Wednesday, May 31, 2017
2014, France, directed by Frédéric Tellier
Frédéric Tellier's first feature, a well-paced, fact-based procedural that some reviewers characterized as a Gallic Zodiac; however, while there are certain tonal similarities the narration, which proceeds along two tracks, is very different, and we're well aware of the identity of the killer. Indeed, the more apt comparison in some ways is with Bertrand Tavernier's very fine 1992 film L.627, or the multi-year TV series Engrenages, at least in terms of the depiction of the inner workings of a French police unit -- there's even a poster for the earlier film on the wall in the station at one point, as if to underline the connection (or signal the film's aspirations).
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Saturday, May 13, 2017
Tuesday, May 02, 2017
1984, Taiwan, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
The mid-1980s produced some very fine coming-of-age films from very varied locations -- Bille August's Zappa and Twist and Shout, Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog, or Hou's delicate film, based in part on his screenwriter's memories of a summer spent away from home. As with My Life as a Dog, there's a parental illness in the background, casting an immediate shadow over events, though for the most part the carefree overrides the storm clouds, with the children testing the boundaries of their independence while gathering an understanding of the somewhat different boundaries that apply to adults. Like all of Hou's films, the pace is quite leisurely, with the director allowing scenes to expand in ways that permit the viewer to spend a good deal of time contemplating scenery, sound, and the often picturesque details of small-town life in which the kids make their own schedules. Absolutely absorbing throughout, with Hou drawing lovely performances from the younger cast members.
Monday, April 24, 2017
1950, US, directed by Rudolph Maté
A noir with an intriguing narrative strategy, beginning, indelibly, with the protagonist reporting his own murder to the police, before the film switches to flashback mode to fill in the gaps in our understanding. These prove to be many and varied in this rather byzantine plot centered on an incriminating document related to the sale of a quantity of iridium, with our protagonist, Edmond O'Brien, simultaneously trying to unravel his own murder while doing what he can to manage his medical situation. O'Brien plays the role with a suitable sense of urgency, although director Rudolph Maté sometimes undercuts the gathering tension by intercutting conversations with O'Brien's secretary and love interest that don't seem to materially advance the plotline to any great degree. Still, a fine, mostly brisk noir suffused with the sense of paranoia that we've come to associate with the time period/genre.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Thursday, April 13, 2017
2016, Ireland, directed by Peter Foott
A very funny first feature from Peter Foott that captures some of the same blend of comedy/affection of the British TV show/films The Inbetweeners infused with a very mild dose of the pathos of Adam and Paul, the film focuses on a pair of ne'er-do-wells who concoct an outlandishly naive get-rich-quick scheme. It's essentially a road movie, on bikes around West Cork rather than in cars across the American West, and while the script is often extremely amusing, it's the chemistry between the leads that really elevates the material; it's no surprise to discover that the film has spawned a TV series in an attempt to re-capture the magic.
Monday, April 03, 2017
An early Zinnemann, featuring a blind detective and his duo of assistants -- one canine, one wisecracking 1940s character actor -- solving a very of-its-time wartime murder caper with a dash of Nazi spy intrigue. Despite the unusual detective trio, there's little memorable on offer here -- this looks and feels like a straightforward programmer.
Friday, March 31, 2017
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
1932, France/Germany, directed by Robert Siodmak
The French-language version of Siodmak's Stürme der Leidenschaft, starring Charles Boyer rather than Emil Jannings. This is very early Siodmak, though it has some of the darkness and melancholy of the American films that brought him to greatest prominence in the 1940s, and it shows that he was already an assured hand with narrative. Visually, it's not overly distinctive, though several brief passages in the final third are more obviously Siodmakian.
Monday, March 27, 2017
1962, UK, directed by Val Guest
This is a contribution to the 2017 vintage of the Late Films Blogathon, hosted, as ever, by David Cairns at his wondrous blog Shadowplay.
