Thursday, December 29, 2011
I wonder what 1942 audiences made of Billy Wilder's first American film, in which Ginger Rogers plays a woman dressed as a (very) young girl in order to save money on train fare, with inevitable complications ensuing, particularly when Ray Milland takes an apparently avuncular interest in the young woman's welfare. Wilder and fellow writer Charles Brackett mine the potential for discomfort for all its worth, although it's a discomfort projected onto the audience, with virtually all of the characters, Rogers excepted, apparently blithely unaware of any suggestion of impropriety.
Of course, this makes the notion of a romantic union at the end either completely implausible or truly uncomfortable, but let's not get in the way of happy endings just yet. The opening scene is a gem, with Rogers expressing her rapid-fire disgust, once and for all, with the men of New York, and I occasionally missed that sass later in the film; the character is forced to tamp down her natural spark to avoid drawing attention to herself, so it's welcome when Wilder and Brackett find an outlet in which she can be her natural self, in the company of the one character who sees through her act (or, perhaps more to the point, the one character who's prepared to call her out on it).
Image from: Spellbound Cinema
Not, in retrospect, the best choice of film to watch on a plane, particularly given that the contagion in question first makes its onscreen appearance--at least in so far as any microscopic item makes an appearance--at an airport bar. The illness fans out from there like cracks on a windowpane, collapsing everything in its path. That initial sequence is a useful primer on Soderbergh's technique for the rest of the film, as he uses quick, informative shots to describe the sequence of infection and the (panicked) reaction thereto, thus compressing large amounts of detail into a brisk running time.
There's little time for back story with such an approach: each time we see an infected person, he or she looks exponentially worse, so we can rapidly grasp the seriousness of the situation, and if Gywneth Paltrow's much-ballyhooed cameo appearance as Victim Number One seems brief, her character has vastly more screen time than the other initial victims, who are collectively dispatched within a couple of minutes of screen time. Soderbergh subsequently uses other tools--television news, scientific teleconferences, screen graphics--to keep up the momentum, while also cutting between a half-dozen major characters, though the narrative drive is so strong that his leads tend to have Meaningful Moments rather than fleshed-out biographies. Only Matt Damon's character gets a little more space to develop an individual personality, partly a function of his role as a bewildered audience surrogate.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Although the script is frustratingly stagy at times--several lines repeated as catchphrases fall flat onscreen though they may have had power on the stage--Kings is generally an effective examination of Irishmen in London, their best years long behind them and their dreams either reduced in scope or soused in drink. The notion of Irish characters revealing home truths over a bottle of whiskey is hardly the most original of starting points, but I've met men like this, or on their way to being like this, and the film captures their bullshit and bluster in ways that are recognizably close to the bone.
one more example of the clear-eyed take of Irish filmmakers on Ireland's economic woes--the Celtic Tiger is an insistent background presence here, held up as a beacon of misplaced hope--that creates a fascinating counter-narrative to the political and social fantasy that overcame the country for a decade or more.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Screen capture from dvdbeaver.com
2003, Italy, directed by Marco Bellocchio (original title: Buongiorno, notte)
Bellocchio's film re-imagines the Aldo Moro kidnapping as a virtual chamberpiece, with very occasional sorties into the outside world, taking us into the Rome apartment where the Red Brigades held Moro for nearly two months in 1978. The film focuses on Chiara (Maya Sensa), the only woman in the apartment, who has no direct contact with Moro but who ultimately finds that the old man is invading her dreams. Bellocchio uses Chiara to explore the tensions that strain relations between the four kidnappers - part of a larger, unseen network - as the episode drags on and they are unable to open negotiations with those in power.
The film never really explores Chiara's reasons for choosing a life with the Red Brigades, though Bellocchio draws connections between religious and political fervour - both the terrorists and the priests utter repeated incantations at one point or another, and indeed the terrorists aren't immune to the usual rituals of Italian life, as in the striking moment where they bless themselves before breaking bread on the film's final evening. The singing that pierces the soundtrack at moments of great tension also seems as much religious as secular. Still, Sensa's performance captures in minute detail the growing cracks in her political faith, in the ethos that asks her to value an ideology more than the man sequestered in a cell behind the bookcase.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Like most of Godard's films of the 1960s, Alphaville manages to combine high seriousness, in the form here of an interrogation of the crushing anomie of modern urban life, with self-deflating comic riffs. He inserts a series of running jokes - Eddie Constantine batting away hands proffered in hopes of a tip, the constant rote answering of a greeting never delivered, a series of lines that are the titles of books or films - against luminous black and white images of soulless, even soul-destroying, offices and monolithic buildings. At times, the two collide completely, as in a shot of a block of low-cost apartments accompanied by a voiceover that puns on the meaning of the French acronym HLM, the letters used to designate such buildings.
