Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bienvenue chez les ch'tis

2008, France, directed Dany Boon

France's most successful domestically-produced release (at least since the advent of reliable records in the mid-1950s), Bienvenue chez les ch'tis is a very enjoyable comedy liable to prove a bit of a head-scratcher to much of the overseas audience - not so much because it's not entertaining but rather because it's hard to understand exactly what enabled it to wash away all before it (save for the unsinkable Titanic, the country's "all-time" number one film).

The film's plot is pretty simple: a postal employee is transferred, for complex reasons, from his home region in the south of France to the dreaded Nord - not just the northern half of the country, but the area nestled right up near the Belgian border, painted in such grim tones in everything from Zola's Germinal to Bruno Dumont first two films, La Vie de Jésus and L'Humanité. Indeed, I couldn't help thinking that Boon's film was conceived as a conscious antidote to the latter pair of films, both of which I found relentlessly grim; like Dumont, Boon is a native of the area, with more of a rehabilitative cast of mind.

The film is resolutely of the provinces: about the only thing more dreadful than being sent to the Nord is the idea of a transfer to Paris, and our fish-out-of-water first proves he's settling in when he gets a laugh at the expense of a Parisian transplant to the area. That, indeed, may be one reason for the movie's appeal: in many ways it looks back to a more gentle France, of small-town welcomes, where even La Poste is seen more as an extension of family than as a business. The fault lines of present-day France, at least as they are expressed in newspaper headlines, are completely absent (though the lead performers, Boon himself and Kad Merad, are of mixed ethnic heritage; both have Algerian fathers and French mothers).

The film is very nicely shot by Pierre Aïm, with fluid widescreen compositions; although the plotline has a sitcom predictability, many sequences were clearly conceived with the big screen, or at least a generous widescreen, in mind (as we see in the first shot above), and Aïm does an especially nice job of contrasting the southern light with its northern counterpart. The two leads are infectiously enjoyable, too, with their early scenes together especially amusing - it's not hard to imagine having an awfully good time in a receptive movie theatre - even if the end is altogether too rushed after the exposition gets away from Boon-as-director.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Body of Lies

2008, US, directed by Ridley Scott

This is Ridley Scott's fourth film with Russell Crowe, which makes it hard to understand why he uses the actor so poorly on this occasion. It's not that Crowe isn't suited to buttoned-down roles - Michael Mann's The Insider gives the lie to that idea - but simply that he's offscreen for far too much of the film, and when we do see him his character, one Ed Hoffman, is a relentlessly simplified caricature. In almost every scene of his domestic life, Hoffman has an earpiece to carry on incessant conversation whether he's driving his children to school or wandering around his home; after the first few instances of this we get that he's an obsessive workaholic, and it's time for a degree of character development.

Of course, that addiction to technology is part of Hoffman's distance from other human beings: they are best observed under distant surveillance rather than seen up close in their messy reality, the side of the spy business that concerns, in every sense, his field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio). It's notable that Hoffman appears deeply resentful about those occasions when he must actually travel to the locations about which he's making decisions.

For a film dealing with life and death and, however superficially, contemporary geo-politics, there's also a curious lack of excitement in the film; Ridley's brother Tony gets more thrills out of the weaponry of surveillance in both Enemy of the State and Déjà Vu. It seems to me that it's ultimately a desire to be taken seriously in artistic/political terms that separates the brothers Scott: notwithstanding the derivative, even junky aspects of both of the Tony Scott films, they seem to succeed in unveiling something more essential about the ways in which humans are transformed by observing other humans from a distance (emotional, spatial - even temporal).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jamaica Inn

1939, UK, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Judged as a 1930s entertainment, Jamaica Inn is perfectly serviceable: it's fleet of foot, with several memorable performances, while smugglers and their evil-doings make for inherently rip-roaring misadventures. The problem is that it's a Hitchcock movie, and by 1939 the director had already set the bar pretty high for himself. With a few exceptions, Jamaica Inn doesn't feel like a Hitchcock, particularly following directly on from his sextet of British thrillers. There are several striking shots of Maureen O'Hara - who's wonderfully energetic in her first major role - near the end of the film, and occasional bits of business that showcase Hitchcock's extraordinary ability to create against-the-clock tension (for instance in a hanging that O'Hara's character witnesses) but otherwise the film seems to conform entirely to adventure convention for long stretches.