It's perhaps a bit cruel to suggest that Jigsaw belongs in Late Films company given that Val Guest was only halfway through his lengthy and eventful life when he filmed the picture, but his career often teetered on the edge and took an undeniable nosedive shortly afterward, so we'll say that this marked the beginning of the end, and a very long final phase it was. There's not much to redeem you once you're stuck helming Confessions of a Window Cleaner, though.
Jigsaw is much more solid stuff, and like Guest's Hell is a City, made two years earlier, makes for a revealing glimpse into provincial Britain of the early 1960s; the films function as a fascinating north/south Manchester/Brighton diptych, with some compelling moments of local colour, perhaps especially in the earlier film. Structurally, Jigsaw is a fairly straightforward procedural, with Jack Warner playing the lead detective, and like many a later TV show the focus is resolutely on the professional rather than the personal lives of the cops -- there are brief mentions of offscreen lives, another contrast to Hell is a City, in which Stanley Baker's home life plays a critical role (interestingly, both films give prominent thanks to the local police forces, though the Mancunian force hardly benefits from Baker's portrayal).
Warner is already well advanced in years here, well over the usual retirement age for the average copper -- not that it stopped him playing the lead in Dixon of Dock Green until 1976, a most remarkable feat given that the character was shot dead on his first appearance in 1950. The gravitas of age works rather well here -- unlike a younger detective, Warner has no need to get himself all hot and bothered over each and every lead, proceeding instead methodically through his inquiries, with Guest playing up shoe leather much more than forensics. He orchestrates a clear, compelling march through the exploration and elimination of leads, married to an intriguing depiction of the back-streets of Brighton and surrounds. We're not quite on the seamy side of the tracks, and yet the setting is always something just a little short of respectability, too -- as though the town's true colours come out in the off-season.
The film also plays with the permissible when it comes to sex and violence in a way that feels of a slightly later era -- though Guest is careful to avoid anything truly gruesome, preferring to have our imaginations add the most ghoulish touches, and the point-of-view shots lack the truly terrorizing quality of, say, Peeping Tom. As David himself has written elsewhere, such modest pushing of the envelope was characteristic of Guest's work at the time, though there's no hint of the lurid on this occasion -- there's a dour, even sour, quality to the depiction of the sordid crime that has at least as much in common with the more domestic dramas of the era as it does with Guest's lively work for Hammer.
While Warner remained highly visible on television for another fifteen years, this was close to his swansong on the big screen, and I must confess that I've always found his bluffly English stolidity rather appealing -- there's not even the hint of a surprise in his depiction and yet it's low-key and effective, grounding the film in a sense of the real that complements the location shooting. The support is generally good, too -- Michael Goodliffe is very well-cast slightly lower down the class spectrum than we usually see him, which of course immediately makes him rather louche, as though he's done something vaguely disreputable and can't get better work than as a hoover salesman; the same might be said of the character played by John Barron, an actor who usually had a more military bearing, often as something of a martinet. There's also a glimpse of Ray Barrett, a key presence in many films of the Australian cinema revival of the 1970s and 1980s, although unlike Goodliffe and Barron he's entirely straight-laced here, in contrast to his most memorable roles back home. As is sadly too often the case in films where women serve as victim, there are far less notable roles for female actors, though Guest does assign a key smaller part to his wife, Yolande Donlan, who turns the part into something far more memorable than the script probably deserves.
The poster above seems to have little in common with the actual film -- I'd say the producers were disappointed that Guest delivered such a solid piece of work, not well-suited to the exploitation advertising that the poster suggests. For better or worse, Guest would give them what they wanted with most of the rest of his oeuvre...
Sunday, March 19, 2017
1947, UK, directed by Robert Hamer
An atypically downbeat Ealing film, set over the course of the titular day with some brief flashbacks, and centered on a manhunt/criminal back on his home turf. The picture of British domesticity is very carefully and precisely undercut, with the crowded London streets seen to harbor a good deal more than they seem, while the East End’s market-sellers and Jewish businessmen (both legitimate and somewhat less legitimate) get an extended onscreen airing. Unlike in Hell is a City, which I watched immediately before this, there is a certain air of doomed romance, and while some commentators link that atmosphere to pre-war French films, I thought it equated at least as closely with some of the cynicism and sourness of immediate post-war French film.
