Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tokyo Chorus

1931, Japan, directed by Yasujiro Ozu

I assume that the prominence of Tokyo Story, which seems to get far more repeat exposure than other Ozu films, explains why the director is so persistently associated with an entirely melancholy view of life; it's almost a pity that the later film casts such a long shadow given that Ozu is equally adept in comic mode (or, as here, in melding both comic and dramatic treatment); ultimately, his nuanced, humane view of the world shines through irrespective of the means of expression.

Even where Tokyo Chorus compiles wonderfully extended gags about, say, salarymen receiving their wage packets or the adventures of troublesome children, Ozu never loses sight of the social reality of his films. Thus, while the film's lead actor exchanges slapstick blows with his overbearing boss, another employee deals with a shoe that's falling apart (which punctures the boss's alleged generosity while also underlining how precarious things were in the early 1930s). Ozu has an exceptional eye for the minor details of life - the street dwellers who make use of the remains of a cigarette butt, a former teacher who suddenly realizes he can't fund dinner for all of his students, or an elderly, suddenly unemployed, salaryman with healthcare concerns that are strikingly contemporary: one of the most worrisome aspects of job loss in the US is the simultaneous disruption in health insurance, if you ever had it to begin with.

Although those poignant moments linger long in the memory, they are balanced with Ozu's wonderfully light work with his child actors; the interactions between brother and sister - a punch here, an argument there - are entirely natural, while there's an undercurrent of comment on family ties and obligations that takes fuller flight as Ozu's career developed.

Note: For some reason, my usual computer program/screen capture software didn't work with the Criterion/Eclipse DVD; the images above came from DVD Beaver and Criterion. I also made use of David Bordwell's detailed account of the film in his Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, originally published in 1988, and now available online. Update July 2010: Craig Keller has put up a very interesting, personal take on the film, complete with numerous screen captures.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Away We Go

2009, US, directed by Sam Mendes

Away We Go often feels like two different movies roughly shoehorned together, the one a string of (often amusing) caricatures, the other a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a young couple facing parenthood. While the juxtaposition works on occasion, at times there's a little too much of a gulf between the main characters, played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, and many of the people they encounter on a peripatetic odyssey across North America (if journeys involving air travel can be termed peripatetic). The central couple are, for all that they worry about being "fuck-ups," two pretty normal people who hold down apparently decent jobs and wonder, not unreasonably, whether they'll do right by their unborn child. But the outlandish, and even clichéd, characters they meet up with only serve to underline their own pretty solid foundations.

To Mendes's credit, he doesn't insist on introducing each location with a series of routine establishing shots; that choice emphasizes that the characters are in search of a sense of place and community rather than just attractive monuments. There's a little more looseness, too, to his filming style on this occasion; as much as a shot that straps a camera to a car in Montreal is a little showy, there's something exhilarating about the moment, too, as if the city has treasures in store for us.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Young and Innocent

1937, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Young and Innocent is surely the least known of the sextet of brisk thrillers that Hitchcock reeled off from 1934 to 1938, perhaps partly because it is saddled with a title that possesses neither the intrigue of something like The Man Who Knew Too Much nor the punch of a Sabotage. At least it's a bit more catchy than A Shilling for Candles, the Josep hine Tey novel from which the film is drawn. Tey's fine work seems remarkably under-appreciated by filmmakers, incidentally, with only The Franchise Affair prompting frequent attention.

The film opens on a scene of almost brutal marital strife, with a couple arguing bitterly as their union very obviously disintegrates; the scene is so fraught that I expected the camera to cut away and reveal that we were watching a stage play or a film set, since there's nothing quite as scalding in any of the other Hitchcocks from this period. After the scene's dramatic finale on a storm-tossed cliff we cut almost immediately to a much more light-hearted treatment (leaving aside the discovery of a body), with a young man (Derrick De Marney) so incredulous about his arrest that he simply doesn't take the whole affair seriously.

The central sequences recount the young chap's adventures on the lam as he and the local police chief's daughter (Nova Pilbeam, the kidnapped daughter from The Man Who Knew Too Much) try to establish his innocence, and the increasingly enamoured pair roam across the countryside and into the city in search of a vital clue. There's a phenomenal crane shot near the end that arcs across a hotel room to focus unsparingly on the killer, paired with an almost equally audacious shot out from the now unmasked killer back to the bustle of the hotel. What's key to both shots is the way in which they contribute to the momentum of the film rather than being mere directorial flourishes - the first sequence is desperately tense, ending up almost in the actor's eyes despite starting its journey far across the room. Earlier, Hitchcock derives similar tension from a shot of De Marney as he walks into a dorm in a men's hostel, the camera dollying back in front of him and then moving from left to right as he scans the beds in search of his man. As technically dazzling as the work is, it's again fully justified by the needs of the film, with Hitchcock adeptly moving from the drama of the mystery plot to the comic relief of the police chief's dinner table.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake

1942, US, directed by John Cromwell

A very brisk adventure in the ripping yarns mode, Son of Fury packs an extraordinary amount into its 98 minutes, during which the eponymous Benjamin Blake (Tyrone Power) becomes a bonded servant, deals with tangled parenthood and inheritance issues, goes into exile, frolics on a tropical island, and goes on trial to clear his name. There's plenty of vigorous action, too, with several exciting fist-fights marred only by the very obvious use of stunt doubles in ill-fitting wigs.