That seems especially true in the sequences featuring Charles Laughton. While the actor is treasurably hammy, delivering his lines with genuine relish, and occasionally penetrating to an extraordinarily superior state of mind not unknown among the British aristrocracy, his performance belongs in a different film. Each time he appears on screen he unbalances the whole affair, distracting from rather than enhancing a film already over-stuffed with larger-than-life characters (most notably Leslie Banks and Emlyn Williams, the smuggler-in-chief and his sidekick).

The Squid and the Whale

2005, US, directed by Noah Baumbach

In its quiet way, The Squid and the Whale is an extraordinarily violent film, though here the violence is largely psychological and usually involves two young sons being used as weapons in an increasingly bitter separation. Given that the film is drawn at least partly from Noah Baumbach's own life, it's hard to avoid the occasional wide-eyed response as you wonder whether people really do these things to each other and their own children. But of course they do, and often far worse, though at least Baumbach is able to mine his own experiences with considerable blunt humour, relentlessly exposing his parents (or their surrogates) for the self-obsessed people they apparently were - while not sparing the younger generation.

Like Baumbach's earlier Kicking and Screaming, the film has a very loose plot, and yet there's nothing accidental about the way in which he stitches his scenes together: the tapestry of incident builds in power as he subtly but insistently demolishes the apparent honest, open approach of these two self-consciously liberal parents (very well played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


2008, Ireland/Sweden, directed by Lance Daly

The Swedish presence in the production credits for Lance Daly's third film seems more than simply an acknowledgment of the film's funding, for Kisses draws very much on the traditions of a Scandinavian cinema that has dramatised stories of young people with great skill and honesty, and which has proved remarkably adept at finding talented actors to assist in telling those stories (in films like My Life as Dog, The Ice Palace and Zappa, from Sweden, Norway and Denmark respectively).

Kisses focuses on twenty-four hours in the lives of two children from an impoverished Dublin suburb, who run off to the centre of Dublin following an unexpected windfall. As frightening as the prospect of the city might be in other respects, it's also a refuge from their terrible day-to-day routine, although Daly's depiction of their home lives does lack much in the way of nuance (residents of Dublin's less heralded areas might feel justifiably aggrieved that they're all depicted as feckless and abusive ne'er-do-wells). The film underlines the sense of the city as a sanctuary through a slow shift from black and white to colour as they get closer to town. It's not an entirely original device, but the very gradual introduction of colour - mirrored partly in the choice of transportation - works more effectively than a sudden switch.

The plot is occasionally a little over-stuffed - the pair has a very busy night indeed, packed with random encounters - but the film has a real feel for Dublin's streets: Daly generally insists on geographical plausibility, and he picks up on the kinds of conversational snippets familiar to any resident of the city. The performances of the two young actors are critical to that: both non-professionals, their backgrounds aren't all that dissimilar from those of their characters, and they're extremely lively, committed performers (by all accounts they were a handful on set; their DVD commentary is well worth listening to, and at times it's almost an extension of the film, particularly in the tart language employed).

Although there are moments that briefly suggest alternative lives - a lovely sequence where the two half skate through the Jervis Street shopping centre, their home lives clearly forgotten - Daly avoids easy outcomes, being blunt about the realities from which this occasionally magical twenty-four hours is plucked. Nonetheless, he's always aware of the ways in which his characters differ from the adults around them; if there's something resigned in the youthful expressions at the end of the film, there's also a deeper complicity between the pair, suggesting that they are better armed to deal with the complex, sometimes unpleasant world around them.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Seven Pounds

2008, US, directed by Gabriele Muccino

Seven Pounds owes some debt to the Lost school of dramatic structure, slowly dispensing information, often in deliberately misleading fashion, to form a portrait of a highly unusual person. That's not, of course, a criticism: the first season of Lost, with its fine character portraits, remains for me the strongest aspect of the show to date, and while the producers have killed off various characters it seems to me no accident that they've largely stuck with the group we first identified with. However, the framework of a single episode - or feature film - means we're constantly waiting for the big reveal, since the filmmakers can't extend that out to a future segment.

