Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

2013, US/New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson

Though I still had a good deal of trouble telling the various dwarves apart -- especially since, despite the running time, there's still not enough room to give them all something really distinctive to do -- this is a considerable improvement of the first entry in this jerry-rigged trilogy. I'm generally not a big fan of any storyline involving the elvish characters, but here they contribute to a number of the more memorable set pieces, particularly the semi-comic barrel-racing fight, and, in a quieter register, the through-the-cell-bars conversation between one of the dwarves and the new character Tauriel, a character moment of a kind that Jackson did so well in the original trilogy, but notable more by its absence in these Hobbit films. Both as a bit of CGI wizardry and as a nice structural counterpart to the first film's meeting with Gollum, the extended encounter between Bilbo and Smaug is well handled, too, even if it's not clear why Smaug's patience extends as long as it does. It's the old Bond movie question: why doesn't the villain just off Bond instead of indulging in conversation?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

1968, UK, directed by Ken Hughes

We watched this over the holidays as an evening distraction -- after amusing the boys during long days of inclement weather, chunks of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang generally proved a good distraction for Shay at least, but I can't imagine watching this in a single sitting with young children. Not only would it be hard to explain how parts of the film tie together -- even I was unclear on the need for the presumably very expensive credits sequence -- but it is long, and while some of the musical scenes work rather well, particularly in the sweet factory, others fall very flat indeed. The Bond fan in me couldn't help slaver over Ken Adam's sets, too -- who cares about Neuschwanstein when you can create your own vast soundstage worlds?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lady and the Tramp

1955, US, directed by Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson

On occasion, I'm able to direct Shay's attention away from the Nickelodeon DVDs toward the Disney movies, so I can get in a dose of nostalgia at the same time as we bond. Things went well for the first hour, with Shay thoroughly enjoying and generally understanding the storyline, as well as giggling at the supporting cast and singing along with the Siamese cats. Of course, he may have been unusually well primed to appreciate a storyline in which a treasured member of the household has to deal with a new arrival, given that his brother was born earlier the same week. You never quite know what will worry children, though, and he was very troubled by Tramp's incarceration. At his request, we stopped the film, discussed what was happening, and reassured him that all would be well. However, things got a lot more dramatic before they improved but he must have grasped the final outcome clearly enough since he requested the film again a week or two later.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Mission: Impossible II

2000, US, directed by John Woo

Chosen purely because it was on the hospital television when we needed a distraction, the title was inadvertently appropriate: my wife was making slow progress through her second very long labour (a mere eighteen hours on the official clock, though we thought the hospital was ungenerous in that regard). The high-water mark for John Woo's American career, the camera operators got quite the workout here, what with Woo's penchant for filming destruction from multiple angles and at multiple speeds. Even at the time, the conjunction between aspects of Woo's Hong Kong aesthetic and the slickness of a Hollywood superproduction was incongruous, though one of the successes of the MI franchise is certainly the sense that each film has a distinct visual identity -- unlike, say, the Bond films, at least until the most recent phase of that franchise.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Love Actually

2003, UK, directed by Richard Curtis

I know the film is silly, I know it violates all kinds of rules of cinematic good taste that I should adhere to, but I also know that it happened to be the perfect film while sitting beside my wife as she was in the early hours of labour. I'm still conflicted as to what the film says about love and obligation -- the Laura Linney storyline is by far the worst in that regard, somehow suggesting that because one has significant familial obligations one cannot also have romantic love -- but it still has treasurable moments, none more so than the instant when Emma Thompson, silently grieving the collapse of her world, reaches down and straightens out a crease in a bedspread. I've no idea whether she or Richard Curtis suggested the gesture, but the it adds a terrific sense of the show-must-go-on reality of domestic life, whether the show continues to feature the same players or not.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

L'Inconnu dans la maison

A contribution to David Cairns' essential annual Late Movies Blogathon at Shadowplay.

Not everyone gets to go out on a high: Georges Lautner might be better suited to an Early Movies blogathon, with his most beloved work mostly at the beginning of his career. It's no great surprise that, a few stray bits of TV work aside, he took his leave from directing after L'Inconnu dans la maison flopped, notwithstanding the presence of Jean-Paul Belmondo: box office success aside, it's too middle of the road for a man who aspired to be an unpretentious creator of popular entertainment, and largely succeeded in that vein.

Belmondo wasn't, in any case, the draw he had once been -- not least when director and actor teamed up for several major hits in the early 1980s -- and had already embarked on his own rather extended wind-down in cinematic activity. He hadn't made a film for several years when this opportunity came along, and a good deal of his subsequent work has been overly self-referential, appearing as versions of himself or in gimmicky parts, like an appearance in the 2001 TV movie L'Ainé des Ferchaux where he took on the role that Charles Vanel played opposite a much younger Belmondo in 1963.

Truth be told, it's an odd project for both men. Lautner's best work is almost always semi-comic in tone, with a good deal more zip than we see here, whereas the humour here is both rare and pretty juvenile, of the stumbling drunk variety. The tongue-in-cheek aspect of Lautner's earlier police and spy parodies is key to their appeal, with the director keen to emphasize he's in it for the laughs, and always giving full rein to the sometimes terrific dialogue he had at his disposal (particularly during his extended collaboration with Michel Audiard). Though Belmondo, who gets virtually all of the half-decent dialogue here, delivers several of his speeches with real relish, particularly an extended meditation on drinking his way through an amply stocked wine cellar, the riper lines clash with the otherwise fairly straightforward procedural tone: they are very obviously lines against an often drab backdrop.

