Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dead Man's Shoes

2004, UK, directed by Shane Meadows

Shane Meadows’ direction and Paddy Considine’s lead performance almost make up for their underwritten script, which transcribes the single-mindedness of a slasher film to an apparently bucolic slice of the north of England – an illusion that Meadows and Considine shatter on virtually every level as the film progresses. As compelling as the narrative may be, it’s lacking in much psychological depth: while we can perhaps understand the protagonist’s motives of vengeance and regret, there are only vague hints at what triggers his behaviour while the other characters lack any nuance. While they generate moments of terrifically black humour, played absolutely straight, it’s hard to feel much for them as human beings given that their actions largely torn from long-running British debates on “yob” culture and anti-social behaviour legislation; that said, there’s not much sense of the greater political and social context, unlike in Meadows’s subsequent This is England. Still, the film is constructed with great skill, building relentlessly to a deeply uncomfortable crescendo that’s nothing like as cathartic as the hymnal music might imply.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The International

2009, US/Germany/UK, directed by Tom Tykwer

Although the ending has an unexpectedly sour note, Tom Tykwer's film isn't to be taken too seriously as a meditation on the international financial system; the villains, a group of nefarious bankers, are timely but never seem quite as mundanely careless as those who made themselves notorious as the financial system teetered toward collapse a year or so ago. Although it might have pretensions to something more, the film is a retooled James Bond outing, with Clive Owen's Agent Salinger very Bondian in his desire for action over desk-bound analysis, as well as his tendency to skip from one location to another quicker than a flash, although Tykwer dispenses with the carefully-timed romantic interludes and plays up the moral ambiguity that's been a feature of the last couple of Bond films.

Tykwer also has a more developed visual sense than most Bond directors, stretching out the frame at times by placing his characters at extreme ends of the screen, and creating careful contrasts between warm night-time tones in New York and harsh, grey office environments in Luxembourg. Although he's still capable of whipping up excitement from little more than an actor on the move and an electronic soundtrack, his pacing is closer to the more considered atmosphere of Winterschläfer than the insistently caffeinated action of Lola rennt, allowing the characters just enough room to develop into something more than ciphers (although Naomi Watts has to wrestle with some clanging lines of dialogue).

Friday, January 15, 2010

La Carrière de Suzanne

1963, France, directed by Eric Rohmer

The second of Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," this film begins in almost exactly the same way as the previous entry, La Boulangère de Monceau, with a careful geographical situating of the action on the Boulevard St Michel. As Rohmer himself acknowledged, the films are variations on a theme, and so it's no surprise to encounter the characters enacting similar scenarios - pursuing one woman "for the time being" while planning the next conquest, or spending the night talking about relationships rather than beginning one (an idea given much more elaboration in the subsequent Ma Nuit chez Maud). What interests Rohmer is the idea of characters learning to become moral beings, with a moral compass, although not everyone will, it seems likely, acquire such a sense of self-awareness. Although the film is occasionally choppy on the technical level - the phone conversations often seem misaligned, and the use of post-recorded sound is often rather distracting even though it was pretty common at the time - Rohmer's compositions are often compelling, particularly in scenes which juxtapose conversations in the foreground with action further back.

(I wonder if the shot of a mask on the wall, a striking image, was consciously or unconsciously picked up by Sembène in La Noire de... although in the latter film the shots of the mask serve a much more fundamental purpose).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

La Boulangère de Monceau

1963, France, directed by Eric Rohmer

After Eric Rohmer's death earlier this week, I returned not quite to the beginning but to the first entry in his "Six Moral Tales" series, the sequence of films which first made his name. This initial entry is a short, just 22 minutes long, made at a time when Rohmer had difficulties raising funds for his projects as his first feature, Le signe du Lion, made in 1959, was a commercial failure. Although La Boulangère de Monceau is a relatively slight entry in the "Six Moral Tales" cycle, it displays many features of Rohmer's later cinema in nascent form, perhaps most notably his characters' taste for self-examination, with the narrator discussing, in voiceover form, his differing attractions to the eponymous baker and another eye-catching woman from his neighborhood. The narrator's commentary is notable for its careful self-justification, a cast of mind that Rohmer returned to time and again as his characters tried to navigate between conflicting desires and their own sense of right and wrong (a sense that is still developing in this student narrator).

