Thursday, June 28, 2007

Half Nelson

2006, US, directed by Ryan Fleck

From the opening frames, it's clear that Half Nelson has no intentions of conforming to the uplifting clichés of the noble teacher genre that the storyline might imply, sketching, instead, a deft portrait of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a onflicted young teacher. While there's nothing original about liberal white teachers - and the audiences who love them - Dunne is a challenge to all those around him, bringing a string of personal problems, including the conviction that he can remain functional while ingesting various drugs. He's also in possession of an unapologetic left-wing (not merely liberal) streak of a kind rarely seen in American films, and director Ryan Fleck fleshes out Dunne's political views through a series of class presentations, where the students speak about key incidents in the civil rights movement or the death of Chile's Salvador Allende.

Gosling's detailed performance - his character is often distinctly unlikeable, and yet there's something to root for at the core - is well complemented by that of Shareeka Epps, the remarkable young actress who plays a student who has a spiky friendship with her teacher; Epps played the same character in Fleck's initial short treatment of the subject, Gowanus, Brooklyn. As well as extracting credible performances from his two leads, Fleck has a strong sense of a particular community on the fringes, where the young students are caught between stark choices about their futures. The only downside, perhaps, is the insistent need to convey 'realism' by use of a shaky handheld camera, an aesthetic choice hardly needed when the director and his co-writer Anna Boden have such a sharp eye for the messy complexities of human behaviour.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Préparez vos mouchoirs

1978, France/Belgium, directed by Bertrand Blier

Although it doesn't have the rampant, sometimes scattershot energy of 1974's Les Valseuses, Bertrand Blier's second film with the Gérard Depardieu-Patrick Dewaere tandem is almost as insistent in pushing against, and through, normal standards of behaviour - as well as our expectations about the logic of cinematic narration. As in almost all of his films, Blier is intensely concerned with gender roles, and constantly toys with the viewer; while his depiction of female characters, including in this film, often prompts cries of misogyny, more often than not his real intent seems to be to call the spectator's own assumptions and participation into question (a theme given a detailed reading in Sue Harris's finely argued book Bertrand Blier). It's interesting, too, to contrast critical responses to Blier's Beau-père with this film, which also features a relationship between an adult and an adolescent, but with the gender roles reversed.

While Depardieu is more buttoned-down here than in many of his 1970's roles, where he often played a variation of the hulking loubard, there's a sense that something unpredictable is always lurking beneath the surface - as is quickly affirmed by his character's behaviour in the opening scene. Although he doesn't reach quite the peak achieved in films like La Meilleure façon de marcher, Dewaere is a fine foil for the young Depardieu, and there's a palpable sense of two actors enjoying working with Blier's finely-wrought dialogue (the sequence when they concoct an imaginary meeting with Mozart - the picture comes from this scene - is especially well-played). As on other occasions, Dewaere's onscreen work seems to foreshadow his tragic - and tragically young - death: here, he speaks of the stupidity of Mozart's death at 35, the age when the actor took his own life.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Little Black Book

2004, US, directed by Nick Hurran

Brittany Murphy can be charming enough with the right material, but the flat script and pedestrian direction leave her at sea here, mired in a film that is 30 minutes too long, with a plotline that consistently stretches credibility (the passage of time is especially confusing). The film's bite is mostly found in the secondary plot, as Stacy (Murphy) deals with workplace shenanigans in her new job - as a producer for a sub-Jerry Springer freakshow (the supporting cast at the studio is quite strong, featuring Kathy Bates and Stephen Tobolowsky, though one wonders how the strikingly youthful Holly Hunter ended up here). To its credit, the film ultimately follows through on the logic of Stacy's behaviour, rather than crafting a strained and unrelated conclusion, but it's a slog to get that far.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

La Fille de l'eau

1925, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir's first film as a solo director immediately introduces one of the director's recurrent tropes, that of a flowing river. While proximity to that river is critical to the development of the film's plot, Renoir's great preoccupations are present only in embryonic form, however, as the film moves somewhat jerkily from one event to the next, sometimes across gaps of logic (or at least credible motivation). The tone, too, is at times uncertain, veering from high melodrama to outright slapstick, at times in the same breath (as in the sequence where a hot-headed young farmer threatens a violent attack, then promptly falls into a tub of water; the dunking in no way cools his ardour, as might have been expected in a more comic register).

