Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Le Dos au mur


1958, France, directed by Edouard Molinaro

I mostly know Edouard Molinaro for his 1970s and 1980s work in a comic vein, so his much darker debut feature came as a surprise (Molinaro also uses the generally light-hearted actor/director Gérard Oury in an unconventional role). It opens in arresting fashion, first with a single-shot credits sequence and subsequently with an extended (15+-minute) wordless segment that narrates the aftermath of a crime. There's a definite Poe vibe mixed in with the overall Gallic noir tone, and an astringent bitterness to the view of human relations. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Des gens sans importance


1956, France, directed by Henri Verneuil

A compelling, moody picture, from Henri Verneuil, one of the strongest directors to work with Gabin in the later period (the actor made plenty of weak films, but the Gabin-Verneuil pairing was a notable success, also yielding Un Singe en hiver and Le Président). Gabin is at the limits of the taciturn here, somehow managing to navigate life largely surrounded by silence despite his work and garrulous family. Indeed, on a number of occasions he refers to the (pleasing?) silence of his job, driving across France in a series of apparently interminable journeys (Verneuil's ability to convey the monotony without boring the audience is quite the trick -- reminded me, perhaps incongruously, of Raymond Bernard's extended dramatization of the pounding of artillery in Les Croix de bois). The film also struck me as being especially modern in the sense that it anticipates the nouvelle vague -- location shooting, characters who are not always admirable, a great deal of sensitivity to tone, even if structurally there's no innovation.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sicario


2015, US, directed by Denis Villeneuve

A fairly effective genre picture, with a fairly quick setup and a smooth visual style that's much more attractive than the shakycam aesthetic so prevalent in recent years. Roger Deakins's work is very fine indeed, including in the set-piece that uses at least three kinds of footage (aerial, night-sight, "normal"), with the transitions being used to ensure greater rather than less clarity, again at odds with much recent action direction style. Interesting to encounter the film so quickly after reading Robert Andrew Powell's fine book This Love is Not for Cowards, given the Juárez setting, though there's a certain moral queasiness in watching the filmmakers milk that city's pain for cinematic effect, even more so when it purports to be strictly contemporary while really representing a short-lived, especially bloody peak in Juárez's history.

The Martian


2015, US, directed by Ridley Scott

While Ridley Scott's output seems to me uneven in the extreme, I rather liked this, not least because it does something I like a lot, setting up its premise with quite wonderful brevity, quickly moving the viewer to the meat of the story. To my mind, it also had some interesting solutions to some of the technical problems a story like this poses -- like whether or not to have the character speak or remain silent when alone -- while it also does a fine job of avoiding blocky exposition in favour of smooth narrative flow. That's a little harder in the second half, where more elements crowd together, but by then you've either bought in to the story or not. Plus, there's a nice seam of humour, something I don't always associate with the director.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Voici le temps des assassins


1956, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

A successful reunion for Gabin and Duvivier, who had not worked together since 1956. Like most of Gabin's more successful post-war turns, he's in buttoned-down mode (at least emotionally -- the character is not an especially silent type). Gabin plays a chef in Les Halles whose life is upended by the arrival of a quasi-relative, resulting in a profound change in circumstances (and in tone). The restaurant scenes are especially enjoyable -- not only does Duvivier make terrific use of the restaurant set to stage deep-focus action, but there's a vivid sense of the running of the business, with a cast of regular customers and an agreeably brisk rhythm. The film blends sets and location work very successfully, too. 

