Thursday, December 29, 2005


1996, US, directed by Doug Liman

Nearly ten years on, Swingers remains remarkably fresh for a film that seemed to be very much of the male-bonding zeitgeist, a mixture of terminally hip rat-pack posturing and distinctly uncool relationship angst, mostly from the perspective of Mikey (Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script), who straddles the uncomfortable border between depression and obsession six months after a break-up with his long-time girlfriend. He's a recent arrival in Los Angeles, plumbing the lower depths of the comedy business, in the company of fellow East Coast transplant Rob (Ron Livingston) and budding producer/self-styled player Trent (Vince Vaughn, who seemed poised for instant stardom after this film, rather than the half-decade of wheel-spinning that followed), among other hangers-on. It's not surprising that Mike's rise to the top is less than meteoric: his daily routine alternates between bouts of self-pity and nights on the town chasing down the hippest spots. Favreau's script skewers male vanities and self-deceptions remarkably well (although Mike's more irrational tendencies are mildly alarming), while Vaughn, in particular, makes excellent use of some memorable lines: 'You're so money and you don't even know it!' It's fun, too, to see the film send up other indie hits like Reservoir Dogs with both affection and purpose, while there's a sort of bitter-sweet affection for Los Angeles that surely springs from the writer's own experiences on the fringes of 'The Business'.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Batman Begins

2005, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Proof that it is possible to make an intelligent movie about a comic book hero: the key to the franchise renaissance is the surprising emphasis on relative realism. Batman Begins carefully grounds the powers of its hero in a reasonably credible version of the world, rather than ascribing them to more standard science fiction sources, as in, for instance, the recent Spiderman movies. In narrating Batman's rise from the troubled psyche of the rich, rudderless Bruce Wayne, director Nolan also has some genre-blending fun: Wayne's physical skills are learned in a kind of shaolin temple, with all the ninja-kicking action that implies, while his accoutrements mostly come from the secret labs of a trusted employee of his dead father, one Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman having a lucrative good time), a clone of James Bond's good friend Q if ever there was one.

Nolan develops an aesthetic entirely different from that invented by Tim Burton for the 1989 film that set the series in motion: this new Gotham drips with menace and thwarted potential, with no hint of (deliberate) camp. It's a dystopia more like that of a film like Seven than the average comic book backdrop, and it's that sense of very real threat that gives the film much of its bite. The film is also anchored firmly in the post-9/11 world: the central villain is motivated by belief rather than by the more traditional dreams of vast wealth or untrammelled power; it's rather bracing to be confronted by such themes in the context of a film like this. Batman/Bruce Wayne is played with great conviction by Christian Bale but there are also several excellent supporting turns, not least from Michael Caine, who does much with the part of the Wayne family's beloved butler.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The School of Rock

2003, US, directed by Richard Linklater

The School of Rock was conceived as a vehicle for Jack Black, and it works well, channelling his energies to highly entertaining effect. He plays Dewey Finn, a musician perpetually on the verge of abject failure, whose desperate need for rent money impels him to pose as his roommate when the phone rings with a job offer at a prestigious local academy (realism is not high on the agenda). The children in the academy are suffering under the weight of rules, parental expectations, and classical music classes, and the free-spirited Dewey is convinced that they can release their true selves through rock and roll, and sets up a secretive class project, 'Rock Band'. The storyline is patently absurb, of course, but Black's exuberant performance and the excellent ensemble of youthful actors (all talented musicians) drives the film; the often very witty script helps, too. Director Richard Linklater must take much credit for reining in Black's wildest tendencies (ensuring that Dewey Finn stays on the right side of obnoxious), and for coaxing a string of likeable turns from the younger generation, who had little to no experience before the camera. Part of me can't help thinking it's a shame to see one more independent cinematic mind co-opted by the studio system, but at least The School of Rock has more vigor, and considerably more charm, than most Hollywood pap.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Infernal Affairs II

2003, Hong Kong, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak

While Hong Kong films are best known for their gunplay, this one engages the brain, too, if only to keep track of the serpentine plot developments. A worthy prequel to the 2002 smash hit, the second part fills in much of the background, adding layers of intrigue as we navigate the years from 1991-1997 (and the impending handover to Chinese control). The film interweaves the experiences of Yan, a police mole in the triads, with those of Lau, a gang member who has infiltrated the police, and who has begun to work his way up the ladder. There are multiple cross-cutting plotlines and revelations, shedding new light on the events of the first film, although it can be quite a challenge to keep the various characters straight, particularly given the 'double mole' plot at the heart of the film. The young actors who play the youthful Yan and Lau do a fine job, although the real enjoyment comes from watching veterans like Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang, while several of the smaller roles, especially on the gangland side, are also well-played. While this sequel isn't quite as slick as its predecessor, co-directors Lau and Mak are absolutely at home with the mechanics of film tension, and ratchet things up to extremely enjoyable effect in several bravura sequences, with cross-cutting action as the various plot strands unfold in parallel; their camerawork is as polished and mobile as before. For a franchise film, there's also a surprisingly vivid sense of place, whether it be the homes of wealthy gangsters, or the back alleys of Hong Kong, filled with small restaurants and shops.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Lot Like Love

2005, US, directed by Nigel Cole

An Ashton Kutcher movie that's let down by the script and not the star? While Kutcher isn't my cup of tea, despite the occasional amusing moment in That 70's Show, here he's surprisingly charming, as is co-star Amanda Peet. However, neither of them can do much with a script and a director so indulgent with the running time (which could have lost 20 minutes and subplots to spare). The two seem to have real chemistry, but the plot advances so fitfully that the character development never convinces. Set over a six-year span, the film tells the tale - with multi-year gaps - of the mostly off-again attraction between two 20-somethings, but so much of the story transpires offscreen that the abrupt changes in the characters' lives after each hiatus rarely convince. No matter the obstacles thrown their way, there's never even a hint of doubt at the outcome - with the old-school red-herring at the end visible a mile off.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Friday Night Lights

2004, US, directed by Peter Berg

Like many sports movies, this is less about the on-field action than it is about Life, particularly since the many football plays are often compressed into rapid-fire montages, with the exception of the last game, which occupies the final quarter of the film. Life, in this case, is more particularly life in hard-scrabble Odessa, west Texas, a part of the US that takes its football very seriously indeed (the H.G. Bissinger book on which the film is based is as much social study as sporting history). As Odessa's economic fortunes have declined, the town has concentrated ever-more of its energies on the fortunes of the high school football team, with the seniors, in particular, under immense pressure from virtually everyone in town (these folks put the fan in fanatic). The film follows the real-life 1988 season, where great expectations appear to be dashed early on with the injury of a key player (played, with great verve, by Derek Luke). Since football dominates the routines of the players almost to the exclusion of all else - we never see them set foot in a classroom - it's inevitable that their life-lessons are acquired through the prism of sports. Their coach, Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, perfectly cast), is the prime adult presence in their lives, shielding them from much of the circus that surrounds them, but also imparting what wisdom he can in the pressure-cooker atmosphere. While sports movies are generally about triumph over adversity, there's a bittersweet air over everything here, a sad sense that nothing in life is ever going to have quite the same electric charge as a senior year of high school football. Director Peter Berg has an excellent eye for the details of Odessa's football obsession, and an affection for his mostly unknown cast, who acquit themselves well; his occasionally hyperactive camera is the only unwelcome distraction.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dear Frankie

2004, United Kingdom, directed by Shona Auerbach

Dear Frankie is a sweet-natured little fable in the middle of a typically British kitchen-sink setting - in this case, working class Glasgow. Frankie is a deaf nine-year-old who lives with his mother and grandmother, and who believes that his father is a sailor on a merchant ship by the name of the Accra. He writes letters to his absent dad, and receives replies filled with exotic details and carefully-chosen stamps. The wrinkle, however, is that the letters are written by his mother, who is unwilling to share the truth, that Frankie's dad is a rotten piece of work, whom she fears. Inevitably, the real Accra eventually shows up in Glasgow and, in a panic, Frankie's mum has to hire a stranger to play the part of a father for a day. The story suffers from a few too many holes - even in the circumstances, it's hard to understand why Frankie's mum sustains the fiction for as long as she does, nor does Frankie's deafness serve much more than a symbolic purpose - but there is considerable charm in the details of Glasgow life, which appears to centre on the chipper and the pub, and in an array of fine, nuanced performances, from Emily Mortimer (as Frankie's mother), Mary Riggans (as the grandmother) and the charming Gerard Butler, as the one-day dad, to single out only the most prominent (Jack McElhone is fine as Frankie, although he mostly just has to look appealing, since he has but one line). Director Shona Auerbach keeps the film grounded enough to avoid an excess of sweetness, with an ending that, plot quibbles aside, seems true and satisfying.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Constant Gardener

