Saturday, June 30, 2012


2011, US, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Something of a tightrope act, to be sure, Nicholas Winding Refn's film almost courts accusations of pretentiousness, with its unnamed central character, a Hawksian figure without the laconic dialogue, and the slow-burn pacing that eventually erupts into sustained and brutal violence. Ryan Gosling is terrific, remaining absolutely buttoned-down and conveying in the process a deeply wounded psyche with his own moral code, a kind of modern-day Los Angeles ronin with a rather old-fashioned sense of chivalry. Refn makes full use of his frame, his characters often situated at extremes of the screen, inviting the eye to explore the empty spaces and reinforcing the sense that these characters are too flawed to be able to bridge the gaps that separate them in any sustained fashion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mon Meilleur ami

2006, France, directed by Patrice Leconte

Leconte has a pretty uneven filmography, with a fairly strong run in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, bookmarked roughly by Tandem at one end and Ridicule at the other, with the occasional high point since. This is pretty standard issue fare, though: the concept, with an antique dealer forced to show he has an actual friend rather than just a series of business connections, is pure Hollywood, and you wouldn't be surprised to see, say, Steve Carell, in the Daniel Auteuil role while Boon, for his part, busily hones the affable persona deployed with such success in the subsequent Bienvenue chez les ch'tis. Leconte's films, even when fairly empty-headed, usually look fine, and there's a warmth to the lighting in several of the early sequences here that's quite beguiling, though the regular use of zooms is a distraction, if in keeping with the television aesthetic that dominates late on when Boon's character stars on the French version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Young Adult

2011, US, directed by Jason Reitman

It's refreshing to come across a mainstream American film that so resolutely refuses to conform to standard Hollywood psychology. Charlize Theron plays a genuinely dreadful person, utterly self-obsessed, but there's no attempt to provide her with a simplistic psychological back story -- indeed the film goes out of its way to demonstrate that psychological back stories in no way determine the subsequent ability to behave like a human being -- nor is there that familiar story arc wherein a character learns the error of her ways and grows as a person. That trope -- or tripe -- is so familiar that it's absence is weirdly bracing, particularly when the character at the heart of the film is such a piece of work.


2011, US, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Crisp, quick and ultimately rather forgettable, Haywire is another of Soderbergh's films that functions rather better as a concept than a final film -- with the concept here presumably being to ask what it might be like to cast a person with genuine action skills, in the person of MMA champ Nina Carano, as an action hero, thus eliminating all that messy stand-in work. Carano's more than adequate as a performer -- the mainstream action films hardly make many demands of their stars anyway, and few enough of them have the balls-to-the-wall conviction of a Bruce Willis, who manages to invest everything with a little extra vim -- and the plot is brisk enough, if rather obviously a Bourne knockoff, with Ewan McGregor doing his best to exude menace. In the end I found myself more taken with Soderbergh's sojourn in Dublin, where he makes geographically accurate use of the capital to stage several fine sequences, than with the substance of his film; Soderbergh rather undercuts his central concept anyway by casting Michael Fassbender for one of the film's key fights, and I couldn't tell whether it was Fassbender himself, or his stand-in, doing the punching and grunting, but still enjoyed the sequence.


2012, Germany, directed by Elmar Fischer

Further proof, if ever it were needed, that European film industries are perfectly capable of churning out low-grade, pre-fabricated films of their own; there's virtually nothing original or especially charming in Elmar Fischer's film, and certainly no reason to root for the heroine, played by Nora Tschirner. She's apparently one of Germany's more energetic young stars, but this is a poor showcase indeed.


2011, France, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

I found the basic plotline -- exuberant black man from the banlieue gives wealthy, quadriplegic wealthy white man new reason to live, often by mugging within an inch of his life -- rather discomfiting, and the fact that the tale is ostensibly based in fact doesn't really function as a saving grace, not least because the model for the black character was Algerian, and considerably more rough-edged than his screen incarnation. The film tries to garner some credit from filming in the banlieue itself, though its attempts to add a layer of grit flounder when the crowded public housing projects are used as just another source of comedy.

Trading Places covered a surprising amount of the same ground with a good deal more perceptiveness nearly thirty years ago; Omar Sy is as magnetic here, though, as Eddie Murphy was in his prime, and I hope that Sy gets some better outlets for his charm in his subsequent projects (there are, admittedly, several genuinely funny sequences, particularly when the film emphasizes Sy's lack of sentimentality rather than his background, and François Cluzet makes for a fine foil). No matter how good they may be, Sy's future films are unlikely to be near as successful, of course -- this is now France's second-most successful homegrown hit of all time, on the heels of yet another odd-couple comedy, as reliable a genre as they come in terms of the French box office. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012


2012, Germany, directed by Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold's previous few films were all set very firmly in modern Germany -- indeed several of them might be read as an indictment of that modernity, at least in terms of what Petzold takes to be the superficial nature of many contemporary interactions and obsessions. Barbara, by contrast, is set in a small town in Eastern Germany in 1980, though it's unmistakably a Petzold film -- an intense character study, extraordinarily observant of small details of both psychology and setting, with much of the communication elided.