Nonetheless, even where Renoir is clearly finding his feet, he displays great creativity with his staging, such as in the remarkable scenes where his heroine (played by Catherine Hessling, Renoir's then-wife) is entrapped first in the bunk of her uncle's barge, and later in a gypsy wagon threatened by fire; both scenes are genuinely suspenseful, with striking placement of the actors in the former sequence. There is also an extended dream sequence that makes creative use of a variety of special effect ideas, whether reversing the film or playing with scale; in the middle of the sequence, a title card with the single word "Délire" appears, which must have been reassuring to any cinema patrons who happened into the theatre during that particular portion of the film.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Fidanzati

1963, Italy, directed by Ermanno Olmi

Like Olmi's previous film, Il Posto, I Fidanzati has the slightest of premises - here, the departure of a young Milanese man for a new job in Sicily, and the impact of the distance on his relationship with his fiancée - that functions as a starting point for a series of explorations of different forms of understanding and communication. Just as the young man's lonely existence prompts him to re-evaluate what he has left behind, and what that might imply for his future, he is also forced to confront and attempt to understand a culture that is in many ways as alien as that of a foreign country, even a century after Italian unification. Even as he narrates this encounter, though, Olmi also underlines the homogeneity of other modern institutions, with the protagonist living much of his life in a series of blandly functional buildings, which could be anywhere in the country (both films depict eating in a strikingly unromantic way, given the normal presentation of food in films from and about Italy).

Although the main characters aren't always thoroughly developed - at times, they recall the flat non-characters of a film like L'Année dernière à Marienbad - Olmi's eye for the details of human behaviour serves him well, and the sketches of minor characters are engaging and often witty, while he finds a strange and compelling beauty in some of the industrial settings of the film, whether captured in a fluid tracking shot near the beginning, or in a long shot of a building cascading with showers of welding sparks.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Interpreter

2005, US, directed by Sydney Pollack

The Interpreter is something of a throwback, a complex conspiracy film more focused on human drama than cheap thrills, set in and around the United Nations. However, the novel setting can't quite overcome the film's derivative feel, which harks back to films like The Parallax View and Sydney Pollack's own Three Days of the Condor, from the heyday of 1970's paranoia about behind-the-scenes machinations. At times, it's also hard to entirely take seriously a film centered on an institution that has been so thoroughly marginalised in recent years, though that might be to miss the film's plea for the restoration of the agency to a central role in world affairs; there's an undercurrent of optimism that re-surfaces near the conclusion, as if to hope that things may not always be how they currently are.

Like The Lord of War, which backs away from naming Liberia's real warlord in favor of a thinly-disguised alternative, The Interpreter creates a fictional Mugabe-like despot around which to weave its twisted plot; though it might not quite have the courage of its convictions, it is, for the most part, refreshingly adult in its refusal to follow the obvious route for the two leads, who are both convincingly jaded.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Il Posto

1961, Italy, directed by Ermanno Olmi
A member of the second generation of post-war Italian filmmakers, director Ermanno Olmi combines much of the spirit of neo-realism with an extremely dry wit, using his acute observational skills to skewer the absurdities of the modern workplace. Olmi's film has the thinnest of narrative threads - a fresh-faced young man applies for a job, and meets a girl - but plot is the least of his concerns, as he develops a rich and wry portrait of a large Italian company, where dozens of young people compete for slots that will provide them a job for life (given how young some of them are, that's a very long time indeed; while some viewers may be nostalgic for the notion of job security, Olmi tends to see many such positions as long-lasting dead ends).