2005, UK, directed by Fernando Meirelles

Someone clearly forgot to give Fernando Meirelles the standard movie playbook on the adventures of white folk in tropical locations, for he's crafted an arrestingly original film from John Le Carré's book; only Graham Greene provides an adequately acid precursor, particularly in the form of Phillip Noyce's 2002 version of The Quiet American. This is bang-up-to-date tale of drug-testing by Western pharmacutical companies in Kenya, with minimal regard to medical ethics. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a minor British diplomat in Nairobi, recently married to a vibrant young woman (Tessa, played with great commitment by Rachel Weisz), who quickly involves herself in local health politics and upsets more than a few people in the process. The film opens, more or less, with Tessa's death, in suspicious circumstances, and the remainder of the action cross-cuts scenes from her marriage (Justin and Tessa marry so quickly that their marriage is more the tale of their getting to know one another) with Justin's attempts to find out the truth about her. In the process, he displays a far more steely streak than we - or perhaps he - imagined him to possess. Unlike many films set in exotic locales, Africa is anything but a backdrop: Meirelles shoots in some of Nairobi's grittiest slums, and there's a grim, absolutely unsentimental realism to everything we see (hardly surprising from the (co?) director of City of God). Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast as the increasingly dogged Justin, and he's surrounded by a cast of fine character actors, particularly Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Gerard McSorley, all of whose characters have their hands dirty to varying degrees; Huston, in particular, is outstandingly unsettling. This is a rare piece of genuinely political filmmaking: deliberately unsettling, with a grimly unhappy conclusion that underlines at least some of the realities of the West's relationship with Africa.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


1993, US, directed by Jonathan Demme

It's striking that twelve years after Philadelphia was released, the notion of a perfectly ordinary man who simply happens to be gay is something that the movies still haven't come to terms with: while Andrew Beckett's (Tom Hanks) sexuality is critical to this story, in another sense the fact that he happens to have a male lover (Antonio Banderas) is portrayed as purely incidental, something that's as natural as breathing, whereas in most movies it's still framed as an 'issue'. The story is familiar: Andy Beckett is fired from his job, apparently because he is both gay and HIV positive, and the only lawyer in town who'll take on his case is Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a former adversary and a homophobe to boot. On its own terms - major Hollywood movie tackling a genuinely emotive subject - Philadelphia does a decent job: it's simply unrealistic to expect a major studio to plunge millions of dollars into a movie like this and have the stars go to bed with each other. Soft-peddled it may have been, but it also got people talking in ways that they weren't accustomed to, and that, perhaps, is enough to expect from the entertainment industry. Tom Hanks handles his part with skill, and he makes the point, unmistakably, that one's sexuality and one's common decency are two entirely separate things (and not mutually exclusive); Denzel Washington is also solid, conveying some of the feelings of prejudice that even the most apparently open-minded among us occasionally mull over. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Philadelphia as an 'AIDS film' more than a decade on is the way in which AIDS is now a disease which is seen as an international - and especially African - public health issue, rather than simply as a 'gay plague' that carries a rapid death sentence (something that is less and less true in the West).

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Walk the Line

2005, US, directed by James Mangold

It's hardly a surprise to see this film compared to last year's Ray, what with the similarities in raw material, at least as presented onscreen: two dirt-poor southerners who have faced tragedies of one kind or another head out on their own, and break into the music business in semi-miraculous fashion. Their rise to stardom is fuelled by substance abuse and infidelity - followed by redemption and elevation to the status of national icons. That, at least, is the Hollywood version of things, although the movie format doesn't allow for much in the way of biographical nuance in two hours, even where the focus has been reduced to a fifteen-year span of Cash's life, childhood scenes apart. Given the constraints of the form, this a creditable bit of pseudo-biography, filling in the major incidents of Cash's rise to fame, especially the long flirtation, and eventual relationship, with June Carter. They first met when both were married - not something that cramped Cash's style anyway - and the film does a decent job of sketching in the emotional complexities of their relationship, without excusing them overly. In this, the film is greatly helped by its stars: Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional as Cash, inhabiting the character in convincing fashion, his face showing the wear and tear of hard living as the film progresses, while Reese Witherspoon, after years of froth, looks as though she's finally fulfilling some of the dramatic promise she showed as a teenage actress. Both actors do their own singing, imitating Cash and Carter with considerable accuracy (Jamie Foxx did a fine job of channelling Ray Charles's tics and twitches, but Phoenix and Witherspoon lend real fire to proceedings with their own energetic renditions of the greatest hits), and there's an unmistakeable chemistry between the two. It's no surprise to see Cash 'saved' from himself by the love of a good woman - Carter - but there's a twist, in that her relationship with Cash is clearly a form of redemption, too, after years of unhappiness: in many ways, this is a biopic of a couple rather than an individual, as befits the bond the two shared.

Friday, November 25, 2005


2005, US, directed by Florent Emilio Siri

Hostage reminds me of Wes Craven's Red Eye: a B-movie set-up played with great conviction and given an injection of directorial panache for a satisfyingly twisted payoff (although the action isn't as pared-down here as it is in Red Eye). Bruce Willis - who could do this kind of thing in his sleep but instead looks as though his life depended on it - plays an LA hostage negotiator who retreats to small-town California after a standoff goes terribly awry. As any alert movie-goer knows, the calm won't last long, although Bruce's bucolic existence is punctured in especially jarring fashion: three miscreant teens (one of them a standard-issue homicidal nutcase) end up under siege in the high-security house of a wealthy, but morally bankrupt, local citizen, and the man's underworld connections (who appear to have near unlimited resources) become involved in order to recuperate an incriminating DVD. There are multiple plot strands at work here, which would be fatal in the hands of a less accomplished director, but Siri, making his US debut, ably juggles the competing storylines to ratchet up the tension, making effective use of his star, who (happily) looks as though he wandered in from the set of Die Hard. The core of the film is the siege of the house, and the multiple attempts to break in - with no regard whatsoever for standard police practice, naturally. Siri employs a highly mobile camera - prowling, swooping and swishing its way along roads, over houses and along corridors - to great effect, although the colour scheme, all ochre and orange, is a little over the top. There's a great opening credits sequence that comes as a surprise in a film like this, and which sets the scene rather effectively for the bravura tone of what's to come.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


2004, US, directed by Adam McKay

Rating: *.5

I may be doomed never to fully appreciate the comic talents of Will Ferrell, but it's a burden with which I can live. Ferrell was amusing in Elf, although credit should also be given to a half-decent script, but in other fare, like Wedding Crashers, he's invariably the least amusing element of the film (I'm glad no-one was tempted to give him a 'surprise' cameo in The 40-Year-Old Virgin). As writer and star of Anchorman, he should take the lion's share of the blame for the unfunny shenanigans: the first 30 minutes are flat-out painful, with cast and director apparently convinced their set-up is uproariously funny in and of itself, whereas it's really a pretty tired recycling of 70's pastiche (even the weak film version of Starsky and Hutch did it better). Like so many movies from the Saturday Night Live crew, even when individual scenes amuse the whole film barely hangs together; there are many extraneous bits that, no doubt, proved wildly amusing to the makers while constituting an endurance test for audiences. Fortunately, there are several excellent supporting performances, most notably from Fred Willard and Steve Carell, both of whom are consistently hilarious, while one or two scenes - the epic fight between competing news teams, for example - raise the humour level several notches.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Sous les toits de Paris

1930, France, directed by René Clair

Like many films at the beginning of the 1930s, Sous les toits de Paris still has one foot firmly in the silent days, something that inevitably dates the picture for modern audiences. Many scenes, even those in which the actors are clearly speaking to each other, have a musical accompaniment alone, while the dialogue is not especially memorable (a few years later, Jacques Prévert and others would ensure that snappy dialogue became a cornerstone of French filmmaking). The performances, too, are reminiscent of silent days: the actors' movements are frequently exaggerated and wide-eyed, in contrast to the more naturalistic acting style that developed later, particularly once the possibilities of dialogue were better exploited. However, notwithstanding these limitations - which have as much to do with the modern audience perspective as with the film itself - Sous les toits de Paris retains great charm, from the elegant opening shot (filmed in a studio, and paired with a similarly graceful parting shot) which takes us down to street level, and into a crowd singing the title song, as a young man (Albert Préjean) attempts to sell sheet music. Préjean's character is, like everyone else, a creature of the streets, hard-scrabble but honest, living in an attic-room (hence the film's title), and hoping for a little cash and love. The story is very slight, and director Clair is indulgent with the running time, but there's no denying the director's affection for his characters: as poetic realism goes, he certainly errs on the side of the poetic, to mostly enjoyable effect (and the theme song will remain in your head for days afterwards).

