Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mr and Mrs Smith

2005, US, directed by Doug Liman

Although the film was conceived before Brangelina infiltrated our supermarket checkout consciousness, it's quick to exploit our offscreen sense of Brad and Angie's charms, with the opening scene asking them uncomfortable questions in the guise of marital therapy - and leaving us with the same image. Given that we are dealing with a couple of professional assassins the film also manages, in it's own extremely strange way, to provide us with a surprisingly clear-eyed portrait of married life and the challenges of keeping a relationship fresh (not unlike the ways in which P.S. I Love You and The Break-Up shed some unexpected light on modern relationships).

Of course, ultimately it's impossible to reconcile those insights with the idea that these people could have any semblance of a normal emotional exchange given the nature of what they do and the callousness with which they do it: as much as the film has fun with the idea that Brad and Angie, or their gun-toting alter egos, might live in the suburbs and drop over for drinks, it can't do much about the fact that in the end we know there's not a whole of overlap between our lives and theirs.

A Serious Man

2009, US, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Notwithstanding the setting in a close-knit midwestern Jewish community - not unlike, one is tempted to conclude, the community in which the Coen brothers themselves came of age - the concerns of A Serious Man might prompt nods of recognition from many an African filmmaker, or indeed African viewer. The film dramatises a very fraught balancing act between tradition and modernity, a theme that's at the heart of so many films from Africa, with the eponymous serious man, Larry Gopnik (a great performance from the unfamiliar Michael Stuhlbarg) navigating the alarming shoals of social change in 1960s America.

I'm not suggesting that there's anything conscious in these parallels, simply observing that the film's concerns - exploring ideas about how we conduct ourselves in life, and how we choose to behave when confronted with a concatenation of distressing events - are often those of another form of cinema rather than those of the American mainstream, even though the brothers also manage to have their usual fun with shot choices (looming shots of people in positions of authority), oddball character parts, and elaborately weird dream sequences (at one point Larry asks whether an incident took place the night before, and neither we nor the characters are entirely sure of the answer).

The 1960s is no accident given the way that the decade has come to be seen as a particular moment of change in American society, when a series of long-held values, or at least practices, was called into question. The Coens add to that another, specifically Jewish layer of spiritual questioning, as Larry attempts to reconcile his life experiences with his Judaism, consulting a series of rabbis without ever being entirely convinced of the utility of consulting rabbis. There's a beautiful moment when our expectations are upended as an older rabbi resolves a situation with unexpected grace, revealing his understanding of change more effectively than those who are at least nominally more in touch with youthful concerns.

The Informant!

2009, US, directed by Steven Soderbergh

The source material for The Informant!, Kurt Eichenwald's excellent book on the price fixing conspiracies involving the conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, plays like a fairly straightforward corporate thriller, structured to reveal information sparingly and chronologically, not unlike Soderbergh's earlier Erin Brockovich and similar tales of corporate malfeasance.

The movie adaptation gives the game away almost immediately, though, using music and a breezy tone to imply that all is not what it seems with Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), the ADM executive who turns whistleblower. From the opening scene, we're privy to Whitacre's rich interior life, revealing both his Mitty-ish view of his role at ADM and his frequent oddball observations on more or less anything in his path (indeed the exclamation mark signals that the approach is likely to be rather different before the film ever begins).

It's a little jarring, then, that the rest of the characters seem to have been shipped in from a different film. The other ADM executives and the FBI agents who work with Whitacre are played entirely straight (Scott Bakula is particularly good as the main agent, Brian Shepard, who seems like a genuinely good guy on both paper and film) in contrast to the comical image of Whitacre, whose moustache is in keeping with the overall presentation. Within the world of the film, though, no-one seems to perceive this dissonance until it's much too late. Still, the film never presents itself as a detective story, and simply turns the tables: Eichenwald revealed a story which seems utterly absurd in retrospect, and Soderbergh simply presents it in straightforward terms to force us to ask questions of everyone who missed what appear to have been alarm bells of the highest order.

