Friday, August 30, 2013

Short Eyes

1977, US, directed by Robert M. Young

Though certainly of its time as a portrait of the New York prison system -- the location for the filming, in an actual prison in Manhattan, no longer exists, while AIDS is several years in the future -- Short Eyes is also strikingly modern, with a directness of expression that seems to elude a great many more recent, less courageous films: the portrait of John Heard, the titular "short eyes," or accused paedophile, expresses a sympathy for his demons without ever excusing or diminishing his impact on his victims, while the language of the film has a rawness that's jarring and effective. The film's bona fides as a piece of authentic work are impeccable: Miguel Pinero, who wrote the original stage play and adapted his work for the screen, began the project while in prison himself, and his attention to the constant noise as well as the alternating loneliness and sociability of prison life are striking.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Il Divo

2008, Italy, directed by Paolo Sorrentino

In the second half of Paolo Sorrentino's enthralling portrait of Giulio Andreotti, there's a scene where the politician sits quietly with his wife and watches a Renato Zero concert on television. Zero sings a soaring version of I Migliori Anni Della Nostra Vita, a choice of title that's of course entirely apposite to the film's portrayal of Andreotti as a man who reaches the political pinnacle while barely ever appearing to enjoy a single moment of his profess life (making him the most un-Italian of his countrymen). It's a bravura sequence, carefully splicing images of Zero on stage with the unspoken understanding between Andreotti and his wife, and cutting with a sudden silence to the next scene -- a fine example of Sorrentino's confident showmanship and also of how that showmanship is always in the service of his story. Not incidentally, it also showcases his instinct for music, whether Italian or English-language pop, classical, or original soundtrack (the intoxicating marriage of music to image reminds me Olivier Assayas's films). Sorrentino doesn't lay claim to definitive truth here -- any account of Andreotti's professional life is filled with silence and shadow -- but the cumulative picture of Italy's rotten political scene is quite devastating.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


2005, US, directed by Rian Johnson

A sustained exercise in style that never attempts to parody the 1940s hard-boiled pictures that it quite earnestly evokes, Brick ultimately left me rather cold -- those same hard-boiled pictures had a richer sense of humour, and a relish to the delivery of every line that's too often absent here. Lukas Haas, though, seems to sense a little more of what's afoot, chewing just a little on the scenery as a drug peddler to local high schools who still lives in his mother's basement...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Avengers

2012, US, directed by Joss Whedon

I spent much of the running time here musing on how godawfully loud this would have been on the big screen, which is probably not what the makers were going for. It's not a standalone film, but the capstone for a series of adventures of generally marginal interest to me, so I suppose it's never going to work for me as intended, but more disappointing is the fact that it has very little of the sense of fun I associate with Joss Whedon -- there are a couple of enjoyable scenes of barbed dialogue but otherwise it's one long battle sequence. Bang, bang, bang.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

2011, US, directed by Brad Bird

Exhibit A, I'd have thought, in any effort to show that a major summer blockbuster can still be made with a dash of intelligence and more than a little humour while still delivering the thrills expected of the genre. Though Brad Bird seems entirely at his ease in the live action format, he imports several of the tricks of his animated background, not least the focus on tiny details scattered throughout the frame that make watching a picture like Ratatouille such a continually rewarding experience, while also finding an easy mix between light-hearted dialogue and action that eludes many other pictures, not least Tom Cruise's prior effort.

Monday, August 19, 2013


1983, New Zealand, directed by Geoff Murphy

That rare film that arguably makes a genuine difference to historical understanding of its particular time period, without actually being historically accurate, Geoff Murphy's "Kiwi western" ended up being screened for a couple of generations of New Zealand students as part of their history syllabus -- part of a wave of historical revisionism that also saw James Belich's book The New Zealand Wars become a somewhat unlikely local hit.

Murphy's aim is not so much to clarify the actual events of the mid-19th century as to give a sense of the cross-cutting motivations, conflicts, and interdependencies of settlers, Maori (who had far more than a single agenda), and the British army. The various actors come into strikingly close contact at times: these people often knew each other intimately whether they were on friendly or unfriendly terms, and the film is especially strong on giving virtually everyone (save the British commander) considerable nuance of character.

