Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

2009, US, directed by Guy Ritchie

Guy Ritchie discards most of the mythology of previous Holmes screen adaptations, most obviously the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films of the 1930s/1940s and the Jeremy Brett television series of the 1980s, in order to reinvent Holmes and Watson for a new generation - a little like the recent retooling of the James Bond franchise, with this film making no secret of its sequel ambitions. That kind of reinterpretation is hardly a new thing for Holmes given that Universal set its Holmes-Watson films in the 1940s after it acquired the rights to series from Twentieth-Century Fox, which had retained the Victorian setting for two outings in 1939. Indeed, this film's wacky plot seems like something plucked from one of the early 1940s Holmes movies, which were filled with wartime spies and similar shenanigans.

The new film comes close to obliterating the distinction between Holmes and Watson, here seen as far more of a complementary pair rather than as brains and charming-though-limited sidekick. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since there was always something vaguely patronising about Holmes's relationship to his doughty, and doughy, assistant. Here, Jude Law's Watson is more than able to puncture his colleague's often overbearing manner, while Robert Downey Jr's Holmes is able to use his intelligence both to direct his eye and his impressive fists. While there's not a whole lot of time to think during Ritchie's breathless telling of the tale, there were a few rather enjoyable touches of grimy authenticity in his version of Victorian London - authenticity wasn't much in evidence in the Rathbone-Bruce years - particularly the presence of plenty of Irish accents among the minor players, as opposed to the exclusively Cockney voices heard in many other screen adaptations.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


1947, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

Duvivier's first film back in France after his wartime exile in Hollywood is a cracker, a tremendous study of both individual loneliness and group behaviour that's a pointed commentary on much that occurred in France during the wartime years: the central character, M. Hire, played by Michel Simon, is Jewish, although that's more explicit in Georges Simenon's original novel than in the film. Whereas the residents of Hire's neighborhood view him as a shady, malevolent force, Duvivier depicts him as a bringer of light, constantly opening curtains and speaking his mind in the face of hostility, veiled and explicit.

While there are moments of melodrama, most notably during an outing to a country house that recalls the traumatic broken engagement of Great Expectations, though Hire is no Miss Faversham, for the most part Duvivier hews to a realistic depiction of one Parisian neighborhood. The film occasionally recalls the feel of Clair's Sous les toits de Paris, in which everyone knows everyone's business: indeed, there seems to be an explicit reference to the earlier film through the presence of a man selling sheet music and singing from his merchandise, while both films were entirely filmed in studios, well away from the streets they depict.

I couldn't help seeing a wink to Duvivier's previous Simenon adaptation, La Tête d'un homme, too: like the earlier film, Panique contains a climactic scene which concludes, with deep irony, in front of a closed-up pharmacy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Miss Potter

2006, UK/US, directed by Chris Noonan
Although the film works on a small scale, beginning with a beguiling set of closeups of Beatrix Potter at work, it has a surprisingly ambitious purpose. That's in keeping with the personality of Potter herself, a far more interesting person than her children's books might imply, who fought against social strictures both in her choice of career and marriage partner. It's entirely to the film's credit that it sticks closely to the actual details of Potter's life rather than restricting the timeline to conform fully to the conventions of the happy ending (although given that fidelity it's odd that the filmmakers choose to alter Potter's age, making her several years younger than she was in 1902).

Renée Zellweger again pulls off a fine English accent - quite different from her work in the Bridget Jones movies - and strikes more sparks with her Down With Love co-star Ewan McGregor, while Noonan, who surprisingly hadn't directed a movie since his 1995 hit Babe, captures the atmosphere of Edwardian London in warm tones, making judicious use of a few animated grace notes and balancing whimsy and seriousness very capably.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


2009, US, directed by James Cameron

For a movie like Avatar, the instantaneous reaction seems to be essential: the studios want "the numbers" immediately, while newspapers and bloggers fall over each other to be first to pass judgment on the hotly-anticipated commodity, often denouncing the wave of publicity while reinforcing it in other ways. There's not a whole lot of room for a step-back-and-consider-it view in a world of excessively rabid fans and sometimes almost equally knee-jerk objections; the sheer quantity of discussion is daunting, and the opinions often so fiercely held that there's a feeling of needing to defend oneself in advance from whichever group your own view appears most opposed to.