As always in Soderbergh's films, the casting is impeccable, with the smaller roles emphasizing, once again, the extraordinarily deep pool of memorable American character actors (it's nice to see Thomas Wilson, Biff in the Back to the Future series, back on screen, for instance). Just like in Erin Brockovich or Out of Sight, Soderbergh is able to craft a moment in which each actor gets a moment to shine - a skill that presumably also came in useful when constructing films with eleven, twelve, and thirteen thieves.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


2009, US, directed by Pete Docter & Bob Peterson

Like the previous Pixar film, WALL•E, the opening fifteen minutes or so of Up are so strong that the rest of the film almost seems like a letdown; the filmmakers set the bar so high that you forget the standard for other movies is much lower. The first segment is also the most "adult" portion of the film, a clever and poignant account of a life, and a marriage, that then segues in a late-in-life adventure.

Those opening minutes spring from a lovely homage to the newsreels of old, before the talking stops and the images take over, with wonderfully clever moments like the succession of ties that signifies the passage of time through a working life, or the repeated breaking of a rainy-day jar as dreams cede to domestic obligations. It's extraordinary just how much the filmmakers manage to squeeze into that sequence without distracting us from the emotion of their story.

As with all of Pixar's movies, there's exceptional attention to detail, with the richly textured backgrounds popping with objects that tie in to the story - a pair of tickets to a far-flung destination, for example - but there's also plenty of room for the animators to indulge in flights of fancy, whether it's the steering mechanism for the floating house that's at the center of the film, or the wildlife encountered as the story evolves. Those details, though, are always in the service of a broader story, anchored by two wonderfully engaging characters (voiced by Ed Asner and Jordan Nagai) whose relationship, begun under duress, gradually evolves into a winning partnership.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Hurt Locker

2009, US, directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Although Kathryn Bigelow's filmmaking often attracts attention for her direction of action scenes, The Hurt Locker derives as much of its visceral force from the tension of what might happen as from the action itself. There's an exceptional sense of the reality of each day, the dust, the sweat, the boredom and then the adrenaline of the soldier's life in a combat zone (themes that are also central to the underrated Jarhead, which narrated events in 1991), although the film inevitably glosses over the less dramatic interludes in favour of perfectly paced sequences of bomb disposal or engagement with a sniper.

Despite the emphasis on day-to-day realism, it's a film of almost complete abstraction from current events, without any overt commentary on the actual Iraq war but fascinated by the minutiae of the experience of war in a more general sense (I couldn't find anything in the film to prevent it from being set in Afghanistan or during the first Gulf war, for instance).

The Hurt Locker has some similarities with Claire Denis's film Beau travail, which focused on a group of French Foreign Legion soldiers in Djibouti, again without much context for their presence in that African outpost. As in Beau travail, the details of movement and of the ways in which the men relate to one another through their actions are central to The Hurt Locker, while both films feature men (played by Denis Lavant and Jeremy Renner, respectively) who seem spectacularly ill-suited to life in their home countries - and who, at the same time, aren't fully functional human beings in military life, either.

On the technical level, the parallel with Denis's work seems equally explicit: both filmmakes pay exceptional attention to sound design, with sound - and sometimes the absence of sound - frequently taking the place of dialogue. The ending of the film has a strange symmetry with the beginning of Abderrahmane Sissako's wonderful La Vie sur terre, a film which channels something of the same spirit as Denis's work. In both films, a scene of abundance in a Western supermarket underlines the protagonist's alienation from the place where he lives. With all that in mind, it's hardly surprising that The Hurt Locker wasn't a more financially successful endeavour, for its conventions are more frequently those of the art film than the Hollywood war flick; narrative is relatively unimportant, despite occasional captions that mark the progress of time, with atmosphere much more critical to the film's effect.