As with other Godard's films, I'm sure that one could compile a detailed glossary of allusions both literary, historical and visual, but I was most struck by the occasional correspondences with Melville, presumably on the strength of viewing several of the latter's films in quick recent succession. There's a terrific scene in Alphaville with a swinging lightbulb, often presumed to refer to Welles's Mr Arkadin, though I wonder if it might not equally allude to Melville's Le Doulos, in which two characters even comment on the strange effect of the light. Of course, these things are hard to trace to any one source, given that just yesterday I came across a discussion of the exact same effect in films from 1932 and 1947... For a Melville-Godard connection in the other direction, though, there's always the blink-and-you'll miss it fight scene between Constantine and an uncredited Leon Minisini, who crops up in a minor role in Melville's final outing.
Picture lifted from the blog Cinemania, though I'm not sure if it's original to that site.
Monday, December 12, 2011
After watching the entirely atypical Miquette et sa mère, made the following year, it was nice to be back on familiar territory, Clouzot-wise. This is perhaps his most lacerating vision of humanity, with a suitably bleak outcome. At least some of the film's grim feel is present in Abbé Prévost's original novel, Manon Lescaut, but Clouzot's decision to update the material, setting it at the end of the Occupation while discarding the more aristocratic milieu of the original, gives the filmed version a grim immediacy that must have been bracing, to say the least, for an audience still dealing with the Occupation and its aftermath - an audience for whom images of épuration sauvage, as in the scenes where women have their heads shaved for genuine or imagined acts of collaboration, must have been very real.
There's barely a sympathetic character on the screen - even the one man who has something of a kindly streak is, seen in another light, a human trafficker cashing in on the misfortune of others - which makes it awfully difficult to identify with the protagonists, played by Michel Auclair and a very young Cécile Aubry, as they embark on their odyssey of amour fou. Indeed, the main point in the lovers' favour seems to be the fact that many of the other characters are even more unsavory. That's particularly true of Manon's spectacularly unpleasant brother Leon, a character lifted almost exactly from the novel; he's played by Serge Reggiani, who delivers a brutal, and clearly real, slap to a minor female character that outdoes even Jimmy Cagney's notorious grapefruit-to-the-face sequence from The Public Enemy.
Much of the film takes place in cramped rooms, underlining at various times both the characters' lack of means and their limited horizons, focused as they are only on immediate gain; there is a constant tension to the film, too, though born mostly of a sense that things could go spectacularly awry at any moment. It's not so much a question of whether things will turn out badly as when - and how badly.
Friday, December 09, 2011
1950, France, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Clouzot's body of work seems so consistently devoted to the excavation of the darker motivations of humanity that it's hard to know quite what to do with Miquette et sa mère, at least in trying to interpret it as a "film by Clouzot." David Cairns suggests that Clouzot took on the directing job, which was the third filming of this material, in something of a panic after the failure of Manon, but that film was actually in the French top ten for the year, with a very respectable 3.4 million tickets sold.
I do agree, though, that Miquette is so odd within Clouzot's overall oeuvre that it seems to demand some form of explanation, whether it's panic, a contractual obligation, or a desire to work with a particular actor (Louis Jouvet, perhaps, after the success of Quai des Orfèvres in 1947). Ironically, Miquette was itself a commercial failure, even though other, similar films did quite well at the French box office around the same time.
While there are some pleasures to be mined from the precise choreography of the camera in several of the set pieces, particularly one in which actors on stage interact, mid-play, with others in the wings, the film's strengths lie less with the director than with the actors. They deliver their dialogue, much of which remains quite amusing in a very silly way, in great bursts, zipping through the lines in true boulevard style. Jouvet, in particular, seems to relish the opportunity to overplay as a self-important man of the theatre; his pomposity, though, is entirely self-aware, as he reveals in one of the film's quieter sequences, a scene that recalls the melancholic retired actors of La Fin du jour. Meanwhile, Bourvil does some early polishing of his good-hearted naif persona even though he's playing a member of the nobility on this occasion, something of a rarity in his filmography.
Picture from the Toronto International Film Festival site.
Thursday, December 08, 2011
1962, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
It's hard not to notice the connections between Melville's films when you watch them in quick succession - the constant reworking of themes and individual scenes that's characteristic of virtually all his work comes vividly to the fore. Thus Le Doulos's credit sequence, during which a man walks along a street interrupted by the credits, is repurposed a decade later in Un Flic, where the man is replaced by a slow-moving car, while the setting of a fence's house in a desolate, broken-down neighborhood is seen again in Le Cercle rouge.
Le Doulos, though, is more brutal than either of its successors, with internecine criminal killings in which women, in particular, are callously discarded (of course, they barely appear at all in those later films, so they can hardly be mistreated). There's an especially grim sequence that reveals the true extent of the Jean-Paul Belmondo character's cynicism and self-interest, although the scene, during which Belmondo beats and restrains the girlfriend of a criminal confrère, is also characteristically Melvillian, carefully documenting the character's deeply unpleasant handiwork with something approaching fascination. Rather more enjoyable is the subsequent interrogation scene, filmed in a single 9-minute shot, in which the viewer has the pleasure of enjoying Melville's own skill set, the director and his crew solving dozens of small technical problems as the camera moves throughout a cramped office, rotating from one side to another, the characters entering and departing the frame with precise choreography.