Rohmer is careful to anchor his film in a very real Paris: the narration opens with a description of the exact locations of the film, and the camera frequently flashes to street signs so that we know exactly where we are on the map. We quickly gain the sense that the characters live in a very circumscribed portion of the city, such that the narrator can wander up and down the same section of street in search of the woman who is occupying his interest (the still above shows him pacing; Rohmer zooms in on him at one point, narrowing our field of vision just to the individual figure). The film also has considerable offscreen interest: the actors include Barbet Schroeder, an important figure in 1960s French cinema, not least as Rohmer's producer, and Michèle Girardon, recently returned from her stint on Howard Hawks's Hatari!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Nanny Diaries

2007, US, directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

The presence of American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini is probably what gives The Nanny Diaries a jolt more interest than I expected, especially in the early going, even if they're forced to comply with genre expectations by the conclusion; indeed, their initial injection of off-kilter material makes the wrap-up seem all the more forced and obligatory.

The film uses the conceit of an anthropological field trip to tell the story of a nanny's summer in an Upper East Side family of excessive wealth and privilege, and the opening scenes with Museum of Natural History-style dioramas skewer the local tribe's behaviour in amusing fashion (perhaps I was more willing to swallow the conceit, too, after a Fall semester of anthropology). As the film progresses, however, the directors are uncertain of the tone to adopt, and where they were able to give a nuanced portrait of the unusual and compelling Harvey Pekar in American Splendor here they resort too easily to simple stereotypes so that Annie's employers rarely ring true; that's especially true of Paul Giamatti's irredeemable Mr. X, although Laura Linney is able to do more with the brittle, sad Mrs. X. However, the swings from romantic comedy to lacerating marital battles are so brusque that we're never certain if we're watching a romantic comedy or a bitter drama.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

I've Loved You So Long

2008, France, directed by Philippe Claudel (Original Title: Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)

Although Kristin Scott-Thomas gets the showier role in Philippe Claudel's first film, as a woman emerging from a 15-year prison sentence, I was equally impressed by Elsa Zylberstein, who plays her younger sister Léa, and who I hadn't seen on screen in some time. Indeed, as good as Scott-Thomas is in conveying a convincing sense of Juliette's weariness and slow adjustment - perhaps never more so than in a short scene where she makes clear that she's not yet ready for a relationship, a note of genuine regret in her voice - in some ways Zylberstein has the more difficult task: she doesn't get to grapple with the more compelling back story but gives a performance equally redolent of her own character's very different experiences of work and family, and of the emotions that she has needed to conceal for nearly half her life.

Although Claudel's film is a little too dependent on coincidence - a character who just happens to have experience with prisoners - and on a resolution that seems rather too neat, he has a strong sense of how to shape his narrative, cutting from scene to scene at often unexpected points, as if he wants to avoid taking us to each scene's obvious conclusion in order to keep the focus on the characters' emotional development rather than their actions. He has a nice sense of framing, too - a close up on the face of a police officer where we become aware there's something more than a bureaucratic transaction occurring, or the careful structuring of two shots in which Juliette reads to Léa's older daughter, capturing a gradually changing relationship, with one character in sharp focus and the other blurred in the background.

I've Loved You So Long

2008, France, directed by Philippe Claudel (Original Title: Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)

Although Kristin Scott-Thomas gets the showier role in Philippe Claudel's first film, as a woman emerging from a 15-year prison sentence, I was equally impressed by Elsa Zylberstein, who plays her younger sister Léa, and who I hadn't seen on screen in some time. Indeed, as good as Scott-Thomas is in conveying a convincing sense of Juliette's weariness and slow adjustment - perhaps never more so than in a short scene where she makes clear that she's not yet ready for a relationship, a note of genuine regret in her voice - in some ways Zylberstein has the more difficult task: she doesn't get to grapple with the more compelling back story but gives a performance equally redolent of her own character's very different experiences of work and family, and of the emotions that she has needed to conceal for nearly half her life.

Although Claudel's film is a little too dependent on coincidence - a character who just happens to have experience with prisoners - and on a resolution that seems rather too neat, he has a strong sense of how to shape his narrative, cutting from scene to scene at often unexpected points, as if he wants to avoid taking us to each scene's obvious conclusion in order to keep the focus on the characters' emotional development rather than their actions. He has a nice sense of framing, too - a close up on the face of a police officer where we become aware there's something more than a bureaucratic transaction occurring, or the careful structuring of two shots in which Juliette reads to Léa's older daughter, capturing a gradually changing relationship, with one character in sharp focus and the other blurred in the background.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Holiday

1938, US, directed by George Cukor 
Often
tagged as a screwball comedy - it features several of that (sub) genre's most polished practitioners in fine, quick-witted form - Holiday has a more serious undercurrent than most screwball films, dissecting the lives of the rich and, perhaps, privileged but not simply dismissing them with a satirical swipe, while it’s also insightful as a study of a man faced with a choice between two very different paths.