There's a similar incongruity to the idea of casting Belmondo in the first place.  He's supposed to be playing an aging, drunken ex-lawyer, mired in sorrow and drink since the suicide of his wife ten years earlier. It's not all that hard to credit the actor with a love of the bottle, since his face, which once looked like something out of a Cubist painting, is softening and bulging out here and there, but this son of a sculptor, probably born in the kind of milieu the film depicts, rarely convinces in lawyer's robes.

After all, from almost his first screen appearance in the late 1950s, we've learned to think of Belmondo as a man of action rather than one of fancy words -- rip-roaring Bebel, not some schlub stuck on a couch with his nose halfway down a bottle of Beaujolais. Lautner seems to sense this, too, for the character is ultimately re-written into the kind of go-get-'em role that Belmondo more usually played: the lawyer turns detective to solve the film's central mystery (onscreen, that is: offscreen, the big mystery is whether there's any concept of conflict of interest in the French justice system since the case involves the lawyer's own daughter and nephew, among others). While a minor player comments that the role of detective doesn't suit the lawyer, I'd voice a hearty objection -- Belmondo seems to be on much firmer ground here, and I wouldn't have found it at all surprising if his employed his fists, Inspecteur Lavardin-style, in the course of his investigation.

The whole thing is a reworking of a Simenon novel first filmed by Henri Decoin from a Clouzot script in 1942. I haven't seen the earlier film, which stars Raimu, in its entirety but those sequences I have found suggest a much more rancid tone, with Clouzot homing in on the story's possibilities to create another acid portrait of wartime small-town life (edit: I subsequently caught up with the original). Lautner's version reworks the focus so that the dissolute lawyer mostly obscures any portrait of local mores -- even the title, dropping an "s" from the original Les Inconnus dans la maison, makes the mystery within the house of considerably less psychological interest. While Lautner does pay lip service to current trends, with French gangster rap and drug culture making their appearances, the Clouzot-ish small town portrait is not his major interest as a filmmaker in any case: Chabrol might have been a better bet to take a contemporary look at the same material.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Black Beauty

1994, US/UK, directed by Caroline Thompson

My wife takes my son to the library every week, and he's in the habit of picking up a DVD on most visits. He generally picks the boxes at random and rarely asks to actually watch the DVD once he gets home so we often return them unopened. I'm not sure if the thought process here was any more considered, though the striking cover image of a rearing horse may have caught his eye, but we did end up watching the film on this occasion. He seemed to enjoy it quite a good deal, even if he had some questions about the progression of the story: it's not that easy to explain to a nearly-three-year-old that the horse is speaking in voiceover, even with the imaginative capacity of the young child. He was alarmed, however, by a scene of fire, and very uncharacteristically jumped into my arms, and has commented on the scene a number of times since then.

Somewhere online, I came across a review that suggested this is a rather Dickensian telling of the tale -- true enough for the scenes in the city, but the opening segment is rather more in the benevolent gentry mode, with horses and grooms alike grateful to their master, even if the film does subsequently point out that this was by no means the only experience one might have in the employ of a large country house. The scenes focused exclusively on the horses at play are quite beautiful, all other critique aside: they are indeed gorgeous animals.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The World's Greatest Sinner

1962, US, directed by Timothy Carey

The average film maudit is a pretty personal affair for the director at least, but Timothy Carey takes things to a whole new level by starring, writing, directing, producing, and probably a whole host of other things that don't make it into the credits. That seems entirely apposite for a portrait of an ordinary insurance salesman who suddenly develops such delusions of grandeur that he styles himself God, above the rules that apply to the ordinary person. As cinema, it's often amateurish, though that is likely much to do with lack of resources than lack of vision, for there's a ferocious if bizarre energy at work here -- it reminded me at times of the frenzy at the heart of a film like Cy Endfield's hypnotic Try and Get Me/The Sound of Fury, another film that comes off like a crazed report from its particular moment in history, albeit one with a good deal more polish.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Singin' in the Rain

1952, US, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Or, the continued effort to introduce my nearly-three-year-old son to the classics. This went down a treat: I doubt he understood much about the silent-to-sound storyline but there are so few breaks in the song and dance action that he rarely had time to think about the plot (and he loved every single second that Donald O'Connor was onscreen). The longest number did try his patience somewhat: it's more abstract and considerably less amusing than the vaudeville-esque earlier pieces, and while stunningly beautiful I can see how it might lose a small child. As with most films we show him, we broke this up into chunks. We lost track of the overall running time which meant that we inadvertently ended with a twelve- or fifteen-minute section. I'd never noticed before how the film concludes on one of its quietest notes: there's a huge amount of energy in the first hour, followed by the artistic climax before it sort of peters out, an effect that's far more pronounced when you're not recovering from the wonders that come immediately before. Of course, it deserves to be watched in a single setting, and we'll get there...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sbatti il mostro in prima pagina

1972, Italy, directed by Marco Bellocchio (Slap the Monster on Page One)

A terrific portrait of media malfeasance, with grubby ties between newspaper editors and political barons exploited to the maximum to drive the news agenda -- whether it's the out and out fabrication of inflammatory material on political opponents or the canny manipulation of a handy murder case to distract readers from weightier national matters. Gian Maria Volonté is (predictably) wonderful as the most self-serving of the newspapermen, smoothly crafting alternative realities (there's an amusing scene when he has to trash a headline as things don't quite work as he had planned).

