Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nuit blanche

2011, France/Belgium/Luxembourg, directed by Frédéric Jardin

A nifty French crime thriller, set over the course of 24 hours, most of which we spent inside a cavernous night club where cops -- of the good and the bad varieties, though we're not always sure which is which -- and multiple robbers try to outwit one another as a major drug score/bust (depending on your perspective) comes to a head. There are a few rather obvious touches -- the bent cop who listens to classical music -- but for the most part this is a very inventive genre variation, turning the nightclub into a theatre of nightmares for the protagonists, where just getting from one place to another is a fraught experience, while the clubbers blithely enjoy the night. One of the cleverest, funniest sequences sees hero/antihero Tomer Sisley, a captivating presence, suddenly forced to join in the coordinated dancing in the middle of the dancefloor, in the hopes of eluding his pursuers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Monty Python's Life of Brian

1979, UK, directed by Terry Jones

Though it was first released in 1979, this was the backdrop to my teenage years in the late 1980s, since the Irish censor saw fit to ban it, and it wasn't until almost a decade later that we could get our hands on the film with minimal hassle. Having watched and re-watched the movie on poor VHS over the years, it was a little startling to see it on the big screen -- a few of the sequences felt a little flatter, sketches that never quite soared, whereas others, from the unexpected intrusion of a spaceship to the in-truth-rather-gobsmacking final shots of a couple of dozen crucified unfortunates singing their way into the afterlife, really pop in the larger format. Indeed, I had't quite grasped how striking those final images could be on previous viewings, remembering the song but not the visual impact. For the rest, the constant absurdist invention is as endearing, and hilarious, as ever -- just a shame that the audience I saw it with wasn't bigger to really have lift off.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

2012, UK/US/UAE, directed by John Madden

Perhaps it was the presence of Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminded me of an extended offsite episode of Downton Abbey, with its multiple storylines frantically piling up at times, though John Madden does allow his scenes to develop for more than a few minutes where the story requires it (those odd inserts of one storyline into the other in the television show, as if the producers have no faith whatsoever in our memories, always prove jarring). Still, Madden leaves himself with a lot to juggle here, and the film wouldn't have suffered greatly if, say, the subplot involving Celia Imrie had been quietly excised, perhaps giving a little more time to prepare the ground for Maggie Smith's late-breaking character arc. The cast, though, are uniformly charming, and Madden leavens the fairly straightforward narratives with occasional unexpected twists -- the heartfelt resolution of Tom Wilkinson's story, or the moment where Ronald Pickup delivers an entirely sincere response instead of the off-colour joke we might expect. The greatest pleasure, of course, is just watching this cast of seasoned thespians at work -- it's a little like a parade of Rolls Royces in procession, a sight to behold.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


1977, Senegal, directed by Ousmane Sembène

Like Sembène's earlier Emitaï, this film is focused more on the collective than the individual -- while we become familiar with several specific faces, the director's primary interest is in exploring social forces more generally, and particularly the confrontation between Christianity, Islam and traditional African religion (at some unidentified point in, most likely, the late nineteenth century). The film is structured largely around several extended debates, set pieces of intense rhetorical interaction that foreshadow Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako.

At least on this occasion, Sembène is much stronger on discussion than on physical action, and I wonder whether the decision to allow those sequences to unspool at such length is something of a tacit admission as to where his strengths lie: it can be very hard to tell what is happening, or where the characters are in relation to one another, in the brief action scenes, but he is capable of extracting great tension from sequences in which only words are exchanged. There's an especially powerful moment late on when one leader asserts his authority by appointing a new person to speak publicly for him; while the previous speaker is clearly upset, he is silenced by the need for absolute obeisance, and moves meekly to his assigned place in the background. Sembène also denies some of his characters any speech -- the European merchant and priest never intervene in the debates, though the latter does intone some portions of the religious service in Latin, even if the camera frequently picks them out as they observe the exchanges between the African characters.

