Wednesday, December 29, 2010

True Grit

2010, US, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

While the original film is very much a John Wayne vehicle, with Rooster Cogburn front and center, the Coen brothers center their take on the material instead on a battle of wills between a grizzled older man and a young girl who is at least as stubborn as her elder. Two early scenes fix the personalities of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, the former narrating his part in a shooting, relishing and burnishing his own already outsize reputation, while the latter refuses to stand down even when the only place she can track Cogburn is to the outhouse. There's a warmth throughout the film, especially in the central relationship, that sometimes seems absent from the Coen brothers' work - although they've always had an affection for the character actor, and they serve up several gemlike smaller roles, finely-sketched types drawn from many an old Western, like the country lawyer or the undertaker.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


2009, Ireland, directed by Neil Jordan

Fables and things not-quite-what-they-seem are recurrent themes in Neil Jordan's films (and novels), and he begins Ondine with no preamble as we see what appears to be a mermaid fished up from the deep off the coast of Cork. The drab colour schemes signal that this is no upbeat fairytale, however, despite the picturesque filming locations; indeed, it's occasionally hard to make out what is going on, as Jordan opts for a very restricted palette.

More challenging again is the dialogue, for the actors frequently speak so indistinctly that it's difficult to make out some of their lines (we initially thought we had a sound problem, but the rest of the soundtrack is just fine). It's presumably deliberate on the filmmaker's part, for as the characters begin to emerge from their shells - Colin Farrell plays the main character, an introverted fisherman - the problem becomes less acute. The accents and colours lend a sense of realism to the more offbeat story elements, keeping us constantly uncertain as to whether we're in the realm of fantasy or kitchen-sink reality; the ending is a not-entirely-successful attempt to marry both strands, straining for a happy ending by dishing out unhappy outcomes for many of the supporting characters.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Negotiator

1998, US, directed by F. Gary Grey

The Negotiator is ludicrously over the top, with a hostage situation that appears to consume the resources of the entire Chicago police force and a flair for the wildly dramatic, but it's also an absolute pleasure to watch and re-watch, one of those finely-tooled, bombastic Hollywood thrillers filled with carefully engineered moments of narrative payoff, and a script for both leads and support to chew on.

It's assembled from many of the clichés of the cop film - from the central story of corruption to the imagery of mourning officers in dress uniform, and the shots fired at graveside, to the throwaway supporting roles for women - but director F. Gary Grey invests them with an almost ferocious conviction, as if, this time, those clichés really matter. He's also blessed with a terrific cast, with a nice opposition between his leads, the headstrong Samuel L. Jackson and apparently perfectly controlled Kevin Spacey; their distinctive acting styles are a nice complement to the characters, and Spacey in particular seems to relish the words he's given to work with. As so often in Hollywood, the supporting case is a real treasure chest: J.T. Walsh is as effectively oily in his final role as he was in so many other films, but there are also nice turns from Paul Giamatti (on the way up), David Morse, Ron Rifkin and other familiar faces.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

2010, US, directed by Lisa Cholodenko

I've been trying to cram as much PhD study as possible into the final weeks before parenthood upends everything I've been accustomed to, and while I've continue to see a reasonable number of films I've been remiss in writing up any notes afterwards. As a consequence, before I managed to construct any sensible thoughts on The Kids Are All Right I read the terrific end-of-2010 discussion at Dennis Cozzalio's blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which features the film prominently.

Dennis himself and Sheila O'Malley, proprietor of The Sheila Variations, hit on several of the issues that bothered me when watching the film, most obviously the resolution: although it has a certain open-endedness, suggesting a story that continues well beyond the credits, the conclusion still came across as far too neat for a film that was otherwise trying to give a sense of nuance to our picture of family life. Indeed, the overall narrative is familiar from more ostensibly mainstream fare - a settled, closed group, in this a family with two moms, disrupted by the arrival of a new presence, the sperm donor who made the family possible. The film, to me, seems to want to have its cake and eat it - suggesting a more unusual narrative than it is ultimately prepared to deliver, just as it complicates our picture of lesbian sexuality while also seeming to suggest that some lesbians just need to find the right man.

What does work, though - beyond the terrific acting ensemble - is the loose, sunny feel of the film, set against a perfect California summer when everything in this particular family is on the verge of change. Cholodenko transitions easily between gorgeous establishing shots of her suburban locations and handheld camerawork that underlines the jittery tension of other sequences, such as the angry confrontation that ensues when Mark Ruffalo's easygoing character gives a motorbike ride to his (biological) daughter. The motorbike ride itself is just one in a series of lovely scenes extolling the pleasures of life on the move - an early sequence with a bike gives a sense of never-ending youth, while later a long drive on the highway somehow functions as a catharsis for the befuddled, angry characters.

Friday, December 10, 2010


1942, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

Casablanca seems to have passed into popular lore as the perfect example of the virtues of the Hollywood studio system, where skilled artisans of all kinds collaborated to produce a transcendent work almost without the intervention of a director. Curtiz, though, is an extremely skilled operator, and I think that what we're seeing instead is the work of a man with a very steady hand on the tiller, marshaling the resources of his studio and extracting terrific work from veterans like his cinematographer Arthur Edeson, as well as a gallery of studio players from across Europe, to craft a film that gives plenty of play to his own interests.

There's a wonderful sense of rhythm, the easy movement from dry comedy - most obvious in every line delivered by Claude Rains - to drama, romance, or violence. Curtiz also has a clear sense of when to allow the bit players their moments to shine - see the scenes stolen by S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey, Curt Bois and numerous others - and when to bring us back to the main focus of the film. The film feels as though it's been stuffed almost to bursting with such incidents, a succession of treasurable moments, and yet Curtiz never loses sight of the overall narrative, or the relationships that give the film its force.

