card-playing old women, the ham actor, the drunken buffoon landlord), and there's a constant sense of being off-balance for we never know quite how a scene will play out: the climactic act of violence comes complete with pop-up comic effects, whereas the matter of a child custody case has more conventional legal discussions and parental jockeying.

Chabrol extends that sense of the unexpected with his filming style, and particularly his editing choices: one shot cuts abruptly to the next, making us wonder how much time has passed or where we are. It's very difficult to make out the geography of the boarding house as a consequence, although the quick cuts do add a great sense of urgency to the film, and particularly help to foster tension when we're never quite sure when a character might reappear to upend carefully laid plans.

(The picture above was taken from Ed Howard's blog; I watched the film on VHS and was unable to get any decent frame grabs).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Strangers on a Train

1951, US, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I watched this in preparation for David Cairns's Film Club, which he cannily amalgamated with his weekly Hitchcock update on this occasion - he's been watching all of Hitchcock's surviving features week-by-week - so this is as much a reaction to that event as to the film itself. David's done such a fine job of detailing the film's many startling moments - the shot that sticks out for me is the wonderful image where Bruno stands on the steps of the Capitol as Guy, by now thoroughly rattled, drives by in a taxi - and strong performances that I'll focus on just a few ideas.

I first saw the film fifteen years ago, and the main thing that remained with me was the frantic carnival finale, still impressively sweaty here. Watching the film again, though, I was struck by some of the correspondences with Dial M For Murder, particularly the long conversations that open - or nearly open - both films and which introduce the murders which then set the wheels in motion. That the conversation in Strangers on a Train takes place on the rails seems crucial: once Bruno (Robert Walker) gets going with his latest "theory" of perfect murder, he can't be diverted, even when Guy (Farley Granger) shows little apparent interest in the scheme. From the first moment the idea is introduced, there's a sense that Bruno's hurtling along an inevitable path, just as the feet that cross the station in the film's opening minutes seem fated to encounter one another.

There are, of course, more superficial overlaps, too: like Tony Wendice in Dial M For Murder, Guy is a tennis player, and post-playing careers are crucial for the two men, and in both cases a particular woman may complicate those off-court plans. Indeed, sport is seen as a way to forge a path into a different social class: Guy can leave behind the small-town sordidness of his soured marriage for a glittering political career in Washington.

There's also something of a precursor to Hitchcock's use of space in Dial M For Murder, through the use of a map that is supposed to assist Guy in carrying out what Bruno sees as Guy's part of their murderous "bargain." Hitchcock focuses on the document twice, the second time using it to trace a careful path through Bruno's house so that when Guy must find his way in the dark we know exactly where he is at all times. There's no map in the later story, but we're always absolutely certain where the characters are, so carefully does Hitchcock define the geography of his set.

Monday, September 07, 2009

State of Play

2009, US, directed by Kevin Macdonald

I've not seen the 2003 BBC drama series on which Kevin Macdonald's film is based so I don't know if it portrays the media in more locally-specific ways, but with the exception of a few tech-friendly upgrades, this American remake could be drawn from the Watergate-era glory days of investigative journalism. While the narrative makes much of the transformations American newspapers are currently experiencing - the grizzled hack is contemptuous of the young hire on blogging duty - in the end, it's old-school journalism that gets the scoop.

Perhaps because the filmmakers are squeezing a mini-series into a shorter running time, the action seems very compressed at times, with barely a moment to try to absorb the shenanigans. In a way, though, that's not a bad reflection of the modern cable-news cycle: every event is immediately transformed into a media happening, with pundits on every channel and a reporting frenzy of satellite dishes, laptops, and jangling phones. The only disconnect is that the central journalist, Cal McCaffrey - Russell Crowe, who is much better employed here than in Body of Lies - looks like he's still working with a pencil and a Rolodex. If only that were enough to save the newspapers...


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States