Saturday, October 31, 2009

Point Break

1991, US, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

With the advent of mobile phones and the Internet, films from the 1990s, especially cop/FBI films, seem extraordinarily quaint in some respects just fifteen years on, but Kathryn Bigelow's flick retains virtually all of its freshness given her breakneck pacing, contempt for procedural detail, and kinetic action construction. Although there are aspirations to something more than just another high-energy film through the deconstruction of action tropes and the riffing on the not-always-that-subtle-to-start-with gay subtext of many a male-bonding flick, what really marks the film as different is the sheer adrenaline on display: Bigelow makes you feel as though the action is real both by asking her actors to take unusual risks - they jump out of planes and surf big waves - but by cutting her shots together so that we're always aware of where the characters are and whether or not they're in peril. She has a terrific sense of space, and an ability to convey that to the audience; that's something at least as valuable as any effort to comment on the action genre more broadly, since I'm not always convinced she's telling us things we hadn't known before (it's hard to imagine anyone watching, to give just one example, the slow-motion-in-the-rain antics of Lethal Weapon, four years earlier, without at least wondering about the "subtext").

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Haunting

1963, US, directed by Robert Wise

As much as I admired Robert Wise's direction - his sense of pace and the rhythm of movement from longer shots to extreme close-ups are both exceptional - and the idea of a haunting that's grounded both in the physical (a haunted house) and the psychological (a troubled, perhaps susceptible woman in whose imagination the entire film may well be happening), I still found myself somehow on the outside looking in, not so much unconvinced as perhaps left a touch cold by Wise's very measured, even scientific gaze.

There's human suffering to spare - both in flashback and in the very vivid present of the film - and I had the sense that the filmmaker was sitting there observing, fascinated, but never compelled to intervene. It's an unsettling feeling, and perhaps ultimately a matter of taste; I found, for instance, the directorial gaze in Requiem warmer, more humane, even if that film makes no more attempt to provide a final "explanation" for the extraordinary story it narrates.

That said, The Haunting remains full of extraordinary moments: a woman tumbling backward down a staircase (the shot is quite brilliant, the camera towering over her and creating a sense that the twenty or so steps are stretching away to infinity), a close-up of Nell's face (or rather Julie Harris's face) as she cowers terrified in her bed, the camera prowling around the edge of a door from which unearthly sounds emerge, or even just the exquisitely careful placement of characters in the shot as they all await who knows what fate.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Damned United

2009, UK, directed by Tom Hooper

Peter Morgan seems the obvious choice to adapt David Peace's novel about Brian Clough's brief 1974 tenure at the helm of Leeds United for the screen, given that he's produced a string of scripts imagining the backstories of real characters and events. Although the film has the air of reality about it, with statistics from various league seasons appearing on the screen, and individual matches dramatized with reasonable fidelity, Morgan has relatively little interest in the details of the actual chronology. Like all of his scripts, this is about power dynamics - between manager and boardroom, rival managers, or boss and underling (most of all the latter, given the unique real-life relationship between Clough and his longtime assistant Peter Taylor).

Despite all of the factual manipulations - Clough's stint as manager of Brighton and Hove Albion becomes Taylor's stint at the same club, for dramatic purposes - Morgan and Hooper tap into something essential about the standing of English football in the 1970s, when an Irish player was about as exotic as the imports got (Clough persistently addresses Johnny Giles simply as "Irish"). They've a great sense of the details of football of the period - the crumbling venues, the appalling pitch conditions, the ashtrays and orange segments in the dressing room, Jimmy Hill's chin on Match of the Day - and yet those are ultimately only the backdrop against which a story of ambition almost Shakespearean in contour plays itself out, as Clough tries to extricate himself from the shadow of Don Revie, his legendary predecessor at Leeds, in order to construct the mythology he feels himself to be worthy of.

Hooper's eye for detail extends to the film's visual scheme, starting with the witty title shot, and extending through the use of weather and light as a way into Clough's mind. The sun during a triumphal visit to Spain seems as though it's been turned up an extra notch (just as many a Brit, suffering through the greyest months, probably experienced it at the time), while the northern rain washes away any joy in life and the depths of night in Clough's lonely hotel room are a literal long night of the soul during which the man edges toward at least temporary madness. Morgan and Hooper also do a fine job of conveying Clough's ahead-of-his-time sense of the growing importance of television as a means of setting the agenda, and even now Clough's extraordinary, preening on-camera persona remains virtually unique among managers in the English game.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

L'Enfance nue

1968, France, directed by Maurice Pialat
Although it's a little rough around the narrative edges in the concluding segment - the protagonist's final transformation seems abrupt, signaling a more radical change in character for which we haven't been fully prepared - Pialat's L'Enfance nue is an extraordinary feature début, a film of deceptive simplicity that's both visually compelling and politically bracing (I suspect Pialat wouldn't have found much merit in criticisms of the narrative progression, in any case).

