Monday, December 31, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


2012, UK, directed by Lasse Hallström

I know the romantic comedy template calls for an eleventh-hour impediment to true happiness for one and all, but they really go overboard here with the destruction and resurrection, piling on not one but two major developments in quick succession when something rather simpler would surely have done the trick. Silly stuff, but the central performances are generally charming, and I fear the satiric portrayal of the UK civil service is rather closer to the truth than they'd like.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bernie


2011, US, directed by Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater takes a bizarre true crime tale and infuses it with much of the easygoing, conversational spirit of his earlier features, most obviously Slacker and Dazed and Confused, to genuinely unsettling effect, not least by shooting his film in many of the actual locations and employing some of the townsfolk who knew the principals. While their participation is clearly shaped by the filmmaker, there's no getting around the fact that, fifteen years on, the locals remain far more kindly disposed toward Bernie, a convicted murderer, than his elderly victim. That's part of the point, though: Linklater wants the viewer to feel complicit with these people, who have their own unusual take on the morality of the situation. The film does tend to stack the deck somewhat to achieve this effect, soft-peddling what might seem the more obvious ways for Bernie to deal with his increasingly unpleasant situation, though it does appear as though the real-life events are well beyond what any writer of fiction might dare to get away with. Linklater directed one of Jack Black's most enjoyable prior screen appearances, in The School of Rock, and clearly saw greater potential in the actor: he has Black dial his usual act right back while finding the occasional outlet for his more exuberant tendencies and it's an entirely convincing performance, with Black carefully sketching in Bernie's moral agonies without denying his self-regard.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


2012, US/New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson

I loved the three Lord of the Rings films, but was at times a little underwhelmed by the first in this new trilogy. I haven't read the books for decades, though Kristin Thompson's detailed analysis suggests that the filmmakers do a pretty fine job of integrating material from across the Tolkien universe in extending what was a relatively thin set of starting materials, at least as compared with the later trilogy of books. Still, while Thompson has me convinced about the wisdom of many of the adaptation decisions, I couldn't avoid the nagging sense that stretching things to three lengthy films was indeed a step too far.

It's not so much the idea of three films that seems unjustified -- as much as anything else, it's a clever way to build audience anticipation -- but rather three films that are closing in on three hours in length apiece. The need to fill out the running time seemed especially apparent in the sequences with Azog, who unbalances the film without great cause, and in the very extended opening scenes with the dwarves -- one or two shots of laden-down platters or plates being thrown across rooms would have made the point, but the sequences seemed to go on for an age without any useful information being transmitted (I was still completely confused by the various dwarves by the end, with the exceptions of those actors whom I happened to recognize from other films). All that said, there were many other pleasures: the opening with Ian Holm is lovely, and Martin Freeman has a beguiling sparrow-like quality that gradually morphs into something rather more serious by the time of his encounter with Gollum (that segment was, for me, the film's highlight, and the CGI work combining Andy Serkis's performance with Gollum's features is terrific), while the final scene is a wonderfully clever note on which to finish.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom


2012, US, directed by Wes Anderson

Along with Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., Wes Anderson's film made me laugh more than anything else this year, perhaps unsurprisingly given the obviously Keaton-esque aspects of Moonrise Kingdom, though of course Anderson also extracts much humour from his dialogue, an outlet less available to Keaton in his glory years. Anderson has always reveled in the artificiality of his set-ups and his scripts, and yet here, at least, it's no barrier to the creation of situations that seem grounded in genuinely human flaws and strengths -- it's as though he's somehow pushed the artificiality to a point where it serves as the underpinning to a new level of emotional richness. For all the irony of his dialogue, and the often delicious line-readings served up by his actors, Anderson treats his central characters with absolute seriousness and respect, in ways that reminded me of John Duigan's Flirting, another film that takes adolescent or teen love at face value.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cluny Brown


1946, US, directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Sought out after reading David Cairns's comments on the film, Cluny Brown does rather seem the poor cousin in the Lubitsch filmography, at least -- though not exactly unloved by those who've seen it, the thing is that not nearly as many people have, these days anyway. As David points out, it's a little hard to understand just why this might be -- the leads are absolutely terrific (Charles Boyer shades it for me -- he underplays exquisitely at times, whereas Jennifer Jones hardly knows the meaning of the word, at least here), the dialogue sparkling, and the insight into the British class system is razor sharp, never more so than the by turns amusing and devastating scene when the toffs realize they've taken tea with the new maid. Plus, there's C. Aubrey Smith, old codger extraordinaire.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