I was struck by the use of a handheld camera throughout the film, apparently to denote documentary realism (a pretty common visual shorthand). The handheld camerawork doesn't translate into careless framing (Jim Emerson has a nice post on Bigelow's shot choices), but the placement of the camera sometimes seems to undermine the attempt to convey the impression of being there, since we see things either from an angle that wouldn't work in reality (no documentary cameraperson would stand in a sniper's line of fire) or the camera is already in place before the characters arrive (after a particularly trying day, there's a camera waiting for Jeremy Renner's character, William James, before he walks into a bathroom to rinse away blood). Perhaps the intention is to deliver a form of "enhanced reality," showing us the mud and the blood and the beer from perspectives we wouldn't normally have access to, but at times it seems to belong more to the highly manipulated storytelling of "reality" television.

I Was Born, But...

1932, Japan, directed by Yasujiro Ozu

As in Tokyo Story, made the previous year, Ozu combines here an acute sense of time and place with a deep appreciation of the emotional challenges of family and social life. Even when he's constructing careful visual jokes, we remain constantly aware of the slightly shabby setting of the film, a rather dusty suburb that's most notable for an accumulation of train tracks, and the upward striving of the film's father figure; there's something Tati-esque about the importance of the physical setting.

The film is constructed around a series of rituals and obligations, two boys going to school - or sometimes avoiding it, in one lovely afternoon of mitching - and their father heading out to work. The trio start their day together before going their separate ways, their paths often re-intersecting late in the day, with the boys slowly gathering a sense of their father's place in the social hierarchy - a traumatic discovery when their interactions with the other neighborhood boys largely consist of assertions along the lines of "my father's better than yours!"

The humour emerges often from the cuts from one space to another - a tracking shot down a row of school desks that becomes a row of office workers, equally beholden to the figure at the head of the classroom, and a beautiful articulation of the way in which schools help to create good adult citizens. Indeed, Ozu's camera seems to be constantly on the move here, following the gangs of boys as they roam near the train tracks, or within the confined spaces of homes and offices.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Passage to Marseille

1944, US, directed by Michael Curtiz

Passage to Marseille offers further proof that Casablanca wasn't so much the happy accident of Hollywood legend, but rather a film undergirded by a very fine, witty script (by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch). Although this film reunites many of the players and the director with another story of conflicted wartime loyalties - the Marseillaise playing repeatedly in the background - the script, by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt, is far less subtle, and the writers struggle with the story's structural challenges, piling flashback on top of flashback. The framing story, too, is an awkward device that's far less interesting than the substance of the flashbacks. [Update June 7, 2011: David Bordwell has a fascinating piece on flashback-filled films, including a discussion of this movie; I see his point on the use of such a structure to create suspense, although I still find some parts of the film much stronger than others, unbalancing the complex architecture].

The story takes us from airfields in England to pre-war France and on to Devil's Island, of Papillon fame, where Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart) a fine French patriot has been interned for his seditious views. Curtiz creates a wonderfully sweaty atmosphere in those central sequences, tense and fetid, with superb camerawork from James Wong Howe, particularly in the sequences inside the dimly-lit barracks.

Despite the star billing, it's Claude Rains who ties the story together - as an absolutely upright man in uniform on this occasion - bringing us back through time and across the Atlantic to his own first encounter with Matrac, on board a French ship which serves as a microcosm of Free French/collaborationist views (Sidney Greenstreet playing Rains's quasi-fascist opposite number). He's superb, and the opportunity to hear that wonderful narrator's voice of his almost makes up for the film's structural awkwardness. Bogart has less to do - his character is sullen, silent, and stoic for the most part - and so it's the character actors who have to bring the thing to life. Granted free rein, Greenstreet and Lorre steal for all they're worth, and Philip Dorn also has a nice part, though the usually compelling Michèle Morgan is saddled with a thankless role as Matrac's pining wife, with few opportunities to show her range and strength.


List of all movies

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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States