The film has a sterling cast to spin the tale: Power is more than capable of holding the attention whilst he's on screen, and gets formidable support from George Sanders (the consummate villain, who utters every line with wonderfully ripe disdain), Gene Tierney as an island beauty, and Frances Farmer - and on to the likes of John Carradine, Elsa Lanchester, Dudley Digges, and Halliwell Hobbes in supporting roles. Lanchester's brief scenes, as a Bristol prostitute, are especially memorable.

While the sequences in England that bookend the film are generally very successful, with the aristocracy coming in for their usual pasting, the island segment is less memorable in large measure because it's so rushed: no sooner has Blake arrived on the island than the needs of the plot have him looking to leave again, even though the film does attempt to account for the passage of several seasons. Director John Cromwell also seems more at home in the atmospherically-shot nooks and crannies of (studio) Bristol streets and country houses than in the sunny climes of the South Pacific.

Note: This film is part of the Watching Movies in Africa project. Son of Fury was exhibited in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya, in 1944.

The film attracted the particular ire of the District Commissioner (DC), the local British colonial representative. In a letter to the Chairman of the Board of Censors, who was gathering opinions regarding the possible liberalization of Kenya Colony's film censorship regime, the DC wrote: 'I am personally of the opinion that the vast majority of films have nothing but a harmful effect and I addressed the Municipal Board on the subject of scenes depicting depravity, brutality and violence in "Son of Fury"' (November 8, 1945). This appears to be a reference in particular to a sequence of whipping. The Chairman of the Board of Censors responded rather tartly, noting was the film was passed and exhibited widely throughout the United States and United Kingdom.

At the time, censorship in Kenya included a racial element: films could be placed off-limits to black African audiences, although in practice this appears to have been a rare occurrence. However, as soldiers returned from wartime postings where they could watch whatever films they liked, the administration was concerned that racially-based censorship could be inflammatory, and sought opinions, mostly from white Kenyans, before proceeding to a revision of the rules. By 1947, race-based censorship had been abandoned, but the censor more frequently banned films outright, for audiences of all races -- particularly after the beginning of the Mau Mau insurgency in 1952.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Prendre femme

2004, Israel/France, directed by Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz

Set in 1979, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz's debut film is inspired by their own difficult childhood, during which their parents were constantly at war; the film is set at a time of growing rapprochement between Egypt and Israel, but that period detail only serves to remind the viewer that other conflicts continued to simmer. Apart from the very brief indication of the date, there's almost no reference to the outside world, however, with much of the film taking place in a small apartment where an elderly mother and four children are witnesses to a troubled marriage.

Although there's no doubt that there are other problems in this relationship, the couple's deepest fault line is between religious tradition and secular interests: husband Eliahou (Simon Abkarian) structures his life around weekly services and other obligations, while his wife Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) chafes against what she perceives as old-fashioned restrictions. As with other Israeli films I've seen, Prendre femme portrays life as an inherently communal experience, with close-knit extended family groups feeling empowered to intervene in personal disputes. This is most strongly emphasized in the exceptional opening scenes, during which Viviane's brothers try to persuade her to take Eliahou back. There's nothing culturally unique about this, of course - there's a striking photo in Elliott Skinner's 1974 book African Urban Life: The Transformation of Ouagadougou which depicts an almost identical situation - but Israeli filmmakers seem to dramatize this experience with some regularity.

What makes Viviane compelling as a character is the fact that she's not depicted as a domestic martyr: while her husband often seems inflexible and certainly doesn't help to defuse certain situations, she's prone to dramatics (giving Ronit Elkabetz ample room to display her formidable acting talents; during these scenes, Viviane's reality seems absolutely convincing), and quick to use her children as a gambit in the back-and-forth with her husband. That, indeed, is one of the film's strongest cards: the faces of the children as they see their parents shred each time after time (the film is set over just three days but you sense that this is an all-too-familiar routine).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


1936, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

After the somewhat more expansive The Thirty-Nine Steps and Secret Agent, Hitchcock reverts to the very brisk pacing of The Man Who Knew Too Much here, with not an ounce of fat in the 76 minute running time. The opening scenes are an especially clever montage of sabotage attacks and their aftermath, effectively capturing the mood of London's simultaneous paranoia and stoicism - characteristics that would be raised to the level of national mythology after 1940 but which are already present here.

