Saturday, July 28, 2007

Knocked Up

2007, US, directed by Judd Apatow

After the striking warmth and intelligence of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up is a real comedown; though it seems to have convinced the professional critics, it rarely rises above the level of a poorly-structured series of skits, with an inexplicable outcome. While some of the individual bits are extremely funny, and even, on occasion, perceptive, as a whole the film is far too episodic, and regularly grinds to a halt when Apatow attempts to switch gears and subplots (the fratboy episodes, in particular, outstay their welcome, both individually and collectively). The impetus behind this lack of overall shape isn't bad - Apatow has a wonderful group of performers, and likes to give them plenty of freedom - but the director is ultimately unwilling, or unable, to shape his material in truly satisfying ways, while some of the references are so thoroughly and deliberately 2007 that the film is likely to age awfully fast.

It's a rare comedy that justifies a two-hour running time, and this is not that film; the lack of a sharper editor is sorely missed, with scenes tending to peter out rather than coming to a satisfying conclusion, and while the birth sequence itself is very funny, there's an awful lot of work required to get that far. Hardest of all to swallow is the abrupt shift by Katherine Heigl's character, Alison, whose decision to remain with the slovenly and, to that point, often actively obnoxious Ben (Seth Rogen), is utterly unconvincing; it's a plot development that doesn't do right by Alison, who - unlike Catherine Keener's character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin - exists only to help Ben grow up (it's interesting that at the end, Ben gets to narrate the tale of the baby's conception while Alison is asleep, as if to underline the fact that she's not all that relevant to this tale).

The Iron Giant

1999, US, directed by Brad Bird

Brad Bird's first animated feature is a delightful fable based on the 1968 book by British poet Ted Hughes, a film that missed at the box office, but which has acquired a strong reputation since. In some ways, it's no surprise that the film didn't achieve the popular heights of a film like The Incredibles: although it boasts a clean, well-told story, much of the detail is likely to be lost on a youthful audience today, suffused as it is with references to the Cold War period of Bird's own youth; it's that rare mainstream animated feature more attuned to an adult sensibility than that of a child, without, at the same time, the kind of knowing double entendres of films like Disney's Aladdin.

Set in Rockwell, Maine - a location whose bucolic nature owes much to the artist, although the visual style is quite unlike Norman's work - the film focuses on a young boy whose active imagination leads him on a walk into the woods where he discovers an unmistakably real, but benign, metal monster, who he promptly befriends. The iron giant becomes a means to comment on the paranoia of the Cold War era - and its aftermath, with the film's commentary on trigger-happy government officials perhaps even more apposite after 9/11. The film is wonderfully rich in detail, whether in the spoof nuclear safety films and black-and-white monster movies, or the treatment of the young boy's beatnik benefactor, nicely voiced by Harry Connick, Jr; though it occasionally misses a certain visual depth - the characters recall Saturday morning cartoons at times - it boasts a warmth and intelligence that should be the envy of most big screen animated features.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Open Hearts

2002, Denmark, directed by Susanne Bier (Aka: Elsker dig for evigt)

Despite the celebrated works of practitioners like Douglas Sirk or his later disciple Rainer Werner Fassbinder, melodramas often seem to get short shrift as a means of cinematic expression. Susanne Bier's film plays things straighter than Sirk might have chosen, as befits an entry in the Dogme 95 style, but she's adept at setting up complex interplays of emotion that take off in unexpected directions. She makes use of the Dogme strictures as a means to tell a compelling story rather than as an end in themselves such that the viewer quickly becomes accustomed to the shaky camerwork and sometimes blurred imagery that assist in the narration of what is ultimately a kind of moral tragedy, in which the characters are unable to perceive the impact of their own actions on others - and often unwilling to accept the consequences of those actions

Bier is blessed with an extraordinarily talented group of actors, who create a set of vividly real, complex, often objectionable characters grounded in the minutiae - both mundane and joyful - of daily life; the simplicity of the film's technique brings allows Bier to get very close to her cast (sometimes uncomfortably so, with the camera literally in the actors' faces, forcing them to adapt and react). Although Dogme calls for a minimum of visual artifice, Bier breaks the rules and bookends her film with richly colored, abstract sequences that recall Lars Von Trier's use of painted colour inserts between the chapters of his otherwise earthy - and melodramatic - Breaking the Waves, a choice that parallels the fevered, uncertain state of mind in which the protagonists are left.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

La Chienne

1931, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Although both of his silent features give fascinating glimpses of his developing artistry and technical skill (as well as his willingness to experiment), Renoir's first feature-length sound film immediately reveals the breadth of his skill. Here he's recognizably the director who would produce a string of masterpieces over an extraordinarily productive decade (over a dozen feature-length films and several important shorter works during the 1930s). Renoir embraces the possibilities created by the coming of sound, giving Michel Simon one of his strongest roles, with some wonderfully savoury dialogue, while playing with filmed space in strikingly new ways. Simon is more buttoned-down here than in some of his iconic performances from later in the decade (including in Renoir's own Boudu sauvé des eaux the following year), and while it takes some adjustment to see this force of nature as a modest hen-pecked clerk, it's an intelligent bit of casting, with Simon adept at concealing unforeseen motives, and later giving them full expression.