There's a playfulness to Curtiz's work, too, as though he's setting himself challenges to keep things interesting. He introduces each of the major players a little differently - the dolly shot that brings us close in to Dooley Wilson's piano, the camera that retreats before the imposing Sydney Greenstreet as he marches into Rick's place, the traveling shots that accompany Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman on their first, nervous walk across Rick's, the furtive entrance of Peter Lorre, passing almost unnoticed between other customers, or the way that Bogart himself is introduced as a pair of hands; we're forced to wait several more seconds before his face is revealed.

Curtiz's familiar shadowplay is much in evidence, too, whether in the expressionistic scene where Rick - his silhouette looming on the wall - opens the safe in his office, the slats of the shutters across the characters' faces at night, or, in a lighter key, the shadow of Sydney Greenstreet's blue parrot. The shadows are reversed in the shots of the exterior of Rick's - the whole set is bathed in darkness until a bright spotlight sweeps across the door.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Charge of the Light Brigade

1936, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

Although Michael Curtiz directed so many films - over a hundred in the Hollywood portion of his career alone - that it's perhaps hard to speak of a 'typical' Curtiz picture, The Charge of the Light Brigade lacks several of the qualities that grace his stronger films, most obviously a careful sense of pace and a consistent element of visual inventiveness.

In this case, those gaps may reflect how quickly the film was rushed into production following the success of Curtiz's previous smash hit with Errol Flynn, Captain Blood: Curtiz and Flynn were back on set, on a very ambitious scale, within three months of that film's opening night. Still, given his career output Curtiz was surely no stranger to working fast, so perhaps he simply wasn't that invested in the material, or perhaps there wasn't much he could do with the rather leaden script he inherited.

There are hints, early on, of his more familiar interests, notably in a strikingly spare Indian palace, where the giant silhouettes echo those of the courtoom scenes in Captain Blood. Such flourishes aren't sustained as the film moves along, however. More problematic is the film's pacing, with the film moving fitfully along, appearing to gather steam only to crash to a halt for yet another scene that brings together Flynn's character with either his brother or his fiancée, often to no narrative purpose (even worse are the repetitive interludes involving Nigel Bruce and his shrewish wife). Everything is, of course, building to the eponymous charge - a spectacular, visceral sequence, albeit one that's uncomfortable to watch if you've even a passing interest in equine welfare - but it's quite a slog to get there.

Even by Hollywood standards, the history here is a travesty, with the charge at Balaclava re-written as both the climax to a story of brotherly rivalry and as a form of misguided vengeance for events modelled on the Indian Mutiny (never mind that the Mutiny took place three years after Balaclava). It's unclear as to why the writers couldn't have concocted a romantic backstory that actually related to the events of the Crimean War, although the entire film is another fine example of the way that Hollywood waved the flag of British Empire throughout the 1930s; with such stalwart support in Los Angeles, it must have been quite the shock when Washington proved much less supportive of Britain's Empire as the Second World War drew to a close.

Despite the complete disregard for factual accuracy, the script manages to capture some echoes of the actual empire, particularly the imperial idea that certain Indian groups - most notably the Bengals - were dissolute and feminine, as opposed to the vigorous, manly British (the British applied similar logic in dealing with indigenous groups from Africa to New Zealand). Even more inadvertently, no doubt, several of the character actors' accents give a sense of the way in which the officer corps offered opportunities to those from the fringes of the home islands, with Irish and Scottish officers particularly prominent on the ground.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Comancheros

1961, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

This is my contribution to The Late Show, the Late Films Blogathon organized by David Cairns, proprietor of the wonderful Shadowplay.

Michael Curtiz was an extraordinarily prolific director, releasing at least one film a year - and sometimes many more - from his early career in Hungary to The Comancheros, which appeared just six months before his death. Although his most fertile creative years were behind him by the 1960s, there's no mistaking the craft in his final movie, giving the lie to the (fairly lazy) conventional wisdom that this was John Wayne's project, with Curtiz merely along for the ride.

That conventional wisdom stems mostly from the fact that several key personnel, particularly behind the camera, had prior connections with Wayne--writer James Edward Grant, producer George Sherman and cinematographer Bill Clothier, to name but three. However, it's not as though Curtiz was submerged by untested talent: Sherman, a pedestrian director himself, assembled a fine group of collaborators here, a group of experienced movie men whose careers dated back to the 1930s.

In any case, Curtiz was hardly a novice at quickly integrating with a new production team given his own long and varied career: it's hard to direct over a hundred movies without being able to rapidly find your bearings within a new crew. Most written accounts suggest that Curtiz's work on The Comancheros was restricted to the interiors given his own advancing cancer, but James Crighton Robertson unearthed evidence, in his book The Casablanca Man, that Curtiz was injured on location in Utah while shooting a scene with Wayne.

The imaginative staging of several of the outdoor sequences certainly suggest his experienced hand - for instance in the striking shot where Wayne and Stuart Whitman debate their options, with one outcome suggested over Wayne's shoulder. In any case, as David Niven's famous "bring on the empty horses" story indicates, Curtiz was not the kind of director to sit idly by while the second unit worked. Of course, quite what Niven was doing on set at that stage of The Charge of the Light Brigade is anyone's guess, since his character had exited stage-left long before the climactic scenes were filmed. One assumes, not for the first time, that he was recounting a tale told by others, although improving it in the process.

Wayne had just come back from shooting Hatari! when the production began, and he headed off to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance just days after The Comancheros wrapped. This is admittedly a minor in-between affair, but very nicely staged, owing something more to Howard Hawks than to John Ford, particularly in the laconic banter between Wayne and, well, everyone else in the film.

Indeed, the film comes across as something of a prototypical buddy film, a western Midnight Run with the roles reversed: here the prisoner (Whitman) is the hair-trigger member of the duo, whereas Wayne, who plays a Texas Ranger, is the almost infuriatingly easygoing partner, with quite a selection of trademark lines (proving it's no bad thing to have screenwriter pals).

