Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ruggles of Red Gap

1935, US, directed by Leo McCarey

Although the French writer's name isn't mentioned anywhere in either the film or the original novel by Harry Leon Wilson, Ruggles of Red Gap is suffused with the spirit of Tocqueville. Indeed, although the film is often remembered for the recitation of the Gettysburg address, it's even more effective as a demonstration of Tocqueville's belief in the essential equality of Americans, and hence it seems no accident that the book and film begin in France and that we encounter America through the eyes of an overseas visitor, the eponymous Ruggles (Charles Laughton).

The scene with the Gettysburg address - an addition to the original story - also exemplifies the marvelously subtle transitions from comedy to drama to pathos that Leo McCarey so ably manages throughout the film, frequently harnessing Laughton's most subtle actorly instincts to achieve his effects. The recitation itself emerges from a scene of near knockabout comedy, as the (American) characters desperately try to remember the words of the address - only for their English visitor to trump them all.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that some Cahiers critics compared Claude Zidi's film Deux rather favourably to the work of McCarey, noting particularly what they viewed as assured transitions from one mode - comedy - to another - melodrama; that contention seems the more absurd after a viewing of one of McCarey's most sublime achievements.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Le Golem

1936, France/Czechoslovakia, directed by Julien Duvivier

David Cairns examined Duvivier's 1935 feature Golgotha at his invaluable blog Shadowplay, and suggested that the director flings himself "headlong" into the Biblical movie trap, that is, the problem of characterising people in convincing fashion when we're so separated from them in time and space. Although the distance to the events of Le Golem isn't quite as profound, I couldn't help feeling that Duvivier hadn't quite extricated himself from the previous year's trap: as striking as the film is at times, its so lavish with atmosphere and half-digested mythology that there's very little sense of characterisation. The sets are frequently remarkable - the retorts and flames of a legion of alchemists, the crannies of the Jewish ghetto, the interior of an archetypal country inn - but the actors are trapped within the broadest of strokes, compelled toward melodrama and rarely able to articulate more subtle emotional shades (Harry Baur, as the Emperor Rudolf II, descends into a madness that seems occasionally and unfortunately comical). Similarly, while Duvivier uses his camera and framing in the service of the inner lives of his characters in other films here the camera's constant movement reinforces the sense of a whirlwind of events, but to ultimately overblown effect.

Monday, November 16, 2009


2008, US, directed by Clint Eastwood

Although it didn't receive the plaudits showered on Gran Torino just a few weeks later, Changeling is a still a very confident bit of filmmaking by Clint Eastwood, a smoothly narrated slice of 1920s Los Angeles in which police abuse runs rife (some might argue little has changed except the nature of the abuse). I'm rarely a fan of Angelina Jolie's work, but she's generally strong here despite the fact that she doesn't look as though she belongs in the period. Eastwood is canny in using Jolie's status as a sort of tabloid ur-mother to underline the plot, drawn from real events, which concerns the disappearance of a young boy and the substitution, by the police, of an entirely different boy some months later under the guise of a successful resolution to the case. The film is especially assured when it reveals the sinister story that's likely the missing boy's true fate - the performances in the scenes between a cop and a troubled young boy are mesmerizing - and Eastwood adeptly captures the political feel of the era, with radio addresses a key component of public discourse.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Letty Lynton

1932, US, directed by Clarence Brown

I must confess that I'd never even heard of Letty Lynton when the (now-unveiled) Siren advised us to pounce on the scratchy version that some kind soul posted to Youtube earlier in the year, and which has since disappeared once again. Letty Lynton is, as the Siren notes, "legendarily unavailable" due to a plagiarism dispute dating back to the 1930s. The resolution of that suit led MGM to withdraw the film from circulation, so goodness only knows what circuitous route the Youtube version travelled over the years. The film was huge in its day, with Joan Crawford's most impressive gown, by Adrian, provoking a boom in dress sales roughly opposite to the way that Clark Gable's unclad appearance in It Happened One Night caused undershirt sales to collapse.