For the first hour or so, Bellocchio generally allows the viewer to connect the dots without much assistance, before becoming a little more obvious near the conclusion -- it's a shame, because the film doesn't seem to need the dose of pedagogical assistance, particularly given that one of the film's themes is the idea of a media that might treat viewers and readers as adults. The critique of the giallo genre is equally pointed without getting the same over-emphatic treatment: Bellocchio leaves the viewer in no doubt that the giallo's tendency to exploit (female) suffering for entertainment, without paying much attention to the ugly, messy brutality of violence, does its own disservice to the mass media.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

L'Amico di famiglia

2006, Italy, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Family Friend)

I'm starting to sense a theme in Paolo Sorrentino's films -- the first three films I've seen are all portraits of isolated or solitary men, twisted by circumstance and unable to pursue conventional lives and friendships. Women are certainly present in these tales, but almost always on the periphery: even where, as here, they take an active role in shaping the action, it's mostly as seen from the male perspective, with Sorrentino taking a greater interest in the consequences for his central characters (The Consequences of Love...). As stylishly constructed as Sorrentino's other films, L'Amico di famiglia is also somewhat more insistently oddball, from the opening shot (though that is, eventually, explained in fairly logical terms). That may reflect the worldview of the titular friend, Geremia De Geremei, played by Giacomo Rizzo -- a sort of Italian Ron Perlman -- in a performance that's devoid of vanity; Geremia, a moneylender, an unattractive man, both mentally and physically, and Rizzo never looks for the audience's sympathy, with every minor shot at redemption quickly turned around by a man constitutionally unable to avoid the temptation to take
his pound of flesh.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

God Speed You! Black Emperor

1978, US, directed by Mitsuo Yanamigachi

Surely one of the key films in any discussion of the documentarist's bond of trust with his or her subjects, for Yanamigachi appears to have been fully accepted into the Japanese biker gangs that he depicts for us, whether they are shown engaging in strikingly extended internal debates or engaging in (generally fairly mild) disobedience. As with another unusual Japanese documentary, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, that position of trust creates some dilemmas: at times, the gang leaders hit more junior members, or otherwise attempt to control them, and while it's not quite at the level of the physical assaults in the later film, you do wonder whether the filmmaker had thoughts about when to intervene and when to keep filming. As a depiction of group dynamics, it's absolutely fascinating, with extended debates on the gang's self-regulation, while the cultural differences highlighted by the almost collegial relationship with the police give the film great anthropological interest for the non-Japanese viewer (and again recall The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, where the protagonist calls the police on himself, and treats the officers with the utmost respect).

Thursday, October 31, 2013

La Guerre est déclarée

2011, France, directed by Valérie Donizelli

My godson came to visit from France this past summer, and brought with him a stack of DVDs curated by his mother, an avid filmgoer and sometime actress. I'm not sure if there was a conscious theme, but I was struck by the prominence of children in all of the films bar one -- and the absence of children was a key point there. Children and parenting are front and center here, with a story inspired by Donizelli's real-life experience of dealing with a seriously ill child, whose father, Jérémie Elkaïm, co-stars. While the film ultimately couldn't quite sustain the running time, the first hour is terrific.

That hour is one of the rare bits of cinema that effectively captures the maddening experience of parenthood, for better or worse: the evaporation of one's free time, the crankiness of existing with limited sleep, the joy in small moments, the emotional whiplash of a child who can be wondrous and unbearable almost at the same time. Not many films capture all of that -- and the sense that it's worth all of the challenges. What makes Donizelli's film especially distinctive, though, is her decision not to hew to an exclusively realist mode: there's a beguiling scene when the two lead actors sing to one another, like something from Demy, though later on the scenes of musical accompaniment do come to seem as though they are padding the running time. Still, like virtually all films dealing with children/parenting these days, I found the film as a whole entirely captivating -- and almost unwatchable during several of the hospital sequences, despite the complete absence of anything that might alarm the squeamish.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Le Havre

2011, France/Finland/Germany, directed by Aki Kaurismäki

Though it's a tale told in Kaurismäki's usual magical realist vein -- the kind of lost-in-time alternate universe also inhabited by Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Wes Anderson, to differing effect -- Le Havre nonetheless manages to make some potent points about Europe's migration issues. If the depiction of the lives of migrants doesn't have quite the sharpness of, say, the opening segment of Welcome, for the most part Kaurismäki doesn't soft pedal their reality; when it comes to showing how the authorities deal with "illegals" the tone, and even the colour schemes, shift. The out-of-time quality sometimes produces odd effects: the colour schemes recall the insistently realist tone of a film like Pialat's L'Enfance nue, which was actually made in the 1960s, with even Kaurismäki's film stock seeming to mimic an earlier time. The film is, at its heart, a celebration of a strong local community, able to adapt to new challenges and banding together instinctively when faced with the authority of the state -- perhaps not a perfect depiction of the reality of French working class reactions to new immigrants, but presenting a hopeful alternative path.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Drug War