Saturday, November 12, 2005


2003, Afghanistan/Iran/Japan, directed by Siddiq Barmak

When Osama was released, most of the focus was on the simple fact that it was the first film made in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban (not that the pre-Taliban list of films was long; there was never a movie industry to speak of in Afghanistan, unlike in neighboring Iran or Pakistan), but it also happens to be a fine bit of filmmaking, a carefully crafted miniature of considerable power. Like several key recent films from Iran, Osama adopts a child's perspective to reveal the wider society, in this case following a young girl whose mother compels her to dress as a boy in order to gain employment (the mother, who is a medical professional, is restricted to her house under Taliban rule: as a widow, she doesn't have a man to accompany her anywhere). The decision seems a good one initially but once the girl - re-baptised Osama - is removed from her place of work by the local mullahs in order to attend a madrassa, things spiral out of control. Director Siddiq Barmak keeps the action absolutely pared down, rarely straying from the main story, yet using background detail to develop a rich portrait of an astonishingly controlled society (with women the most visibly, and most brutally, repressed victims). It's a society from which the Taliban has leached almost all of the joy, in which even small acts of childish exuberance become dangerous. The non-professional actors are, for the most part, excellent, while the visuals are accomplished, with striking images throughout - the young girl skipping in prison, or the rows of covered women, not even their eyes visible. To paraphrase a friend, Osama is one of those worthy films that also happens to be good, which shouldn't be too much to ask.

Friday, November 11, 2005


1934, France, directed by Jean Vigo

Vigo's second and final film was so under-appreciated on release that the producers cut 25 minutes from the running time and gave it a new title, and it wasn't until years later, and more than a decade after his early death, that his critical reputation was born. It's ironic, then, that the passage of more years hasn't been kind to L'Atalante, which appears very dated in parts, and whose underlying slightness is ever more apparent. It's a romance, following the early wedded months of a barge captain and his new bride on the canals; the barge's wildly eccentric mate, played by Michel Simon, is a key figure in both their lives. More than most talking pictures, the link with silent days is very apparent: it's not hard to imagine the film without dialogue, particularly in the scenes between the married couple, whose acting style is as wide-eyed as in many a silent. For the most part, their story is rather routine: the film comes alive when Simon (one of the least handsome actors ever to achieve stardom) is on-screen, despite the fact that his gruff line readings are almost incomprehensible at times. His character's colourful personal history is rendered in vivid, amusing detail. While the plot is of the thinnest variety, it is nonetheless possible to discern something of what made Vigo unique in his time: there's a rawness that's the opposite of all that establishment cinema of the time stood for, and a willingness to experiment formally that inevitably impressed itself on the filmmakers of the nouvelle vague in the late 1950's. There's also a frank eroticism in several scenes that remains startling even today.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Claire's Knee

1970, France, directed by Eric Rohmer (original title: Le Genou de Claire)

One of Rohmer's best-known films, Le Genou de Claire exemplifies in many ways both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach to filmmaking. It's an especially garrulous talk-fest - the characters do little else - which is capable of considerable insight and occasional wit, but Rohmer's films are often set in an especially insular world (like the Manhattan of Woody Allen movies), which of its nature is intellectually exclusive, while it's often difficult to suspend one's disbelief at the blatantly artificial set-up. Jean-Claude Brialy plays a diplomat spending the month prior to his marriage on holiday alone - there's a scenario drawn from reality! - and while relaxing he catches up with an old friend, perhaps a former lover, who's a novelist. He spends his days 'befriending' a teenage girl and, later, becoming somewhat infatuated with her willowy, slightly older sister. His every move is recounted for the benefit of his writer friend, who goads him to more action (something the viewer might well appreciate, since his moves consist mostly of lengthy conversations). While there are scenes when, unexpectedly, all this hangs together and becomes quite compelling, Rohmer seems remarkably tolerant of some pretty poor acting, with lines delivered as if they're being read from cue cards (which wouldn't be surprising, given the large chunks of text the characters are required to deliver). As a director, he's clearly fascinated by cinema as a narrative medium, but has relatively little interest in the purely visual aspect of storytelling: the story is reminiscent of an epistolary novel, set in a very hermetic world, where other Rohmer films are a little more expansive, and considerably more charming.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Kitchen Stories

2003, Norway/Sweden, directed by Bent Hamer (original title: Salmer Fra Kjøkkenet)

Kitchen Stories might function as an object lesson in how to make the most of unpromising - on paper - beginnings, for it's a little gem, poignant and richly detailed, with wonderfully delicate performances and direction. The film follows participants in a 1950's study run by a Swedish institute keen to explore the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men, with the object of designing the perfectly efficient kitchen. The study takes place in a rural area, and each volunteer agrees to allow an observer to sit in his kitchen, on a comically high chair, following, and logging, the daily routine. Interaction between subject and observer is strictly forbidden. The focus is on Isak, an older farmer, and Folke, his observer, two men who, it quickly becomes apparent, are no strangers to loneliness. Isak subverts the process from the very beginning, cooking in his bedroom, and turning out the light in his kitchen to render observation impossible. Slowly, inevitably, however, a bond begins to develop between the two men: the cup of coffee that breaks the silence is almost heart-breaking, and a rich friendship evolves between two fundamentally decent human beings who have lacked the opportunity to express that decency to others. With so little dialogue in the first half of the film, there's a rich vein of visual humour on display, particularly in Isak's mischief, or the brilliant sequence when the observers, each driving a car towing a little caravan, reach the Norwegian border and are forced to switch to other side of the road, since the two countries weren't coordinated at the time. What remains most sharply in the mind, however, are the two deceptively simple lead performances, restrained yet detailed, and the unhurried direction, that allows a series of vignettes to acquire a bracing power.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

In Her Shoes

2005, US, directed by Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson and Ron Howard must have a bet going where they're each attempting to direct a film in every genre possible, but even with that in mind, In Her Shoes seems a surprising choice, on the surface, for the director of fare like LA Confidential or Bad Influence. It's a true chick flick - the title sequence underlines the footwear fetish - with three meaty lead performances, plenty of family drama, and more than a few laughs among the tears. Look a little closer at Hanson's record, though, and it's perhaps not so odd to see him turn in a film like this: he's helped revive more than one actress's career - think Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocked the Cradle or, especially, Kim Basinger in LA Confidential and 8 Mile - and given us unexpected turns from Meryl Streep (in The River Wild) or Katie Holmes in Wonder Boys. While the drama meanders from time to time - a reflection of the two interwoven stories that keep characters offscreen for long periods - Hanson does a fine job working with the three leads, credibly bringing Cameron Diaz from irresponsible party girl to something resembling an adult, and shepherding Toni Collette through an ugly duckling transformation. Shirley Maclaine is surprisingly restrained - her scene-stealing sidekick gets the best lines - and in the process acquires an appropriately grandmotherly dignity. It's not Hanson's most distinctive work, but it's generally well-crafted stuff, with relatably flawed characters and more than a little charm around its rough edges.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Twilight Samurai

