Saturday, January 26, 2008

10 Things I Hate About You

1999, US, directed by Gil Junger

A superior teen/high school movie - with roots in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, signalled mostly through the characters' names - 10 Things I Hate About You is blessed with a tremendous cast, both young and old, who spark off each other to elevate the film well above the sitcom territory that often dogs such films.

For the most part, the students are played by genuinely youthful actors, almost all of them still teenagers when the film went into production, though the main exception, David Krumholtz, is the most baby-faced of the lot. Krumholtz steals every one of his scenes, and it's a pity that the the film doesn't choose to wrap up his
plotline in more satisfying fashion; he disappears rather abruptly from the action. Still, seeing the emergence of actors like Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger has its compensations, and their chemistry together feels genuine.

Director Gil Junger slips into musical montage mode a little too often, selling the soundtrack rather than advancing the plot, but on the flipside he makes good use of his unusual Seattle locations, whether it be the converted gasworks that serve as a public park (and, in the film, a paintball locale), or the attractive Queen Anne scene that opens the film. He's also generous with his actors, giving his adult cast members moments to shine, too: Allison Janney, Larry Miller and Daryl Mitchell (as the no-bullshit English teacher) are particularly good.

Inevitable posthumous postscript: It's strange to see Heath Ledger onscreen in the immediate aftermath of his death, particularly since this film, his first in the US, presumably felt like the culmination of a young man's acting dream. I remember looking the actor up on the IMDB after seeing this film on its original release as I was curious to see an Australian in a Hollywood production; he's charming here but it wasn't until Monster's Ball (2001) that his acting talent first made a real impression.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mysterious Object at Noon

2001, Thailand, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul doesn't take a directorial credit for his first feature-length project, preferring instead the combination 'Conceived/edited by', to underline the importance of the many amateur storytellers who advance the film. Using the Surrealist technique of the exquisite corpse, Weerasethakul roams the Thai countryside, and assembles a collage of documentary and fictional footage wherein the participants tells stories about their actual lives interspersed with an increasingly off-the-wall tale that encompasses a young boy, his teacher, space aliens, tigers and other strangeness.

As the film progresses, Weerasethakul becomes more and more interested in the processes by which the fictional story is advanced, filming not just additions to the story but the methods by which storytellers collaborate to add their own pieces. This is especially true of the segments featuring two deaf girls who sign to each other as much as they do to the camera, as well as in an extended sequence where schoolchildren play off one another, encouraging the creation of ever-greater absurdities.

The artifice of the filmmaking process also becomes more obvious as the film continues; while early on Weerasethakul's voice can occasionally be heard encouraging a storyteller to elaborate or invent, later the lights and crew make an appearance, while the boom mike hangs down very deliberately in the sequence with the schoolchildren (who seem unperturbed by its presence). The closing credits begin several minutes before the film ends, only to be interrupted by a final sequence that is almost pure observation of incident in a small village, down to the last frame, the final image captured by that particular camera and thus the inevitable end-point of the film (as recounted by Weerasethakul in an interview that accompanies the film).

In counterpoint to this apparent artlessness, though, other sequences are carefully framed - a shot of a window and a wall covered with posters that accompanies the first segment of the closing credits, for example, or a shot looking between two houses that recalls the careful geometric interplay of Ozu's Good Morning (both above). While the combination of fictional and documentary elements is surprisingly fluid for the most part, the film does extend a little more than perhaps justified by the material; as compelling as some of the images of Thai life may be, Weerasethakul implies that he himself lost some steam as his project advanced, reinforcing the impression of a film that eventually just peters out.


1933, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

Female packs an awful lot of action into its 60 minutes, paring many of the sequences right to the bone to make punchy points while still allowing opportunities for the supporting players to get in some choice bits. Ruth Chatterton plays Alison Drake, a female auto executive who chews up many of the men who work for her, discarding them - or transferring them to the Montreal office, in a running gag - as soon as they start to cling.