The other actors can't hope to compete with Simon, and the young pair of George Flamant and Janie Marèse (the latter was killed in a road accident before the film's release) display their inexperience; Flamant, in particular, has a theatricality at odds with the naturalism of the rest of the cast (he might have found himself more at home in Renoir's silent films), though he does at times capture a repulsive thuggishness reminiscent of a grapefruit-shoving James Cagney. His character, Dédé, displays a contempt for women that is underlined in other discomfiting ways by the film: Simon's wife is an extraordinarily shrewish woman from the moment we encounter her, with the men in her life competing with one another to divest themselves of their attachment (the film's main weakness is its inability to account for these attachments in the first place); the competition does, though, give the film a welcome jolt just as the pace seems to flag a little.

As the film reaches its climax, Renoir pays explicit homage to René Clair's Sous les toits de Paris, his camera rising and falling from street to rooftop and back again, unveiling a scene of tragedy that also reveals, in parallel, the worst of Dédé's arrogance; it's a sequence that is both technically perfect and deeply human, celebrating the life of Paris's streets while remaining blunt about the sometimes ugly stories concealed behind closed doors.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Almost Famous

2000, US, directed by Cameron Crowe

After the calculatedly feel-good Jerry Maguire, Cameron Crowe delivered this far looser, far less commercially successful, and much superior riff on his own past, dredging up his early professional career as a writer for Rolling Stone for an affectionate, beguiling portrait of the end of rock and roll, from the perspective of the tour bus. Crowe skilfully recreates a very particular mood of youthful abandon that transcends the period while also celebrating its specificity, with rock music on the cusp of a move from raw, social irresponsibility to careful corporate packaging, a fact recognized early on by the rock critic Lester Bangs, played with great gusto here by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who milks Bangs's soliloquies to perfection. Even as Bangs expresses his concern about rock's death rattle, though, he embraces the notion, like others in the film, that music still really matters, that it could still, just, change the world, part of what gives the film the air of a perfectly-realized time capsule.

In the lead role, debutant Patrick Fugit is occasionally a little unsteady, but the supporting cast is extremely strong, with Kate Hudson especially good as groupie (or 'band aide') Penny Lane; Hudson delivers easily her best performance, encapsulating Penny's brassiness and essential vulnerability, while there's great affection and generosity in Crowe's writing and direction of the part. There is a certain soft-edged neatness to the ending, but Crowe generally resists the kind of sentimentalism that smooths too many of the rough edges off unpalatable characters in his other films; the rock stars here retain enough of their warts that the only way to avoid being abused by them is ultimately to leave them behind (or to have one's mother give them a good talking-to).

Monday, July 23, 2007

Live and Let Die

1973, UK, directed by Guy Hamilton
Roger Moore's first outing as Bond is one of the strangest entries in the franchise, a mélange of spy thriller, action and voodoo; if You Only Live Twice was "Bond in Japan", with a nod to the increasingly popularity of Asian action, this is "Bond Goes to Harlem", complete with a recycling of many of the themes of blaxploitation. It completely turns that genre on its head, since the hero of the hour is Bond, rescuing the lily-white damsel from her black captors, with black characters notable mainly for their villainy and cruelty (with the exception of Bond's occasional assistant, Quarrel) -- though the one truly laughable character in the film is a redneck Southern sheriff.

On the plus side, however, the film's main narrative, concerning drug-running rather than world domination, is more credible than usual, while the action sequences are generally entertaining; there are memorable boat stunts, as well as a sequence where Bond escapes from a crocodile-infested pool with a sprint over the animals' backs. Roger Moore makes a low-key debut as Bond, with some of the usual trappings missing, but he's an immediate improvement over George Lazenby, with a lazy charm that contrasts with Connery's sometimes thuggish version of the character (there's also a reworking of one of the franchise's most memorable fight sequences, that between Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love).