2002, Japan, directed by Yoji Yamada

Yoji Yamada has directed almost seventy films over the past 40 years - the kind of work ethic that puts even Woody Allen to shame - but only a handful of his movies are known outside Japan. Most of his professional career was spent on the 48 movies in the Tora-San series, which followed the picaresque adventures of the eponymous lovable loser, and which weren't big in the export market. In his own autumn years, he's turned to some more substantive material, none more so than this modest little film, set in the waning years of the samurai era. Before seeing the film, I had formed the impression that the main character, Seibei, was a rather elderly gent, so it was something of a surprise to discover that he's a vigorous fellow, more than capable of wielding a sword, though less and less interested in actually doing so. Seibei is a widow, caring, on a meagre stipend, for two young daughters and an increasingly senile mother. Like many other samurai in his clan, he works as a clerk, although he sets himself apart from his colleagues by his refusal to join them in merrymaking, preferring to care for his family. Events conspire to reveal that he retains much of his skill with a weapon, as he defends a young woman's honor, and he's forced back into action at the behest of his clan. The film ultimately is about the difficulties faced by two independent individuals - Seibei and Tomoe, the young woman who becomes a part of his life - in a society governed by a rigorous set of rules and taboos, but the film doesn't overdo the deeper themes, focusing instead on the details of Seibei's life, whether it be the making of insect boxes, fishing, the ceremonial preparation of weapons and dress, or the eating of food: these small touches rapidly draw us into his very codified world. The performances are strong - and more naturalistic than in some of Kurosawa's historical work, for example - with Hiroyuki Sanada, who appeared in the Japanese Ringu movies, especially effective. The film is let down only by its coda, which is overly sentimental even though it strives for something more clear-eyed.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cop au vin

1985, France, directed by Claude Chabrol (original title: Poulet au vinaigre)

Despite the film's origin, there's something very English about Poulet au vinaigre: it plays like an especially well-wrought English television mystery, so it's no surprise to discover that Inspector Lavardin's adventures later transitioned to the small screen, nor that Chabrol turned to source material like Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone several years later (that novel was filmed, with great force, as La Cérémonie). Like a P.D. James adaptation, the players are given plenty of time to implicate themselves in all kinds of wickedness before Lavardin (Jean Poiret) turns up to unveil the mysteries (indeed, the film is half over before Lavardin makes much of an impression; in other circumstances that might be a shame, but Chabrol has such an acute eye for small-town foibles that you barely notice his absence).

Like any good English mystery, but unlike the average French policier, except those of Chabrol himself, class is front and centre here, with postman Lucas Belvaux and his mother (a thoroughly de-glamorised Stéphane Audran) fighting off a trio of rapacious property developers (though that's but one strand in the film). While no-one emerges entirely unscathed, Chabrol has an unswerving affection for the little man - allowing a certain measure of poetic, if not literal, justice to come his way. Jean Poiret is best known as a comic actor, but Chabrol's casting was a smart move: like Hitchcock with Cary Grant or James Stewart, Chabrol understands how unsettling it is to see an apparently mild-mannered individual suddenly behave forcefully, even violently. It's not one of the director's most acid films, but Chabrol doesn't do frothy, and there's an air of menace at the most unexpected moments.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

2004, France/US, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (original title: Un Long dimanche de fiançailles)

One wonders if, after the enormous international success of Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet wanted to make something, well, important, substituting the First World War for his more usual world of bizarre happenings and brilliantly-constructed, occasionally black whimsy. There are occasional flashes of his old self - the vignettes that introduce a series of characters early on recall, quite explicitly, the various apartments in Delicatessen, for example - but something in Jeunet's approach seems ill-suited to what remains at heart pretty sombre material (and which remains much sharper-edged in Sebastien Japrisot's 1991 source novel, which gave an especially strong sense of the vast scale of the human losses of the Great War in France). While Jeunet doesn't gloss over the realities of trench combat in the Great War - indeed, he brings a rare sense of the myriad physical discomforts that were a constant of trench life, as well as of the horrors of maimed and destroyed bodies - the sepia-tinted main storyline occasionally seems to belong to an entirely different film, with a rather more Hollywood take on life (the story follows Mathilde - Audrey Tautou - as she attempts to track down her fiancé, who disappeared in the trenches in 1917 after being condemned to death for cowardice). There are, nonetheless, pleasures to be had from individual episodes, as well as the formidable cast, many of them Jeunet regulars. Ticky Holgado deploys his charmingly southern accent to great effect once again in his penultimate appearance, while Dominique Pinon has an unusually affable part; in smaller roles, Jeunet has fun with the usual panoply of unusual faces. The centre of the film is, of course, Tautou, whose gamine charms aren't as appealing here as in Amélie, but that's in large measure the fault of her director, who seems more interested in technical trickery than coaxing a strong performance from his leading lady. Jeunet is prey to the technician's flaw of forgetting the human core of the story under the many layers of digital wizardry, something that also marred La Cité des enfants perdus. It's a mistake that's less excusable in telling this particular tale.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Germany/Turkey, 2004, directed by Fatih Akin (original title: Gegen die Wand)

A couple of years ago, Fatih Akin directed a cute little romantic comedy by the name of Im Juli, a creditable variation on the familiar theme of boy meets girl, with a multi-ethnic twist and two appealing lead performances. To say that Gegen die Wand is a little different is rather like saying that milk and kerosene are different: Akin's new film is a ferocious exploration of two messed-up souls, and their place as immigrants/outsiders in today's Germany. The film opens, more or less, in a psychiatric hospital, as Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a troubled young woman, of Turkish origin, tries to convince Cahit (Birol Ünel), a somewhat older Germanized Turkish man, to marry her - the only way she can see to escape the stifling confines of her family. She's not proposing a conventional arrangement, however, since the marriage is to remain a convenient fiction, for her parents' eyes only. While it's no surprise that events don't unfold as smoothly as she imagines, given the complex histories involved, the performances of Ünel and Kekilli are so thoroughly involving that they render the subsequent events both credible and moving. When a tragic accident sends the story in an entirely unexpected direction the shift is wrenching, for despite, or because of, their flaws, the couple is clearly struggling in the right direction, dealing with grief, loss, and displacement as best they can. The latter third of the action shifts to Istanbul: it's striking that both of Akin's films end up here, as if to suggest that only in the mother country can Turks truly confront their problems. It doesn't paint a rosy picture of multi-cultural Germany that even a successful Turkish-German director feels that true happiness is to be found back on the Bosphorus.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A History of Violence

2005, US, directed by David Cronenberg

It's not often that you come across a movie that has few truly adequate points of comparison. That's perhaps because Cronenberg does such an extraordinary job of marrying two utterly different kinds of film: a viscerally gripping thriller, and a thought-provoking art movie that forces us to confront just what it is we enjoy about those visceral kicks, making us complicit, in a way, in the violence that shatters events onscreen. A History of Violence is also a brilliant riff on the Hollywood vision of smalll-town American life, the kind of dissection that perhaps only a foreigner - even a Canadian - could pull off. The little town where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives is set up as an idyll, peaceful and beautiful, where everyone knows one another. Then men of violence come to town and Tom's method of dealing with them forces at least some people to wonder whether, in fact, they know anything at all about their friend.

Mortensen is perfectly cast, his mask slipping in slow, startling fashion, as the audience, too, attempts to reconcile Tom's salt-of-the-earth present with his dark past; Maria Bello plays his wife with a kind of ferocity that perfectly captures the maelstrom that threatens to engulf her family, while the supporting players are generally on the money, even if William Hurt chews the scenery just a little. Cronenberg's direction is carefully controlled, peeling each layer off the onion quite deliberately. Adapted from a comic book, the film has something of that medium's immediacy: there's no wasted time here, each well-composed shot advancing the action in graphic style; several brief shots evoke comic book art quite explicitly, without proving a distraction. Most of all, A History of Violence is a fully adult movie, which demands reflection, and which refuses to gloss over complex, contradictory emotions.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


1992, New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson (US title: Dead Alive)

Watching Braindead, I couldn't help but wonder how Peter Jackson ever persuaded people to part with another dollar in order to allow him to continue his career - never mind get from here to pre-production on The Lord of the Rings in five short years. Then again, perhaps they figured it was best to keep him occupied with movie-making than have him on the streets. There's no doubting that Jackson was already developing, and confident in, his filmmaking chops, for there's a breakneck pacing in evidence, as well as a creative, mobile camera that would come in handy both on Heavenly Creatures and, more obviously, in committing Tolkien's saga to celluloid.

