Monday, May 25, 2009

Dean Spanley

2008, UK/New Zealand, directed by Toa Fraser

I haven't seen Toa Fraser's first film, No. 2, a contemporary saga of a Fijian community in Auckland that sounds like it breathes some of the same air as Sione's Wedding, but this is quite a change of pace - a (literal) shaggy dog tale set in Edwardian England, with an excellent cast featuring Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Peter O'Toole (in full old curmudgeon mode) and Bryan Brown, an actor who's only intermittently found really juicy roles but who's been consistently generous in lending his profile to small-scale Australian productions. 

There's nothing particularly New Zealand about the film, despite Fraser and Neill's work, although there's a strong sense of Britain's role as a colonial power, whether through Brown's character, a typical Aussie larrikin who seems to have a finger in every pie, or the frequent references to the Boer War (distant, half-explained war deaths hang over several characters). 

Most of the film's pleasures come from watching a fine set of actors interact, with Neill particularly good; he's not always taken that seriously as an actor, but here he punctures his more serious turns - particularly in Jane Campion's The Piano - with subtle humour. Fraser's direction has its own fun with Campion's film, lifting her - occasionally derided - overhead shots of tea and cakes for comic effect. Tea, though, isn't this film's beverage of choice: afterwards, you may wish to run out to investigate the pleasures of tokaj

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

1977/1980, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Spielberg has been such a ubiquitous Hollywood presence for my entire movie-going life that it was something of a surprise to be reminded that I haven't seen his entire back catalogue; this was the most celebrated of the few omissions. I'm a big fan of his first few films, where Spielberg already shows tremendous filmmaking skill (notwithstanding the technical horror stories from the set of Jaws) but also has a sense of proportion that ensures his films retain a human scale.

Close Encounters was the first indication that his movies were likely to morph into something less tight and visceral, with the special effects in the "Special Edition," the version I watched, ultimately proving less thrilling than the earlier, earthbound segments (just as Jaws succeeds by not showing the shark, it's the unseen and inexplicable that's most compelling here). 

There's a brilliant sequence early on, for instance, where air traffic controllers crowd the shot - more and more heads joining the fray, staring intently at a radar display - as a pilot reports a strange phenomenon. Despite never leaving the cramped control room it's one of the film's strongest moments, making wonderful use of the frame and of radio-traffic sound effects (Orson Welles might have been proud). Another odd event, later, is filmed from within the cab of a pick-up truck and it's a sequence as eerie as anything involving motherships and gangly aliens.

Even though the film's later sequences are a touch overblown, there's still great pleasure to be mined from the panoply of film references, whether it's the old-fashioned slapstick of Richard Dreyfuss struggling with a rubbish collector, the nod to the concluding segments of Hitchcock's North by Northwest, or the more insular reference to the music from Jaws - as well as the various movies that play in the background at key moments. From my perspective, there was also the intrigue of wondering just why young Barry, the little boy so fascinated by with the lights in the sky, wanders around in a Boston University t-shirt; my employer doesn't routinely turn up in pop culture phenomena.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dial M For Murder

1954, US, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Where Rear Window, which Hitchcock made immediately afterwards, looked outwards into the courtyard to observe others going about their lives, Dial M For Murder looks inward, confined almost entirely to a single apartment set, with the police in this case the outsiders trying to understand what has gone on. Although the film betrays its stage origins at times in both dialogue and set design, there's still a remarkable sense of visual space, such that we know the location of every room in the tiny apartment, and indeed often the locations of specific objects - critical to both the central act of violence and, later, to the police's unveiling of the crime.

Hitchcock's obsession with icy blondes is front and centre here, with Grace Kelly the object of abuse throughout the film - while others see violence as a game (shades of Rope) she's devastated both by the act and its aftermath - but his visual signatures are also present, for instance in a shot where one is character seen over the shoulder of another, practically a carbon copy of a shot in Secret Agent. While there's an enjoyable sense of poetic justice in the finale, the film's high point is reached early on, in a wonderful long scene between Ray Milland and Anthony Dawson, with Milland both charming and utterly reprehensible.