Friday, July 20, 2007

La Veuve de Saint-Pierre

2000, France/Canada, directed by Patrice Leconte
Patrice Leconte's second period foray has the same interest in - even obsession with - ground-level realities as his earlier Ridicule, persistently bringing the camera down to the mud and rain of the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, buffeted by the Atlantic. As in Ridicule, Leconte is careful to avoid the clichés of period filmmaking - the story concerns the only sentence of death passed on the islands, in the mid-1800s - and his camera moves quickly, at odd angles, through the story, though the more sombre theme here denies his film the exuberant energy of its predecessor, while the off-kilter shots sometimes become more of a distraction than necessary, calling insistent attention to the director's choices. More successful is his use of a series of shots framed by doorways and windows that create an air of almost voyeuristic intimacy with the action.

Leconte's best films generally take place in carefully circumscribed locations, and he's most confident here with the interior set pieces, which often sparkle, particularly as Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, recent arrivals to the islands, assert themselves amongst the local bourgeoisie. There's a sense that the most important action occurs behind closed doors, not outside where battles appear to be fought, and Leconte sketches the local dignitaries with economy and wit. Emir Kusturica, much better known as a director, delivers a fine performance as the condemned man whose treatment divides the islands' ruling class from many of the inhabitants; it's unfortunate, however, that the film doesn't provide more insight into the motivations of his two chief protectors.

La Moustache

2005, France, directed by Emmanuel Carrère

As Vincent Lindon ages, his face has started to acquire something of the heavy-lidded melancholy of Richard Bohringer, and his voice has developed a smoky burnish that's perfect for La Moustache, where he plays Marc Thiriez, a man who begins to doubt his own memories and perceptions of reality when his wife - and then others around him - appear to be living in a subtly different version of the world. Lindon plays the part absolutely straight - though there are twisted comic moments early on - and captures some of the same Hitchcockian paranoia of the men at the centre of recent French films like Feux rouges and Caché, men unable to understand - and worse, from their perspective, control - what is going on around them.

Director Emmanuel Carrère adapts his own novel here, and shows a fine eye for visual style, opening the film with a beautiful night-time shot of what we later realize is Hong Kong, and using the light and shadow of a large apartment set to underline the divide between Marc and his wife (played by Emmanuelle Devos, predictably good even in a smaller, and sometimes under-written, role).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

8 Things

Thom at Film of the Year tagged me with one of the 'memes' doing the summer rounds, and prompted me to take a break from my usual strict capsule diet...

There are some rules, but I'm only going to partially adhere to them - and all my facts are strictly movie-related:

i. Post these rules before the facts.
ii. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
iii. People who are tagged write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
iv. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.

However, I figure most people have been tagged by now, and if they wanted to respond, they would already have done so...

1. The first time I went to the cinema was to see a 1978 Disney opus called The Cat From Outer Space. I think I probably saw it that same year, from the balcony of a cinema in a place called Fermoy. In my memory, the cinema was a vast movie palace, and I was scared that I might fall over the balcony rail. Before the feature, there was a short film about a grizzly bear and some park rangers; I remember more details from that film than from the main event, which so affected me that my mother had to come pick me up - in the middle of the night, according to my memory - from my friend's house.

2. Despite the traumatic aftermath of The Cat From Outer Space (which didn't damage my fondness for cats), my parents developed a birthday ritual whereby I could choose a film on that particular day, with no input from the rest of the family, to which I would then be treated. For some years, my brother insisted that he did not, in fact, cry at E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, my 1982 choice; I was probably also in denial on this same point.

3. Like others, I keep a log of all the films I see; it probably says something terrible about the state of my mind. I started in 1989, and list the film, year, country, director and date seen (though early on, I mostly just listed the year). The first film listed is Cry Freedom; from what I can tell, I went backwards and added in a few films that I had seen in 1988, too. I mostly keep track of the format, too, but don't keep write down where I actually saw a film. A few years ago, working overseas and with many an evening to myself, I converted the whole thing to a spreadsheet with which I have much geeky fun, like figuring out exactly how many films I've
seen from, say, France - or 1935.

4. I can probably blame my father for a lot of this: not only did he keep his own film log (until around the time of my birth, which makes me feel oddly guilty), but when an old film he especially liked would come on the box I would receive occasional bedtime extensions in order to watch along with my parents; that's probably why black-and-white movies still seem like an automatic treat as the opening credits roll.

5. I don't really buy DVDs: there are films I really love to see again, but for the most part I don't have the urge to have them accessible on a shelf near the TV. I think people who know me always wonder where the DVDs are kept when they come to visit. The answer is "in the Netflix warehouse".