Wednesday, March 08, 2017
1960, UK, directed by Val Guest
An excellent, unusual British crime film set in Manchester and centered on a manhunt/man-to-man battle of wits between a criminal back on his home turf and an experienced, hard-bitten detective (Stanley Baker), marred only by a score that is rather intrusive at times. There’s nothing romantic about the criminals here, and indeed there’s a brutality in the depiction of the central crime and its aftermath that I don’t usually associate with the time period. In addition to a wonderful gallery of mostly northern character actors, there are some very fine bits of location business: pubs, backstreets, and moors and, in one extended sequence, wasteland used for a game of coin-tossing of the kind we see some years later in Wake in Fright – oddly enough another film featuring Donald Pleasance. The picture was made with the cooperation of the Manchester police, notable mainly because Baker’s character is less than entirely positive, particularly with respect to his home life.
Sunday, March 05, 2017
1942, US, directed by S. Sylvan Simon
A very efficient programmer that functions in some ways like an extended Agatha Christie unmasking: after some brisk early business, all of the suspects and several cops are gathered together to unravel a knotty mystery, with the lead detective in competition/collaboration with a wiseguy private dick/possible suspect (Van Heflin). There’s a breezy blend of tones -- murder, family dynamics, running jokes, banter -- that works very well, and the budget stretches to a good deal of location shooting that makes for an atmospheric and unusual backdrop. The camera movement is also quite creative in the cramped room where most of the action takes place, the camera roaming from one person to another as conversations evolve.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
2016, US, directed by Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay’s documentary about, primarily, the ways in which black Americans have been systematically criminalized by the political/social system, with emphasis on the ways in which this has been used to subsequently disenfranchise vast swathes of the black population. It's a very effective assemblage of interviews, archival footage and, especially, statistical data, often depicted in imaginative and striking fashion, and underlines the ways in which the legacy of slavery is still very much with the United States when it comes to the daily lives and (restricted) political participation of the country's people of colour. The various talking heads are generally informative, and occasionally surprising, none more so than Newt Gingrich bluntly discussing the failures of policies past.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
2016, US, directed by Raoul Peck
I had seen several of Raoul Peck’s earlier films, most notably his diptych focused on Patrice Lumumba, but his prior pictures, however interesting, didn't fully prepare me for the richness of this film, a remarkable work of both documentation and reconstruction that uses James Baldwin’s own notes for an unfinished project as its backbone, interspersed with carefully-selected footage of Baldwin himself. Entirely appropriately, the film is often deeply concerned with the ways in which filmed images were and are perceived by both blacks and whites, a theme to which Baldwin returned with some regularity in his writing (both fiction and non-fiction). If one or two moments are perhaps a little on the nose – images of the events in Ferguson, for instance – that may also say a good deal about how little has changed in the decades since Baldwin was writing, which lends his words a hauntingly prophetic air. As well as hearing Baldwin’s words quoted at length (his texts are spoken by Samuel L. Jackson), there is extensive archival footage of him in full flow, most notably from an appearance on the Dick Cavett show, in which Baldwin eviscerates a Yale professor, and there’s equally electrifying film of an appearance at an Oxford debate. The very idea that a late-night show might engage in discussion of that caliber is, of course, an impossibility in 2017.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
2005, US, directed by Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell
The boys loved this, and while it’s certainly not painful I found it had little of the unforced charm of something like Zootopia, and certainly lacked the multi-layered, multi-generational aspect of the best recent animated films. In other words, a middle-of-the-road animated feature that underlines how challenging it is to really knock it out of the park.