Since I'm not a committed gore hound, however, the sometimes laughable special effects, constant showers of blood (and other assorted bodily fluids), and wildly over-the-top performances left me a little cold. The plot, for what it's worth, involves a Sumatran rat, whose bite apparently turns people into zombies, who naturally want to chomp on the neighbors, thereby creating more zombies. The action is set in very prim 1950s New Zealand, where a zombiefied mother is something of a social liability, as Lionel, our hero, quickly finds out, particularly when Mum nibbles on her nurse. There are more than a few similarities with Shaun of the Dead, particularly the matter-of-fact attitude of both heroes in dealing with the outlandish events around them, although the latter film deals with the arrival of zombies in polite society with considerably more wit.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Red Eye

2005, US, directed by Wes Craven

It's nice to know that at least some people in Hollywood realize that there's no shame in turning out a well-made B-picture, rather than an overfed A-lister that fails to satisfy. There's absolutely no fat in Red Eye's 85 minutes, with Wes Craven signalling his intent in the lean, clever credits sequence. The plot swings rapidly into action as Cillian Murphy - so blue-eyed you know he's got to be wicked - bumps into hotel manager Rachel McAdams (on quite a roll after The Notebook and Wedding Crashers) as she's about to board a late-night flight home. After they share a delay-induced drink, he ends up in the seat beside her on the plane - but we're quickly aware that there's no coincidence, as he needs her management talent to assist in a nefarious plot to off a high-ranking official. It doesn't do well to examine some of the plot holes, but then there's rarely time as the film, with more than a few nods to Hitchcock in the on-plane sequences, zips along. McAdams is a credibly spunky heroine - you'll want to cheer her on as things get hairy - and Murphy seems to enjoy himself no end even when his character is being so comprehensively outsmarted. It's nice to see Craven so clearly in control of his material here: the horrors are more mundane, though no less creepy for that, but the old dog has a few tricks left in him yet, after a string of misfires.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Modern Times

1936, US, directed by Charles Chaplin

It's hard to watch Chaplin's last silent film without an awareness of almost seventy years of criticism and quotation, not to mention dozens of Chaplin biographies. There's no doubting the work of an artist - nay an auteur, given that Chaplin did more or less everything of note, and probably made the tea, too - but often the sense is of an artist frustrated by the very medium in which he excels. While it's easy to read the film as a commentary on the dehumanizing effects of industry more broadly, Chaplin himself felt very acutely the pressures to mould himself to an inflexible Hollywood system, notwithstanding his own wealth and, for the most part, artistic freedom. In a sense, he was fighting against the very collaborative nature of the film industry - a near production line at the height of the studio era - but also the industry's ceaseless pursuit of the dollar. As to the film, it's inescapably a string of - well-made - two-reelers extended to feature length; the famed sequences in the factory work brilliantly as vignettes, while the scenes with the gamin (sic) change the tone entirely. There's plenty of bite to Chaplin's portrait of the humiliations of factory life, although the buffoonish owner is a cipher, while Chaplin is never entirely sure what he thinks about the unions. The final optimistic title card, while absolutely in tune with the American Dream, seems altogether too naïve in the context of the enormous social turmoil of the Depression. It's a fascinating film as an impetus for debate, a clever piece of cinema which sends a very confused message.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Year of Living Dangerously

1982, Australia, directed by Peter Weir

It's hard to know quite what to make of Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously more than twenty years on. There's no doubting the sincerity of the filmmaker's intentions, opening a rare window on to Asian politics with his depiction of events at the tail end of the Sukarno era in mid-1960's Indonesia. However, the realities of life for the Indonesian population generally slip into the background, with the film becoming another tale of (relatively) privileged Westerners in an exotic locale. Guy Hamilton (played by a generally bedraggled Mel Gibson) is an Australian newsman who arrives in Jakarta with a pretty limited grasp of Indonesian politics but perhaps a somewhat greater amount of moral fibre than his colleagues, and he's quickly led to some of the corridors of power by his dwarf asistant, Billy Kwan (the remarkable Linda Hunt), a half-Chinese man devastated by Sukarno's betrayal of the Indonesian population. The core of the film is a tense web of conflicting loyalties, and late-night meetings, which might seem enough on its own, but the film reverts to convention in giving considerable time to the love affair between Guy and a young British Embassy staffer (Sigourney Weaver); their antics at times make light of the very real dangers faced by both westerners and Indonesians as the country unravels. Still, even by comparison with the brilliantly jaundiced The Quiet American (the Phillip Noyce version from 2002), there's much to enjoy here: the plot is as twisted as Indonesia undoubtedly was at the time, with much to say about loyalty and betrayal, and the fine line between the two, all against a suitably sweaty backdrop (with the Philippines standing in for Indonesia).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Matchstick Men

2003, US, directed by Ridley Scott

Even after almost thirty years of filmmaking, there's no mistaking Ridley Scott's origins in advertising, nor his continued interest in the visuals of that medium. His Los Angeles is all slick surfaces and bright light, the city's artifice very apparent. Of course, a preoccupation with appearances is perfectly suited to a film about con men. Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell play hard-working con men adept at bilking the vulnerable, the gullible, and occasionally the plain greedy, out of their savings, one con at a time. Early in the film, Cage, who suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, discovers that he has a teenage daughter (Alison Lohman) from a relationship that went south years previously, and he attempts to re-connect with her in an effort to add at least some meaning, and perhaps karmic points, to his life. Inevitably, she becomes caught up in some of his scheming, notwithstanding his attempts to keep her at arm's length, and his plans for one last con begin to unravel fast. Cage's part is the kind of thing actors love: the character comes off his meds and exhibits all manner of tics, but director Scott wisely doesn't allow this to become more of a distraction than necessary. Rockwell is all manic energy while Alison Lohman does a fine, lower-key job as the daughter; it's hard to believe she's in her mid-20's. There are plot contrivances aplenty here, but this is a fine bit of genre filmmaking, with performances that were under-appreciated at award time.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries

2004, US/Germany/GB/Argentina/Chile/Peru, directed by Walter Salles (original title: Diarios de motocicleta)

Avoiding the pitfalls of a full-blown biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries focuses more narrowly on Ernesto 'Che' Guevara''s youth, and his first trip outside Argentina, using his own diaries as the basis for the narrative. In 1952, Guevara (played by the fast-rising Gael García Bernal) and a friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), decide to take a trip on Alberto's elderly motorcycle, a journey that'll take them from one end of South America to the other. Guevara is a privileged fellow in Buenos Aires, without a whole lot of experience of the world - the fact that he's a rugby-playing medical student gives a rough idea of his social status in Argentina - and the journey functions as his political and social awakening. There's undoubtedly an element of (self-) mythologizing at work here, but the film is generally a highly convincing portrayal of the first stage of Guevara's political development, and his growing awareness of the breadth and depth of inequality and injustice on his continent. It's also a love story of sorts: Guevara becomes deeply, almost mystically attached to some of the places he visits; those feelings are summed up in a speech towards the end of the film, in which he sets forth his vision of a continent without borders, where common heritage and humanity are celebrated. Director Walter Salles doesn't allow things to become too ponderous, however: there are warm and amusing scenes that evoke the pair's less elevated adventures, with narrow escapes from drunken husbands. Bernal is excellent as the nascent Che, as charismatic here as he's ever been, and there's a large cast of wonderful character actors in support. The South American landscapes, gorgeously shot, have a key role, too, underlining the sense that travel is something that requires effort and endurance to yield its many secrets.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Bad News Bears

1976, US, directed by Michael Ritchie

As the Bad News Bears sequels showed, kids drinking beer and swearing might be funny, but you need a skilled curmudgeon as a foil, and they don't come much more skilled, or more curmudgeonly, than Walter Matthau; he doesn't have to do anything at all, and yet he still seems ornery. For a film about, and enjoyed by, kids, it's striking how his flaws are never glossed over. Matthau's Morris Buttermaker has a mean streak almost to the end, and yet he still manages to achieve a kind of redemption not so much by softening his heart but by aligning himself with the kids against the adult world, handing out beers to his Little League team - to parental consternation. It's a kind of Roald Dahl take on the world, where the rest of the adults are dimissed as stuffed shirts or as malevolent presences (the opposing coach, for example, who slaps his own son). Several of the kids - most of whom never really acted again, outside the Bad News Bears series - acquit themselves well, while Tatum O'Neal is pretty convincing as the ballsy, twelve-year-old female version of Matthau (she didn't make many good movies, but she was at her best working opposite an adult actor). Michael Ritchie was reaching the end of a fairly fertile period in 1976, although this film doesn't have the political overtones of his other work: in his professional hands, the movie remains far more coherent than many a juvenile feature, while his directorial reins are still loose enough to allow for amusing comic bits, especially from the feisty, profane second baseman.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