L'Aventure c'est l'aventure


1972, France, directed by Claude Lelouch

Though every film is, obviously enough, a product of its particular historical moment, it's hard to imagine Lelouch's film taking place in any time other than the immediate post-1968 period in France: if someone decided to make the film today, it surely would have to be as a 1970s period piece.  The picture opens with an extended sequence in which Lino Ventura, as an old-school criminal, comes to the realization that the world has changed when the prostitutes from whom he profits begin to unionize, bandying about words like autogestion a good year before they were back on everyone's Lips in reality. Later, there's an extremely amusing sequence in which Ventura and his cohorts undergo political education in order to understand the ideologies currently in the political air, the men struggling to come to any understanding of dialectics, never mind any of the many -isms presented to them.


It's perhaps that exquisite sense of the zeitgeist that made the film a strikingly big hit, despite the fact that the titular adventure is less than enthralling at times, the expected thrills and spills for the most part displaced by extended dialogue scenes: it must be the wordiest caper film on record, melding kidnappings and robberies in exotic locations with the kinds of extended debate that you might expect to find in something like La Maman et la putain. Still, for all its up-to-the-minute content, there's no sense that the film itself is especially progressive -- Lelouch is far more interested in having us spend time with his motley crew of criminals, dedicated exclusively to the ideology of personal enrichment, than in any thorough-going exploration of his own changing country. Like Ventura's character, Lelouch is mostly amused, and perhaps a touch disgruntled, at the idea that those prostitutes are organizing, though he doesn't tarry long over their fate. Whatever the politics, there's an enjoyably loose, improvised feel to the film, which is in no particular hurry to set its plot in motion -- you get the sense that the actors are constantly trying to avoid bursting into laughter at some of the more absurd sequences, whether it's the hilariously bizarre kidnapping of Johnny Hallyday, the men's attempts to impress women on the beach, or Jacques Brel in character as the world's most Belgian plane passenger.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Rango


2011, US, directed by Gore Verbinski

As over-stuffed as they are, I very much enjoyed the three Verbinski-Depp entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, a trio of quite consciously fun films that, I think, treated fans with some degree of seriousness, expecting them to keep up with the multiple plotlines that sprawled outwards over the course of the films. This is a rather more personal project -- though water is again a central component, albeit for its scarcity rather than its abundance -- which gives a kind of retrospective glimpse into the ways in which Verbinski managed to preserve some of the same free-wheeling spirit in the confines of a $200 million blockbuster, with unexpected references colliding, and outsize characters quickly etched with a few key visual tropes. Without any context to anchor it, the ah-now-I-get-it opening is a little rocky -- Pirates waited until the middle of the third installment to throw in something truly wacky in the form of the multiple Jack Sparrows -- but once Rango is liberated to experience his story, Verbinski really his his rhythm, zipping along without becoming antic, and slowing down to savour a reference or a particular character, such as Ned Beatty's slippery mayor.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Downfall of Osen


1935, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

Mizoguchi's final silent movie is actually something of a hybrid, at least if accounts of the production are reliable, as a fairly bare-bones narration was included at the last minute though the actors themselves don't speak -- almost as though the filmmakers are throwing in a benshi narration of their own, though the voiceover has none of the texture of a standard benshi performance, and half the time seems restricted to reading the titles, with minimal expansion. It's far more enjoyable to watch the film with an actual benshi narration, helpfully included in the version of the film released by the Japanese company Digital Meme in their Talking Silents series; their version is by Midori Sawato, by some way the most prominent benshi of the period after 1970.

Although Mizoguchi's direction is expressive enough in its own right -- the atmospherics of a Tokyo train station crowded with people waiting for a delayed train, the canted angles of a shrine where one of the film's key events takes place, the vaguely nightmarish aspect of a mental institution, double exposures to take us into the mind of madness -- Sawato's benshi performance is an extraordinary addition, so much so that after a short while it's easy to forget that there's just a single voice, modulated constantly, on the soundtrack, whether Sawato is providing the voice of a portly Buddhist monk, a sharp crook, or a tragically fallen woman (one of many in the Mizoguchi cannon).


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States