Wednesday, April 25, 2012

City Girl

1930, US, directed by F.W. Murnau

On the narrative level, Murnau's film is pared down to almost mythic levels -- boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy struggles to win father's acceptance of marriage. That's hardly the point, though -- Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, directed inspired by City Girl, similarly transcends the simplest of narratives to strive for emotional resonance, again among the hypnotic wheat fields of the heartland. The early sections of the film take place in the big city, where a young man has been sent to sell his family's crop. Murnau's unpicking of the city experience is as acute as Chaplin in Modern Times -- he re-casts a city restaurant as a a virtula factory, each widget, or diner, quickly slotting in to replace the last, every minute frantically assigned a purpose by the streams of workers. It's an overwhelming experience for a man used to rhythms dictated by the seasons and the elements rather than by the daily clock, and the joyful return to the land as the film advances is surely not just the joy of a young man in love but equally an embrace of another way of living. His run through the wheat fields, new wife in tow, is the high point of the film, an apotheosis of filmmaking romance as the camera is in exhilarating motion with the pair.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


2010, UK, directed by Asif Kapadia

It's more than a little strange to watch a film that's essentially focused on the inevitability of someone dying -- not as a plot point or as the natural end to any biography of a deceased person but as an actual event that takes place in front of our eyes. The fact that I'd seen this same event in real time in 1994, a collision so fast and jarring that you immediately knew nothing good could possibly come of it, even before the screen filled with emergency vehicles and the race at Imola was (temporarily) halted, didn't blunt its effect here, not least because the film creates such an intense impression of Ayrton Senna as a vibrantly alive young man, albeit a young man who seems constantly to be questioning his own goals and reflecting on his (extraordinarily comfortable) life. I'd forgotten just how eloquent and interesting Senna could be -- though as the film makes clear, Formula 1 is not short on figures capable of compelling commentary -- and certainly had no recollection of his expressions of religious faith, which seem at odds with the technological and commercial image of his chosen sport.

Perhaps as a result of the degree of cooperation from Senna's family, Senna doesn't probe too deeply into controversial subjects -- Alain Prost comes across as the relative villain of the piece, at least on the track, but even in a sport with a degree of inherent recklessness it's at least possible that Senna's motivations and behaviour in some of his duels with the French driver crossed the line into heedlessly dangerous territory. It's hard, for instance, to imagine either driver suggesting that they trusted and respected each other in such confrontations -- unlike the memorable encounter between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux at the French grand prix in 1979, when their cars repeatedly touched as they vied for second place.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Lincoln Lawyer

2011, US, directed by Brad Furman

I enjoyed Michael Connelly's source novel, even if it's not quite Connelly at the peak of his form, and Brad Furman's adaptation is pretty faithful, perhaps even too faithful given the plot-cramming required by the running time. That does a particular disservice to the crucial backstory that becomes central to the evolving plot, and which has considerably more space evolve on the page. Matthew McConaughey is well cast in the central role -- there's a certain charm-offensive continuity with his early lead role in A Time to Kill, though his lawyer character here is light on the liberal guilt and heavy on the self-interest -- but it's the support that really shines, even if many of the players have barely a scene or two in which to shine. I'm not quite sure what Furman was offering to convince fine actors like Marisa Tomei and Michael Peña to accept minor parts, but they make the most of their limited screen time; I'd rather have Tomei as a luminous supporting player than not at all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


1937, France, directed by Pierre Chenal

Pierre Chenal is one of those directors I'd earmarked for further consideration, but while L'Alibi has the occasional visual idea of note it's memorable largely for the performances of Erich von Stroheim and Louis Jouvet -- and jumps up several notches in their scenes together. Von Stroheim plays a stage medium with something of a gangland backstory, and the film opens with him dispatching an enemy from his American days; that sequence, shot in back-projected fashion as two cars race across Paris, is quite arresting, both in visual terms and because we're not generally accustomed to films that eliminate the whodunit aspect so early on.

Josée Cathala suggests, in her book on Louis Jouvet, that the film's tension then comes from wondering when one of the main characters will crack, though for me the real frisson lies in the actorly confrontation between Jouvet and von Stroheim, a deliciously careful waltz between two experts in both their on- and offscreen incarnations. The more I see of Jouvet's filmography the more I'm convinced that he only rarely had vehicles worthy of his extraordinary talent -- though his busy theatrical schedule and his own rather dismissive view of the cinema, especially in the 1930s, didn't help -- but he's quite wonderful here as a Javert-like policeman, tenaciously on the trail of his man. The sequence in which he and von Stroheim speak partly in English is perhaps the highlight, though the language surely wasn't much of a stretch for Jouvet, who spent nearly two years in New York on a theatrical tour years earlier.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


2011, US, directed by Paul Feig

Anyone to whom it came as a surprise that women might both concoct and enjoy a raunchy comedy with bodily functions front and center clearly hasn't spent a whole lot of time in the company of actual human women, though Hollywood apparently falls into the "who'da thunk it?" category. While Bridesmaids hardly re-invents the romantic comedy -- it likes to have its cake and eat it by mocking wedding excess while nonetheless cataloguing in all its expensive glory, in ways that have served Hollywood well for sixty years -- it takes the genre in welcome new directions, exploring its characters' faults and insecurities in ways that occasionally veer into noticeably less comic territory. Indeed, at times I couldn't help feeling that there was some The Break-Up-style bait-and-switch at work -- the wild antics of the trailer replaced by a close-to-the-bone examination of the main character's less than admirable behaviour.