As in his other 1930s British thrillers, Hitchcock blends comedy and action, with a love story thrown in to the mix too as a Scotland Yard agent attempts to gather intelligence on a network of (unidentified) foreign terrorists, but he over-reaches here in swinging abruptly from tragedy to romance; the horror of the film's central act of violence is credible and dreadfully tense, but the aftermath doesn't hold together as well.

Hitchcock films this sabotage sequence, involving the delivery of a bomb, with a series of cross-cutting shots between the passengers on a bus, close-ups of what we know to be the bomb, clock-faces as we approach zero hour, traffic lights going from green to red; even though I was familiar with the film, the suspense by the climax of the sequence was almost literally unbearable, and it's one of the darkest moments from this period of Hitchcock's career.

Although very much a studio film with occasional inserts of the "real" London, it's a fascinating glimpse into the English mindset of the mid-1930s, with the spectre of war already very much on the horizon: between Hitchcock's films and their literary inspiration (Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham), London must have been a very nervy place to live - especially for those from Germany and beyond, who can't have found the place all that welcoming, however innocent their motives.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


2004, US, directed by Joe Johnston

Joe Johnston has carved out what seems a self-consciously old-fashioned niche, making family-friendly films long on entertainment value if not necessarily on profound insight. Ostensibly based on a true story, Hidalgo might have made its real-life inspiration, the fabulist Frank Hopkins, proud, for it tells a rip-roaring tale of exotic adventure - with plenty of the clichés of Hollywood intact, such as the demise of a trusted "native" - without lingering too long on the details that might make the seams show too clearly. This was Viggo Mortensen's first role after the Lord of the Rings films, and while he's moved on to far stronger starring material since, he's well able to hold the screen even with a pretty silly script that denies this rough-and-tumble horseman all but the most chaste of romances.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Hangover

2009, US, directed by Todd Phillips
The weather in Boston was irredeemably awful for the month of June, and when July started on the same note it seemed like the only thing to do was take refuge in a crowded pre-Fourth of July movie theatre. The Hangover was, ironically, the appropriate cure for wet-weather blues, with the audience proving highly receptive to what was one of the most consistently funny films I've seen in a long while. At times, you almost wish that the filmmakers didn't feel the need to explain some of the more bizarre aspects of the aftermath of what appears to have been a truly epic drinking bout - they do leave a few details to the imagination, such as the role played by a chicken - and one or two of the crudest moments seemed to leave the audience cold, but the script is well-served by the three lead actors, with the shambolic Zach Galifianakis - not generally to my taste, particularly in his repetitive "Between Two Ferns" web series - especially well cast.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Man Who Knew Too Much

1934, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The first of the half-dozen breezy thrillers that Hitchcock made in the 1930s, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much clocks in at just over 70 minutes. Hitchcock found an extra 50 minutes of material for his 1956 remake, a very different kind of film, as much a study of a family under pressure as it is a thriller, but the snappy pacing and memorably ghoulish touches are more to my taste than the expansive 1950s take on the material.

Hitchcock wastes no time plunging us into the action, with the film's precipitating crime - a shooting death in Switzerland - taking place just a couple of minutes' in, before we've really learned much about protagonists Bob and Jill Lawrence, who manage to become embroiled in international intrigue without knowing why. Before we know it, we're back in London on the trail of the criminals, who've kidnapped the Lawrences' daughter, and it's here that the film really comes alive, as the pursuit takes us to the studio streets of Wapping.

While the film is best remembered for the scenes in the Albert Hall, it's the earlier sequences, in a bizarre revival hall and a creepy dentist's office, that give the film a darker twist; while both sequences have comic touches, they both ultimately descend into often brutal violence. The film's latter sequences, centered on a lengthy shootout with the police (which did not make it into the remake) could have been lifted from a Warner Brothers gangster picture of the period, except that the key shot is fired here by a woman (Edna Best), helping prove that crime certainly doesn't pay.

The film was Peter Lorre's first English-language role; he didn't spend long in England, appearing the following year in Karl Freund's wonderful Mad Love for MGM, before shuttling back for Hitchcock's Secret Agent. Hitchcock seems to have felt the need to up the ante on Lorre's already unusual appearance by giving him a skunk-like hair stripe, though no-one dares to mention this unusual feature to the sinister mastermind.

I was amused to note that David Cairns and I picked the same shot when choosing screen captures to illustrate the film; his shadowplay write-up is highly recommended. The shot in question, with half-a-dozen fingers pointing at a bullet hole, has a mate in Hitchcock's 1936 Sabotage.


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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