Letty Lynton dates from before the introduction of the Production Code, and as such the themes and resolution are more openly adult than was subsequently to be the case. There's no ambiguity whatsoever in Letty's unmarried relationship at the opening of the film, for instance, while there's little in the way of moral condemnation of her actions either then or later in the action. That, indeed, is what most obviously marks the film as belonging to the pre-Code days. It's also a smartly directed bit of work, moving swiftly from South American club to ocean liner to New York glitz, and the film's climactic scene is brilliantly staged; there's a terrific shot of Joan Crawford as she darts back into the room at the end of the sequence. As I noted in the comments at the Siren's place, it's worth reading David Bordwell on the artistry of 1930s film production in tandem with Letty Lynton and other films of similar vintage, for he highlights the kinds of smart, underplayed artistic choices that were part of the fabric of studio filmmaking at the time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Terminator

1984, US, directed by James Cameron

Although the visual effects for the scenes set in 2029 are almost quaint now - closer in spirit to Ray Harryhausen than to the CGI transformations of which James Cameron has been a key supporter - the core of The Terminator remains intact: a trim, single-minded chase movie which ably builds on the heritage of genre cinema. The reference points to John Carpenter's movies are particularly obvious, whether in the set-piece assault on a police precinct or the tense sequence with Sarah Connor's roommate which recalls something of Halloween.

Like Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break a few years later, what's critical in the action sequences is Cameron's sense of placement, and our consequent awareness of the physical peril in which his characters find themselves as their cars and bodies whip across the screen. The script, too, is smart, and indeed smarter than in several of Cameron's subsequent, longer films: it's taciturn for the most part, particularly when it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger's eponymous character, but witty in dealing with the problems that confront Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) when he must not only present Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) with an outlandish tale but must also ensure she believes him to be entirely serious and sane.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


France, directed by Claude Zidi

Deux earned Claude Zidi a full review and an interview in Cahiers du cinéma after fifteen years of directing popular comedies that barely rated a mention in that august journal, and I had the impression before seeing the film that Zidi had somehow played the Cahiers "game" by making the kind of film that might be expected to appeal to the magazine's writers. The final product, however, seems in many ways as broad as most of his other projects - with the style and content less suited to each other on this occasion.

The film conceived as something of a reflection on modern love - the way people interact now, or rather the way they did in 1980s Paris - although Deux takes the form of a melodramatic fable chronicling the encounter between music promoter Marc (Gérard Depardieu) and real estate agent Hélène (Maruschka Detmers) rather than a realist anatomy of relationships. Cahiers compares Zidi's work on the film favourably to American studio directors of the 1930s like Leo McCarey, but his tonal shifts are far less fleet of foot and he's rather heavy-handed with the use of camera and music to underline his characters' emotions (one crane shot over the Canal Saint-Martin drip with the clichés of the romantic comedy rather than serving as an insight into Marc's situation). Once the film decamps to the suburbs, Zidi attempts to invoke the anti-bourgeois attitudes of Claude Chabrol, for whom he worked as a camera operator throughout the 1960s, but without little of that director's more incisive social commentary. Indeed, Marc's reaction to the idea of a meeting with the parents - indeed his behaviour when confronted with any notion of convention - comes across as an (apparently unintentional) parody of Chabrol.

Zidi's primary point is that modern romance is a series of negotiations, in the business sense - negotiations about time, money, property, priorities - and both characters accept this basic premise even if they need to engage in negotiations to come up with mutually acceptable merger terms. It's fortunate, then, that they encounter one another, but there's no sense in which these characters might reveal wider social truths, even their verbal sparring is at times quite enjoyable (Depardieu in particular seems to relish some of his lines, although the Cahiers comparison with the jousts of the likes of Tracy/Hepburn/Grant only reveals this film's relative impoverishment). Indeed, it's precisely any sense of relationship with the real, lived world that the film lacks: several of Zidi's earlier films, L'Aile ou la cuisse or Les Ripoux for instance, have at least some anchor in the actual time and place where they are set, even given their broad plotting and characterization.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

2006, Japan, directed by Mamoru Hosoda

I'm not all that familiar with the conventions of anime, so it was useful to have a pre-screening introduction from two local academics - MIT's Ian Condry and Susan Napier from Tufts - in order to get a few pointers. They both focused on the inspiration behind many anime films, as well as the kinds of characters seen in anime - young woman endowed with unusual powers, for instance, as seen in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. As useful as that scene-setting was, I wouldn't have minded hearing something about the aesthetics of anime too, and particularly the apparent "disconnect" between the fairly simple character drawings and the often beautifully complex backgrounds (there are several excellent montage sequences where the animators really get to show their artistic skill, and I love the repeated images of the city skyline, as in the above still, in which traffic inches along the highway). Equally striking are director Mamoru Hosoda's assured shifts in tone - from tense sequences with cross-cutting action to very amusing exploitations of the film's time-shifting plotline to a poignant conclusion.

(The only downside with the screening was the fact that the white subtitles were almost invisible against pale backgrounds - a particular problem given that many conversation scenes took place on a dusty baseball diamond).


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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