Curtiz moves ably back and forth between comic and dramatic scenes, integrating the action sequences with wonderful character actor interludes. He has the same instincts for the ripe character moment as he had in his Warner Brothers days, giving time here to perennial bit-part actors like Guinn Williams (unfortunately uncredited, and doubly so, for this proved to be his last role; another Late Show) and Edgar Buchanan. The most notable supporting role, though, goes to Lee Marvin, onscreen for just a couple of indelible scenes, his head half-shorn and his temper all mean. His scenes with Wayne are a treasure, the Duke remaining impassive as Marvin progressively loses his rag, with predictable consequences.

I think there's something to David Cairns's suggestion that Curtiz was not in his element with the bright colours of postwar Hollywood, although he did made wonderfully atmospheric use of an early two-strip Technicolor process in Doctor X (1932; Craig Keller has some terrific screen grabs) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Black and white seems much more suited to the kind of shadowplay he clearly loved, although there are hints of the past in a jailhouse scene, shadows from the bars making a variety of patterns on the walls, or on Lee Marvin's face, half in shadow, in the poker scene. Even if colour wasn't Curtiz's preferred medium, he still crafts magical moments like the shot when we see Ina Balin framed in an archway, an instant that might have been lifted from an Indian film.

Curtiz is also adept at using the frame to achieve a sense of depth, such as in the sequence when Wayne allows Whitman - who he's just arrested - to confirm that he's been abandoned by the woman he loves; the empty spaces tell us what we need to know. Wayne, waiting in the background, might be paying homage to the famous shot that concludes The Searchers, except this time we see him framed from a different angle.

Similarly, a scene where Wayne and Marvin sober up over steaks is carefully constructed to include a glimpse of a poker game that will quickly become important to the plot; no mere background colour here.

All this is to say that Curtiz was, at the end of his directorial career, exactly the kind of professional that Wayne and company were probably looking for when they hired him. The film, routine enough by big-budget Western standards, looks great, and Curtiz clearly still found enjoyment both in constructing the individual shots and finding the overall rhythm of his film. Perhaps, then, he was indeed along for one last ride, but it looks as though he enjoyed every moment in the saddle.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats

2009, US, directed by Grant Heslov

More interesting as an idea than in the execution, The Men Who Stare at Goats suffers from something of an identity crisis, never quite sure whether it wants to be an out-and-out comedy, or a more sober commentary on the absurdity of war. While he gives some sense of the bizarre side-alleys of the US military, which spent some time and money looking at the possibilities of psychic warfare, director Grant Heslov ultimately seems more interested in playing with our image of George Clooney - whose character goes through several unflattering shifts of hairstyle and moustache - than in political commentary. Heslov also creates a major problem for himself by introducing Jeff Bridges in a terrific scene-stealing role as Bill Django, a truly unconventional army officer, and then keeping him offscreen for lengthy, distracting periods while a less compelling story unfolds. The brief montage that provides us with Django's back story looks like an altogether more interesting film than the one that remains.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I Am Love

2010, Italy, directed by Luda Guadagnino (Original title: Io sono l'amore)

Luca Guadagnino's film is an adept and enthralling latter-day re-working of some of the melodramatic territory of both Sirk and Hitchcock, but without the literal-mindedness of Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, a compelling film that nonetheless remained tied rather too closely to its inspiration, unable to imagine the same emotional territory in a different setting.

Hitchcock's influence is most obvious in Guadagnino's use of music, heightening already tense scenes, or adding danger where none initially seems present - and pushing right to the limits of the absurd, such as in a sequence where Tilda Swinton, the film's central character, accidentally runs into a chef friend of her son's. His profession is central to the film's theme of food as a method of communication and as a store of memories; a particular soup recipe, borne from Russia to Italy, is at the heart of the narrative, precipitating the film's most shocking, change of tone (which recalls a similar moment in another Italian film, The Best of Youth).

There's an extraordinary sensuousness to the film, where everything is heightened, whether it's the intensity - almost frenzied - of the music, the close-ups of glistening food, the quick rhythm of a dash through a town, or the abstract, sun-dappled body parts on a lazy summer afternoon (Guadagnino slows the film right down for this sequence, as if to emphasize each blade of grass, each breath, recalling the languid pace of Apichatpong Weerasethakul).

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Fall

2006, US/India, directed by Tarsem (Singh)

Shot in some 18 different countries, Tarsem's second feature is both a gorgeous travelogue - at times it's like a National Geographic greatest hits - and a self-deprecating fable, entirely aware of its own potential portentousness and using humour to keep the tall tale grounded. It's also a surprisingly deft commentary on the magic of early movies, seamlessly integrating action sequences from invented films of the 1920s, and paying homage to the extraordinary feats of early stuntmen by avoiding computerised special effects. The film interweaves the framing story of an invalid in a Los Angeles hospital with the yarns he spins for a fellow patient, a little girl. The boundary between reality and invention is always fluid, and is comprehensively breached as the film progresses, with the storyteller and his audience suddenly intruding into the stories. The location work is quite extraordinary, a gorgeous cascade of imagery from Italy to India, with dazzling geometric patterns and colours (such as in the shot of Jodhpur, above); the warm, languid atmosphere of the hospital allows us to return, briefly, to earth between chapters.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Education

2009, UK, directed by Lone Scherfig

The central narrative of An Education holds few great surprises - from the beginning, the romance between Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and her suave, older suitor David (Peter Sarsgaard) is undercut by musical suggestions of problems on the horizon - but Lone Scherfig is more interested in using that simple template to comment on early 1960s England. In that, she's largely successful, deploying the film's title in multiple overlapping ways: the romance itself becomes an initiation into the ways of the world, compromising, at least for a time, Jenny's path to a place in Oxford (the obsession of her suburban London father). But the film is also about the lessons that Jenny misses: the fraught social status of her Jewish paramour, desperate for acceptance in worlds that are still off limits to him, or the even more precarious social standing of a black family that Jenny sees, fleetingly, through a car window. Scherfig is an acute observer of the fine gradations of the British class system - Jenny is as snobbish as they come, despite being an up and comer herself - as well as the British tendency to romanticize its urban gangsters, in the scenes at a dog track where Peter mixes with the more brutish end of the criminal fraternity.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