Monday, February 08, 2016

Archimède le clochard


1959, France, directed by Gilles Grangier

Gabin was a remarkably busy actor in the 1950s, turning out an average of three films a year, not all of the first rank. Truffaut had a point when characterizing Gabin's level of influence over films as being "dangerous," especially when he is paired with a director of no particular strength, as is the case for Gilles Grangier, who made a dozen films with the star. Gabin plays the titular tramp, a "character" who objects to being imprisoned on a short sentence since he'd much rather spend the cold months in lockup. There's nothing subtle about Gabin's characterization, which is "big" in every sense, with drunken hijinks, rapid-fire patter, and even a little soft-shoe. The film's main interest comes from the support, even if it isn't always used to best effect -- Julien Carette as a fellow tramp, and Bernard Blier as a bar owner, in particular. There's a dispiriting cheapness to proceedings most notably in the pretty inept integration of location and studio footage in a sequence purportedly on the fringes of a big Parisian parade. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Spectre


2015, UK/US, directed by Sam Mendes

The first time in a long while that I didn't see a Bond on the big screen, due to middling reviews, which turned out to be on point. It's a mediocre entry in the franchise, with perfunctory humanizing touches and a failure to use the chief villain to any great purpose. Indeed, Christoph Waltz's character seems to be conceived purely to speak lines in a Christoph Waltz manner, which has a relatively limited charm. The highlights: an excellent opening shot (or several, stitched together digitally), with a great deal of movement and self-conscious humour; and two or three atmospheric night-time sequences, wonderfully lit with chiaroscuro shadings. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Madame Bovary


1934, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Unfortunately, I did not save the best for last when it came to my mini-Renoir festival. Obviously, even a longer film, never mind one reputedly butchered by its producers, cannot hope to include every nuance of a substantial novel, and that's not really my issue, more the fact that the visualization here tends to underline Emma Bovary's most unpleasant characteristics -- assuming that you accept that the book posits Emma as a kind of feminist heroine avant la lettre, this film seems to subvert those qualities, making her come across as merely obnoxious even considering the social strictures of 19th century bourgeois life. There are, of course, some pleasures -- specific scenes that are exceptionally well-constructed with respect to the use of space, fine set pieces, and the occasional moment of real emotional force. That said, I think one's mileage could be a good deal greater depending on how you react to the actors, especially Valentine Tessier in the lead role -- if you embrace Emma's onscreen theatricality as a reflection of her inner self, for instance, you might find the film more rewarding. Robert Le Vigan has yet another oily turn as the creditor who brings about Emma's downfall, and his delivery of the line "we're not Jews" in justification of his financial practices carries an inevitable charge given our knowledge of the actor's subsequent offscreen career. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

Chotard et compagnie


1933, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Despite the substantial corpus of writing devoted to Renoir, there are few words on this particular film, a surprise as I found it generally charming and technically quite compelling. It occasionally reminded me of Die Koffer des Herrn O.F., especially in the second half, as an entire town buys into a particular obsession (complete with dream sequences). It was really the opening that grabbed me, though, with the first shot part of a long lineage of bravura openers, and the film is mostly made on a set that permits a great deal of easy movement, the camera peering behind corners, through windows, and generally keeping an eye on characters as they move around the space. 

Chotard himself is played by Fernand Charpin, such a key presence in Pagnol's Marseilles trilogy, and he's a delight here, too. The plot is driven by the marriage of Chotard's daughter to an unpromising fellow, a writer played by Georges Pomiès, a name wholly unfamiliar to me, but from his movement it wasn't hard to figure out that he was trained as a dancer, and indeed that this was his primary vocation. He's not a great choice for the part but his background certainly adds an interesting energy to the character, granting him an unexpected and graceful physical presence. As a casting selection, it reminded me a little of the offbeat energy of Jean-Louis Barrault in Drôle de drame, though that's a more successful marriage. Which in turn reminds that I took a reflexive dislike to Pomiès when I discovered that he had won Louis Jouvet's lover Lisa Duncan away from the great actor (though of course she may have been the one who effected the change). 

While the whole thing is based on a pre-existing play, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a reference to Simenon -- with whom Renoir remained friendly after the director adapted one of the Maigret novels -- when the characters discuss an industrial-scale production of literature, of a kind that Simenon himself would have had no trouble keeping up with given his book-a-month rhythm. 

Index

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States