The hand of producer Judd Apatow is never far away: director Paul Feig has Apatow's generous instincts with his performers, granting everyone a scene or two in which to shine, though he also has the same Apatovian tendency to allowing some of those scenes to go on rather longer than necessary. Feig/Apatow introduce the American audience to several overseas TV treasures in the process, whether it's the bizarre sibling duo played by Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson (despite the actors audibly hailing from opposite ends of the English-speaking world) or the local cop played by Chris O'Dowd, though the script does at least throw in a line to explain the regular eruptions of broad Roscommon accent. Somehow, though, all of the support complements rather than distracts from Kristen Wiig, who makes a fine leading lady more than willing to catalogue her character's flaws without begging for the audience's sympathy (she's sensible enough to realize we're probably all on Melissa McCarthy's side anyway; McCarthy seizes her own role with extraordinary and unapologetic relish, ultimately finding a genuine and deserved truth in her character).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Anthony Zimmer

2005, France, directed by Jérôme Salle

I'm a sucker for this kind of thing -- sleek movies about master criminals and mistaken identities, and the first half of Jérôme Salle's film is a thing of beauty, a little like watching a BMW accelerate smoothly through the gears. Unfortunately, it can't quite sustain that momentum, reverting to something rather more conventional as things wrap up, but I was tempted to watch the thing all over again from the beginning just as the end credits rolled just for the visceral thrill of seeing the well-oiled cinematic machine at work. The central intrigue hinges on a young woman -- Sophie Marceau channelling Monica Bellucci so well that a few years later she was essentially cast as Bellucci in the doppelgänger movie Ne te retourne pas -- who attempts to divert the attentions of the authorities from her lover, the titular M. Zimmer, by taking up with the vaguely sad-sack Yvan Attal.

The film doesn't play fair, of course, suggesting entirely different motivations at times through its shot choices, but that's part of the game. Salle's approach suggests something of a Hollywood calling card -- crisp car or foot chases of the kind that crop up subsequently in Guillaume Canet's Ne le dis à personne or multiple overhead shots of trains and cars criss-crossing the south of France -- but several of the most enjoyable sequences hinge on the precise little details of conversations -- between Marceau and Attal in their first encounter, or Attal and a young police lieutenant, or any of the scenes with Sami Frey, playing the Javert-like cop who has devoted his career to tracking down Zimmer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


1937, France, directed by Marcel L'Herbier

Although the film is a broad remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 picture The Cheat (which I've not seen, though the film was apparently very influential on French filmmakers), I was struck more by the thematic and plot correspondences with star Victor Francen's later film L'Homme du Niger. As in that film, Forfaiture takes place in an exotic, quasi-colonial setting, with Francen responsible for a grandiose construction project and in love with a much younger woman.

In this case, said younger woman is played by Lise Delamare, an early appearance by an actress who was, from what I can tell, most frequently a stage performer. The young woman gets herself in all manner of bother when she makes some rather poor decisions at the local gambling parlour, though her behaviour seems to stem as much from boredom -- old Victor's character is always more interested in his work than in his women despite his protestations of devotion -- while her problems are compounded by the ill intent of the local prince, played by Sessue Haykawa, who reprises his own role from the DeMille film. His character is a fairly typical untrustworthy oriental, of predictably inscrutable motivations, and oily enough that his often amoral French fixer, played by Louis Jouvet, appears as a relative man of virtue.

I'm not familiar with Marcel L'Herbier's work -- I don't think I've seen a single other film by the director -- so I've no idea how typical it is, but he has a sure sense of atmosphere in the overseas locations, whether it's the dusty exterior shots or the smoky interiors of the gambling house, and there's terrific tension in the later stages in the courtroom, with carefully constructed flashbacks that gradually reveal a kind of truth. The film provides a rather interesting glimpse into the functioning of the French legal system, at least the screen version thereof, which is quite different to its more familiar American counterpart. Victor Francen really isn't my cup of tea as a performer -- there's a gritted-teeth sincerity to his delivery at times that I just don't buy -- but Louis Jouvet is quite wonderful as the suave go-between, ever flexible in his politics and his self-interest save for a late stab of conscience; his line deliveries in the courtroom are wonderfully precise, as he tries to comply with the requirements of the legal system while adhering to his own private code.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Cobra Woman

1944, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Wow. Where to begin. I'd previously only known Robert Siodmak as a director of noirish material so this lurid Technicolor frenzy came as something of a surprise. Even with Hollywood's loose approach to historical and geographical accuracy, this is fevered stuff, set on a series of isolated islands that feature both snake charmers and chimpanzees, not to mention both young Sabu, forced to utter his lines in a rather hideous pidgin ("I are..." etc.), among the "natives."