2012 update: David Bordwell has a terrific analysis of the film, suggesting that Hitchcock employed creative and unusual solutions to the various problems presented by stage adaptation -- something of a counter-argument to those, including Hitchcock, who dismiss the film as a minor work. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

War Arrow

1953, US, directed by George Sherman

A routine 1950s Western, War Arrow is more interesting for what it reveals about the Hollywood system - and its attitudes to race - than for its thin intrinsic merits. Although the film was marketed as a Western, it could just as easily have been sold as a melodrama of frontier life, with scenes of high romantic drama, broken marriages, disloyal husbands, pretty "natives", handsome officers, and men doing what's right. As a consequence, it's never clear that director George Sherman has a solid handle on the material, and his filmmaking skills - with odd cut-off shots and clumsy edits - are roughly on a par with his narrative strengths.

For the modern viewer, the film's casual racism, seen in the ridiculous speech patterns assigned to the Indian characters - though the script is so poor than even this is pretty inconsistent - and the "redface" acting is highly problematic. Henry Brandon and Dennis Weaver have particularly egregious roles as a chief and a young brave; the production team seems to have decided that a bit of brown paint and a bad wig is all that's needed to transform the actors. They play opposite Jeff Chandler, who played Indian - and various other "native" - characters in a number of films, but who's the great white hope here. Early on, Chandler's character seems as though he might actually be capable of seeing the Indians as peers, presenting a pretty accurate account of the historical treatment of the Seminole tribe, and enlisting the Seminoles as allies, but as the film advances it reveals its hand, and there's not much pretty about it.

Note: This film is part of the Watching Movies in Africa project. War Arrow played at the Corona, Royal and Regal theatres in Lagos in September 1956 (Lagos had roughly a dozen theatres at the time). I haven't been able to trace whether War Arrow was released in East or Southern Africa, but numerous films featuring similar themes - white/"native" warfare, "native" insubordination, guerrilla-style attacks, scenes placing white characters in peril - were banned in settler colonies such as Kenya, particularly at the height of the Mau Mau insurgency in the mid-1950s. Among the many titles banned in Kenya around that time was Budd Boetticher's Seminole, which would have recounted some of the same historical issues. Such films were generally passed without incident in West African countries, which had much smaller colonial populations: in the same month that War Arrow played in Lagos, four movies that had been banned in Kenya appeared on the Nigerian city's screens.

There's an excellent account of the film, with much of the Hollywood context, on the French website

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Let the Right One In

2008, Sweden, directed by Tomas Alfredson (original title: Låt den rätte komma in)

A remarkably wintry bit of work, Tomas Alfredson's film re-imagines the mythology of vampirism and anchors within a recognisable reality, finding a deep streak of tragedy within the more familiar horror tropes. The film works against the prevailing tendency to glamorise vampires - Twilight, Moonlight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood - with the act of feeding depicted in brutal, messy, morally compromised terms, and these predators depicted as outsiders driven by their own desperate compulsions. What's most discomfiting about this is the idea that the vampire as a stand-in for the pedophile or even the killer - a threatening presence who is nonetheless strikingly similar to the rest of us, even if animated by very different drives.

Alfredson frames the vampire encounters within a coming-of-age tale, with a quiet boy turning to his odd young neighbour as he tries to escape from a routine regulated by constant bullying. There's no hint of romanticization, however: the young boy's vulnerability is his Achilles' heel in all of his encounters, and the solution to his bullying problems will lead him into more treacherous territory. The film has a circularity from which the deeper sense of tragedy emerges: boys become men, and men inevitably make choices and compromises they could never have conceived of as boys.

Alfredson is in absolute control of his material, slowly revealing information while building up his complex characters, and contrasting scenes of quiet winter sunlight with moments of startling violence: there are indelible sequences where a vampire enters a room uninvited - a component of the traditional mythology - and, later, in a scene of unexpected comeuppance in a swimming pool. His film is anchored by two remarkable performances from the child leads - part of a long tradition of strong youth acting in Swedish film - without which the narrative would have far less conviction.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Golden Compass

2007, US, directed by Chris Weitz

It can't be easy, the business of adapting a much-loved book series and dealing with the fan fallout. But it's a particularly big challenge in this case, since the film jettisons much of what makes the books most interesting - the ideas and even the philosophical questions - in favour of the more screen-friendly plot elements. That wasn't as much of an issue in adapting the most obvious recent comparison, the Harry Potter books, because they're so plot-filled anyway (so much so that the books became very unwieldy as the series continued); the issue was more one of trying to decide which subplots to cull.