La Bûche

1999, France, directed by Danièle Thompson

A rather slight affair, this is an unsurprisingly wordy Parisian film centered on a somewhat dysfunctional family (in particular three sisters) in the lead-in to Christmas, as they attempt to negotiate a minefield created by the need to accommodate both of their long-divorced parents at the same dinner table. The conceit of three very different sisters is rather overdone, particularly where one or more tends to be offscreen for lengthy periods since their lives rarely intersect. However, the impeccable cast does a generally good job, with Sabine Azéma outstanding. The older generation, in the form of Claude Rich and Françoise Fabian, is a delight: they have an especially good central sequence in a bar, in which they manage to cover both the events and the emotions of their tumultuous marriage; there's no hiding the delight that writer-director Danièle Thompson, a skilled wordsmith making her directorial debut here, had in writing this scene, as well as those in which her characters address the camera directly. It's tempting, in the face of such wit, to read more into the film than is really there, but, that said, there will undoubtedly be a few winces of recognition at the family oddities on display - Christmas tensions are universal, at least where the festival is celebrated, even in this Jewish Parisian household.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Finding Neverland

2004, US/GB, directed by Marc Forster

Perhaps director Marc Forster found Monster's Ball as exhausting as I did, for this is a startlingly different project, filled with whimsy, and the most chaste of interactions between the main couple. There's a poignant, even tragic, undercurrent, but the core of the film is bright and hopeful, like J.M. Barrie's own key creation, Peter Pan. The film introduces us to Barrie on the eve of his professional nadir, a play that flops badly, leaving him casting about for inspiration, and his main patron calling in financial favours. Into his life comes a ready-made family of fatherless young boys (and their mother, Kate Winslet), a distraction from his own unhappy home life, although his interactions with the boys are anything but conventional. The film briefly raises the spectre of a less pleasant side to Barrie's unusually playful relationship with the four boys, only to dismiss it absolutely (Michael Jackson may wish that he had been so lucky). There's much to like here, not least the acting: Depp is charming, with a light Scottish burr that never distracts, and while Winslet can do this kind of thing in her sleep, she's no less appealing for that. The standout among the children is Freddie Highmore, a startlingly self-possessed 10-year-old when the film was made. As Peter, a child wrapped up in grief for his dead father, he walks away with several difficult scenes (the film plays pretty loose with the historical record on this point, since Peter's father was alive and well when Peter Pan had its premiere). By contrast, there's a rather schematic relationship between reality and artistic inspiration - and certainly little sense of artistic struggle - but then this is fantasy rather than social realism.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

War of the Worlds

2005, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Say what you will about Spielberg, but he's rarely ponderous, throwing the viewer into the heart of the story right from the starting gun. War of the Worlds is no exception: the opening segment of the movie is a tour de force of economic, cut-to-the-chase filmmaking, with an exceptional grasp of the mechanics of fear. The early scenes rapidly sketch in Ray Ferrier's (Tom Cruise) place in the world - a blue collar New Jersey worker with a divorce behind him and two kids who live the good life with their stepfather - but we've barely even absorbed this information before the skies darken and a terrifying lightning storm begins. Within minutes, it's clear that this is no ordinary weather event, and the pace ratchets up fast, panic filling the air as no-one can quite grasp what's happened to their city. The 9/11 echo is overt here: inexplicable terror on an otherwise ordinary day, with a devastated population unsure of how to respond (and transportation at a standstill). It's no surprise that the breakneck pace can't be sustained throughout - a dark basement and Tim Robbins slow things down considerably, without adding much to the story - but Ray's gradual ascent, along this journey, to something resembling (belated) adult responsibility is reasonably convincing. The terror outside remains almost entirely unexplained, ultimately unlike 9/11, but the sense of panic of those early post-attack days is both gripping and disturbing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


1992, Hong Kong, directed by John Woo

I've come to the conclusion that John Woo made one great movie -- The Killer -- and a whole lot of pictures that don't live up to the hype generated by action-movie nerds. Hard-Boiled is a case in point, particularly given that the (now out-of-print) DVD was given the full Criterion Collection treatment. Like most high-profile Woo movies, Chow Yun-Fat is front and centre here, waving around more artillery than Rambo on a bad-hair day. He plays a trigger-happy cop -- and they say John Woo is original! -- who's usually as much of a danger to his own side as he is to the bad guys; he teams up with an undercover cop (Tony Leung) who works inside the Triads, to take down a gun-running operation. The plot is incredibly disjointed, as befits a film whose only raison d'être is the use of as many bullets as possible. In other Woo films, the action scenes advance the plot to some degree, whereas here they stop things in their tracks: many of the sequences are needlessly protracted and, even by HK standards, wildly over the top. The key scenes, such as a shootout in a hospital, dispense with ridiculous numbers of people (even with the requisite suspension of disbelief, it's impossible to accept that World War III could take place in a hospital without a more robust police/military response in colonial Hong Kong). The obligatory 'quiet moments' are pretty ham-fisted, too, with horribly soft-focus music and clichéd buddy material. Contrasted with a film like Infernal Affairs, this is pretty poor stuff to be getting excited about.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Wedding Crashers

2005, United States, directed by David Dobkin

Wedding Crashers was concocted to raise a laugh and more than a few dollars rather than to provide intellectual diversion, and, on those limited terms, it succeeds remarkably well - although it could have done with a more trigger-happy hand in the editing room, especially in its extended central segment. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play a pair of divorce mediators - so garrulous their clients usually reconcile to avoid the torrent of words - who entertain themselves over the summer by crashing as many weddings as they can, doing everything in their power to ensure a good time is had by all, and bedding as many women as possible (the notion that Owen Wilson has a job that requires him to wear a suit indicates the overall level of realism). At the society wedding of the year, featuring the daughter of Treasury Secretary Cleary, however, Wilson's character becomes enamored of one of the bride's sisters, who's sadly unavailable. He convinces his buddy that the two have to break the cardinal rules of wedding crashing, so that they can spend an extended weekend with the wedding party. While the comic misunderstandings are initially very amusing, the 'just one more day' rhythm becomes rather tired, and it's a relief when the action finally leaves the wealthy Cleary family's island home. Wilson and Vaughn are predictably amusing, the former further refining his unflappably stoned persona, with Vaughn's manic energy an effective foil. There's nothing very original about the hang-dog story, but the raucous humor keeps things lively.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Cléo de 5 à 7

1962, France, directed by Agnès Varda

One of the quintessential movies of the nouvelle vague, this is probably also one of those films that only underlines the prejudices of those who dismiss such fare as arthouse claptrap. The set-up is breathtakingly simple: we follow Cléo, a singer with a few hits to her credit, as she wanders Paris for two hours while waiting for the results from an important medical test. She's an astonishingly busy woman, who manages to cram in a visit to a fortune-teller, a walk in the park, some shopping, a visit from her lover, a meeting with her music-men, a drink in a bar, a viewing of a short film and numerous bus and taxi rides in the time we spend with her: titles flash up telling us the length of each element of her peregrinations, and some of the encounters are almost comically short. The film is alternately infuriating and compelling, as befits Cléo's often self-indulgent whims: Michel Legrand's appearance is exceptionally amusing, while the jabbering of a taxi driver is merely distracting, and Cléo's final encounter seems out-of-character. Still, the use of Paris as a movie character has rarely been bettered: the scene in the café is a gem of Parisian street life, while viewers may find themselves trying to locate the gorgeous Hôpital Américain garden which features prominently in the closing scenes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Danger UXB

1979, UK, Thames Television

A British television classic that somehow hasn't quite the reputation of series like Brideshead Revisited or The Jewel in the Crown, both of similar vintage, this is an often superior show, detailing the exploits of an unexploded ordinance disposal team from 1940-1944. The team is based on the home front, in London at the height of the Blitz (at least in the early episodes). Anthony Andrews plays Brian Ash, a freshly-minted lieutenant who is assigned to the bomb squad despite having no relevant experience - or training.