2006, Japan, directed by Satoshi Kon

As with other anime films I've seen, Paprika seems to have two distinct levels of imagery, the one relatively straightforward and almost plain in terms of the visual approach - simple line drawings, and characters who don't look all that different to those from children's animation shows - and the other extraordinarily rich in colour, tone, and background detail. The contrast seems especially effective here, however, where the film revolves around the interplay between the "real" and dream worlds, with the two gradually becoming ever more closely entwined, with the bizarre imagery of the dream world ultimately invading the workaday reality. The film's complicated plot and constant back and forth switching - and occasionally even the specific imagery, such as the use of elevators or a floating body in a hotel lobby - seem to share something with the - later - Inception, providing an interesting complementary approach to some of the same ideas of shared dreams and psychological exploration.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Secret of Kells

2009, France/Belgium/Ireland, directed by Tomm Moore

As you might expected, the visuals are the thing here, with Tomm Moore's film making liberal use of inspiration from the Book of Kells itself, and other Celtic/religious artwork of the period. He finds much of the visual energy latent in the original drawings and breathes literal life into those pictures, giving us a sense of the world from which the art emerged without being excessively literal. This is, after all, a mythological origin story rather than a history, taking one of the possible explanations for the creation of the Book of Kells and running with it.

At times, the imagery is so powerful that it seems to overwhelm the characters: while the young characters' voices are wonderfully evocative and the late, lamented Mick Lally does a fine job as Brother Aidan, Brendan Gleeson's abbot seems somehow remote from what we see onscreen, as though his otherwise rich voice doesn't quite jell with the images.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Town

2010, US, directed by Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck has spun a pretty decent career out of his Boston connection, and as in his previous film, Gone Baby Gone, he proves to be an adept chronicler of the city, particularly in its blue-collar incarnation, with a good sense of the invisible lines that criss-cross the area, and the mental maps by which people conceive of their territories. That lends a real edge, for instance, to the unexpected entrance of Jeremy Renner to a sun-dappled Harvard square scene: not only is he unwelcome in the particular context, but in another sense he shouldn't be there at all, not wandering on that street at that time.

The film isn't quite as downbeat as its predecessor, finishing on a possibly redemptive note (that recalls, perhaps deliberately, the conclusion of The Shawshank Redemption), while recognizing the complex, troubled morality of Affleck's character; Affleck as director suggests that his freedom is simply another form of prison, with sins to be purged. There's also an enjoyable vein of humour, sometimes of the darkest kind, in the cat and mouse interplay with Jon Hamm's FBI agent, as well as in a terrific visual joke after one of the bank robberies that structure the film.

Affleck's style remains unfussy and straightforward: it's clear that he doesn't feel the need for directorial fireworks, a sign of confidence in both his material and his actors. He's also attentive to the casting of both the key supporting roles and the film's smaller parts, whether through the use of local non-professionals or seasoned performers like Pete Postlethwaite (recycling his In the Name of the Father Belfast accent), Jeremy Renner, and Chris Cooper, while also integrating fresher faces like Rebecca Hall, who played a crucial part in the first film of the Red Riding trilogy. While Affleck manages to give almost all of his actors a scene or two in which to shine, he's careful, however, to ensure that this doesn't detract from the film's momentum. That's a flaw in several of Judd Apatow's films, for instance: his work is constantly grinding to a halt because of the director's generosity toward his players.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


1978, US, directed by John Carpenter

It's hard to cut through more than thirty years of sequels, remakes, parodies and pale imitations to imagine what Halloween might have been like for a 1978 audience with little slasher experience, not least because at times the film comes across as a parody avant la lettre of the genre it inaugurated, particularly in the script's riper moments. However, Carpenter's use of the entire frame remains as effective as ever - even though he prepared later audiences to watch for unexpected intrusions or for violence to emerge from the most mundane circumstances, his sense of timing, of when to pull the rug out from underneath the audience, is virtually unparalleled.

Just as he employs careful editing within individual sequences to reinforce a sense of impending dread, he methodically sets up the film, unnerving the viewer in the opening sequence, set 15 years before the main action, before bringing us to an apparently benign present where he toys with the audience until he's good and ready. Although the obvious precursor is Hitchcock's Psycho, Carpenter surely draws on the more contemporary influence of Steven Spielberg, too, from whom he borrows the trick - seen in both Duel and Jaws - of keeping the villain both offscreen for long stretches, which seems only to reinforce the tension.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Social Network

2010, US, directed by David Fincher

As with David Fincher's earlier film Zodiac, The Social Network examines, among other ideas, the nature of truth - how we assemble a set of details, facts, and assertions into a coherent picture, without knowing whether the final product reveals "the truth" about a particular set of events or an individual. Just as Zodiac leaves us without the resolution we have come to expect from a police procedural, The Social Network provides us not with the reality of Mark Zuckerberg's life but a set of ideas that we must interpret - perhaps to come up with a view of Zuckerberg, but mostly as a prompt to reflection on more abstract issues of loyalty, truth as a legal issue, or the construction of relationships, face-to-face or virtual.

In the opening stretch, Fincher and his production team pay considerable attention to the details of Harvard life, digitally recreating backdrops that were off-limits for the crew, and doing a credible job of imitating Cambridge for the cameras. That's not to suggest, though, that they are interested in a documentary version of events: I think that they are, instead, simply suggesting that context matters, that certain kinds of stories emerge from specific places and times, and that Zuckerberg's story belongs to the Harvard, and later the Silicon Valley, of a certain period. In that sense, whether the film functions as a reasonable approximation of the actual Harvard experience is irrelevant: Fincher is more interested in the wider social meaning of Harvard and its sub-communities, that is, in their place in the American imagination, than in creating an authentic, document of the Harvard educational experience. He has virtually no interest, for interest, in Harvard as a classroom, correctly seeing that this is the least of Harvard's impacts on Zuckerberg and his social circle. Fincher doesn't, in any case, posit a monolithic version of Harvard - the Winkelvoss brothers espouse one version of the institution, one attractive to at least some outsiders like Eduardo, whereas others find more useful parallel networks at the school. That is ultimately Zuckerberg's most creative intuition - that most people are not that interested in the rather limited, exclusive network that the Winkelvosses want to create, and far more intrigued by the idea of a network with extraordinarily wide-ranging tentacles.