2013, Hong Kong/China, directed by Johnnie To

Though it's as tightly constructed as most of Johnnie To's Hong Kong-based crime films, with an exceptionally intricate plot that rewards careful attention, the overall aesthetic is much less slick than usual, and the early going in particular is thoroughly deglamorized, with grim landscapes and a nothing-left-to-the-imagination depiction of the work of drug mules. Indeed, at no time is the drug business seen to be especially rewarding -- even those who've made it big seem to have serious problems, whether it's the consequences of their activities on family life, their inability to stop themselves dabbling in their own product, or simply the gnawing tension that comes with a life lived constantly in fear of it all coming to an end. All this is not to suggest that the usual To pleasures are absent, though: the pacing is both expert and breakneck, not least because the action is compressed into a couple of restless days. There is also a standout extended set-piece wherein the police manage the many moving parts of a major drug deal to allow themselves to intervene in the action and pass themselves off as criminals, with Sun Honglei, who plays the head police officer, wryly amusing in his dual roles.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


2011, France, directed by Maïwenn

Though you only rarely hear it mentioned Bertrand Tavernier's 1992 film L.627 is one of the great latter-day French police movies, a day-to-day depiction of the French police system and the people with whom it comes into contact.  Consciously or not, its influence looms large here, with a child protection unit replacing the earlier film's narcotics squad. There's a little more melodrama on this occasion, particularly on the home front as the various members of the squad become personally involved, and the ending is both unexpected and distracting, but for the most part it, too, is a fascinating depiction of the very different legal philosophy of the French system, with victims and accused drawn together in ways that do not occur in the Anglo-Saxon world.

That makes for some excruciating confrontations, particularly given the nature of the accusations, that would seem only to increase the victims' trauma, while it seems entirely routine for police to push the accused, their accusers, and any witnesses around with considerable physicality, in ways that make some parts of the American and British police worlds seem almost genteel at times. You get the sense that Maïwenn is trying to make a broader point about the weaknesses of her country's investigative processes, though it's hard to know just what the viewer is intended to do with any sense of outrage, particularly since the police, as depicted here, take on many of the social burdens of dealing with criminality, allowing the wider public to be shielded from a never-ending stream of trauma.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Un Prophète

2009, France, directed by Jacques Audiard

Audiard has never lack ambition -- after getting his directorial feet wet with the retrospectively fairly straightforward character study/thriller Regarde les hommes tomber he quickly took on the Occupation period with Un Héros très discret -- but this still feels more expansive than most of his previous work, partly because of the ample running time and more especially for the attempt to create a comprehensive picture of the criminal underworld, in and outside prison. Indeed, Audiard somehow manages to squeeze a storyline similar to that of an entire season of the French crime drama Engrenages into 150 minutes, compressing time without compromising our understanding of the central character's ambitious progress up the criminal food chain.

As a portrait of the prison world, it's dispiriting at best: no re-education here, except in the intricacies of criminal methods and leadership, and there are fascinating insights into the creative ways to turn guards and other prison personnel in order to effect special privileges or introduce a variety of contraband. The final shot makes abundantly clear just what we've been watching, and perhaps best exemplifies the central character's Godfather-esque self-image as an essentially benevolent family man presiding over an empire of great financial and physical power -- self-deception being a critical component of such a rise through the ranks, not least in order to deal with some of the more extreme choices he has made.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Le Conseguenze dell'amore

2004, Italy, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (aka The Consequences of Love)

Paolo Sorrentino's films, like those of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, make a fine argument for returning to similar themes and styles if there's more to be mined from those ideas -- Il Divo shares a lead actor, a bravura style, and a tone with Sorrentino's earlier feature, for instance, but there's no sense of a director simply spinning his wheels. Sorrentino is even able to reproduce a similar scene without it seeming stale: here, a particularly serious moment is accompanied by a rendition of the Ornella Vanoni pop song Rossetto e cioccolato, just as Il Divo features a wonderful sequence intercutting the lead character with a performance of a soaring Renato opus. Perhaps it's a personal sensitivity, but the rhythms of his scenes, where a great deal of the communication and effect are wordless, seems to work especially well for me -- there's a hypnotic quality to his camera movements, prowling corridors over and over (à la Marienbad, with similar dreamlike effect) or unexpectedly rising over the crown of a character's head, revisiting and insistently reworking the same perspectives to give us a sense of a most unusual, cloistered life.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Enter the Dragon

1973, Hong Kong/US, directed by Robert Clouse

Utterly absurd stuff, but of course wildly popular in its day; the hybrid format of American financing and Asian setting is as uneasy as you might expect, with the resourcefulness and visual dexterity of much Hong Kong cinema replaced by a fairly routine James Bond-style setup (all fake ultra-villain lairs and comely, disposable young women). Bruce Lee himself doesn't get caught up in such distractions: he's the single-minded man in the midst of it all, and for the most part the film succeeds in giving his extraordinary physical skills their due, particularly in the scenes with nunchaku. The extended early fight/chase sequence featuring Angela Mao is also quite skilfully done, and the scenes in and around the harbour have a certain degree of historical interest, but much of the subsequent filler is painful.