The company bombards the potential new hires with a barrage of tests and exercises worthy of NASA, with the young applicants themselves often mystified as to the utility of what is asked of them. Once hired, though, the employees tended to be regarded as recalcitrant pupils in the classroom, with many of the workers conforming to this treatment, including acting up at the back of the room (the contrast between the status of applicants and employees is underlined by two sequences focused on late arrivals: the employee receives a paternalistic dressing-down where the applicant is indulged). Olmi draws a clear contrast between the conformity idealized by the company and the individual lives of the employees, inter-cutting, in an entirely unexpected fashion, brief and powerful snapshots from the home lines of those we encounter, while his efficient establishment of character, and character foibles, at times hints at Tati's brilliant cinematic shorthand.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bicycle Thieves

1948, Italy, directed by Vittorio De Sica (original title: Ladri di biciclette)
Probably the best known of all Italian neo-realist films, Bicycle Thieves (which was inexplicably translated as Bicycle Thief in the US for many years, undercutting one of the film's key points) has the simplicity of a myth: a man who requires a bicycle for his work has that bicycle stolen from him, leading to a downward spiral as he attempts to recover his stolen property. As Michelangelo Antonioni would later say, the man's importance resides exclusively in the fact that his bicycle has been stolen - there's no sustained attempt to explore his state of mind - but that simple fact is of enormous import in a society trying to recover from the wartime period, and scarred by terrible unemployment.

Simply getting the simplest of jobs in post-war Italy seems a tremendous achievement, one that brings with it the sense of restored personal dignity, and it's this which makes the otherwise unremarkable theft seem so overwhelming. The man and his family have had to sacrifice almost everything to get to that point, including their bedsheets - in a mesmerizing sequence set in a vast pawnbroker's enterprise - and the almost immediate disruption of the man's tentative dreams leads him to acts of increasing desperation, the loss of the very dignity so recently restored. The institutions of Italian life, seen here particularly in the form of the church and the police, do nothing to assist this man in his quest, and indeed sometimes seem actively to place further barriers in his way, concerned ultimately with their own well-being rather than that of individual members of society.

Beyond the focus on one individual struggle, the film is also a richly detailed portrait of Roman streets in the mid-1940's, with De Sica's camera taking in rowdy street scenes in popular neighborhoods, markets that look more third world than first, and the realities of the cheaply-built apartments that infested the suburbs just after the war (locations that would prove fertile for other filmmakers too). There's nothing of the hand-held style that functions as a marker for "realism" in more recent work, though: De Sica is a skilled professional, making artful use of fluid tracking shots and lighting in keeping with his professional origins in the studio system, however different and striking his subject matter.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ousmane Sembène, 1923-2007

L'Empire Sonhrai (1963) (short)
Borom Sarret (1963) (short)
Niaye (1964) (short)
La Noire de... (1966)
Mandabi (1968)
Tauw (1970) (short)
Emitai (1971)
Xala (1974)
Ceddo (1976)
Camp de Thiaroye (1988)
Guelwaar (1992)
Faat Kiné (2000)
Moolaadé (2004)

Some further reading:

"The African King" - Richard Porton

"Ousmane Sembène: The Life of a Revolutionary Artist" - Samba Gadjigo

"Woman is the Future of Man: Ousmane Sembène on Moolaadé" - Ray Pride

Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers
- Samba Gadjigo, Ralph Faulkingham, Thomas Cassirer

There are several other books on Sembène, but for the most part they focus on the first half of his cinema career; individual chapters in books on African cinema are more up-to-date.


2006, US, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Quinceañera does a remarkably credible job of taking us into a unique Los Angeles neighborhood and capturing the feel and rhythm of a community undergoing great change, with the predominantly Latino area of Echo Park confronted with encroaching gentrification. That larger theme provides the backdrop to a coming of age story that is by turns sweet and poignant - as is often the case - but which remains convincing by virtue of strong acting and the directors' tremendous affection for their characters.