It's also highly assured from a technical standpoint, in contrast to the patched together qualities of Murphy's Wild Man, and Murphy finds some stirring beauty in the New Zealand landscape years before Peter Jackson altered the field; the sequences of horsemen crossing the sun-dappled land recall Breaker Morant, another film that did its utmost to rework our understanding of the British colonial record. And all this without sacrificing thrills and spills, whether it's the set piece attack on a settler home or the iconic Kiwi cinema moment when Bruno Lawrence raises his quadruple-barrelled shotgun for the first time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rolling Thunder

1977, US, directed by John Flynn

The core idea here is to see just what happens when you push someone to the edge, and then right over -- classic exploitation stuff, but handled with considerable skill, and, until the finale, a surprising degree of tact in terms of how to show, or not show, scenes of violence. Indeed, much of the tension comes from the idea that we're not quite sure which direction things could go. Politically, the film remains a little muddled -- it's clearly critical of the ways that veterans of Vietnam are treated, and is somewhat ahead of its time in the focus on PTSD, but it never really delves into the fact that virtually all of the "bad" folk are non-white, across the border or overseas, even if a token Anglo creates further confusion. William Devane and, in a smaller role, Tommy Lee Jones are both very strong, depicting men desperately trying to hold it together in a world that has moved on and papered over the experiences that have become central to their lives.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Heaven's Gate

1980, US, directed by Michael Cimino

I'd never read Steven Bach's chronicle of the making of Heaven's Gate (or at least the parts he could recount, since his fellow executive David Field and director Michael Cimino withheld their cooperation), and revisited the film before cracking the spine. Even as a film, never mind as a financial endeavour, the picture has its problems, at least if you approach it hoping for some of the conventional pleasures of Hollywood -- a clear storyline, reasonably well-developed characters, and so forth.

Although I'm by no means averse to cinema that takes its time making a point, or even taking time to be the point itself, the mix of epic, technically impeccable staging and almost interminable point-making here seems awkward at best. While the prologue is designed to give the film a greater resonance, rather than condemning it to the then-unfashionable Western genre, I found it so unengaging that I almost gave up before the film proper had begun; John Hurt, a favorite performer, can't do a whole lot with a character who has virtually no development, and his opening scenes seem especially thankless in that respect.

And yet, the film casts a strange kind of spell -- partly, I think, because there's something genuinely beguiling about the idea of Hollywood committing serious money to an artistic take on class warfare in the nineteenth century west (even if it's junk as history). And partly, too, because on an individual scene level much of the film is quite masterful -- the choreography of players and cameras is remarkable, whether in the relative intimacy of a barroom, the public arena of the roller rink (unlike other segments, they're not a second too long), or the astonishing, brutal finale on the battlefield.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Le Plein de super

1976, France, directed by Alain Cavalier

A film very much of its particular historical moment, France in the mid-1970s, both on a self-conscious level, with director Alain Cavalier and his actor/collaborators seeking to capture the language and attitudes of the time, but also in terms of a new permissiveness of content that saw far more adult fare on French screens. The spirit of the café-théâtre collaboratives of the time, with the same people writing and performing, is also very much in evidence, though the quartet of actors here came from a more classical training (at least three of them attended the same acting school).

The road movie is especially well-suited to Cavalier's aims, with the format allowing for a multiplicity of incidents and asides that can nonetheless be tied to the central overnight car journey from the north of France to the southern coast. The heart of the film is the extended conversational riffing between the principals, on everything from the state of France to the state of their relations (not always relationships) with women, with the boredom of the journey, not to mention lack of sleep, slowly taking their toll. Like Les Valseuses and La Maman et la putain, this is a very male take on The Big Questions, and women have a far more peripheral onscreen presence here, too; that, though, is part of the point, with Cavalier ultimately suggesting, I think, the insecurities on display rather than endorsing the blustery assurance of the characters themselves as they banter in their exclusively male environment.


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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