Pialat's pursuit of a clear sense of place and time is announced in the opening images, depicting a union march, presumably an actual event, before transitioning to the story of a young boy moving through the fostering system. In many respects, Pialat's primary fascination is with France's institutions and the way in which the country treats its citizens and, indeed, makes them into citizens in the first place. He provides a detailed depiction of the world of fostering and child services, making clear both the problems and benefits - to the foster parents - of the system (and using real childcare workers as actors). That portrait prefigures, among other things, the school scenes in his subsequent work, the First World War mini-series La Maison des bois, scenes that are again about the ways in which the state instills ideas of citizenship.

Equally striking is Pialat's deeply humane view of his characters, and his avoidance of miserabilism even while acknowledging the difficult, financially strained lives he depicts. There's an exceptional warmth to the way in which he captures many of the conversations, an ear for the rhythms that sustain life - the courtesies and moments of humour that pepper every day (the two old women laughing over the discovery of a skin magazine, or the scene in which one of the women sings, in a quavering voice, songs of her youth). That ear for dialogue and the "privileged moment" finds its visual counterpart in Pialat's ability to direct the eye to unexpected splashes of colour - as seen in the yellow, blue or green in the stills above, for instance, or the careful composition of the shot below, with a band of brightness sandwiched between dark hats and grey skies. There's nothing heavy-handed about this use of colour, grounded in Pialat's training as a painter, but it equally gives the lie to the idea that there's something artless about his work.

Monday, October 19, 2009


2008, US, directed by Edward Zwick

Edward Zwick's film explores some of the same mythologies referenced by Simon Schama's 1995 book Landscape and Memory, which mentions those Jews who fled for the forest and fought back against the German war and extermination machine, with little support from either local populations or Soviet partisans. The band at the centre of Defiance was led into the forests of western Belarussia by the Bielski brothers, adept in using the depths of the forest to conceal their less than legal activities.

While the film recounts the group's very difficult experiences deep in the woods, it's also very much about the brothers attempts to define their own identity, as well as the group's attempts to establish what Schama referred to a "primitive community of equals." The Jews who found themselves in the forest were almost all forced to adopt unaccustomed roles - the intellectual who is converted to manual labour, the young woman who goes on frightening food runs through the forest, the vaguely criminal brothers suddenly compelled to think of themselves, for the first time in years, as Jews rather than simply locals.

Although it's a film of action - set pieces and constant threats and movement - it's also thus very much about ideas of Jewishness, although sometimes in rather heavy-handed ways; Zwick is almost too eager to assure us of the Bielskis less-than-pristine methods, while the central conflict between the brothers and their own ideas of how to behave in wartime is pretty standard Hollywood psychology of opposites. Still, the film is a useful glimpse into the mythologies of northern Europe, cannily exploited by the guerrilla bands as they moved along the fringes of the broader conflict.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

La Tête d'un homme

1933, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

Quite a shift from his previous film, Poil de Carotte, this is one of the earliest appearances of George Simenon's Maigret character: Jean Renoir and Jean Tarride both filmed Maigret stories the previous year, and those were, as it happens, the only other Maigret films of the 1930s. The film isn't a whodunit - we know more or less from the beginning of the movie who is responsible, and Maigret (played by Harry Baur) quickly sees the lie of the land - but rather a how-can-I-prove-it, which allows for frissons aplenty as we follow the apparently remorseless killer.

Whereas Poil de Carotte focused particularly on inner lives, Duvivier is more interested here in power relationships and how the different characters interact with one another. He underlines these relationships through the placement of his actors - like above, when prime suspect Heurtin, played by the apparently massive Alexandre Rignault at the very beginning of his film career, shrinks back from the much smaller Radek (Valéry Inkijinoff). Maigret, too, dominates Heurtin, with the inspector quickly realizing that Heurtin's bulk is not matched by his wits. Later in the film, Duvivier shoots Heurtin in a manner that explicitly equates him with Frankenstein's monster as incarnated in the 1930s Universal movies directed by James Whale. There's a brief scene where the "monster" looms over a young girl, swiftly followed by a shot where Heurtin, barely visible at the bottom of the screen, is overpowered by villagers who misunderstand his motives.

That scene is fascinating, too, for the image it conveys of the area surrounding Paris. It's a desolate landscape, more like something we would associate with the northeast of France, rather than the revivifying impression we often get of the Parisian fringes, such as in Duvivier's own La Belle équipe a few years later. The country scenes have none of the life we find in the cafés of Montmartre throughout the film: there's a similar contrast between suburbs and city in Godard's Bande à part. Duvivier also draws an amusing parallel between the insalubrious place Radek spends most of his time and the break room where the Parisian police gather to smoke, drink, and generally let off steam.