As a story, and a political allegory, Avatar has its problems. As efficient as Cameron's setup is in the first twenty minutes, wasting virtually no time with extraneous exposition, the later storyline seems excessively simplistic, almost as though scenes which supplied more nuance had simply been excised in editing. It's hard, too, to decide where Cameron comes down on the virtues and vices of military technology, or whether he's simply indicating that at times you've got to join them if you want to beat them, undermining the rather idealized depiction of "the natives" that he's worked so hard to create over the previous two hours.

As a spectacle, however, that makes use of the very latest in movie technology, however expensive, I found the film completely immersive: the world of the film is so richly imagined that your gaze is constantly wandering from one wonder to the next, while the use of 3D draws you entirely inside that world, creating the sensation that you're part of the crowd at the back of a room - a particularly clever effect - or that floating light particles have literally surrounded you.

Despite the advances in technology, Cameron hasn't forgotten the lessons of his early career, ensuring that you're aware of the location of each character and the perils they face during the big set-pieces, while exploiting the scale of the cinema screen to deliver thrills and a sense of awe that's perhaps not admired by those who value cinema for its artistic potential, but which harks back to the earliest days of cinema and the desire to push buttons in a crowded movie theatre on a Saturday night - the kind of communal experience that's increasingly rare in a fragmented media world. It's a whole lot of fun to emerge into the night and hear a crowd earnestly debating a film, too: disagreeing with decisions, reliving moments, promising to go back the next evening.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bal poussière

1988, Côte d'Ivoire, directed by Henri Duparc

While African filmmaking has generally been dominated by "art" filmmakers, at least up until the emergence of Nigerian video films, there was a brief flowering of more commercially-minded cinema in Africa in the late 1980s: Bal poussière and the 1987 La Vie est belle were probably the biggest hits in so far as reliable measurements can be made. Bal poussière deals with the many of the same themes as more (self-) consciously serious African films: the interactions and clashes of tradition and modernity, the relationships between urban and rural life, and the difficulties presented by institutions such as polygamy.

The treatment, though, is radically different: not only is Duparc's camera more mobile than that of most African filmmakers, channeling the lessons of successful American and French directors, but his film is fast-moving and filled with quickly-drawn characters. There's also a persistent vein of humour that punctuates the pretensions of the pompous, with the audience well aware of the characters' malapropisms and attempts to impress others with half-digested knowledge (one man, a teacher no less, has en entirely misguided understanding of vitamins, while the central character, Demi-Dieu, knows only enough about wine to get himself in trouble). Duparc, who died in 2006, directed a significant number of features by African standards, but his directorial style hasn't tended to be valued by the gatekeepers of the cultural and ideological project of African cinema, which is a shame: there's much to be said for a diversity of expression, not least that it may help to reach a wider audience.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


2009, US, directed by Clint Eastwood

Although the canvas is large - the creation of a new political identity in a country with a terribly troubled past - much of Eastwood's interest lies in the negotiations between individuals, the mundane but critical work of establishing ties to those with who we interact each day. It's a theme not dissimilar from that of last year's Gran Torino, and in some ways the growing trust between black and white South Africans - at least as depicted in the film - is as unlikely as that between Walt Kowalski and his young Hmong neighbours given the weight of the past.

Thus Eastwood spends much time depicting the relationships between Mandela's mixed-race security team, or recording Francois Pienaar's astonishment at the idea that Mandela would have emerged from prison and forgiven his gaolers (with whom, at least in later years, he apparently enjoyed very cordial relations). Although he occasionally takes a step too far - the resolution of the relationship between the Pienaar family and their maid seems unlikely and forced - it's generally a powerful strategy, reminding us that behind change at the national level lies a vast network of minor but cumulatively critical interactions.

On an entirely different level, I was impressed by Eastwood's fluent depiction of the excitement of the 1995 World Cup, and of his ability to depict the most critical aspects of rugby for an audience - I saw the film in the US - not generally familiar with the sport; a scene in which the Springbok players visit children in a township functions both as a symbol of the work needed to begin the process of reconciliation and as a nifty introduction to rugby for the US viewer.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States