The Hatchet Man

1932, US, directed by William Wellman

The sexual and drug themes were presumably what would have made The Hatchet Man fall foul of the Production Code from 1934, but the more startling aspect to the modern viewer is the sight of Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and others made up to look like Chinese characters: the actual characters themselves are a good deal more free of stereotype than you might expect, and a story that takes place entirely within the Chinese community of San Francisco is quite intriguing as an idea, but the almost complete failure to give any parts to actual Asian actors makes for a major distraction in 2013. I
do wonder whether the original audience was bothered by the rather obvious eye makeup or whether these kinds of exclusions and appropriations were so routine that they went unremarked. Despite all that, Edward G. Robinson is very good in the titular role: there's not a million miles between the character and some of the American gangland roles he played, and his intensity near the conclusion gives the film a real jolt of conviction.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie

2010, France, directed by Eric Lartigau

Disappointing, frankly. Romain Duris is capable of carrying both light and dark material, but he never really convinces in the opening segment of this film, cast as a successful lawyer and playful father (Duris is a father offscreen, but seemed very awkward around his onscreen children, which undermines the moment late on when they assume great significance). Duris is rather better matched with the character after a profound transformation -- the methodical plotting of a change of identity is the film's strongest suit -- but it's hard not to recall what came before, while the ending is both unconvincingly melodramatic and rather pat. It may well have been lifted more or less directly from Douglas Kennedy's source novel The Big Picture, which I've not read, but onscreen it's rushed and weak.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Captain America

2011, US, directed by Joe Johnston

Silly, sure, but a whole lot better than the capstone Avengers: at least there's a story here, and an attempt, however schematic, to create actual characters that allow for a degree of emotional payoff. Joe Johnston has always been adept at the action/humour mélange, as well as for a certain willingness to tweak superhero tropes going back as far as The Rocketeer (Chris Evans's pre-superhero persona surely owes a little something to the wacky nerd of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, too); if he goes light indeed on the reality of warfare at times, he's pretty good at nailing some of the absurd hoopla of American propaganda.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Short Eyes

1977, US, directed by Robert M. Young

Though certainly of its time as a portrait of the New York prison system -- the location for the filming, in an actual prison in Manhattan, no longer exists, while AIDS is several years in the future -- Short Eyes is also strikingly modern, with a directness of expression that seems to elude a great many more recent, less courageous films: the portrait of John Heard, the titular "short eyes," or accused paedophile, expresses a sympathy for his demons without ever excusing or diminishing his impact on his victims, while the language of the film has a rawness that's jarring and effective. The film's bona fides as a piece of authentic work are impeccable: Miguel Pinero, who wrote the original stage play and adapted his work for the screen, began the project while in prison himself, and his attention to the constant noise as well as the alternating loneliness and sociability of prison life are striking.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Il Divo

2008, Italy, directed by Paolo Sorrentino

In the second half of Paolo Sorrentino's enthralling portrait of Giulio Andreotti, there's a scene where the politician sits quietly with his wife and watches a Renato Zero concert on television. Zero sings a soaring version of I Migliori Anni Della Nostra Vita, a choice of title that's of course entirely apposite to the film's portrayal of Andreotti as a man who reaches the political pinnacle while barely ever appearing to enjoy a single moment of his profess life (making him the most un-Italian of his countrymen). It's a bravura sequence, carefully splicing images of Zero on stage with the unspoken understanding between Andreotti and his wife, and cutting with a sudden silence to the next scene -- a fine example of Sorrentino's confident showmanship and also of how that showmanship is always in the service of his story. Not incidentally, it also showcases his instinct for music, whether Italian or English-language pop, classical, or original soundtrack (the intoxicating marriage of music to image reminds me Olivier Assayas's films). Sorrentino doesn't lay claim to definitive truth here -- any account of Andreotti's professional life is filled with silence and shadow -- but the cumulative picture of Italy's rotten political scene is quite devastating.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


2005, US, directed by Rian Johnson

A sustained exercise in style that never attempts to parody the 1940s hard-boiled pictures that it quite earnestly evokes, Brick ultimately left me rather cold -- those same hard-boiled pictures had a richer sense of humour, and a relish to the delivery of every line that's too often absent here. Lukas Haas, though, seems to sense a little more of what's afoot, chewing just a little on the scenery as a drug peddler to local high schools who still lives in his mother's basement...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Avengers

2012, US, directed by Joss Whedon

I spent much of the running time here musing on how godawfully loud this would have been on the big screen, which is probably not what the makers were going for. It's not a standalone film, but the capstone for a series of adventures of generally marginal interest to me, so I suppose it's never going to work for me as intended, but more disappointing is the fact that it has very little of the sense of fun I associate with Joss Whedon -- there are a couple of enjoyable scenes of barbed dialogue but otherwise it's one long battle sequence. Bang, bang, bang.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

2011, US, directed by Brad Bird

Exhibit A, I'd have thought, in any effort to show that a major summer blockbuster can still be made with a dash of intelligence and more than a little humour while still delivering the thrills expected of the genre. Though Brad Bird seems entirely at his ease in the live action format, he imports several of the tricks of his animated background, not least the focus on tiny details scattered throughout the frame that make watching a picture like Ratatouille such a continually rewarding experience, while also finding an easy mix between light-hearted dialogue and action that eludes many other pictures, not least Tom Cruise's prior effort.