The first 40 minutes thus unspool as a kind of paean to female empowerment, at least in terms of permitting a woman to run a company as long as she behaves like one of the boys. However, even in these apparently pre-Code times, the prevailing social order is restored by the film's end; the reversal is so complete as to be almost literally breathtaking, though one wonders if the 1933 audience swallowed the whole thing.

Though the film has a brief running time, it's no throwaway. Considerable care went into the set design, for instance: Drake's office, with a huge picture window looking onto the manufacturing facility, is spectacular, while the staircase of her house, complete with a church organ, is an extraordinary creation. Perhaps that set appears in other Warner Brothers films of the period; another of their films is cited when two characters mention the Jimmy Cagney picture The Picture Snatcher, released a few months before.

Ruth Chatterton was a major star in the 1930s (though this film was my introduction to her work), and unusually for a female star she didn't break into films until she was in her mid-30s. Here she is paired with her then-husband George Brent, playing her main onscreen love interest. Brent's Irish accent and considerable charm slip through frequently, and the pair's scenes together, particularly in the early going, are played with great verve.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Employees' Entrance

1933, US, directed by Roy Del Ruth

Part of a series of "pre-Code" films screened at the Harvard Film Archive (though as Richard Maltby suggests, that category is as much a critical invention as anything else; the Siren provided the link), Employees' Entrance features Warren William at his best, that is to say his worst, playing an utter cad who cuts a swathe through the female staff of the department store he manages, while callously dealing with long-time employees.

Unlike some other films of the Depression period, here it's not the boardroom that's a threat to the little man - the directors are portrayed as buffoons, when they appear at all - but rather the fellow who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. For all that William's character is despicable, it's possible to come away from the film with the blunt moral that it's necessary to be ruthless to survive the economic turmoil of the period; certainly one of William's many conquests is prepared to mould her principles as needed in the circumstances (with a great one-liner to sum up her attitude).

There's a second strand at work, though, which tries to provide a more redemptive message, focused on one of the junior management types at the store and the new female employee who wins his heart. The film provides two contrasting conclusions, almost as if two different endings were shot and then simply combined here to provide radically different outcomes for the characters; the film doesn't seem to lend different moral weight to those outcomes, preferring rather to imply that the real world contains both the good and the not so good, each of whom will make a different set of choices.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

12 Angry Men

1957, US, directed by Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet's compelling first cinema feature shows the director's origins in stage-bound television drama, but the director experiments with technique throughout this sweaty tale of jury justice, to give his work a distinctly cinematic sensibility that works on the larger canvas (though the fact that it also plays rather well on a TV screen perhaps partly explains its sustained popularity as a "classic").

The film opens with a pair of shots that pan up the columns of a courthouse, then pan down inside that same building, looking up toward justice, and then down toward the antlike figures on whom that justice is dispensed inside the court building. As the camera settles at its lowest point, it moves away to bring us into the courtroom where a trial is in its final stages.

After this brief courtroom prologue, the film spends almost its entire running time inside the jury room, where one man - Henry Fonda - insists on a proper discussion of an apparently open-and-shut murder case. Lumet consciously sets up a series of "types": he's not interested in these men as people (while we learn certain facts about them, we learn only a handful of names), but rather as representatives of certain strands of the city - within limits, since this is, after all, a group of white men only.

Lumet makes use of the mirroring technique of that opening pair of shots throughout his film, most strikingly in a brace of scenes that isolate first the sole dissenter in the initial jury vote, and later an outspoken bigot who finds himself alone in a room full of men. The individual jurors frequently experience epiphanies in shots that refer back to their initial stance on the issues at hand, as if to reverse those early introductions.

Despite the close confines of the jury room, Lumet makes relatively little use of close-up shots; while one character, an older man, is often framed at close quarters, it isn't until the latter stages of the film that such shots proliferate, as the men come face-to-face with the reality of their decision.