Fincher and Sorkin have very little interest in the actual mechanics of the day-to-day Facebook user experience - it's really not "The Facebook Movie," although they do capture rather well the initial buzz, which I became aware of through working at Boston University, which certainly reinforced my enjoyment of Rooney Mara's putdown in the opening scene - but their presentation of Zuckerberg's personality ties very well to some of the company's well-publicized travails with privacy issues, in which Zuckerberg (the actual Zuckerberg as opposed to the Jesse Eisenberg simulacrum) appears to be unable to understand the concerns expressed by users, as though he's smart but incapable of, or perhaps simply uninterested in, looking at Facebook as experienced by others.

The film covers a lot of ground in just two hours, which Fincher hastens along by abbreviating the transitions between scenes, constantly moving back and forth between legal depositions - multiple depositions - and the events that inspired them, with sentences chopped off in mid-stream only to be resumed in another time and place. There's something almost old-fashioned in Fincher's confidence in dialogue, with his characters defining themselves as much in the ways that they present themselves as by their achievements. Fincher doesn't rush his scenes, allowing the conversations to unfold with some of the same indulgence (and sureness of touch) as Howard Hawks, whose ghost is perhaps most obviously present in the wonderfully pithy opening scene.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

2009, Sweden/Denmark/Germany, directed by Daniel Alfredson (Original title: Luftsloffet som sprängdes)

The conclusion of Stieg Larsson's trilogy is rather repetitive, lacking either the punch of the first installment and the (relative) subtlety of the second, and re-working much old ground to bring the story arc to a resolution. We're treated, for instance, to a third version of the violent rape seen in both previous installments, and while there's an element of poetic justice in the conclusion - one courtroom sequence has an extremely amusing twist - there's a sense that we're watching an extension of the second film rather than a story that holds up independently, with numerous artificial barriers before the final resolution. There is, nonetheless, still much to be enjoyed in Noomi Rapace's continued investment in the character of Lisbeth Salander, a resourceful and uncompromising heroine who doesn't conform to the standard character development of Hollywood cinema, but instead remains very much the same troubled, introspective, compelling woman we met in the first installment.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Trois hommes à abattre

1980, France, directed by Jacques Deray

The seventh of Jacques Deray's collaborations with Alain Delon - and the last before a lengthy hiatus - is drawn from a novel by Jean-Pierre Manchette, although Deray, Delon and Christopher Frank, who adapted the novel, transform the main character from a middle manager - hardly a Delonian staple - to a professional card player, much more up the actor's alley. Still, Manchette's influence survives in the deeply cynical view of France's military-industrial complex and, perhaps, in the occasionally confusing narrative; his novels, to my mind, are always stronger on atmosphere than on plot.

Plotting issues aside, Deray's filming style is straightforward and direct, quickly moving the action forward after a brief prologue, and the film is very much in line with the pungent machismo of his previous collaborations with Delon, right down to the bluntly downbeat ending. Delon's girlfriend provides a revealing moment when she objects to being treated like a dispensable fool, though Delon - and Deray - are ultimately oblivious to her protests; you suspect that Manchette, though no stranger to machismo himself, might have made rather more of that idea.


2010, France, directed by Pascal Chaumeil (Heartbreaker)

If L'Arnacoeur were an American film, I suspect it would be dismissed as another formulaic genre entry, but with a French manufacturer's tag instead it's deliciously 'frothy', a word which seems to crop up constantly in the English-language reviews of more or less any French romantic comedy.

In truth it's probably both those things: the dogs in the street could guess how things are going to turn out, but the story is played with sufficient verve, by generally charming performers, that for 90 minutes or so it (mostly) hangs together. Central to that is Romain Duris, one of the most engaging of current French actors, who invests himself fully in a surprisingly physical performance where he's called on to don a bizarre array of disguises and to master the most unlikely of skills at short notice (the photo above shows him honing his Dirty Dancing skills - one of the film's most amusing sequences, if also one which reinforces the American influence). The early sequence which outlines Duris's profession is also very strong, cleverly edited, with a punchy rhythm that the film can't quite sustain over the remainder of the running time.

Get Him to the Greek

2010, US, directed by Nicholas Stoller

Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, was the highlight of the overlong Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and while putting Aldous front and centre in his own film is a fine idea, again the shears might have been wielded with rather more enthusiasm. At least the central story, essentially a kind of transatlantic buddy-road movie, has considerably more momentum on this occasion.

The film is strongly reminiscent of Judd Apatow's Funny People, with its shifts away from comic territory - Snow reappraises his life in convincing, even moving, fashion - as well as for a plot which brings together a past-his-prime star with an adoring acolyte/assistant. We're treated to samples of Aldous's wildest self-indulgences, just before his career jumps off a cliff, a brilliant distillation of all that's earnest and misguided about starry misappropriations of others' misfortunes.

Russell Brand again cannily exploits the overlap between his real-life reputation and Aldous's persona, adding layers to his original creation; Aldous might be self-obsessed and obnoxious but he's also authentic and truthful, and Brand manages to capture his contradictions and compulsions without losing our sympathy. He's also a very fine comic, and it'll be interesting to see what he can do with material that relies less obviously on his own backstory.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Enemy of the State

1998, US, directed by Tony Scott

Although Tony Scott's interests often seem to be more technical and visual rather than thematic, this is the first in a string of his films that run with the idea of an ordinary - or relatively ordinary - man thrown into circumstances far beyond his normal experience. There's never much time to reflect on those experiences in a Scott film, though, given the narrative momentum, and while there are brief quiet interludes to establish the family life of Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), the overall impression is rather breathless. Similarly, minor characters are liable to literally or figuratively dispatched once they are no longer of use to the plot.