Monday, August 19, 2013


1983, New Zealand, directed by Geoff Murphy

That rare film that arguably makes a genuine difference to historical understanding of its particular time period, without actually being historically accurate, Geoff Murphy's "Kiwi western" ended up being screened for a couple of generations of New Zealand students as part of their history syllabus -- part of a wave of historical revisionism that also saw James Belich's book The New Zealand Wars become a somewhat unlikely local hit.

Murphy's aim is not so much to clarify the actual events of the mid-19th century as to give a sense of the cross-cutting motivations, conflicts, and interdependencies of settlers, Maori (who had far more than a single agenda), and the British army. The various actors come into strikingly close contact at times: these people often knew each other intimately whether they were on friendly or unfriendly terms, and the film is especially strong on giving virtually everyone (save the British commander) considerable nuance of character.

It's also highly assured from a technical standpoint, in contrast to the patched together qualities of Murphy's Wild Man, and Murphy finds some stirring beauty in the New Zealand landscape years before Peter Jackson altered the field; the sequences of horsemen crossing the sun-dappled land recall Breaker Morant, another film that did its utmost to rework our understanding of the British colonial record. And all this without sacrificing thrills and spills, whether it's the set piece attack on a settler home or the iconic Kiwi cinema moment when Bruno Lawrence raises his quadruple-barrelled shotgun for the first time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rolling Thunder

1977, US, directed by John Flynn

The core idea here is to see just what happens when you push someone to the edge, and then right over -- classic exploitation stuff, but handled with considerable skill, and, until the finale, a surprising degree of tact in terms of how to show, or not show, scenes of violence. Indeed, much of the tension comes from the idea that we're not quite sure which direction things could go. Politically, the film remains a little muddled -- it's clearly critical of the ways that veterans of Vietnam are treated, and is somewhat ahead of its time in the focus on PTSD, but it never really delves into the fact that virtually all of the "bad" folk are non-white, across the border or overseas, even if a token Anglo creates further confusion. William Devane and, in a smaller role, Tommy Lee Jones are both very strong, depicting men desperately trying to hold it together in a world that has moved on and papered over the experiences that have become central to their lives.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Heaven's Gate

1980, US, directed by Michael Cimino

I'd never read Steven Bach's chronicle of the making of Heaven's Gate (or at least the parts he could recount, since his fellow executive David Field and director Michael Cimino withheld their cooperation), and revisited the film before cracking the spine. Even as a film, never mind as a financial endeavour, the picture has its problems, at least if you approach it hoping for some of the conventional pleasures of Hollywood -- a clear storyline, reasonably well-developed characters, and so forth.

Although I'm by no means averse to cinema that takes its time making a point, or even taking time to be the point itself, the mix of epic, technically impeccable staging and almost interminable point-making here seems awkward at best. While the prologue is designed to give the film a greater resonance, rather than condemning it to the then-unfashionable Western genre, I found it so unengaging that I almost gave up before the film proper had begun; John Hurt, a favorite performer, can't do a whole lot with a character who has virtually no development, and his opening scenes seem especially thankless in that respect.

And yet, the film casts a strange kind of spell -- partly, I think, because there's something genuinely beguiling about the idea of Hollywood committing serious money to an artistic take on class warfare in the nineteenth century west (even if it's junk as history). And partly, too, because on an individual scene level much of the film is quite masterful -- the choreography of players and cameras is remarkable, whether in the relative intimacy of a barroom, the public arena of the roller rink (unlike other segments, they're not a second too long), or the astonishing, brutal finale on the battlefield.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Le Plein de super

1976, France, directed by Alain Cavalier

A film very much of its particular historical moment, France in the mid-1970s, both on a self-conscious level, with director Alain Cavalier and his actor/collaborators seeking to capture the language and attitudes of the time, but also in terms of a new permissiveness of content that saw far more adult fare on French screens. The spirit of the café-théâtre collaboratives of the time, with the same people writing and performing, is also very much in evidence, though the quartet of actors here came from a more classical training (at least three of them attended the same acting school).

The road movie is especially well-suited to Cavalier's aims, with the format allowing for a multiplicity of incidents and asides that can nonetheless be tied to the central overnight car journey from the north of France to the southern coast. The heart of the film is the extended conversational riffing between the principals, on everything from the state of France to the state of their relations (not always relationships) with women, with the boredom of the journey, not to mention lack of sleep, slowly taking their toll. Like Les Valseuses and La Maman et la putain, this is a very male take on The Big Questions, and women have a far more peripheral onscreen presence here, too; that, though, is part of the point, with Cavalier ultimately suggesting, I think, the insecurities on display rather than endorsing the blustery assurance of the characters themselves as they banter in their exclusively male environment.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Wolverine

