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.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States