Saturday, February 04, 2017
2015, Australia, directed by Jeremy Sims
Thoroughly enjoyable road movie, with a very fine, and largely unsentimental, central performance from Michael Caton. There’s a good deal to savour in the depiction and deconstruction of various aspects of Aussie masculinity, which presumably comes from the original stage play, though the film version is in addition quite stunning from a visual perspective. The picture is also notable as a fairly benign depiction of the country’s vast interior, at least from the white perspective – there's little of the threatening aspect that is explored in other Aussie films dating back to the 1970s, while it provides glimpses of Aboriginal life that are quite rare in films not explicitly geared at such themes (it surely owes some debt to Backroads in that respect).
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
1941, US, directed by Archie Mayo
Very enjoyable Don Ameche-starrer set in Blitz-era London, and while it's obviously a "preparedness" picture for an American audience it's also rather well done, with a decent sense of time and place and some very enjoyable character turns (Eric Blore, Arthur Shields -- whose Irish accent isn't hard to detect); the emotional climax is well-earned, with Ameche doing a fine job with an unusual kind of soliloquy. The budget goes to good use, too -- there are several highly convincing scenes dealing with the aftermath of various bombardments.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
1955, France, directed by Gilles Grangier
A fine Gabin/Gilles Grangier collaboration, with some dialogue from the pen of Michel Audiard (Gabin gets a few pearls, very nicely delivered). Gabin is a truck driver -- as in the following year's much bleaker Des gens sans importance -- who inadvertently comes to the attention of some gangland figures, with Jeanne Moreau as his love interest. Gabin's role hearkens back to some of his most iconic working-man parts and it's not hard to see his character as an evolution of that of La Belle équipe, while the overall picture of the trucker's life is filled with enjoyable vignettes of working class/small town life in central France.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
2016, South Korea, directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Korean genre fare, occasionally quite inventive and witty, though ultimately not as distinctive as I had hoped even if it's a decent addition to the voluminous recent series of zombie entries. Still, it makes intelligent use of its effects budget in combination with some decent storytelling skills. Based purely on the content of the film, my sense is that Korean audiences might be more comfortable with syrupy tones, which seemed more amusing to a Western audience in the dramatic/action context – watching it with a US cinema audience the slightly nervous laughter tended to break up the overall effect.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
2015, Guatemala, directed by Jayro Bustamante
A striking film from Guatemala that blends an often blunt, earthy realism with occasional hints of something more mystical. Set among a group of indigenous people scraping together a life on the side of a volcano, it reminded me at times of several African films in its blend of domestic detail and spirituality (except with a good deal more sexual frankness) -- parts of Idrissa Ouédraogo's early films, as well, of course, as those of Ousmane Sembène, though with a very different visual approach than the Senegalese director.
Friday, January 06, 2017
2014, France, directed by Cédric Anger
Directed by former Cahiers critic Cédric Anger, the film deals with a bizarre and brutal true-life episode in the 1970s in which a series of murders/assaults was committed by a police officer whose role on the investigation team caused delays and misdirection in bringing events to a conclusion. Guillaume Canet plays the lead, and he's pretty good in an absolutely buttoned-down role, while the northeastern setting is very well-used, echoing, at times, Bruno Dumont’s earlier films. One of the French reviews I read suggested it had something of Zodiac about it, which whatever the film's other characteristics isn't true at all in plot terms -- although we follow the real-life chronology this isn't a procedural, rather a character study, albeit one that doesn't suggest much at all about the character's psychology, simply presenting him as a blank slate.
Wednesday, January 04, 2017
1937, US, directed by John Cromwell
While Selznick’s high-end picture is a ripping yarn in the best tradition of the 1930s studios, I had forgotten the extent to which this is rather more of a drama/romance than a straight swashbuckler -- there are some wonderfully odious villains, and Ronald Colman, C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven all look like they had loads of fun on set, but the action – in stunt terms at least – is compressed into the final ten minutes or so, with a good deal of fairly complicated back and forth in the lead in. As tales set in invented Mitteleuropa locations go, I still prefer the more comically-inclined TheLady Vanishes, or even Night Train to Munich...
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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.