Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beginners

2011, US, directed by Mike Mills

There's a lot of talk about the canine performance in The Artist this year, and while Uggie seems like a thoroughly charming fellow I wonder if he's being singled out for most acting as opposed to best acting, a little like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. I was rather taken with Cosmo's admittedly smaller turn in Beginners: he underplays to considerable effect, and it's the kind of work that would be forgotten if they handed out dog Oscars, which they probably should. It doesn't help his cause that he's subtitled.

I'm not sure I quite get some of the objections to Beginners as a depiction of warm-hearted late-in-life coming out (though that's really only a fraction of the film): the movie never pretends to universalize the experience it depicts, nor is it seen through entirely rose-tinted glasses. A man internalizes his sexuality for most of his life and then gets a few good years before cancer takes him? It's not quite a fairy tale affair (pun not intended), and I liked that Mills gave Plummer's character a brittle, temperamental side rather than romanticizing him as either a father figure or gay man.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Something of Value


US, 1957, directed by Richard Brooks

There are numerous similarities between Something of Value and Simba, with both films delving into black-white relations in Kenya during the Mau Mau period. Unlike Dirk Bogarde in the earlier film, Rock Hudson did actually spend some time in Kenya so the film has a greater sense of authenticity in many of the outdoor scenes, and doesn't have to make quite the same use of back projection and long-shot trickery.

Although the tone is still very paternalistic, with the white characters attempting to "solve" the problems of Africa -- many of which they created -- the film also has a touch more subtlety in its exploration of race relations even if the conclusion is remarkably similar, down to the suggestion that only future generations will be able to live peacefully. The American film is certainly much blunter on the fact that Mau Mau was much more likely to result in Kikuyu deaths than European deaths, though, even if those European deaths get far more screen time; one sequence is especially terrifying as a bloodthirsty mob methodically destroys everything in a settler farmhouse, closing in gradually on their human prey.

Brooks's film reminded me at times of Ken Loach's films Land and Freedom and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, using devices such as a settler meeting to outline many of the issues for the audience's benefit, with the poles of opinion clearly demarcated. Loach used a courtroom to similar effect in the latter film, and indeed the device of two brothers on separate sides of an issue re-appears in the Loach film, too (near-brothers in the case of Hudson and Sidney Poitier; the two men grew up together).

Note: This is part of the Watching Movies in Africa project, although like Simba this film was banned by the Kenyan censorship board even though large portions of the film were shot in Kenya, including scenes of actual Kikuyu internment camps. Records in the national archives in Ghana suggest that the film was initially passed for release in that country, but that it was subsequently withdrawn and examined a second time, in the middle of 1960, resulting in a ban -- and a hefty loss for the company that had imported the film, since they couldn't get a refund on a film they had been able to screen at least once.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tenue de soirée

1986, France, directed by Bertrand Blier

I don't think there's a wilder, funnier twenty minutes in the entire Blier oeuvre than the opening of Tenue de soirée, and while the film can't sustain that extraordinary momentum it has a fine time trying. Gérard Depardieu hurricanes into the lives of small-time losers Michel Blanc and Miou-Miou, spinning them into a world of criminality and romance, though the target of Depardieu's affections is the mousy Blanc rather than his girlfriend. Blier makes hay with the physical differences between the two actors, Depardieu looming barrel-chested over the scrawny Blanc, who is cast very much to type at this phase of his career, ever the pathetic loser (with Patrice Leconte, perhaps surprisingly, the director to find something darker in that persona a couple of years later).


The Depardieu-Blanc couple is the logical extension of much of Blier's previous work going back as far as Les Valseuses, which dances around the idea of a gay couple "liberated" from the need for a woman, although this being Blier there's no time to pause for domestic bliss -- conflict is hard-wired in almost all of his characters, no matter how magnetic their attraction.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Woman from Monte Carlo

1932, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

It's nice to see Warren William back in the caddish saddle after his relatively benign turn in Three on a Match, although he's by no means the naughtiest fellow in this shipboard melodrama; that honour goes to John Wray, playing a nasty martinet (is there any other kind?).  Though it's pretty brisk, and there's the occasional shot of interest, especially in the gangways between one part of the ship and another, this is pretty thin gruel for Curtiz, even with some fine players. I hadn't realized that Walter Huston appeared in the film -- though he appeared in just about everything else that was released in 1932 -- but the second he opens his mouth that voice is unmistakable. Lil Dagover was almost as busy that year, but this stands as her one and only Hollywood foray in a very long European career. The script seems to suggest Dagover is a flighty young thing hamstrung by a marriage to a much older man, but since the actress was herself 45 and Huston was only a few years her senior there's a fundamental casting flaw that the film can't overcome with heaped spoonfuls of drama.