At times, Scott's use of 1970s stalwarts like Jon Voight and - especially - Gene Hackman seems gratuitous, as though he's trying to capture something of the great films in which they played, most obviously Hackman's turn in The Conversation. I think, though, that he's also trying to suggest some continuity in the way that people feel that the state - and its many nefarious agencies - is able to intervene in their lives, with the corrupt or the misguided able to command resources for either their own benefit or what they feel to be a higher purpose. In that light, the film, though made well before 9/11, still feels remarkably fresh, although we may feel less confident in the displays of apparent technical omnipotence which feature so prominently here (and which are a source of enduring fascination for Scott, able to cut between several different versions of "real time").

Father of the Bride

1950, US, directed by Vincente Minnelli

Another of Vincente Minnelli's portraits of American family life, Father of the Bride might lack the sustained visual flair of Meet Me in St Louis but Minnelli consistently introduces striking ideas to what starts out as a comedy of family manners (and which features some terrific comic performances).

There's an amusing montage sequence early on when Spencer Tracy casts his mind back over his daughters' many beaus, several of whom seem like bad dreams waiting to happen, before Minnelli throws Tracy into a real nightmare on the eve of the wedding, his mind filled with terrifically strange, surreal images, such as the floor which threatens to swallow him up. Of course, floating beneath everything are the father's authentic fears of replacement, an idea beautifully, and rather subtly, conveyed as the camera pulls back when the young bride and her successful suitor reach the altar, with Tracy fading into the background to pick up the bills. It's a simple gesture that nonetheless conveys everything about the shift in alliances.

Friday, September 03, 2010

His & Hers

2009, Ireland, directed by Ken Wardrop

Ken Wardrop's first documentary feature delivers on the promise of shorts like Farewell Packets of Ten and Undressing My Mother, developing a fascinating portrait of life in the Irish midlands with emotional depth and striking visual skill. Like most of his short films, the subject matter is inspired by his own family history, particularly that of his mother: the film is a series of vignettes from numerous women, each narrating a minute of two of their own lives, with the film moving from birth to death in a brisk 80 minutes.

Men are absent from the film in physical terms, but their presence hovers constantly - even persistently - offscreen, for almost all of the women talk about brothers, fathers, sons, husbands, partners rather than about themselves. Indeed, at times it's as though the women exist only in relation to the male presences in their lives - even after those men have left - which tends to suggest a rather traditional view of Irish women. That is often reinforced by the ways in which Wardrop films women exclusively confined to their homes or gardens, as though there are no other domains in which they might define and articulate themselves (few of them speak about work, for instance, and most of them refer to household tasks). It's not clear whether Wardrop is implying that Irish society itself doesn't allow for more varied female portraits - perhaps that's the question he's asking us to ponder, since the film is free of explanatory paraphernalia.

Wardrop's cinematographers, Michael Lavelle and Kate McCullough, do extraordinary work, finding constant surprises in otherwise ordinary Midlands homes, shooting rooms in a style that splits the screen as we look through two doors simultaneously, or through windows to the world beyond. That visual playfulness nicely underlines Wardrop's witty cuts from one story to the next, and the rich vein of humour that persists almost to the end of his film.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


2008, US, directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Traitor is one of the stronger entries in post-9/11 cinema, painting a strong picture of the moral compromises that are an inevitable part of US policy in the "war on terror," and presenting a particularly convincing critique of the ways in which the many and varied security agencies fail to communicate with one another - to their own and our potential detriment. It's refreshing, too, to see those agencies depicted not as frighteningly omnipotent - with all manner of satellite technology in constant motion - but subject to gumshoe limitations. The film also does a fine job of constructing a rounded, sympathetic Muslim character - played by Don Cheadle - who, as the coda underlines, is quietly uncompromising about the simple practice of his faith, a kind of freedom often apparently forgotten in overheated US debates. There's considerable subtlety in the film's visual approach, too; instead of the constant shaky cam of the Bourne movies or The Kingdom, director Jeffrey Nachmanoff employs a handheld viewpoint when his story demands a sense of urgency, before transitioning to a calmer shooting style elsewhere.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Harder They Come

1972, Jamaica, directed by Perry Henzell

Perry Henzell's terrifically vibrant film is a crucial link to an extraordinary period of cultural cross-fertilization in the 1970s, stretching from music to filmmaking to the political realm. Although the plot of the film largely takes place within the world of reggae music, where exploitation of often impoverished performers is rife, The Harder They Come is also very much about the power of cinema. After all, when the central character, Ivan (played by musician Jimmy Cliff), arrives in Kingston from his country home, his first destination is the Roxy, a movie theatre he's heard about out in the sticks.

Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come

Ivan conceives of his subsequent odyssey very much in terms of cinematic (anti-) heroes, with the conclusion of the film referring back to Ivan's early viewing of the movie Django: the soundtrack of that film plays over images of Ivan as The Harder They Come reaches its climax. Cowboy films were massively popular in Jamaica, at the time, no less so than in other parts of the world - Ousmane Sembène's novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu makes much of how West African youth were captivated by cowboy heroes, a fascination that Dani Kouyaté also captures in the more recent Ouaga Saga.