Los Angeles's vast sprawl is reduced to just a few city blocks here, with Echo Park a seemingly self-contained neighborhood that looks towards downtown without ever approaching it (the usually ubiquitous Hollywood sign is nowhere to be seen, enhancing the sense that the city is a series of discrete areas rather than a unified whole). Though Glatzer and Wetsmoreland are themselves partly the agents of Echo Park's gentrification in their offscreen lives, it's clear where their loyalties lie, so much so that the gay couple who might be seen as their surrogates are the film's least sympathetic characters, an interesting tension between on- and offscreen stories. The scenes inside the home of Tio Tomas (the gentle patriarch who gives shelter to two younger members of his extended family) have a particular power, with the camera moving in ways that suggest we are inside a real house rather than a flat cinematic plane. Although the film comes to a kind of crescendo near the end, there's a refreshingly open-ended feel that ensures the leads have a life beyond the limits of the screen.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The War Game

1965, UK, directed by Peter Watkins
Director Peter Watkins's best-known and most controversial work, The War Game is a pseudo-documentary that re-creates the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain, with the film taking the format of a television news program, complete with an authoritative BBC voiceover and a list of source materials at the film's conclusion. Although commissioned by the BBC, the project was effectively censored by the Corporation for almost twenty years, even though theatrical screenings took place (including in the US, which helped Watkins gain enough exposure to make his later Punishment Park in that country, and also netted the film an Oscar).

The depiction of a society which collapses absolutely, in both physical and moral terms, in the wake of the attack is utterly devastating, and the sense of civic disruption is achieved through the use of tellingly local details (the sight of the usually unarmed British police force brandishing guns is especially chilling, while there's something oddly unsettling in the simple fact that the men in uniforms have neither the time nor the resources to shave). Watkins is interested in the consequences of the attack at ground level rather than grand strategy, and it's this sense of individual suffering that's often unbearable; he is also blunt about the racial and social prejudices raised by mass evacuations (just a few years before Enoch Powell's notorious "rivers of blood" speech on immigration). In creating his depiction of a post-nuclear collapse, he draws heavily on the experiences of Hiroshima/Nagasaki but also on the firebombings of Dresden and other German cities, and it's likely that his unapologetic critique of such wartime actions was as provocative to the government of the day as his depiction of nuclear horrors; Winston Churchill, who oversaw Dresden and other bombing campaigns, died in early 1965, and his legacy was not lightly called into question.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Germania anno zero

1948, Italy, directed by Roberto Rossellini (Germany Year Zero)
Germania anno zero is the most pared-down and also the most unrelenting of Rossellini's (post-) wartime trilogy, set, unlike the previous films, in Berlin and filmed two summers after the end of the war, with the city clearly still in the most abject of states. The film opens with a title that indicates that it purports to be an "objective and true portrait of Berlin", reminiscent of the documentary trappings that frame the six vignettes in Paisà, although this film, unlike its immediate predecessor, does not have a specific documentary basis.

However, what it shares with Paisà is the sense - amplified here - that the end of the war does not, in and of itself, bring true liberation: for many people, it's simply the beginning of a new, and often equally devastating phase (it's also an act of great daring to invite us to sympathize with the ordinary citizens of a country so recently vilified and defeated, although the ending might be read as a comment on the need for a kind of purge before the page can be turned).

The physical and economic destruction that we see from the film's opening scenes is paralleled by the moral collapse that has infected many people, children most of all; younger characters have peripheral, if sometimes significant, roles in the two previous films in the trilogy, whereas here they are the central focus, with the film following young Edmund as he attempts to make some contribution to his family's well-being. His downward spiral is perhaps best encapsulated by the two tracking shots that follow his progress near the beginning and end of the film: the first sees him confidently stride through the city, whereas later, the weight of experience has become crushing, and the streets themselves seem oppressive (his claustrophobic home is hardly better, with Rossellini crowding the shots to emphasize the press of humanity).

The war and its aftermath have created opportunities for predators more than for honest people, with usurers and thieves abounding. As in Roma, citta apertà there's also something sexually predatory about the ex-Nazi teacher that Edmund encounters; Rossellini isn't capable of limiting his corruption to the economic and political levels. It's a persistent cliché that weakens the film somewhat. There are moments, too, drawn from the purest melodrama rather than the well of neo-realism, perhaps most especially a sequence involving a glass filled with poison, but the film as a whole has an air of authentic despair that's on occasion quite devastating.


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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.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States