While the film idealizes the justice system's checks and balances in implying that a good jury can make up for a poorly-conducted trial - Fonda is a surrogate for the ideal defense lawyer, who was missing from the courtroom, while other characters "prosecute" the case - it remains an intriguing insight into one of the key responsibilities of a jury-based justice system, with a tremendous cast (many of them television stalwarts).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier

1959, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Made for French television - though it also had a brief cinema release - Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier is Renoir's contemporary Parisian take on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Jean-Louis Barrault in the dual role of Cordelier and his "experiment", Opale. The film comes complete with an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" prologue, wherein the great director arrives at the television station and settles in before introducing his bizarre tale.

In that prologue, Renoir plays with perspectives, using television monitors to frame his monologue within larger frames, then cutting to a closer shot of his face. Later, once we enter the world of Cordelier and his creation, much of the action is shot in a manner reminiscent of the stage, with the characters carefully placed across the set, but as if to prevent the action from seeming excessively stage-bound, characters occasionally emerge from "behind" the camera.

Barrault, the great stage artist best known for his role as a mime in Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du paradis, plays his two roles with a minimum of special effects artifice. Cordelier is a pretty conventional doctor type - his research base recalls that of the doctor in George Franju's extraordinary film Les Yeux sans visage, made the same year - but Opale is a strange creature indeed. Though the character is prone to a bit of the old ultra-violence, and attacks a child in an early sequence, he moves almost like a dancer, and often recalls the physical comedy of performers like Chaplin. It's an unexpected interpretation that keeps the viewer constantly off-balance, never quite sure how to judge Opale, a creature born against his will from another's ill-judged experiments.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

US, 2007, directed by Andrew Dominik

For one reason or another, I ended up seeing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford without having read any reviews. As the lights dimmed, I finally remembered why I recognized director Andrew Dominik's name, having seen his only previous feature, the 2000 Australian film Chopper. As this new film washed over me, it put me in mind of a Western shot by Terrence Malick, something that seemed worthy of noting in a future blog posting, only to discover, when reading about the film subsequently, that everyone else already knew this. Dominik even received a 'Thanks to' credit on Malick's most recent film, The New World, though I don't know what his contribution was.

Dominik's film is reminiscent of Malick primarily for its gorgeous visuals, and its frequent focus on visual textures; in other respects it departs the Malick mould, with a stronger narrative line, and fewer extended passages of abstraction, than Malick's more recent films, parts of which occasionally strike me as self-indulgent. Dominik's choice of title (from Ron Hansen's source novel) also gives his film a sense of concrete inevitability that isn't captured in Malick titles like The New World or The Thin Red Line. The themes of Dominik's film are familiar from Chopper, which also focused on the image of a notorious outlaw who became a folk hero to some (there's an echo of the Ned Kelly myth here, too). Mark "Chopper" Read has been more active in crafting his own media image, where Jesse James left the mythologizing to others, while remaining acutely aware of everything written about him. The film casts James as a proto-modern celebrity (an idea enhanced by using as actor as visible as Brad Pitt) with his own developing fanbase, as exemplified by the adoring yet thin-skinned Ford (Casey Affleck).

From the film's opening moments, there's a gnawing air of foreboding to the entire enterprise, as if death could emerge at any moment. The characters themselves often seem to accept this, having chosen to live in a violent world wherein death is accorded no great weight when it finally arrives; when James talks of a murder, one of his gang says simply "I'm a little angry with you", as if referring to some minor event. That doesn't mean James and his gang are unfeeling: James is hollowed out by stress, while other men are reduced to shadows by shifting loyalties, against a brutally hardscrabble rural background. Indeed, almost all of the men are strikingly pale, despite lives lived essentially outdoors, on horseback or in the fields.