What’s most striking about the film is George Cukor’s ability to transition, seamlessly, from scenes of high physical comedy and banter to emotionally fraught territory, never more strikingly than in a sequence an hour or so into the film which begins with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn having a fine time, and ends with both uncertain of their futures. There’s also a very vivid sense of the intrusion of the wider world of 1938, particularly in the presence of a quasi-fascist relative, and in the pointed questioning of the idea that the pursuit of success in business is a fundamentally American value (the often ghostly presence of a perennially half-drunk, and terribly sad-eyed, Lew Ayres is another skewer in the idea that riches bring happiness).
The film also gives the lie to the idea – much-repeated and rarely questioned – that Cukor is a stagebound director: while a number of the scenes here clearly reproduce sequences from Philip Barry’s original play, Cukor carefully moves his camera around the space to ensure we’re never simply watching from a fixed theatrical viewpoint, while he makes extensive use of the large staircase sets, most strikingly in a beautiful shot that follows a couple as they make their way upstairs during a party and in another which tracks Hepburn down through the crowds at the same soirée. The final shot, too, is especially clever, with Cary Grant’s hand reaching up into the frame to grasp Hepburn.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Yella

2007, Germany, directed by Christian Petzold

To an even greater degree than Wolfsburg, Christian Petzold's previous film, Yella plunges into the world of modern German business - sleek offices, constant phone conversations, hours spent on the move in cars (vehicles give both films a narrative jump-start) - although where Wolfsburg featured characters from outside the world of commerce, here no other life seems possible. Despite the characters' own references to the thrill of victory at the negotiating table, the film portrays those victories in entirely hollow terms - the excitement evaporates almost instantly, or comes with terrible consequences.

The film plays out in the most sterile of business spaces: anonymous office buildings such as those erected when Hanover's world fair closed its doors, as if to emphasize that the fair itself was all an illusion, or hotels with no personality. Petzold focuses constantly on straight lines, as if nothing can escape the geometric precision of the modern environment: his characters always seem to be trapped in boxes or between lines (during one brief scene, he suggests an alternative set of possibilities, and he uses warmer tones and out of focus images in contrast to the crisp lines of the rest of the film).

There's a very deliberate ambiguity to the film, which seems to hover in a kind of dream world: Yella (Nina Hoss, who's excellent) is shown waking from sleep on several occasions, while doors in the hotel almost never seem to be closed, as if the usual concerns for security are unnecessary. Several shots refer back, either explicitly or implicitly, to a key scene of trauma early on, in which a car goes off a bridge: the reflected lines of the bridge are mirrored almost perfectly in another series of reflections in a pool outside Yella's hotel, a parallel that acquires more significance as the film comes full circle.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Two Family House

2000, US, directed by Raymond De Felitta

I had never heard of Two Family House until the now-unmasked Self-Styled Siren recommended it as a underrated Christmas movie a few weeks ago, and I was somewhat confused by the seasonal theme when the film opened on a bright summer's day on Staten Island. Although the calendar does eventually move forward, the film never leaves the island, which gives it an unusual and welcome alternative New York feel (the setting felt close to home for me, too, since I live in a mixed Italian-Irish neighbourhood filled with two- and three-family houses -- though our neighbours aren't half as compelling). Equally refreshing is director Raymond De Felitta's refusal to sentimentalise the neighbourhood: while it's a place of friendships and loyalties, it's also the site of bigotry and close-mindedness, and it's Buddy Visalo's fate to navigate between those conflicting impulses.

What's most impressive about the film is the sense that these are real people struggling in very recognisable ways to come to terms with their own beliefs about life and other human beings, beliefs that they may not initially be able to articulate in words but which nonetheless refuse to be ignored. In this complex, changing world - where old and new immigrants collide with each other and with larger social forces - the film defines its own morality, in which adultery may be least of sins, and there's a striking delicacy of touch in the narration of an unconventional relationship between Buddy (Michael Rispoli) and his former neighbour Mary (Kelly Macdonald). De Felitta also makes good use of his camera to underline his characters' inner lives, sweeping around in circles as Buddy sings (while dreaming of a career in showbiz), preceding Buddy out the door of a diner as the world he thought he knew crumbles around him, or capturing the soft-edged memories of an idyllic long-ago afternoon. The ending, too, is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the film, refusing the easy out and succeeding once more in capturing the elusive feel of imperfect real life.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Night at the Opera

1935, US, directed by Sam Wood

The first of the Marx Brothers films at MGM ups the production values of their previous outings considerably, and throws in more in the way of non-Marxian distraction with the tale of youthful romance that structures much of the story. Those interludes are thankfully brief, and are better integrated with the overall action than is the case in their subsequent film, A Day at the Races. Indeed, the entire film has more of a cinematic sense rather than simply coming across as a series of filmed sketches: the sequence where Groucho rides around on his trunk on the way to his stateroom exemplifies that sense of opened-up action, just as the famed stateroom scene itself cannily employs the edges of the screen to create a sense of extreme and comic claustrophobia.