Image from Touki-Bouki (1973, Djibril Diop Mambéty)

It's impossible to know exactly who saw what when, but it's not hard to find commonalities between Henzell's work and Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki-Bouki, with its equally self-conscious anti-heroes and its striking blend of symbolic and literal imagery (and its references to European art cinema traditions). Like much African cinema of the 1970s, and indeed like at least some blaxploitation films, there's an ethnographic aspect to Henzell's film, a desire to provide a filmed account of lives and locations that hadn't normally featured onscreen, and that vitality still sets the screen alight almost forty years on. Henzell has a sympathetic, non-judgmental gaze, finding energy and drive in his characters while never concealing their blemishes; there's a warmth and a spontaneity to his film that reminded me of Malick Sidibé's photos of young Malians, in the studio and on the dancefloor, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Photo by Malick Sidibé (image from Gallery 51)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ghost Writer

2010, France/Germany/UK, directed by Roman Polanski

Although several of the characters are thinly-veiled versions of real people, most obviously Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) as a Tony Blair facsimile, Roman Polanski is ultimately less interested in the correspondences with actual events, which are in any case pretty limited, but with surfaces and appearances, which makes for a disconcerting film where we're never quite sure what people know or admit. The central character, an unnamed ghost writer played by Ewan McGregor, is placed at the heart of a guessing game, although he seems to perceive it more as a sequence of physical clues - sometimes a touch obvious - rather than the hints and contradictions which surround him. Even the physical location of the film - a windswept island fortress/summer home - seems unreal, with a picture window that has the feel of a screen, concealing as much as it reveals.

Polanski's construction is impeccable, both within the individual shots - the placement of his characters within the frame reveals much about both their power and perceived power - and in terms of overall architecture, with plot revelations carefully dispensed to create the sense of jigsaw pieces falling pleasurably into place (a sensation just as satisfying on a second viewing). The only dissonance that took me outside the world of the film was caused by own familiarity with the actual locations, and on one occasion, during a sequence supposed to conjure up an air of malevolence and danger in Belmont, it was hard to suppress a smile given that Belmont is an unthreatening suburb with no lonely roads that even vaguely resemble those assigned to it by Polanski and his team.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


2009, Italy, directed by Matteo Garrone

Despite the rather different subject matter - the influence of the Camorra on life in the region around Naples, versus the state of the French education system - my first reaction to Gomorra reminded me of how I felt after watching Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs. Both films work hard to present an apparently "realistic" view of their chosen subjects, through a series of interlinked anecdotes, and both raise a degree - even a strong degree - of concern in the viewer about the situations depicted onscreen. The question that lingered for me, however, was what to do with this sense of outrage, that things are broken and need to be fixed. That's perhaps a question more important for people closer to the ground; perhaps notably, when I visited Naples this year there were DVD copies of the film everywhere, including in the sheaves of pirated disks outside the central rail station.

The broader social questions aside, I found the film to be an impressive piece of work, which plunges the viewer into the world of the Camorra with no preliminaries - the relationships between the characters are barely explained, and we often don't even get the characters' names. The action changes from one aspect of the Camorra's operations to another - the blooding of new recruits, or the operation of business fronts - with no more warning, almost mid-scene on occasion. Garrone's concern is less to resolve individual plotlines, although some segments are brought to a conclusion, than to create a sense of the Camorra's pervasive impact on life in the region. There's nothing hidden about most of their work - unlike many films devoted to the underworld, Garrone shoots the vast majority of the film in broad daylight, with all of the thuggery visible in the harsh light of southern Italy.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

2009, US, directed by Tony Scott

I haven't seen the original The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 for a while but if memory serves it showcases plenty of the grit of mid-1970s New York, just as this generally enjoyable updating has the slickness, and perhaps some of the more commercially antiseptic qualities, of the city's current incarnation. This is Tony Scott in relatively toned-down mode: he doesn't engage in nearly the same level of visual experimentation - particularly with changes of film stock and colour schemes - that have become his recent stock-in-trade. That said, his characteristic focus on atmospherically-lit sets is very much intact, as the aesthetics of the film's subway tunnels amply demonstrate - giant fans artfully creating shadows and blinking light effects, contrasted with the warmer lighting of the control room where Denzel Washington does his work.

As ever, Scott loses no time in plugging us into the action; that's perhaps his greatest strength as a storyteller, his ability to cut to the heart of the matter within a minute or two of the opening sequence. The storyline established, he has an exceptional ability to then hold the audience's attention as the plotting grows more outlandish, while still delivering the natural confrontations and resolutions that a film like this demands. Despite its generic qualities, the final shot is also nicely chosen, marking a return to the benign normality from which Washington's character has been so unexpectedly plucked.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

2009, Sweden/Denmark/Germany, directed by Daniel Alfredson (Aka: Flickan som lekte met elden)

The second of the trilogy of films based on Stieg Larsson's books, The Girl who Played with Fire is a good deal more subtle than its predecessor, toning down the sexual violence in particular, and choosing to imply at least some of what the first film delivered with sledgehammer subtlety; that's presumably the result of a change of director. The plot, taken fairly directly from the source novel, is more straightforward, too, reliant on coincidence but easier to swallow than the earlier film's central revelations. Mostly, though, this is another showcase for the talents of Noomi Rapace, terrifically committed again as the spiky, anti-social, morally queasy Lisbeth Salander, a compelling blend of cyber-savant and woman of robust action.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

2006, France, directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Aka: OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d'espions)

Not quite the comic diamond I anticipated, OSS 117 is nonetheless a clever, detailed spoof of both the original OSS117 character - subject of several rather more self-consciously serious French films - and, more prominently, of the James Bond films and their surrounding mythology. The filmmakers are attentive both to the conventions of 1960s spy yarns - the exotic locations, patronizing sexism and colonialism, absurd villains - and the minutiae like the terrifically artificial back-projected driving scenes, during which the actors are constantly whirring the steering wheel even on apparently straight roads. Jean Dujardin is perfectly cast as OSS117, playing the part absolutely straight while also very obviously having a terrific time, his very unsecretive agent making one cock-up after another, in a spirit of blithe indifference. Even if film just outstays its welcome, recycling several set-ups and jokes a couple more times than strictly necessary, it's still streets ahead of most Bond-style spoofs.

Friday, July 16, 2010


2010, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is, obviously enough, a director fundamentally concerned with structure - here he makes that theme explicit by anchoring his film in dreams that are designed by an architect - but he hasn't quite managed to balance that concern with the demands of the Hollywood star system, which compel most big-budget filmmakers to place a star front-and- centre on the posters and in the action. The problem with that is that Nolan is at least as interested in the intersecting stories that radiate out from the film's central focus, but is compelled to keep Leonardo DiCaprio - or previously Christian Bale - on the screen at the expense of other narratives which are given tantalizing introductions. In some ways, Inception showcases a possible solution, particularly in the climactic dream sequence, whose multiple layers and players allow Nolan to make use of parallel tales where the leading man's absence is not only justified but required.