Although the film is generally strong in construction - and there are numerous very striking shots exploiting shadows and space - it does stumble in the relative time accorded to Maigret and his prey. Maigret, as most subsequent adaptations recognised, is a fascinating character, but here we learn relatively little about him apart from gathering that he's a very smart, and rather bulky, man. Instead, we spend much time in the company of Radek, a problematic character: although inherited from the book, he's a rather a stereotypical outsider - he's Czech, although Inkijinoff, who was from Siberia, looks much more obviously "foreign" - intent on corrupting the innocent (in every sense) Frenchman. In addition, Inkijinoff isn't nearly as subtle an actor as his colleagues, so it can be hard to take the character seriously - though the fact that Maigret never under-estimates him helps to restore some balance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


2007, US, directed by D.J. Caruso

Worth a look primarily for its first hour, a generally solid updating/relocation of Hitchcock's Rear Window: the filmmakers re-imagine confinement for the modern teen, as well as voyeurism in a California neighbourhood as opposed to a New York apartment building. That said, the constant shots of binoculars and cameras eventually become a little heavy-handed: we get it, they're spying on the neighbours. If anything, the film is a touch too specific in time and place; you can't help but think some of the references to popular websites will be terribly outdated within five years, never mind 55, but then perhaps no-one sees a long life for this kind of thing. It's a shame, too, that after setting the location up with considerable care, the filmmakers fall back on a very conventional, and completely over the top, dénouement, as if they don't trust themselves to carry off something a touch more subtle.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Poil de carotte

1932, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

It's not hard to imagine that life for many children in the early 1930s was a less than pleasant experience, with terrible poverty taking its toll, as documented in films like La Maternelle (or Wild Boys of the Road, which I haven't yet seen). There's something more going on here, however, with Duvivier exploring a profound disconnect between adults and children, and the terrible suffering that children endure as a consequence. The director previously filmed the same story in 1925, but clearly felt that the material had more to offer.

While the eponymous Poil de Carotte (Robert Lynen) initially embraces his return to the country after the school year, and runs free through the fields, there's a terrible hole in his life the moment he returns home: his siblings are actively conspiring against him, and his parents, whose marriage is a sham, alternatively abuse and utterly ignore him, with the latter fate especially bitter. Duvivier illustrates the physical distance between Poil de Carotte and those whose acknowledgment he craves, but focuses to an even greater degree on his protagonist's psychology. He dramatizes his inner life through clever use of double and triple exposure, showing conversations between Poil de Carotte's "good" and "bad" sides as the boy lies asleep, and conveying his growing sense of helplessness.

Although some adults sense the boy's troubles, and even endeavour to convey this to the parents - breaking class taboos in the process - they're apparently helpless to effect much change, and there's a distressing sense of inevitability, together with an almost brutal honesty about what a desperate child might consider (an echo again of La Maternelle). Those climatic scenes are almost unbearably tense, and Duvivier also introduces dramatic close-ups to underline the enormity of what may occur. As nuanced as the psychological portrait is, however, the scenes of family life seem less subtle: while Harry Baur is simply a gruff, uncommunicative father, Poil de Carotte's mother (Catherine Fonteney) is a harridan, taking out the failures of her own life on her youngest child, and lacking any sympathy even though her own story has many elements of tragedy. That said, there's something bracing in Duvivier's refusal to contemplate even mild sentimentality in the domestic portrait, with the household dissected without pity.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Un Secret

2007, France, directed by Claude Miller

There's something immensely pleasurable in coming across a well-made film, where the parts are carefully slotted together and there's a payoff for investing time and energy in the narrative. I suppose it's the old-fashioned idea of "craftsmanship," something that you find in, say, the works of Peter Weir. It's not all that cool, but it's also a remarkably difficult thing to do given all of the imponderables and unpredictabilities of a film shoot. Claude Miller's films are always characterised by this kind of artisanal care, even when they don't always quite succeed as involving stories. His L'Accompagnatrice, with a similar period setting, never came alive for me, and I've read various critiques that find this film to be similarly lifeless: I wonder if that's the point where taste begins to interact with technique, for I found Miller's film to be entirely compelling even when I had occasional questions about the directions in which the narrative was pointing me.

The film plays with time, interweaving episodes from the war years with events from the 1950s and, more briefly, a single day in the 1980s where many aspects of the story finally come together, although we receive much of our information out of order, so that we're constantly - and quite deliberately - questioning whether we've yet encountered the eponymous secret. There's a careful distinction of each period in visual terms, too, although the bright 1950s scenes are not quite what they first seem, and that shimmering veneer is slowly undermined as the film proceeds.

Although there's a story to be told, and a secret to be revealed, Miller is ultimately more interested in issues of identity. Underneath the polished sets and solid acting, there's something surprisingly bold going on, as the film tries to make the point that Jewish experiences of and in the war years were by no means monolithic; one of the main characters (played by Patrick Bruel, still best-known as a singer in France) chafes constantly both against authority (French, German, familial) and what he sees as the confines of his own upbringing. Part of the challenge for the character is reconciling his own instincts with a Jewish identity that is being forced on him by outsiders rather than because it has any importance for him, and yet inevitably his life experiences confront him with difficult questions about his own sense of self. It's one of those films you can imagine dissecting over a beer afterwards, since it tends to pose more questions that it's fully capable of answering.


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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