Notre Histoire

1984, France, directed by Bertrand Blier

Not for the first time in his filmography, Bertrand Blier finds his ideas running ahead of his ability to execute them onscreen, and Notre Histoire runs almost entirely out of steam about halfway through -- after, admittedly, a wondrous sequence in which the men of an Alpine town assemble in the middle of the night for a collective reminiscence. While the staging of that central section yet again underlines Blier's unerring ability to navigate space, as well as his fascination with filming parts of the action from behind windows, the sequence is so overextended that it's awfully easy to drift away.


Still, the final twenty minutes, kicked off with a hilarious scene in a florist's in which Blier seems to acknowledge his own love of stage and artifice, renew the interest; near the finale, too, there's an amusing shot in which a slowly approaching Mercedes advances to the sounds of what might be a lost fragment of the Jaws score. Notwithstanding Nathalie Baye's luminous presence, this is very much Alain Delon's film, another in his gallery of difficult, unlovable men -- the actor looks dreadful much of the time, jowly and unshaven -- and there's also much pleasure in seeing a collection of French actors at the outset of their respective careers, everyone from Jean-Pierre Darroussin to Vincent Lindon to Jean Reno.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Simba


1955, UK, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst

Amazingly, the British administration in Kenya seemed to be quite happy to allow overseas film crews to traipse through the colony throughout the 1950s "Emergency", so-named after the imposition of a state of emergency in 1952 in response to the Mau Mau insurgency. Stranger still, officials in Nairobi granted filming permits to three films which had Mau Mau, and race relations more generally, as their primary subject matter, only to turn around and ban the films when they were then submitted for censorship in Kenya a couple of years later. Indeed, they ended up banning most films shot on Kenyan soil during the decade, whether or not the subject matter had anything to do with Mau Mau -- and banned dozens of other American, British and Indian films to boot.


Fake Donald Sinden, Dirk Bogarde, Orlando Martins in real Kenya

Dirk Bogarde plays a young colonial who inherits a Kenyan farm after his elder brother is brutally slaughtered by Mau Mau. Unexpectedly thrust into the role of white farmer, Bogarde's character wavers between a distaste for Africans, some of whom killed his brother, and the liberal white condescension of his inamorata, Virginia McKenna. Of course, Rank wasn't about to let its hottest property jet off to Kenya in the middle of a violent insurgency -- leaving aside the safety concerns, they had to keep him hard at work churning out several films a year at Pinewood. Instead, director Brian Desmond Hurst took a small crew to Kenya in early 1954 to shoot location footage, employing an ersatz Bogarde in long shot and then making heavy use of back projection to create the illusion that the star was sweating under the hot sun rather than the studio lights. I'm not sure what the audience made of this in 1955 -- when they showed up at all, since the film wasn't a big hit -- but it looks awfully unconvincing today, especially given that the stand-ins are clearly different heights than the original articles.


The real Sinden/Bogarde/Martins, with back-projection Kenya

Although it tries for a more liberal slant on matters colonial, the film's account of the origins and functioning of Mau Mau is typical imperial propaganda: atavistic tribalism, with little or no acknowledgement of the impact of a huge wave of postwar white settlement and expansion on the Kikuyu in particular. Indeed, for many Kikuyu, Mau Mau had more of the characteristics of a civil conflict than an imperial revolt, with land resources a major bone of contention. In other respects, though, the film is entirely accurate: the Kenyan administration assigned an officer to work with Hurst and his crew and they seem to have had access to all kinds of prison camps and military posts so the film provides a compelling glimpse into the actual logistics of late imperial control in Kenya. Indeed, Hurst and crew may have taken the quest for authenticity rather too far. They got in some major hot water when they returned from their Kenyan jaunt after newspaper reports revealed that several of the Africans featured in a Mau Mau initiation scene were prisoners at the time, and three of the men had apparently been hanged days after their scenes were filmed.

The film has a similar sacrificial attitude to its major African characters -- when not actively malevolent, they remain in the service of white interests, sacrificing themselves for the good of their white masters. Even the film's most complex and sympathetic African character draws the short straw, although in its own way this outcome underlines the fact that the Mau Mau conflict was far more likely to result in African rather than European deaths; 32 settlers died, sometimes in terrible circumstances, but that figure is dwarfed by the thousands of African deaths. Nonetheless, the film dramatizes half a dozen European deaths, tipping the scales very much in favour of interest in the settler population.