As with films like Wolfsburg, the setting of the film is strangely depopulated -- Petzold's towns seem to be barely inhabited, enhancing the claustrophobic sense that one is always likely to run into someone one knows, though not necessarily for the better. It's an idea given a new resonance in Barbara, where the nature of small-town life brings the titular character, an exiled-from-Berlin doctor played by Petzold favourite Nina Hoss, into contact with the local Stasi man as both object of study and potential provider of healthcare. There's no romanticizing of such interactions, however, as in, say, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck's swift decamping for Hollywood comes as no surprise; it's much harder to imagine Petzold making such a transition).

Petzold's characters are frequently rather poor communicators, or at least they don't say a whole lot on occasion, and yet Petzold's own style is crisp and clear -- a shot of that Stasi man in the building where a family member lies ill tells us all we need to know, while the film's final shot similarly manages to compress a great deal of unsaid business between the two main characters, capping this particular onscreen narrative while opening the way to a new, untold story. Petzold also stitches his story together with what seems to be the world beyond his film, having a character recount the story of an actual book, or describing in great detail the story of a painting; the warmth of these sequences, among the more verbose in the film, suggest that the director is using them to share with us some particularly personal pleasures.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

La Charrette fantôme

1939, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

I've been gradually watching my way through as much of Louis Jouvet's filmography as I can, although I've been coming to the conclusion that using Jouvet as the unifying feature isn't the most productive way to view many of his films. A great many of the actor's appearances, at least in the 1930s, are rather brief supporting roles, barely more than cameos in some cases, so using him as a starting point can end up being a fast track to disappointment as he disappears so quickly from the screen. That's true, yet again, in Duvivier's remake of Victor Sjöström's 1921 film: Jouvet steals scenes early on from actual star Pierre Fresnay, and leaves an indelible trail behind that Fresnay, whose character is a rather hard-to-like fellow, can't compete with; it's never a good sign when you're being one-upped by your offscreen co-stars, though in this case Fresnay also has to deal with Micheline Francey, who goes all-out in a role as a Salvation Army sister who's not averse to a touch of martyrdom.

The sequences featuring the eponymous phantom carriage are eerie -- the use of sound is especially good, evoking something like the macabre ticking of Poe's Tell-Tale Heart -- but I suspect that Duvivier lifted the double exposure imagery pretty directly from Sjöström, at least if the screen captures I've seen are representative; though memorable in patches, particularly in those sequences capturing the grinding poverty in which so many of the characters live, as if foreshadowing the privations of the war, the film ultimately doesn't feel like a project in which Duvivier (or Jouvet) is fully invested, unlike their previous collaboration on La Fin du jour.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Hôtel du Nord

1938, France, directed by Marcel Carné

I hadn't seen Hôtel du Nord for more than a decade and had completely forgotten the tale of youthful amour fou that initially sets the film's plot in motion -- a lapse of memory that I suspect affects many a viewer given that the young couple, played by Annabella and Jean-Pierre Aumont, is so straightforward in comparison to the parallel couple played by Louis Jouvet and Arletty.

Even though neither of the latter pair had yet cracked true stardom, the comparison between the actors seems entirely unfair in retrospect: no audience was very likely to identify with the melodramatic Annabella at the expense of Arletty, incarnating one of the true Parisian heroines, playing a ballsy street urchin of a kind also incarnated around the same time, on the music-hall stage, by Edith Piaf (both women had unapologetic professional personas that seemed, frequently, to mesh with their offscreen lives). Similarly, Jouvet takes such pleasure in the lines provided for him by Henri Jeanson that even a performer as solid as Aumont could only ever come off worse in the comparison; Jouvet's character is very much in the world-weary vein that he made something of a specialty as the decade wore on, but here he has the screen time and the script to flesh the character out in ways that are rather more satisfying than some of his earlier blink-and-miss-it appearances.

Though the film also gained fame -- even infamy -- for its extraordinarily elaborate sets, recreating the Canal Saint-Martin in extraordinary and entirely convincing detail on the studio backlot, the more straightforward interiors of the titular hotel also serve as backdrop to some of the most memorable sequences -- even an apparently simple scene in which Arletty takes her leave from the hotel, wrapping a fur around her neck, is meticulously constructed with actors placed strategically in depth away from the camera, while Carné finds a wonderful warmth in the various mealtimes, whether it's the convivial dinner enjoyed by the hotel residents or the bustle of a noonday meal for local workers, all of them competing for the attentions of Annabella, an unlikely if effective waitress.


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