Although I confess that I might have emitted a gasp when it all finally clicked into place in Seven Pounds, somehow the trick overwhelmed the material, unlike in the previous collaboration between Smith and director Muccino, The Pursuit of Happyness, which, for all of its occasional sentimentality in telling the central story of father-son redemption, was grounded in a very real setting, whereas here we're in wealthy anywheresville, and we've lost that connection to a vivid sense of place and daily reality. It's a pity, because Will Smith is, again, very good, the more so when he's pushing further against the bounds of his Mr. Nice Guy persona.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

1982, New Zealand, directed by John Laing

A docudrama that recounts one of New Zealand's most famous murder cases - and more to the point one of the country's most notorious legal proceedings, the trials and pardon of Arthur Allan Thomas - Beyond Reasonable Doubt is also a key early film in the development of the New Zealand film industry, whose modern incarnation began around 1977 with début features from Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs) and Geoff Murphy (Wild Man). Prior to that date, feature production was intermittent in the extreme (I'd love, though, to see the 1964 Runaway, featuring a very young Kiri Te Kanawa), which meant that there wasn't much of a local talent pool. When production began on this film, director John Laing was enticed back home from Canada, having spent time both there and in the UK honing his craft; it's nice to see that he was subsequently able to carve out a career at home in New Zealand, moving between TV and movies.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt was Laing's first feature assignment, and it's generally a very confident bit of work. The story is presented as a procedural, and yet one with an unresolved mystery at its heart, since the murderer of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe has never been identified. In that respect, at least, the film has something in common with David Fincher's Zodiac. Neither film attempts to provide the audience with a truly satisfying resolution, although Beyond Reasonable Doubt does jettison the question mark which appeared in the title of David Yallop's book, which he adapted for the screen, perhaps because by that point real-life events had vindicated Yallop's thesis that Arthur Allan Thomas was not the murderer, despite being convicted on two separate occasions (in one of those odd coincidences, a man by the name of Arthur Leigh Allen was a suspect in the Zodiac killings).

Although the film presents events in generally straightforward fashion, Laing creates a mood of deep mistrust in the farming communy where the murder took place. The area seems riven with rivalries and slightly off-colour characters, where strange behaviour is quickly given a sinister spin. The Lower Waikato landscapes are shot in flat and uninviting terms (the photography is by Alun Bollinger), a radical contrast to the use of landscape in Sleeping Dogs and in so many subsequent New Zealand films. The Price of Milk, for instance, which takes place in similar farming country, uses the landscape as a jumping-off point for magical happenings.

The state of the New Zealand film industry in 1980 was especially apparent in front of the camera, with three of the key roles allocated to imported actors: Englishman David Hemmings, who does a very fine job as the over-zealous Inspector Bruce Hutton, walking right into the abyss marked miscarriage of justice, along with Australians Tony Barry, as Hutton's right-hand man, and John Hargreaves as Arthur Allan Thomas. Still, there are appearances from soon-to-be-more-familiar local faces like Martyn Sanderson, Marshall Napier and, especially, Bruno Lawrence, the oddball and much-missed star of films like The Quiet Earth and Smash Palace.

One scene in particular caught my interest for the way in which it contrasts with a similar sequence in There Will Be Blood - a scene analysed, as I've already written, in a fascinating blog post by David Bordwell. Both scenes involve a group of men standing in front of a map: in There Will Be Blood the men are looking at an area that holds the promise of oil wealth, while in Beyond Reasonable Doubt they are examining the distances between different farms as they try to establish whether various individuals might have been capable of committing the Crewe murders. Paul Thomas Anderson holds a shot of his actors, carefully positioned, with the map spread out in the foreground. Laing establishes his scene in near-identical terms, the police carefully assembled around the map (below). However, he chooses to insert several quick shots seen from the perspective of the lead detective, whose hand surveys the map, before returning to that same larger view. At first, the inserts seem to punctuate an increasingly tense scene - which begins with the police moving purposefully toward the map as ideas start to crystallise - but the key difference is the fact that Laing is dealing with an actual setting and a true-crime event, and feels the need to establish the literal placement of the farms so that the audience is fully informed of the facts. That desire to provide accurate information - something that the police signally failed to do at Arthur Allan Thomas's trials - is fundamental to the entire purpose of the film, which later uses voiceover to add details of evidence that the police (or at least some of the police) either concealed or misused.

Ian Conrich makes a somewhat apologetic case for Laing's standing as an auteur in New Zealand Filmmakers, a 2007 collection he co-edited with Stuart Murray - with whom I once took a class on the other side of the Atlantic - and I can't help thinking that even Conrich isn't entirely convinced; that Laing might not be an auteur is no knock against this compelling film. The Conrich/Murray book is, however, essential reading for anyone with an interest in New Zealand film.


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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