2013, US, directed by James Mangold

We'd seen all the previous X-Men and related films on the big screen, and couldn't resist taking advantage of some free babysitting to continue the streak. As expected, the film follows a fairly straightforward formula, albeit with a good deal of back story, leading up to a CGI-heavy confrontation, but there's a good deal of pleasure to be had in the middle section, which is less effects laden and with some degree of character development. It's also refreshing that many of the fight sequences involve actual human beings carefully choreographed, presumably in partial homage to the samurai films of the picture's Japanese setting. Despite the star-centric title, there's still room for others to make an impression: Rila Fukushima is especially good as Wolverine's self-appointed "bodyguard." 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

People Will Talk

1951, US, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Somewhere online I came across the comment, in reference to this film, "people will talk...and talk...and talk," and that's certainly the abiding memory after a gap of a few weeks. The plot, or rather plots, are complex to the point of absurdity, and thus necessitate an extraordinary amount of explanation, entirely at odds with the brisk storytelling that I tend to enjoy in classic Hollywood. Though I'm normally a fan of Cary Grant's particular charm, his performance, or perhaps his character, left me cold here: there are far greater riches in the supporting roles, particularly Hume Cronyn as a weaselly academic, Walter Slezak as Grant's avuncular best pal (the bit where he helps himself to sausage and sauerkraut defines scene stealing), and Finlay Currie as Grant's oddball friend/manservant. Early on, and strangely uncredited, there's also a terrific appearance from Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: her sparring with Cronyn perhaps best captures what the film might have been.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Band Called Death

2012, US, directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett

Two parts family portrait, one part fascinating glimpse of musical history, with a dash of insight into the world of the hardcore record collector, the documentary takes us back to Detroit in the early 1970s, where a trio of brothers decides to start a hardcore rock band in deeply unpromising circumstances. The driving force behind the band was the now-deceased David Hackney, who came up with the Death's concept and musical direction, and who refused to compromise even when success seemed to hinge on just that. Despite his death in 2000, David is a huge presence, both because of the wealth of archival material -- we get to hear his voice and read his words -- and because his brothers never attempt to steal the spotlight from him.

The film starts out as a portrait of an unusually close-knit group of collaborators, but as the story unspools Death's status as far more than a footnote in musical history starts to assert itself. Some of the celebrity talking heads are a little bland, there principally for their fame rather than their insights, but others make fine contributions, while Jello Biafra has a priceless scene. The documentary style is a little distracting at times, manipulating family photos in a rather repetitive stylistic gesture, but the raw material ultimately overwhelms these fairly minor niggles, and the story of how the music itself was re-discovered is quite remarkable.


1953, France, directed by Albert Lamorisse

It's not clear to me whether Lamorisse consciously intended his film as a "children's film," but children certainly respond to the picture particularly well: like his subsequent Le Ballon rouge, there's almost no dialogue, and even a very young child can easily follow the action and become quite caught up in the attempts of a young boy to tame a wild horse on the Camargue (the whole film is shot on location, and there's considerable anthropological interest to the portrait of a society that has, presumably, changed quite considerably in the interim). That said, I did have a little trouble explaining the slightly mystical ending, though fairly quickly the request to replay the film overrode any lingering concerns.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


1982, US, directed by Wim Wenders

The troubled production history of Hammett seems to have overshadowed most assessments of its qualities, and while it can be hard to figure out whether the overriding sensibility is that of Wim Wenders or heavily-involved producer Francis Ford Coppola, I still found much to like in the final product, however compromised it may be. Given my love for studio cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, I loved the richly detailed sets, even if Wenders seems to have preferred a location-based approach; the obviousness of the settings somehow enhanced the sense of a plunge into a past time, which perhaps says much about how the movies have influenced (my) perception of the reality of those decades. Frederic Forrest is excellent in a rare lead role, bewildered by many of the narrative twists in fine noir style -- what would The Big Sleep be if you could actually understand it? -- and the support is top-notch: Elisha Cook Jr, Jack Nance and, most startling, Roy Kinnear are among the highlights, though some of the other survivors of old-time Hollywood got unfortunately short shrift in the reworked film, which is a pity. You do wonder what other footage might be out there in a vault somewhere, ripe for the Special Feature picking.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


1973, US, directed by Terrence Malick

Not for the first time, I'm struck by the way in which the felicities of timing can affect how I see a film -- whether it brings other, recent viewings to mind, or whether it triggers more distant memories. I suppose you could argue that if I'm making such mental connections, I'm not really absorbed in the film at hand, but that's just the way my mind works, particularly if it's a repeat viewing. Others have made the connection between Badlands and Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, which seems especially obvious in the middle section where Malick's protagonists, played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, create a rural idyll for themselves, though my thoughts turned most insistently to a pair of Australian films, Wake in Fright and Walkabout.

All three films share an outback setting, but also a kind of dreamlike quality -- anchored in Badlands by the off-kilter mental states of the main players. Sheen and Spacek are both extraordinary, finding an almost hypnotic state of ennui in their performances, with Spacek's voiceover providing further illustration of her character's dissociation from the events we see onscreen. There's a particularly black streak of comedy to be found in some of her observations; Malick mines some of the same territory in Days of Heaven using another very unusual performer, Linda Manz, though the narrative stakes are different in that film.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

1945, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

The tricksy ending does rather mar what is developing as a hard-nosed bit of bourgeois dissection, though with a little imagination the viewer can imagine what might have been had the movie ended a minute earlier. As much as one might be loathe to imagine an eternally disconsolate George Sanders, it would have made for a bitter little film indeed: the confrontation between Sanders and his sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald) near the conclusion is chilling stuff, with Fitzgerald fulling embracing her character's desire for the final word. Siodmak shows himself to be surprisingly assured as an analyst of small-town life, finding much provincial seaminess beneath the bucolic surface, while also puncturing the snobbery of the town's leading family; he gives full rein to his gliding camera in the family home, too.