Note: This is part of the Watching Movies in Africa project, although in this specific case it should probably be re-titled "Not Watching Movies in Africa" given that Simba was banned by the Kenyan censorship board in 1955. I haven't been able to find any evidence that it played elsewhere in Africa, although given the presence of Nigeria's Orlando Martins in a small role, I wouldn't be surprised if it was released there. Numerous films banned in Kenya were released in Nigeria, and other West African locations, without apparent incident.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

La Femme de mon pote

1983, France, directed by Bertrand Blier


The central problem of the film -- a woman disrupting the friendship between two men -- is such concentrated eau de Blier that it's something of a disappointment to find that the film itself feels rather flat. It's inhabited only rarely by the flashes of humanity that make his characters resonate, and lacks much of the visual and narrative surprise of his other work. It's as if Blier is so focused on getting right down to the elemental level of his obsessions that he's somehow forgotten to craft a film around it.


Where most of his films set out to de-stabilise the viewer, either through outrageous setup or play with the cinematic form -- direct conversation with the camera, interplay between real and unreal, bizarre juxtaposition -- La Femme de mon pote is almost conventional by his standards; the most outrageous element is Isabelle Huppert's character, though it's hardly a shock to encounter a female portrait that's less than complimentary in Blier's films. Still, even by that standard she's a piece of work: untrustworthy, careless with others' emotions, self-centered, and ultimately ridiculous. Huppert gives the role her all, but the character is denied virtually everything in the way of actual human emotion. By contrast, Coluche, in a rare fairly serious role that nonetheless makes use of his standard comic persona, is pretty good: his character actually has the occasional nuance, and Blier constructs several fine visual jokes around his rumpled character/actor.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Days of Heaven

1978, US, directed by Terrence Malick

Surely one of the most visually beguiling films ever made, with the stunning Alberta (playing north Texas) landscapes complemented -- even surpassed -- by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard in their respective primes. It's hard to know whether Nestor Almendros's camera (or is that Haskell Wexler's camera?) is more in love with the setting or the players, observing fields of wheat swaying gently in the breeze or the detail of a hair falling across Adams's face with equal intensity. And Richard Gere just looks so young - twenty-seven when filming began, though he seems even more youthful, despite his character's tough years.

"Story" is not Malick's overriding interest; the action is in many ways rather slight, with the director far more focused on atmosphere, chronicling first the oppressive heat and noise of an iron production plant before opening up the wide vistas of the agricultural heartland, with its own entirely different, though perhaps equally implacable, set of rhythms, driven by weather and ripening crops. Malick captures the sudden bursts of energy inherent in the agricultural cycle with acute care, the landscape suddenly crawling with humans driving everything else before them, before the season ends and the crowds hitch rides to the next crop and the next paycheck. He's equally skilled, though, at delineating the quiet interactions between his characters, the charged moments that join the adults together.

The unfolding story is observed by young Linda (Linda Manz), whose laconic voiceover provides its own counter-narrative; this odd young woman's inner voice often seems disconnected from the events unfolding before her. The film derives most of its humour from her eccentric commentary, though by the end there's great pathos to be found in the disconnect between Linda's version of the world and what we see onscreen.

I hadn't seen Days of Heaven since an arresting small-screen viewing years ago, so the screening of a beautiful print at the Brattle theatre felt almost like I was seeing the film for the first time. However, somewhere along the line my mind had confused the ethereal Saint-Saëns music used in this film with a more percussive Carl Orff piece employed in Malick's previous Badlands. As Days of Heaven was unspooling I kept getting distracted by the thought that Malick was going to have a hell of a time managing the shift in tone to accommodate the Orff music until the penny finally dropped.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Beau-père

1981, France, directed by Bertrand Blier


The idea of a tasteful film featuring an affair between an adolescent girl and an older man may well be a contradiction in terms, but Bertrand Blier nonetheless gives it a damn good try. He tones down the more obvious, albeit often very funny, provocations of his 1970s films in favor of cool, contemplative camerawork to observe his central couple; when not at rest the camera seems to move in the most delicate of pans and pivots, serenely taking everything in.

The film opens on a high, with Patrick Dewaere -- whose tragically early death the following year is surely one of French cinema's genuinely great losses -- seated at a piano in an upscale restaurant, narrating the story of his life. Although Dewaere addresses the viewer directly, calling attention to the sequence's artificiality, Blier handles the scene so gracefully, accompanied by his usual terrific dialogue, that seems an entirely natural way to begin the tale. The theatricality is reinforced in much of the rest of the film, with Blier moving the camera precisely around the homes that Blier shares with his step-daughter, often framing the action as though it were occurring onstage; indeed, the treatment is so careful that it almost requires a provocative storyline to ensure that things don't become entirely sterile.