As Robert Ford, the erstwhile hanger-on, Casey Affleck is unnerving. He hangs on James's every syllable, constantly seeking affirmation, pathetically unable to exit his hero's orbit. Affleck's face captures Ford's emotional disarray at even the mildest of slights; it's subtle work, his face changing so slowly it's sometimes like watching the play of light rather than muscle movement. With Gone Baby Gone added to the mix, 2007 was a remarkable year for the actor.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Secret Agent

1936, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Made the year after The Lady Vanishes, Secret Agent initially strives for that film's breezily comic tone, but as the action progresses, and the eponymous agent finds himself confronted with the inevitable dirty side of his business circa 1916, things turn more serious. The same transition isn't to be found in the original source material, W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden, or The British Agent, more cynical throughout; what is turned on its head in the film (the Hairless Mexican, played by Peter Lorre, neither hairless nor Mexican) is literal in the book, which was deemed accurate enough on the business of espionage that for a time it was required reading for aspiring spies.

As Maugham writes, "Well, that was war, and only fools thought it could be waged with kid gloves on"; you imagine he might feel that Hitchcock's dueling protagonists, played by John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll, were fools indeed. They see the error of their ways eventually, though, which allows Hitchcock to play with notions of loyalty and patriotism as the shadow of another war began to creep over Britain. He's also good at capturing the atmosphere of intrigue so characteristic of the cinematic take on Central Europe, a world where any combination of loyalties seems possible (exemplified by Lorre's own complex personal history, which criss-crossed nationalities as nations rose and fell).

I was prompted to see Secret Agent by a comment left elsewhere on this site by blogger Pacze Moj, who passed on the tidbit that the multi-talented New Zealand artist Len Lye had done some special effects work on commission for the action-packed conclusion to the film. Judging from Roger Horrocks's account of the work in his biography of Lye, as well as the relevant scenes in the film itself, it doesn't appear that any of Lye's work appears in the surviving prints of the film; his contributions were apparently deemed so realistic they might cause a panic, and were excised before the film was widely distributed. While the climactic scenes remain impressive as they stand - credit to the unnamed effects artists - one can only imagine how they might have been enhanced by Lye's imaginative and playful work.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

1975, UK, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

The first "real" film by the Monty Python team, Holy Grail remains a hilarious showcase for their flights of verbal exuberance and energetic absurdism. Given that the film is still a series of sketches inside a larger framework - their next film, Life of Brian, feels more fully conceived as a single storyline - the team resist the temptation to pad the length beyond what the material will bear, though they play with the timing of several jokes, perhaps most notably the very first gag. The gag is much more than a quick visual joke, extending over a minute, more than long enough for an audience member to become uncomfortable and wonder what's going on.

While the film remains most memorable for the verbal duels between King Arthur and his recalcitrant subjects, as well as the various challengers he encounters, as the film progresses it also reveals a surprising visual flair; perhaps Terry Gilliam was finding a visual style as the shoot progressed, with several carefully composed landscapes giving the gags a properly cinematic underpinning. Gilliam makes intelligent use of his limited resources throughout, playing sleight of hand with angles and smoke to craft a suitably expansive medieval landscape.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Spy Who Loved Me

1977, UK, directed by Lewis Gilbert

After the all-out silliness of The Man with the Golden Gun, the next entry in the Bond franchise is a considerable improvement, with a plot that pools the resources of the US, Soviet and British secret services, who find their interests suddenly aligned when the megalomaniac du jour decides to steal three nuclear submarines of varying nationalities (the opening sequence is economical and quite gripping, perhaps because it is free of the tongue-in-cheekery of the scenes featuring Bond).

It's not quite plain sailing, of course: while B-movie queen Barbara Bach is an enjoyable foil for Bond, Richard Kiel's Jaws, the iron-toothed villain, is absurb even by the standards of the series (which wouldn't stop him from returning in a later film). The film also feels twenty minutes too long, with the usual array of tropical locations (most notably Egypt on this occasion) padding out the running time. Lewis Gilbert returns for directing duties; he has more skill with the camera than Guy Hamilton, though he tends to repeat the same movements -- smooth dolly shots in particular -- with distracting frequency.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Satan Met a Lady

1936, US, directed by William Dieterle

This second version of The Maltese Falcon changes the names and some of the plot details just five years after the original filming, playing the whole complicated affair as a light farce (in the wake of the hit adaptation of another Dashiell Hammett novel, The Thin Man).