Ceddo is an often angry denunciation of outside influence, in this case religious-political influences, which reminded me of Sembène's tendency to reject outside filmmaking influences as he proposed an authentically African way of making films. It's one of the most problematic aspects of his filmmaking philosophy to me, for it seems to me to forgo the opportunity to insert African cinema in a larger global conversation -- it somehow condemns the continent's cinema to a hermetically sealed space. Whatever the director's views on cinematic influences, he makes clever use of his resources to avoid complex effects, using careful angles to deal with moments of violence without requiring much in the way of fakery, for instance, though there is a very brief and inexplicably sped-up sequence that recalls silent slapstick at a moment when humour surely wasn't intended.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

1922/1968, Sweden/Denmark, directed by Benjamin Christensen

A true oddity, this one. Christensen's film purports to be a quasi-academic discourse on witchcraft from antiquity through the present, with the opening section quoting from a variety of manuscript sources and quickly sketching in the apparent ubiquity of the notion of witchcraft, before settling into some kind of ill-defined European middle ages location and unveiling its true purpose, a series of often lurid vignettes depicting the depraved reality of the phenomenon, complete with lascivious devils, torture chambers, and slavering inquisitioners, the better to point up the church's role in creating and sustaining that which it purported to condemn. Christensen shows himself to be a very nimble director, using all manner of effects, from a sort-of live-action tableau of hell to several extraordinarily atmospheric night-time sequences (the most chilling of all perhaps that where a woman mistakes the activities of two anatomists for something rather more sinister -- the scene has none of the wilder elements that are more amusing than alarming to a contemporary audience, and thus retains all of its power).

Saturday, January 19, 2013


2012, US, directed by Seth MacFarlane

Every now and then, there's a clanger of a line that's just a little too gross to be funny, but for the most part this is consistently funny, if entirely silly. The set-up is sitcom-esque, perhaps inevitable with a director with a background in episodic TV, but the performers are more than game, although Mila Kunis is a touch too long-suffering for my taste, and the film employs an I-can-see-this-coming-a-mile-off deus ex machina to avoid having to play her storyline out as it might work in, you know, the real world. Though admittedly such considerations are hardly on point when you're talking about a film featuring a real-life, profanity-prone teddy bear.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Knight and Day

2010, US, directed by James Mangold

There's a moment, somewhere in the lengthy midsection of the film, where Cameron Diaz turns to Tom Cruise and implores him to stop shooting people, to stop the noise, the excess, the stupidity of it all. I half wondered if it was director James Mangold's cri de coeur -- he's directed several very solid genre pieces, especially Cop Land and Walk the Line, but he must surely have realized at some point that this jokey action flick was not in his wheelhouse. His apparent solution, to push everyone, including his two game stars, to dial things up to cartoon levels does nothing to salvage the situation. A genuine waste of talent, in front of and behind the camera.

How to Survive a Plague

2012, US, directed by David France

It's hardly unexpected that How to Survive a Plague provides a moving, often angry account of several central years in the efforts of AIDS activists, especially those of ACT UP, to transform official attitudes toward HIV/AIDS from 1987. Archival footage and talking heads interviews, the latter introduced gradually as the film evolves, take the viewer back to a time of increasing desperation for those afflicted by AIDS in the 1980s, particularly gay men (there are only occasional references to other affected groups, and to the international scope of the scourge). What's more surprising, though, is the genuinely fascinating insight into the workings of the movement, which self-documented to a striking degree: the film could function as a primer for any activist group, particularly those dealing with the difficult transition from initial, energetic participation to increasing professionalization. The tensions are never sugar-coated -- some of the most electric footage in the film is from around the time when the Treatment Action Group, or TAG, was striking out from Act Up, with angry denunciations and a sense of betrayal vivid on the faces of some speakers (the window into organizational dynamics reminded me of Patu!, the New Zealand documentary about anti-apartheid protests in that country).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Madame Brouette

2002, Senegal/France/Canada, directed by Moussa Sene Absa

While Moussa Sene Absa's films tend to occupy a good deal of the same socially-conscious territory as those of Ousmane Sembène,  his methods are rather different. Unlike Sembène, Absa is open about drawing on influences from more commercial cinema in the service of telling an engaging story that is nonetheless fully grounded in the social problems of Dakar life, and his camerawork and editing are brisk and incisive -- and often endowed with considerable humour, particularly here in the exploration of different kinds of dressing up, whether it's a man getting ready to impress a new girl or the same man selecting a dress to wear during a Senegalese carnival feast.