6. My movie diary is accurate and honest: since I decided to review literally everything in about mid-2005, there are no "guilty omissions". I'm not sure why I should feel compelled to be ashamed of anything, as long as I give it an honest appraisal, and I think it gives a nicely rounded picture of what others choose - my wife, my family, my friends - and films I find by pursuing my own obscure logic (not a better or worse method, just different).

7. I used to subscribe to the British film magazine Empire. The very first issue I bought - in 1990 - had an article about film festivals the world over, from the paparazzi-infested to the obscure; as soon as I read about a festival called Fespaco, in Burkina Faso, I decided that was the one I wanted to attend - no Cannes, no Toronto, no Hong Kong, although at the time the festival's name meant nothing to me. It took me eleven years and a few diversions, but I made it in 2001, and I'd much rather go back than attend any of the others.

8. If I had to pick just one film to see over and over on a desert island, I'd have to go
with Back to the Future. Sure, I know it's not the best film - though how we agree on that is beyond me - but it's one of the most perfectly enjoyable, no matter how many times I see it; it's also a wonderful example of Hollywood craft, made by people who actually care that a pop film also be a good film. The central premise is beguiling, too, though on the whole I think I'd prefer to inhabit Marty McFly's version of the past than my own, since Catholic Ireland in the 1950's sounds like a whole lot less fun.

Le Petit Lieutenant

2005, France, directed by Xavier Beauvois

Xavier Beauvois's Le Petit lieutenant is a fascinating procedural that also functions as an examination of the rituals and routines of police life; the two strands are inextricably interwoven, with the strains of the job expressing themselves in the home lives of the protagonists (the nearest equivalent is perhaps Andreas Dresen's excellent German television film Die Polizistin). Jalil Lespert plays Antoine, the eponymous newcomer to the force, and his education in the realities of crime and criminals - in what he, influenced himself by the film posters that cover the walls of his office, assumes to be an exciting post - becomes our own means of penetrating that world's customs and ceremonies.

Beauvois takes particular care to note the minutiae of (French) working life, the handshakes and greetings that punctuate and add civility to each professional interaction, even at a crime scene (unless a suspect is involved). Beuavois often allows these scenes to play out in real time - neo-realist style - capturing seemingly irrelevant moments and fragments of dialogue that build a richly textured portrait of a specific corner of the world. Nathalie Baye excels as the young lieutenant's boss and mentor - while there's a hefty dose of Prime Suspect's DCI Jane Tennison in her troubled character, Baye develops a compelling, rounded portrait, utterly convincing when tragedy strikes, rendering even an apparent solution to the crimes under investigation almost irrelevant. Her interactions with colleagues, subordinates, an old lover all have the ring of unshowy truth.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


1926, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Renoir's second solo feature is a large-scale literary adaptation, an attempt to condense Emile Zola's eponymous novel - part of his multi-volume Rougon-Macquart epic - to manageable length. At times, the film slips explicitly into literary mode, with many, and sometimes lengthy, title cards to clarify the action (there is a certain amount of redundancy, with some cards repeating information that can clearly be deduced even in the absence of dialogue). Despite that occasional clumsiness, Renoir generally seems confident working on this expanded scale, even if the film occasionally misses the naturalistic settings of his previous La Fille de l'eau, confined as it is to sets that don't quite capture the heart of Zola's realist project (there are, though, several compositions which recall something of the earthiness of Flemish and Dutch art).

He uses his increased budget especially well in the theatrical scenes, creating a memorable portrait of the different social classes on one of the rare occasions when they occupy the same space - with the raucous upper decks contrasted with the genteel though hypocritical upper classes in the box seats. There are also a number of scenes shot in the stunning entrance way to a grand residence, including one particularly moving sequence where two of the men bewitched by Nana (Catherine Hessling) mend fences as they attempt to disentangle themselves from foolish liaisons. Those men are complicit in their own debasement, however, allowing Nana - a theatre actress and child of the streets, whose manager is as much pimp as impresario - to humiliate and exploit them.