Still, the scenes that introduce characters like Eames (Tom Hardy), Miles (Michael Caine) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), promise much more than the film can ultimately deliver, evoking parallel or past stories that we're ultimately not allowed to pursue (this is where the video-game comparison, widely made but rarely explored in depth in writing on the film, most obviously breaks down, given the side missions that are such a feature, and pleasure, of many current video games). Those piquant introductions have to serve as character development, too, as our own imaginations are asked to fill in the gaps in the characters' past histories. The same unfulfilled promise is evident in the early demonstrations of dream architecture, the fantastical manipulations of space when Cobb (DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) walk through Paris, bending the streets in on themselves to create infinite mirror images. By contrast, the final, lengthy dream sequences almost never play with space in this way - although Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dances beguilingly through the hotel corridors, the building itself remains reliably intact.

All that said, what ultimately makes the film successful on its own terms is its ability to sweep the audience past those blind alleys as the film unfolds. There are enough other elements to both engage and impress that the questions, for the most part, don't arise until the conclusion of the film, given the degree of engagement required to keep track of where the various characters are at any given moment. Nolan is not at his best when shooting elaborate action scenes, with his quick-cutting style rendering the action overly confusing, although the slower rhythms of the hotel-corridor sequences are much more effective - Arthur seems genuinely to be in peril in these scenes, whereas the snowbound mountain setting in which Cobb subsequently operates is standard-issue James Bond (unsurprisingly, given that Nolan is paying conscious homage to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but you wish that the reference wasn't quite so literal).

Although the film has only been on the world's screens for a couple of months as I finally get a few notes together, it has already generated some excellent online commentary, at least some of which certainly shapes my thoughts. I found the two blog entries, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson especially interesting; they link extensively to Jim Emerson, who didn't much care for the film but still found it worthy of dissection. David Cairns enjoyed the film rather more, but he's not blind to the film's flaws.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Funny People

2009, US, directed by Judd Apatow

It feels as though there's more than one film rather clumsily shoehorned together here, with a whole new storyline injected quite late in proceedings, as the film changes direction and the central character, a misanthropic comedian named George Simmons (Adam Sandler), re-appraises his life. As Scott Foundas's Village Voice review notes, the film can't withstand this abrupt shift, which brings with a new subplot, a raft of new characters, and a change of location. In a sense, of course, those events are all obstacles to the consummation of the film's central bromance, between Simmons and his sidekick/assistant/writer Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) - the kinds of obstacle that pop up, right on cue, in the late acts only to be resolved or forgotten in time for the crucial reunion that allows the end credits to roll.

But the film takes so long to get to that point - 145 minutes makes for a very long comedy - that it's difficult to still care for the characters by the concluding sequences. By that stage, the fresh interactions between Rogen and his roommates Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman, often extremely funny, seem a distant memory, replaced by interminable and no longer especially amusing penis jokes (a drinking game based on references to genitalia would result in hospitalization).

There are, of course, some compensations, particularly the aforementioned trio of roommates, while the interactions between Simmons and his doctor, the priceless Torsten Voges, are extremely amusing. The photography, too, is beautiful - Janusz Kaminski finds something new and gleaming in the light of both northern and southern California, particularly in the sequences around Simmons's house, such as the gorgeous overhead shot of an intensely blue pool that almost fills the screen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


1964, UK, directed by Cy Endfield

Although it's tempting to lump Zulu together with other epics of the empire in its various guises - most obviously David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia - Cy Endfield's film attempts something both more limited, an account of a single military action, and perhaps trickier, that is, presenting that action in a manner that avoids caricature of either side. Of course, the British viewpoint is privileged throughout since the camera, for the most part, remains within the British army post at Rorke's Drift, but the film is a rare account that emphasizes not African savagery or naïveté but rather the tactical and strategic intelligence of the Zulus, who implement a coherent battlefield plan - sketched out for us by an Afrikaner - and who then make a rational calculation about the virtues of continued engagement. The film does, nonetheless, play loose with certain aspects of the historical records, inserting several sequences - most notably a singing "battle" - for dramatic purposes and underplaying some particularly brutal British acts, such as the killing of wounded Zulu.

Endfield provides us with virtually no context for Rorke's Drift beyond an indication that it is a continuation of a battle fought earlier in the day at Isandlwana - a decision which robs the film of any sense of the African motivation for the battle - and focuses immediately on the reactive efforts of the small British garrison to improvise a defense. Endfield shot parts of the film on location, and the outdoor sequences are terrifically impressive, with the tiny outpost dwarfed by the Drakensberg mountains, made more ominous still by the presence of Zulu fighters appearing from on high in several shots. There is, though, an occasional sense of disconnect from the interior sequences, many of which were shot back in England, and which sometimes have a more jocular tone that feels remote from the fighting outside (those inside the buildings, either prisoners or invalids, don't take up weapons until quite late in the film, which seems extraordinary given the numerical disparity between the Zulu regiments and British defenders).

Although Rorke's Drift is remembered as one of the great imperial rearguard actions, a disaster in the making that turned into an improbable victory - the more notable, in both military and propaganda terms, for coming immediately after the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana - Endfield's presentation, even while enumerating the honors won in the course of the fighting, implies that there's little heroic about any such battle. The camera pans away from the guns and bayonets on the stockade to a carpet of Zulu bodies that must surely have recalled, for anyone watching in 1964, the horrific images of body upon body that emerged when the concentration camps were liberated (the sequence in Zulu is almost in black and white, unlike the vivid colours elsewhere in the film, making the analogy even clearer). It's a fascinating reappraisal of the realities of imperial conquest, a film that undermines conventional propaganda even as it reinforces the standing of Rorke's Drift in British historical memory.


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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