Absa's serious point comes through a little too insistently at times, as though the didactic urge breaks through the eye-catching surface -- there's the occasional rather obvious line, such as the titular character expressing the hope that her daughter "has a better life," a pretty mundane observation in the context of what we see onscreen and invested with more drama than it can bear. For the most part, though, Absa does a fine job of both treating his characters with respect and weaving around them a kind of magical realist texture, of bright colours and zesty personalities, in which a Greek chorus seems an entirely natural presence. There's a striking use of recorded music, too, particularly in a scene of cross-border smuggling that's fraught with both danger and absurdist commentary on the Senegalese state and its agents.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The White Shadow

1924, UK, directed by Graham Cutts [Assistant Director Alfred Hitchcock]

The streaming version of this film was made possible in part by the 2012 For the Love of Film Blogathon, and I'd urge you to watch the film at the National Film Preservation Foundation site, while it lasts -- streaming is an expensive business, and the site is unable to host the film on a permanent basis.

The White Shadow was originally a six-reel picture but only the first three reels survive -- or I suppose to be more accurate only the first three reels have been found thus far. The picture is in many ways a pretty standard melodrama from what we can judge, though based on surviving plot descriptions the potboiler aspects really kick into high gear in those lot reels.

I won't pretend to see too much of the nascent Hitchcock in what's available here -- my knowledge of his silent work is very limited, and there's a considerable gulf between the style of this film and 1930s sound films like The Man Who Knew Too Much (particularly when it comes to framing and camera movement); Hitchcock had learnt much in the intervening years, and the art itself had evolved. There's also another important presence, of course -- the actual credited director Graham Cutts, and while it's not hard to imagine Hitchcock's vision contributing to, say, the striking staging of the scenes in The Cat Who Laughs nightclub in Paris, or the effects that show Betty Compson in a dual role as very different sisters, Cutts was a competent and occasionally imaginative director himself, and shouldn't be entirely dismissed from the picture. Still, it's an intriguing glimpse into the great man's apprenticeship, and wonderful that such historical treasure still crop up from time to time in distant corners of the globe.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Das Leben ist eine Baustelle

1997, Germany, directed by Wolfgang Becker

I lived in Berlin for two years, from 1999 to 2001, and no film better captures the feel of the city as I experienced it, as a place where anything could happen, at any time -- there's a magical realist feel to certain scenes in the film that nonetheless seems entirely grounded in the city of the time. The first weekend I was there, some new acquaintances invited me to an art show in a former butcher's shop. For some reason, someone had filled shallow trenches on the floor with flour, and by the end of the evening everyone's clothes were white up to the knees: little clouds trailed behind us as we walked out into the chilly November night, and yet it was all entirely normal.

One major difference between the film and the city as I experienced it, though, and not a minor one: while I could never quite figure out how some of my friends stitched together a living, they still seemed pretty comfortable, whereas the characters here are visibly more hand to mouth, and much of the film centers around the jobs that they take and the schemes they concoct. For all that, though, there's a verve and a chance-taking about their lives, and a warmth in their fumbling efforts to create a new sense of family. That's not an uncommon cinematic theme, but it's handled convincingly here -- in halting, sometimes ham-fisted steps rather than in any simple progression, such that we learn of the characters' frailties along with them, as it were. In the end, though, it's hard to maintain any critical distance from the film -- the people and the streets feel like part of my own life in some odd way, and I'm overcome with a confused sense of nostalgia and heartache as I watch the characters work through their stories.


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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