The first few episodes focus almost obsessively on the mechanics of bomb disposal: the members of the bomb squad themselves are only lightly sketched in, but soon the human drama comes to the forefront. Ash is centre-stage, but the writers are at least as interested in the fates of several of the NCOs and enlisted men, with several episodes cross-cutting between Ash - and his growing relationship with Susan, the daughter of one of the scientists who develop methods to combat new types of bomb - and one or other of the men in his squad. One story arc follows Corporal Salt, perennially in trouble, while another trails Mulley, Ash's batman, who falls for the feisty daughter of Ash's landlady.

This being Britain - and perhaps more to the point British television - there's a constant class-consciousness behind much of what's on-screen. Ash's officer colleagues take him for an Oxbridge man at first and are surprised when he turns out to be the product of a much less fashionable institution - although his background is clearly that of the landed gentry. The accumulation of tiny details over the course of the episodes is a fascinating social portrait - both of wartime Britain and a country in the 1970's which was on the verge of profound change (it's very clear we're watching Britain at war here, incidentally, and not just England: the small squad has a Scot and a Welshman, a Cockney and a northern lad).

The army is perhaps uniquely suited to reflections on class, with the aristocratic officer corps, the enlisted men and the reliable NCOs not quite sure of where they stand - having left their humble origins behind, they're still clearly not quite good enough to make the upper-class grade. Ultimately, of course, it's the characters, not the social or political insights, that make Danger UXB so compelling over the course of thirteen episodes - and for that, much credit goes to a fine complement of character actors, with Maurice Roëves (as Sergeant James), Kenneth Cranham (as Corporal Salt), George Innes (Corporal Wilkins) and Gordon Kane (as Mulley) particular standouts. Andrews does a fine job with Ash's character, although Judy Geeson seems rather too strained as Susan, a rare flat note in an otherwise excellent series.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Commitments

1991, United Kingdom/Ireland, directed by Alan Parker

The Commitments hit Dublin's movie screens in 1991 in a blaze of local publicity, the first film to be based on one of Roddy Doyle's books. The film was a huge box-office hit - a rare glimpse of contemporary Ireland on the big screen, albeit somewhat exaggerated for cinematic effect. In 2005, the film has the air of a historical document, given the changes in Ireland, and particularly Dublin, over the period since the film was made: Roddy Doyle's entire Barrytown trilogy seems to belong to a little-lamented past, although it's still not hard to find pockets - or whole areas - of Dublin that have been leapfrogged by the Celtic Tiger.

While the context may have changed - or we'd like to think that it has, at least, with a veneer of wealth and sophistication - Alan Parker's film remains as fresh as it did in 1991. The aspiration to stand out from the crowd is as infectious as it ever was, and lines that worked fifteen years ago are equally hilarious now, a testament to Doyle's exceptional ear for Dublin vernacular (much of the script is lifted straight from his novel, which is written in long strings of dialogue).

The film chronicles the unlikely birth of a band playing 'Dublin soul', modelling themselves on the American greats, but what's perhaps most appealing is the manner in which it remains true to its roots. The film even-handedly presents the unpleasant side of its characters, and there's no overnight ascent to glory, just a succession of gritty gigs in which the band members channel their annoyances with each other into a series of increasingly confident on-stage performances. Alan Parker revisited the territory of Fame here and avoided the melodrama this time out, mainly by hewing close to the source material; there are a few shots of excessively poetic poverty, but the core rings true. It's striking how many successful British and Irish movies are - often clear-eyed - celebrations of working-class life, a genre virtually absent from US cinema - perhaps because it makes no sense to celebrate something that you're supposed to aspire to leave as soon as possible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Winter Sleepers

1997, Germany, directed by Tom Tykwer (original title: Winterschläfer)

Tom Tykwer's best-known - and best - film, Lola rennt, centers on notions of coincidence and happenstance, and Winterschläfer, along with some of his later films, makes clear that this is an ongoing preoccupation. As the film begins, in a small town in the mountains, the otherwise level-headed Rene spots a fancy car with the keys in the ignition, and decides to take the vehicle for a drive. While out on the road, he's involved in an accident - which he doesn't cause - with a farmer, pulling a horse-trailer behind his car. Rene's car veers off the road, and is embedded in the heavy snow. Shaken, he walks away apparently unharmed, save for the fact that he has no memory of the incident; the car, to all intents and purposes, disappears. The farmer discovers that his daughter has concealed herself in the horse-box. She has been severely injured in the crash, and lapses into a coma. Half-mad with grief and anger, the farmer is convinced that the other driver is to blame. Meanwhile, Rene, aware that he can't remember something, but unsure quite what he may have missed, has begun a tentative love affair with a nurse, Laura, who watches over the injured girl. Laura's roommate, Rebecca, has problems in her own love-life, constantly at odds with her combustible boyfriend Marco - whose car has mysteriously disappeared. 

This complex set-up is sketched in, expertly, in the opening twenty minutes or so of the film: the film does a rather better job of making it all seem plausible (the small-town setting helps). While it's a quieter, more contemplative film than the adrenaline-charged Lola rennt, it's no less involving: once you buy into the film, there's a real interest in the outcome of the characters' lives, while there's a genuine, unpatronising warmth in Tykwer's portrayal of small-town social life. While the conclusion is perhaps a touch contrived, it's hard to imagine an outcome that better, or more satisfyingly, exemplifies the notion of poetic justice. Tykwer is a jack-of-all-trades, co-authoring the script, and also putting an oar in with the music which, as in Lola rennt, cleverly plays with the viewer, heightening the mysterious interconnections between the characters, and creating tension at the most unexpected moments.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Red Lights

2004, France, directed by Cédric Kahn (original title: Feux rouges)

It's interesting to wonder what Hitchcock might have made of this - although Cédric Kahn shows considerable expertise himself with what the French like to call the drame psychologique. The set-up, from a novel by Simenon, is worthy of the master, with an undercurrent of tension from the first moments of apparently ordinary domesticity, and there's a chilly, beautiful wife for good measure. The film opens as a Parisian couple are about to head towards Bordeaux on their summer holidays: the children have been sent ahead to a camp, and papa et maman get on the road at roughly the same time as the rest of France, which doesn't help their already fractious relations.

Jean-Pierre Darroussin is exceptional as the aggrieved husband, skewering a certain male insecurity quite perfectly: he's an inadequate man unable to deal with his beautiful wife's professional success, and his attempts to manage his jealousy are largely self-destructive. The couple's constant car-bound arguments eventually lead his wife to continue her journey alone, when the film takes a much darker turn, as Darroussin first acts out his apparent 'liberation' and then realizes he might have bitten off rather more than he expected. As with Hitchcock, most of the frisson is very much inside the viewer's own mind - and it's made the more powerful by the realism of Darroussin's morning-after predicament. There's a fabulous solo scene where he makes a series of increasingly panicked phone calls, the kind of thing where a lesser actor might start to chew the scenery, while the gathering tension is perfectly managed, and manipulated, by director Kahn.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Fever Pitch

2005, US, directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly

It's hard to be in any sense objective about such an upbeat movie, especially one that's so squarely aimed at making even the most casual Red Sox fan feel fabulous. Adapted from a semi-memoir by the English writer Nick Hornby - which became, in turn, a humdrum British film - the Farrelly Brothers take the original obsession with soccer and convert it into a full-blown psychiatric condition centered on baseball. The book focused on a key real-life season for Arsenal football team, whereas the directors simply used the 2004 Red Sox team as their backdrop, and happened to be monstrously lucky with the outcome of the season.

The movie starts out firmly in chick-flick territory, chronicling the growing romance between the charming Drew Barrymore and the equally charming Jimmy Fallon, and avoiding most of the usual lavatorial Farrelly Brothers touches. Barrymore's gal pals correctly surmise that Fallon has a deep, dark secret - although the average guy will probably argue that in comparison to, say, Norman Bates, Fallon's hidden side is really quite acceptable. Needless to say, the path to true love is littered with slumps, injuries and walk-off home runs, all of them against a Red Sox backcloth that makes you want to head back to the old ballpark as quickly as you can shout 'scalper'. It's interesting to imagine how they might have concluded the film in the absence of such a fairytale end to the actual Red Sox season (the rumored alternate ending never made an appearance on the DVD).