Warren William is cast as Ted Shayne, the Sam Spade character, a pretty affable fellow by William's standards, as the actor was more frequently cast in roguish parts. William's character is absolutely the rogue where women are concerned, though, pursuing virtually every actress who walks across the screen, even flirting shamelessly with a much older woman (Alison Skipworth, who plays the Sydney Greenstreet role). William is clearly having tremendous fun as Shayne, who treats everything as one big joke (most notably in an extended "robbery" sequence with Arthur Treacher, one of Hollywood's great butler types).

Even by the standards of Warner Brothers in the 1930s, the first half-hour feels extremely brisk, with some scenes seeming to end abruptly, though it's not entirely clear if this is due to William Dieterle's swift direction or the surviving print. Bette Davis shows up after about 30 minutes, and the rhythm settles down, but this isn't one of the actress's more notable films; she's upstaged, for the most part, by Marie Wilson, who has the right breezy tone as Miss Murgatroyd, Shayne's secretary.

There's a striking moment near the end which seems, at first glance, an instance of ugly racism of a kind that, even for an industry that was hardly progressive, seems rather blunt. The character who casually orders a black porter around quickly finds the joke's on him, however, and as the joke is extended it's hard not to think that the film is trying to make a broader point about the treatment of black characters (and the actors who play them).

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

1982/2007, US, directed by Ridley Scott

Blade Runner begins with a stunning shot of an imagined Los Angeles future, echoed, 25 years later, by the evocation of San Francisco past that opens David Fincher’s Zodiac. This first evocation of the dark city, with ominous plumes of flame bursting from massive factory structures, is filled with a sense of foreboding – where do these flames come from, and what do they imply about the city that lies beneath? Ridley Scott’s aerial cityscapes are wonderfully suggestive, part of a richly-textured future that seems fully alive. That his version of the city is unlikely, at least in its weather patterns, to match the future of the real Los Angeles in 2019 is beside the point, though it is occasionally distracting to note that companies like Pan-Am and TWA have survived as future artifacts through the advertising-scape of the film.

The film has a stately pacing that seems like a historical artifact of another kind; many of the scenes unspool quite deliberately (for example in the often humorous sequence during which Brion James’s character is questioned; that scene’s explosive conclusion is all the more powerful as a consequence). Later in the film, particularly near the climactic scenes, the action sometimes seems to miss a beat, almost as if to compensate for the earlier stateliness, the characters – particularly Rutger Hauer’s replicant - popping up with jack-in-the-box swiftness. There are eye-catchingly atmospheric moments throughout the film, whether a shot in which bicycles sweep by unannounced, or in the extraordinary family of grotesques that inhabits the “old dark house” where the action comes to a head.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Kingdom

2007, US, directed by Peter Berg

Peter Berg expands his field of vision from Texas high school football to international terrorism but in the transition he retains the occasionally disorienting hand-held shooting style of Friday Night Lights. He also betrays the influence of one of his producers, Michael Mann, in the insistent, and sometimes overbearing, use of music. It's a pity that the raw material isn't up to more, since Berg is more than able to handle the logistic demands of his film – the climactic gunfight is a great bit of modern action cinema, adrenaline-laced and brutal - but instead he's saddled with hokum that throws an elite FBI team into Saudi Arabia to solve a terrorist attack on an American compound.

Even with Jamie Foxx deploying his considerable charisma, it's awfully hard to swallow the idea that his team could disembark in Saudi and ride roughshod over not just local custom but also local bureaucratic protocol – and make swift progress in their investigation into the bargain. Foxx cultivates one of the Saudis as his advocate, so that the film becomes, in its mid-section, a kind of buddy picture, with the two men learning to work together, but when push comes to shove things revert to Gunga Din territory. The surprisingly downbeat ending seems tacked on from another film - Syriana, perhaps - a moral conclusion at odds with the nuance-free operation we’ve just seen.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States