The film is almost the oddity in Blier's filmography, for in almost all of his other films he's never bound by restrictions of good taste, particularly not in terms of the depiction of women; there's an uncharacteristic delicacy of language for a writer who otherwise takes such relish in the obscene possibilities of his dialogue. Of course, he lets Dewaere's conflicted, depressive character almost completely off the hook by making the step-daughter the initiator of the affair; the idea that women are the root of all of life's problems most obviously reveals the link to the rest of the Blier oeuvre.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

2011, US, directed by David Yates

What a relief! The previous film was one of the strongest entries in the series to my mind, carving out some much needed quiet time in the usually frenetic narrative constructed by the novels, but this installment gives us nothing but a two-hour conclusion that's constantly in whirligig motion -- viewed some months after the last episode, it feels tacked-on rather than intimately rooted in everything that came before, hardly surprising given that its back story was played out in another film. The filmmakers are obligated to find a way to give each character an appropriate sendoff, though not always with any great success (Hagrid's finale is especially throwaway), so that you're almost begging for the actual ending by the time it arrives. There is no time for the viewer to become meaningfully invested in any of the events, including the deaths and extreme destruction, because the film is off without pause to the next curve in the narrative. It also seems even more effects-driven than some of its predecessors, losing the anchor in a recognizably real world which was such a source of rich contrast on earlier occasions; perhaps seen in partnership with the immediately preceding film, it wouldn't seem quite so exhausting.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Three on a Match

1932, US, directed by Mervyn LeRoy

The title's a bit of a deception, but Two on a Match wouldn't have allowed the filmmakers to use a phrase apparently then in vogue; the three women featured above have rather unequal screen time, with Bette Davis's character shoe-horned in as an after-thought to the shenanigans involving Ann Dvorak's drug-addled dissipation and Joan Blondell swooping in to pick up the pieces of Dvorak's life. Which include, not incidentally, a husband, played by Warren William in a role which must have seemed like quite an acting stretch, since on this occasion William doesn't play a complete cad. Even by the standards of the 1930s, the film squeezes an extraordinary amount of plot into an hour, with LeRoy using newspaper headlines as one neat device to mark the passage of the years, and the film takes full advantage of pre-Code leeway, with marital woes, booze, drugs and brutal gangsters (including Bogart in his hoodlum period) front and center. There's also a kidnapping sequence that must have evoked the tragic Lindbergh case, which took place earlier in 1932, for viewers of the time; as a plot device, it's rather questionable seen against the terrible outcome of the actual kidnapping.

A Private Function

1984, UK, directed by Malcolm Mowbray

A Private Function, or The Cheerful Dismantling of Cherished 1940s Images of Britain. It is refreshing indeed to find filmmakers willing to so gleefully shred the foundational mythology of post-war Britain  (the film is set in 1947). Although I assume that rationing, then still in force, did indeed make for rather thin gruel in many households, here the venal populace is obsessed by food to the exclusion of almost everything else, with the plot centering on an illicit pig destined for a local celebration in honour of that year's royal wedding. The animal in question is capable of inspiring criminal behaviour and wild passions, though not necessarily in the same people, and the camera lingers lovingly on every morsel to be consumed by the porker.

Of course, this being Britain, the film is also an acute examination of the particular discomforts of being forced into excessively close proximity with those of another social class; this is most especially true for the local doctor, played with oily delight by Denholm Elliott, who is forced to consort with lowly farmers, butchers and, worst of all, a chiropodist (Michael Palin) whose wife, Maggie Smith, has a higher social station in mind. The cast is something of a who's who of British acting: trying to keep up with each new face makes it a bit like watching a Harry Potter movie, the filmmakers handing out employment willy-nilly to every Brit with an Equity card. The late, and genuinely lamented, Pete Postlethwaite has one of his first significant film roles here, as the local butcher, playing up his north of England origins for all they're worth. 


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

2011, US, directed by Rob Marshall

I thoroughly enjoyed the first three entries in the Pirates franchise, despite the obscene budgets and general silliness of any endeavour derived from a theme-park ride, but Gore Verbinski's sure touch with both atmosphere and action is sorely missed here: with the exception of a brief, witty chase sequence early on through the crowded streets of London, the film lacks the essential playfulness that made the earlier films rather more fun to sit thruogh. Jack Sparrow, too, has slowly worn out his welcome: Depp's character was a diverting supporting player when there were multiple plots in motion but front and centre the character is simply too broad, and too repetitive, and Rob Marshall's certainly not the man to ask his lead to rein things in a bit.

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.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States