The film was one of a series featuring Maria Montez and Jon Hall (and Sabu in some installments), and the emphasis is on lavish escapism. Where others were already delving deeply into noir territory in 1944, including Fritz Lang in The Woman in the Window, this is pure distraction, completely goofy and unsurprisingly now treasured as a camp classic. The eye-opening cobra dance, performed not once but twice by the estimable Ms. Montez, is worthy of the price of admission by itself; Siodmak must have experienced severe whiplash shuttling between such material and the same year's psychologically acute Phantom Lady.

Note: This is part of my Watching Movies in Africa project. Cobra Woman was screened numerous times at Kumasi's Rex cinema in January 1951. The Ashanti Pioneer of January 18, 1951 includes a brief piece credited "By Our Film Critic," though the terminology employed owes more to the vocabulary of advertising than that of journalism: “Do you like the beautiful, are you fascinated by the mysterious, do you take to the colourful? If so, you cannot spend a more entertaining time than by being at the Rex Cinema to-night.” A number of Ghanaian newspapers were owned by entrepreneurs who also had interests in the cinema business; the same may well have been the case here though I've not yet tracked down direct evidence of the link. Update: I've since found evidence that the film was showing in Accra's Rex theatre as early as June 1946. That venue was owned by the same company that later screened the film in Kumasi, and by all accounts the contemporary rental system used in Ghana allowed exhibitors to keep films for up to five years.

The image above is taken from

Friday, April 06, 2012

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

US, 2011, directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa

With much of its action taking place in and around a single location, and the main characters all implausibly interlinked, Crazy, Stupid, Love comes across like a stage farce at times or, perhaps less charitably, like a sitcom: despite the various outings to malls, restaurants, and schools across Los Angeles we're continually drawn back to the bar in which an unlikely friendship develops between sad sack Steve Carell and ladies man Ryan Gosling, both playing very much to type, though that's not to say their interactions aren't enjoyable.

Still, the film's real spark comes from the presence -- rather sparingly doled out -- of Emma Stone, who has an extraordinary capacity to light up the screen even in her quieter moments (the lovely, extended conversation between her character and Gosling's, for instance, which hints at en entirely different film). As is entirely typical in Hollywood cinema, Carell's character gets to have his cake and eat it, too, tending the flame for his spouse and looking put upon while learning to play the field with Gosling's sage advice; there's not much that even a game performer like Marisa Tomei can do with her role as one of his conquests, although she gives it the old woman-scorned try. Still, the big reveal is pretty fun, even if the latter sections try rather too hard to milk the tear ducts.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Drôle de drame

1937, France, directed by Marcel Carné

Louis Jouvet had several memorable actorly face-offs over the course of his screen career, and while his character here is deeply unsympathetic he has one treasurable scene over the dinner table with Michel Simon, in which he probes relentlessly to satisfy his curiosity as to the unexpected absence of Simon's spouse (Françoise Rosay). Simon's increasingly convoluted explanations set the plot's farcical ramifications on their way, and Jouvet, for his part, is gifted with the line "Bizarre, bizarre," rolling the word around in his mouth as he ruminates on the information supplied to him.

It doesn't sound as though Jouvet enjoyed himself to any great degree on the production, objecting in particular to the ridiculous, if comically effective, costume he has to wear near the conclusion, though the experience can't have soured him entirely on Marcel Carné, making his second feature here, since he appeared in the director's subsequent film, Hôtel du Nord, the following year. Still, he and Simon apparently both set out with the intention, not necessarily declared out loud, to drink the other man under the table during said dinner scene. It takes quite a man to even contemplate engaging with an opponent of Simon's legendary appetites: perhaps he looked like an easy mark since he played characters far beyond his years for much of his career; sadly, I've no idea who won this particular battle, though the actors renewed their combat in La Fin du jour a couple of years later.

As for the film itself, Drôle de drame is chiefly concerned with appearances and disguises, especially the gulf between the public face and the private man; Jouvet plays the hypocrite-in-chief, and while he's by no means the only person hiding something, in the film his moral failings far outweigh the bloody crimes of Jean-Louis Barrault, perhaps cinema's least likely serial killer, bouncing around the screen between offing the occasional butcher when he's not flinging himself at an eyelid-batting Françoise Rosay. The disguises adopted by one and all are intentionally absurd, in line with the farcical turn -- Simon applies a bit of fake beard, and renders himself completely unfamiliar to every single person in the film such that he can wander around his own home while suspected of being on the run for murder. Realism, though, is hardly the goal here.


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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