Saturday, April 09, 2005

La Chèvre

1981, France/Mexico, directed by Francis Veber

I have a weakness for French comedies - not the arthouse kind that often leave you thinking that 'France' and 'comedy' are two entirely separate notions, but the kind that sets the box office on fire in France. The big domestic comedy hits rarely make it to English-speaking countries - at best, they're remake fodder (this film, which did get a US release, was remade as Pure Luck, with Danny Glover and Martin Short). This was the first of three films starring the tandem of Pierre Richard and Gérard Depardieu, and the biggest hit to boot, one of the most successful of all French comedies. The odd couple are paired up when an industrialist's accident-prone daughter disappears in Mexico and, at the prodding of his company psychologist, he dispatches an equally unlucky employee (Richard) on her trail, along with an old pro PI (Depardieu). The two clash inevitably and incessantly; the (rather repetitive) pratfalls are balanced with more polished wit from the pen of writer-director Veber. The marketing of Depardieu to the English-speaking world from the mid-80's onwards focused on his 'classical' roles in films like Jean de Florette and Cyrano de Bergerac, so it was something of a shock to cinéphiles to see him pop up in trashy Hollywood material later on, but he's balanced low- and high-brow material throughout his French career; the main difference is that Hollywood pays through the nose. Depardieu is fine here: a hulking physical presence with little time to emote. Richard is perfectly cast as the naïf, a character he's played throughout his career to great effect; he gets the lion's share of the laughs, both visual and verbal. The only troubling thing about the whole affair is yet more evidence of Veber's apparent distaste for female characters, also apparent more recently in The Dinner Game (Le Dîner de cons) or Le Placard: women barely appear, and those we do see hardly paint a glorious picture.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Stage Door

1937, US, directed by Gregory La Cava

A near-perfect example of 1930's comedy, this is a mostly light-as-a-feather backstage affair, set primarily in a boarding house for aspiring, and sometimes declining, Broadway actresses (it must be right around the corner from the theatres, since the players routinely leave for work less than an hour before the curtain comes up). Katharine Hepburn is, in a surprising bit of casting, an upper-crust heiress keen to try her luck on the boards; her entrance into a house full of less polished characters, most notably Ginger Rogers, is the occasion for much biting wit on both sides, although as luck would have it everyone slowly learns to get along. There's an undercurrent of melodrama in the house, which becomes overt towards the end - not entirely successfully. Just as the deus ex machina seems entirely too convenient, the film tries to have it both ways; the 'second ending' seems more honest than the first. Whatever the shortcomings of the structure, the cast, well-served by director La Cava, are top-notch: there's barely a wrong note in the whole film, which establishes the diverse characters with remarkable efficiency, and gives ample time to each of a range of fine actresses (Constance Collier is an especially effective scene-stealer).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Sexy Beast

2000, United Kingdom, directed by Jonathan Glazer

Although it sometimes seems like one of those quintessentially American obsessions, gangsters have been as much of a trope in British cinema as in the US, with a particularly persistent renaissance over the past decade, mostly of the Cockney variety. Sexy Beast leaves the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels flicks in the shade, however, with a fully realized portrait of a gangster desperate to stay retired from the game, no longer interested in either the highs or lows that come with law-breaking. Ray Winstone is in fine form, exhibiting a much softer, more nuanced side than is usually the case; his character's sincere desire for the quiet life and the love of his wife is almost heartbreaking (the film does nonetheless elide the exact nature of his past career: was he a violent criminal or the fabled 'gentleman thief'?). Into his southern Spanish idyll comes Don Logan, a sociopath with a mission to recruit him for one more job. Ben Kingsley plays Logan in an utterly atypical turn: for an actor best known for quiet force, he's adept with Logan's machine-gun speech and hair-trigger temper (not to mention borderline insanity). It's easy to get caught up in his performance, and lose sight both of Winstone's work and the fine direction, reminiscent, in its focus on the details of speech and atmosphere, of Mike Hodges's excellent Croupier.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

I'm Not Scared

2003, Italy, directed by Gabriele Salvatores (original title: Io Non Ho Paura)

I can't help thinking that many of the reviewers of this film felt that they should like it and therefore gave it more raves than it really deserved. After all, it's impeccably crafted, from the almost impossibly gorgeous imagery of a southern Italian summer to the strong acting, from both adults and children. It's got a sterling premise - a ten-year-old boy finds a boy of a similar age imprisoned in a hole near his home - and there's much to think about in the depiction of a certain element of Italian society in the 1970's (while the treatment of the imprisoned boy is not soft-pedalled, the script smartly avoids easy condemnations of his captors). With all that in mind, the film should grip from first frame to last, but in truth things are so wilfully stop-start that the script constantly punctures whatever tension it creates - and there's no shortage in the first 45 minutes. The director never quite makes up his mind between genre thriller, coming-of-age tale, and leisurely depiction of Italian village life, and that, more than anything, kills the pacing, as Salvatores attempts to fulfil the requirements of each option. It's a shame: with better pacing this might have been a minor classic.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rabbit-Proof Fence

2002, Australia, directed by Phillip Noyce

A deceptively simple account of three half-caste Aboriginal girls who run away from an institution of 'training' after they are forcibly removed from their mothers in the early 1930s, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a powerful indictment of white Australian policies of assimilation and 're-education'. The young girls escape from the very low-security Moore River home, and embark on a trek of more than 1,200 miles north to their home territory of Jigalong, navigating their way by following one of the rabbit-proof fences that were erected to protect farmland - and which were later rendered moot by the introduction of myxomatosis. In sharp contrast to the mythology of colonial Australia, the bush here is rarely threatening, despite the difficulties of sustenance occasionally encountered. Phillip Noyce's very mobile camera gives the tale a real urgency at times - the attempted escape from the policeman who captures the girls, and the narration of the girls' flight from Moore River are especially gripping. The conclusion, using a Schindler's List device, though with more power here, is exceptionally moving, a fitting indictment of misguided policies without a trace of hectoring.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Steel Magnolias

1989, US, directed by Herbert Ross

Another 80's opus from Herbert Ross - this much more successful than Footloose, mining territory not a million miles from the 80's Kleenex epic Terms of Endearment. As a portrait of Southern charm, it probably bears only a vague resemblance to the truth, but as a showcase for a fine collection of actresses, too many of whom appear only rarely on screen these days, it's a lovably shaggy dog affair. It's the story of the loves and losses of a group of strong, but disparate, Dixie women, whose mutual support network carries them through their various familial trials, with pithy one-liners usually directed at the men in their lives. There are long scenes in the beauty parlor and well-honed speeches that betray the film's stage origins, but that's rarely a handicap: the action moves along smartly, and you're too busy watching the different actresses at work to notice the occasional mechanical creaks. Julia Roberts was on the verge of superstardom here, and she's already adept at eating up the screen. She's in the company of some real scene-stealers in the form of Dolly Parton and Shirley MacLaine, while Sally Field has a fabulous scene late in the film that's a classic weepie moment - a compliment, not a barb. Best seen with a mint julep or a bowl of ice-cream, or perhaps both.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Set-Up

1949, US, directed by Robert Wise

It's hard to believe that the director of The Sound of Music (and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) started out making movies as spare and pitiless as this one (although there is a core of realism in The Sound of Music if you care to look past the whimsy). Robert Ryan does a phenomenal job as the never-made-it-big boxer convinced he can win one fight against a kid who's being set up for a title bout. His manager, however, has made a deal on the side with a local hood, assuming that his washed-up charge will go down without any financial incentive. The action is mostly in the ring: almost half the movie is a literal blow-by-blow account of the fight, with occasional asides as Ryan's wife wanders the streets, miserable at the life she's found herself leading. The dressing-room dialogue and interactions are especially treasurable, with some fine character turns; the other boxers include an unusually rounded black character by the cinematic standards of the time. The movie's a salutary lesson for those who labor under the impression that Raging Bull was somehow sui generis; Scorsese has no difficulties in acknowledging his debt to this standout genre flick, as well he should...


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About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States