While there are several fine performances (perhaps especially from the film's writer, Pierre Lestringuez, as a Bordenave, the theatre manager who foreshadows Jules Berry as Batala in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange), the film's most obvious weakness is Hessling, then Renoir's wife, whose acting style is often extremely distracting. While it's natural that Nana would continue to perform offstage as well as on, it's hard to accept that Hessling's version of the character could prove quite so beguiling and dangerous to otherwise intelligent, and powerful, men - though Renoir, perhaps naturally, might not have been in a position to perceive this.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


2005, US, directed by Sam Mendes

Though its timing seemed to be perfect, released in the middle of another conflict in Iraq, Jarhead seems to have been (unjustly) overlooked by many critics, and had only middling box office success. The critical reaction is perhaps related to the film's lack of an overt political stance - the kind of anger that seeped through Vietnam films is absent here, maybe because American casualties were so few that homefront outrage is that much more difficult to generate, though there's no doubting the film's view of the casualties inflicted on the Iraqi side, with many of the dead incinerated while attempting to retreat. Despite the stark differences with Vietnam, however, the film reverts constantly to films about that conflict, name-checking - either explicitly or implicitly - Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. The last film is seen on the big screen at a Marine base, used to whip the troops into a frenzy - a frenzy that evokes the sequence in Gremlins where the nasty little critters sing along to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - just before the announcement of their deployment to Iraq.

In some ways, the relative lack of a political stance is simply a function of the film's insistent focus on the men (there are no women here) sent to fight the war rather than on those (men) who sent them there; it's situated in that difficult grey area that calls on the viewer to support the troops without necessarily supporting their war, or even, perhaps their military culture. While Mendes's repeated reference to other (often stronger) films is ultimately quite distracting, he does create a real sense of the strangeness of this particular military deployment, with months of waiting in the desert preceding one of the shortest, most anti-climactic of conflicts, from the soldier's perspective, with no outlet for the expectations built by training and propaganda.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Two short films by Mahamat Saleh Haroun

Goï-goï, 1995, Chad

There's something of the films of Fanta Régina Nacro in this 1995 short, which evokes the terrible consequences of infidelity, as well as the matter-of-fact attitude of one woman in dealing with the aftermath. There's an extraordinary amount of action - and violence - in the film's brief running time, with Haroun making intelligent use of his limited resources (his methods of avoiding the need for extensive special effects are especially resourceful, while the impact of the deeds evoked is perhaps the greater for their indirect depiction). There's a tinge of Roald Dahl's short story Lamb to the Slaughter in the humorous ending, which Hitchcock might have appreciated.

B 400, 1997, France

Haroun's second short is both very brief and very slight, the tale - if it can be called that - of a young girl who locks herself out of her apartment building; the film seems to exist for its low-key punchline.


2002, Chad, directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun

Mahamat Saleh Haroun's Abouna plays like two different films: the first hour or so is a carefully realized portrait of the coming of age of two young boys, forced to look out for each other in the absence of a father, and with a mother increasingly overburdened by the simple demands of getting by. There's an abrupt shift in the final twenty minutes, however, as Haroun introduces a series of inter-related ellipses, interspersed with fades to black, with an accumulation of plot that threatens to overwhelm the film (the revelations come so fast that there's no opportunity for the characters to credibly react to life-altering developments).

Like his contemporary, and close colleague, Abderrahmane Sissako, Haroun is most interested in observing the delicate fabric of daily life; in his opening hour, he allows events to unfold at an unhurried pace, his camera attracted to bright patches of colour - an orange shirt, a book cover, a startling yellow dress. His mobile camera tracks across courtyards and behind beads, but also observes his characters in quiet moments, like a mother's tender embrace of her child, and gives a vivid sense of a particular neighborhood in N'Djamena. His use of music, too, is intensely evocative, and one brief shot evokes the wondrous opening segment of Nanni Moretti's Caro diario where that film's director-star weaves through the deserted streets of Rome on his Vespa, the soundtrack swelling as if the city belonged to him alone.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


2007, US, directed by Billy Ray

Like Billy Ray's previous film Shattered Glass, Breach takes deception and subterfuge as its themes, enlarging the canvas from the New Republic 
fabulist Stephen Glass to national security and the unmasking of Robert Hanssen, the FBI "super-spy." Although there are a number of conventional sequences that feature Hanssen returning to his office earlier than his superiors expect, threatening their attempts to unveil him, for the most part the film is less interested in generic thriller mechanics than in attempting to penetrate the aura of mystery surrounding Hanssen himself. He’s an unlikable, controlling character who, though perhaps brilliant in his day, seems superannuated here, unable to fathom that he’s being set up despite the dead-end job into which he has been shunted, which tends to undermine the film’s contention that he is one of the FBI’s brightest minds. Ray returns a little too insistently to Hanssen’s ultra-orthodox Catholicism as an easy cipher for his other disagreeable qualities; his religious hypocrisies are hardly surprising in the context of his broader betrayals. Still, there’s a degree of honesty about the realities of this kind of detective work – the long, boring, family-corrupting slog – that’s a useful alternative to the normal tales of G-man derring-do.


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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