Sanders can't suddenly discard his urbanity or his purr, yet he manages to tamp down his playboy image quite successfully to inhabit the skin of the titular Uncle Harry, hemmed in by the restrictions of his life and yet ruminating on an alternative once he sees another future unspool. As ever with Siodmak in this period, the pacing is brisk, with much plot squeezed into the 80 minutes, but he also takes the time to add texture to his portrait of the town -- the mill that dominates working life, the local drugstore, the women's softball game, the church congregation, the mens' club all give a sense of the rhythms of Corinth life.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Spiral Staircase

1945, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

A ripe slice of Gothic melodrama, that throws together a hodgepodge of stock elements -- a mute in peril, an old dark house (with a storm blowing outside, naturally), serial murders, sibling rivalries, an ailing matriarch, a drunken housekeeper, and a smattering of romance -- to quite good effect. At times, it's hard to keep up with the quick switches in tone, whether it's the transition from a bit of domestic comedy to a brutal killing, but Siodmak is entirely aware of the silliness of many of the components and focuses for the most part on maximizing the atmospheric effects. The staring eyeball of the murderer, itself something of a convention, acquires a peculiar malevolence here with the image used in screen-filling closeup at times, while we're kept effectively off-balance by the constant introduction of red herring characters who might, just might, be the murderer.

Monday, July 01, 2013


1942, US, directed by David Hand (supervising director)

I missed out on a great many of the classic Disney films when growing up -- they didn't play on TV, we didn't have a VCR, and trips to the cinema were intermittent when we lived in the countryside. Shay's arrival is looking like the perfect opportunity for us both to get our introductions to the classics. Where he was absorbed by the antics of Bambi and Thumper, especially in the early going, I was bowled over by the extraordinary artistry, especially of the backdrops. DVD seems the perfect way to appreciate these gorgeous paintings, filled with beautiful shadings and exquisite details. I was aware that the film featured a reputedly traumatic sequence, but Shay barely even noticed: it's not played up to any great degree, and is immediately followed by one of the film's most comical sections, where the various animals succumb to spring fever. By contrast, he found the fire sequence impressive though not, I think, overly frightening; he did ask for some clarification during the scene featuring a chase by slavering dogs, but never took his eyes off the screen, and giggled no end during the aforementioned spring fever sequence.

Phantom Lady

1944, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Unusually redemptive in tone for a noir, Phantom Lady has some gorgeously atmospheric passages as well as an extraordinary moment of jazz drumming as sexual frenzy -- though the implication of the scene is that the drummer can't keep up with the vixen after whom he lusts. The storyline is pretty absurd, relying on an exceptional bit of opportunism grafted on top of a stroke of luck, but for the first hour or so Siodmak makes it work very effectively: the wave of guilt creeping up on an old bartender, Tell-Tale Heart style, really gets under the skin, as does Elisha Cook Jr's aforementioned drumming, while there is some exceptional set work on an elevated train platform and in the rain-soaked streets of New York. Indeed, there's a real sense of sweaty summer place -- the city as a friendless nightmare where a man might be condemned for want of an honest word from a stranger.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Suspect

1944, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Siodmak had quite the run of films in 1944, from Cobra Woman to Christmas Holiday, and this little gem seems to have been largely overlooked as the years have ticked by. Set in Hollywood's version of London in 1902, it's not quite as tight an affair as Christmas Holiday or Lang's Scarlet Street (which also features Rosalind Ivan as an extraordinarily shrewish wife), with the tone wobbling from time to time between bleak noir and romance. Siodmak is on stronger ground with the darker material, and makes atmospheric use of the London cobblestones on more than one occasion. The supporting cast as about as authentically Cockney as I am myself, but Charles Laughton is doughily effective as a man whose plans spiral well beyond his control, and there's a delicious supporting turn from Henry Daniell as the rotter next door.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Bucking Broadway

1917, US, directed by John Ford

I'm not at all familiar with Harry Carey's silent work -- this was one of a series of films featuring his Cheyenne Harry character, an affable, sometimes comical fellow. While it's mostly a pretty straightforward fish out of water story (or rather a double fish out of water story, with a city slicker's visit to Wyoming later matched by Harry's comical trip to New York), there are some beautiful touches in the first half particularly, capturing the beauty of the west and affording Carey several surprisingly subtle scenes, most notably when he has to ask for the hand of his beloved. The villain is drawn in broad strokes, and city living as a whole gets a bad rap, with the "genuine" country folk obviously to be preferred. I won't presume to see the hand of the future Ford at work here, except to note that the film is smartly paced, with ambitions that are occasionally hemmed in by technical restrictions (the camera can't move to capture the antics of a bucking bronco, with the result that the action disappears offscreen for several seconds at a time).


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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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States