While I wrote about Le Cercle rouge and Un Flic as late-career entries, this is a film of beginnings, albeit not for Melville: the credits are a goldmine, with Volker Schlöndorff still some years away from his debut feature, Bertrand Tavernier employed as a (very young) publicist, and Philippe Nahon in his brief first role. Nahon surely can't have imagined that his career would coast along rather quietly for some 30 years, until his fateful encounter with Gaspar Noé, after which nothing was quiet.
Picture lifted from the blog Pictures and Noise; I'm not sure if the picture is original to the site, but it's from one of my favourite segments of the film.
Monday, December 05, 2011
This is an entry in the second Late Films Blogathon, hosted by David Cairns at Shadowplay.
There's late Melville and there's last Melville: Un Flic was the director's thirteenth and final feature, released a year before his death. It's not quite at the level of his previous few films--that sets the bar perhaps unreasonably high--but he returns again to the world of criminality from which he rarely strayed in his later years, re-working obsessively themes and individual scenes. Melville delivered a gift-wrapped 1970 interview, in a book edited by Rui Nogueira, for the future Late Films blogger, suggesting rather morbidly after Le Cercle rouge that he should speak of his career assuming that there would be no more films, that the end could be nigh - or at the very least that this most driven of men might simply lose interest in directing films. He sounded drained and disillusioned after his penultimate film, so it's no great surprise that his final outing is equally wintry - Alain Delon's face looks pinched, cold and bone-tired in almost every scene.
Saturday, December 03, 2011
2010, UK/France, directed by Sylvain Chomet
Every now and then I watch a good movie at a bad time, and it's hard to be fully objective about the film's virtues afterwards. This was a fine example: Saturday night, baby in bed at a reasonable hour, glass of wine to hand, curled up on the couch with a reasonably short film from a director whose previous outing, The Triplets of Belleville, we'd both enjoyed. In the context, though, I was completely unprepared for the film's languid rhythm and insistently melancholic air, very different to Chomet's eye-popping previous work.
Of course, his inventiveness is on display here as before, with exceptional identical to details such as the blinking of a neon light outside a window or the constant, amusing passage of cars through the streets of Edinburgh. Chomet's ability to convey nuances of emotion with few or no words is also deeply impressive, perhaps never more so in the finale, making use of objects to reflect back on the film's characters. There are dozens of individual shots to treasure, too, whether it's the sweeping overhead shot of Edinburgh, the striking mirror image of a train crossing a bridge, or the references to other films and books - the in-joke featuring a brief sequence of the animated Jacques Tati watching his real self onscreen, or the wink at the cover of Hergé's The Black Island. Indeed, Hergé's style seems ever-present here, in the attention to details of setting but also on occasion in the subtleties of the character drawings themselves. One to revisit, I think.
Thursday, December 01, 2011
This is an entry in the second Late Films Blogathon, conjured out of thin air by David Cairns at Shadowplay.
Though he wasn't an old man when he died, there was nothing unexpected about Bourvil's death at the age of 53. He had been diagnosed with cancer in the late 1960s, and had known that the disease was incurable at least since 1968, when filming his role in L'Arbre de Noël - a film, oddly enough, about a young character with a terminal illness. Each of Bourvil's films from that point on was made in the knowledge that it could be the cap to his twenty-five-year screen career.
When Meville approached Bourvil for the part, he took him out to dinner and afterwards to the movies: the director wanted his actor to see Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood, for he envisaged the character of Mattei in the same mould as that film's Alvin Dewey, played by John Forsythe. Bourvil's reaction was apparently to exclaim of Forsythe, "But he's handsome," and Melville had to convince the actor that he, too, was handsome, even that his character was seductive to a degree. While Mattei is certainly a compelling character, it's a little harder to see the evidence of his seductiveness given the lack of female characters. His only interaction with a woman is a brief scene, filmed from through a glass door, of apparently pleasant conversation with a barmaid. The woman turns out to be an informant, and our only glimpse of Mattei's private life shows him feeding his cats, of whom more later. Still, it's hard to imagine Melville's original choice for the part, Lino Ventura, in such a quiet moment of domesticity: Bourvil's casting gives the part a greater depth, akin, perhaps, to Hitchcock's casting of Cary Grant or James Stewart.
Five Star Final, in which a similar telephone becomes almost a character in its own right.
Jacques Lorcey's 1981 book Bourvil was something of a treasure trove of information, along with Rui Noguiera's 1972 book of interviews with Melville, Melville on Melville.
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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.
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.