There is, of course, a decent helping plenty of plot in Philip Pullman's work, too, which means that ideas such as the relationship between humans and their daemons - a fascinating set of questions about the consciousness and the conscience on the page - are given pretty short shrift here, and indeed aren't always even given satisfying visual form, because the film needs to end with the plot ready to be taken up again where the second book begins. The early sections of the film, in a re-imagined Oxford, are the most successful, mostly for the way in which they posit an alternative yet recognisable reality; as the action transfers to the north country, the CGI effects come to dominate the narrative, and there's no time any longer to linger on the human side of things.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Night at the Museum

2006, US, directed by Shawn Levy

Another movie chosen to while away a long plane ride, and a disappointment even on the level of lightweight entertainment. The plot is a rehash of the divorced-Dad-must-reconnect-with-son genre (not a genre filled with masterpieces), although here it's blended with a CGI-heavy fantasy plot. The film's greatest problem is that it seems extraordinarily lifeless: there's little sense that the effects work and the human story exist in harmony, even though the film gets much mileage out of Ben Stiller's interactions with diminutive characters (supposedly museum miniatures come to life), at least not until the end. There are brighter spots early on, especially from Dick van Dyke and Mickey Rooney, but even they quickly run out of material (Rooney seems to have been given the same line, or a rough variation thereon, half-a-dozen times). Amazingly, though, the box office was big and as I biked to work today, buses were emblazoned with ads for the sequel.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Class

2008, France, directed by Laurent Cantet (Original title: Entre les murs)

Andy Horbal, who I'm glad to see has taken up the blogging baton again, asks a simple but entirely apposite question about Entre les murs: what to do with this film? While superficially it seems to be concerned with the situation of the education system in inner-city Paris - though it gives the viewer very little sense of the world beyond the walls of the title, and indeed there are few clues that the film takes place in the capital rather than its oft-maligned banlieues - it's difficult to determine what it's trying to say.

After all, on at least one level the system is demonstrably not broken: salaries are paid, most children attend school, problems are moved from one institution to another to at least attempt to give students a fresh start, and the school functions as a means of passing on French republican values through constant debate and contestation. Even as the students are challenging the system's relevance to their lives, and pointing out that such ethnic and linguistic diversity was never imagined by those who founded the modern education system, they're doing so within well-tested boundaries. The teachers themselves function as a mirror image of this debate, with their school operating as a testing ground for their own ideas of citizenship: while their lives are, day in and day out, exhausting and frustrating, there's still a clear framework in place within which the film never really calls into question.

And yet, as Andy points out, there's also a terrible sense that these students, even as they're being inculcated into a certain way of seeing the world - une certaine idée de la France - are acquiring almost nothing in the way of concrete knowledge, for the system insists that they diligently master the imperfect subjunctive but never seems to test them in any meaningful way, while any really new ideas are absorbed on their own time, as in the scene where a student reveals she's read Plato's Republic. That scene, though, tips the film's hand: it's as obvious as anything in the Hollywood inner-city high genre, and while this film has the virtue of giving the students themselves a voice, it manages to do so in ways that are occasionally eerily reminiscent of a much more obviously conventional film, Freedom Writers, which also makes prominent use of The Diary of Anne Frank as a means to draw the students out.

(Michael Sicinski's dissection of the film makes useful reading, particularly in terms of setting the film within its documentary context, as well as in exploring the acutely illogical nature of one key plot development; it's worth seeing the film first, though).

Friday, May 01, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

2009, US, directed by Gavin Hood
Wolverine isn't great art, but as a big summer movie it's pretty good fun, at least up until the obligatory over-the-top conclusion in which even the limited logic established earlier in the film is thrown out the window. Despite their very different styles, Hugh Jackman reminds me of Bruce Willis: no matter what the material, both actors give 100% onscreen, and I can't help thinking that audiences notice and respond. I rather enjoyed Jackman's hosting of the 2009 Oscars: as silly as the opening song-and-dance number may have been for many viewers, the host gave it his all, which came across even on a small TV screen. The same is true here, with the downside that the film tends to miss Jackman's energy when he's offscreen (although Danny Huston is pretty good in a villainous role). The early going tries to restore some of the smaller scale of the first two X-Men installments, and scenes of Logan/Wolverine's attempts to create a normal life are quite effective, recalling similar efforts -- in a rather different context -- in Gavin Hood's earlier Tsotsi. Inevitably, though, the film subsequently proceeds toward the kind of one-on-one face-off that seems obligatory in the superhero genre, while also leaving plenty of sequel-friendly loose ends.


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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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States