Contemporary cinematic references abound, whether it's Groucho murmuring that he "vants to be alone," or, later, an aside about the Tarzan movies that accompanies shots of Harpo swinging behind the scenes - and sowing chaos - of a production of Il Trovatore, shots that owe equally as much to the shipboard swashbucklers so popular in the 1930s. Although there are occasional longueurs when the stars are offscreen, and their anarchy was tempered somewhat at MGM, the film succeeds better than most of their outings in marrying the Marx Brothers' unique vaudeville-honed routines with the capabilities of the cinema medium. I'm not entirely sure what the source of this marriage is, since their next outing, also directed by Sam Wood, doesn't feel nearly as polished, whether it's the lazy insert shots of the Brothers during a dance number, or the static camera observing several of the routines.

This film was the second of a double-bill showing at Cambridge's Brattle Theatre. For several years now I've been vowing to attend the Brattle more frequently, particularly since they ran into financial trouble some time back. While that vow has been somewhat successful, my wife Sarah has ensured that we'll be particularly good supporters in 2010: she gave me a wonderful birthday gift, a Brattle subscription with tickets to numerous screenings. We extracted maximum value out of our first tickets, although I already have my eyes on a triple bill near the end of the month!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Michael Dwyer, 1951-2009

2010 began on a sad note for anyone with even a passing interest in Irish film writing: newspaper critic Michael Dwyer, who had been writing for The Irish Times for more than twenty years, passed away on the first of the year at the age of 58.

I've written about Dwyer before: for anyone of my generation growing up in Ireland he was one of the key film reference points, whether you agreed with him or not, as the main film writer in the country's most self-consciously "quality" daily newspaper.

As I wrote previously, one of my first memories of his work was a piece on the film ET: The Extra-Terrestrial which he had seen in Cannes in 1982, when I was eight. He was beating a drum for the film several weeks before it opened to enormous commercial success in the US - and months before Irish viewers were able to see Spielberg's opus. His writing on that occasion exemplified his enthusiasm for film: if Dwyer saw and loved a movie, by an established director or a newcomer, he wasn't about to hide his, or anyone else's, light under a bushel.

Although I found that Dwyer's year-end tastes often tended toward the mainstream, he was also instrumental in supporting more esoteric fare, whether it was through reviews of movies appearing in venues like the old Light House Cinema on Middle Abbey St, or in the Irish Film Centre after it opened in 1992, and indeed his final "top ten" is a showcase for his catholic tastes with Slumdog Millionaire jostling for space with Milk, Three Monkeys or Il Divo.

Dwyer was instrumental in forming my own sense of "worthwhile" cinema as I read his reviews week by week even though I was often only able to see the films several years later on TV or, eventually, on VHS (somewhere there's a folder full of very yellow clippings from The Irish Times, virtually all of them with his byline). As is so often the case, I turned on my (unseen) mentor as I began to establish my own independent cinematic tastes, only to later recognize, a little sheepishly, that even my disagreements with his assessments were productive as they allowed me to better refine my own thoughts.

I haven't lived in Ireland for ten years, but thanks to the online Irish Times and occasional care packages from home, I continued to follow Dwyer's work from afar, often regretting that he wasn't writing the weekly reviews any more - he did more of the feature work and the DVD reviewing - and always making a point of catching his year-end wrapup. 2009's installment was especially poignant as he wrote of a return to a darkened picture house after months of illness, and of the washing away of some of his own cynicism.

As is perhaps true of many small countries, Dwyer had a hand, or a foot, in more than one endeavour. He took the lead role, for instance, in the establishment and later the revival of Dublin's film festival, from which I profited as a student, lining up each year to excitedly purchase a pack of tickets. He was an assiduous promoter, too, of Irish cinematic production - perhaps occasionally too assiduous, but that may have been a tribute to his generosity of spirit and his acute awareness that someone needed to stick up for the little guy, a position generally occupied by the Irish filmmaker.

There are many able writers on film in Ireland these days, and many of them owe Dwyer a debt, for ensuring that people took the profession of critic seriously, and for encouraging and fostering many of those who followed his lead. He'll be missed in many ways, not least by this writer, and particularly when each year comes to a close without the opportunity to read his thoughts on the twelvemonth gone by - whether to nod in agreement, scratch my head in confusion, or splutter in consternation.

--
Hugh Linehan on Michael Dwyer, and Linehan's obituary.

A series of tributes from Irish film world luminaries in The Irish Times.

Gene Kerrigan's tribute in The Irish Independent.

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About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States