Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Richard Did

2012, Ireland, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

In terms of current Irish directors, at least on the feature front, Lenny Abrahamson is in a class of one in turning out consistently insightful work. While What Richard Did is very different from his two previous films, Adam and Paul and Garage, in tone and milieu it shares with its predecessors a desire to explore some of the darker side of the Celtic Tiger. The storyline is loosely lifted from Kevin Power's novel Bad Day in Blackrock, in turn based on the death of Brian Murphy outside Annabel's nightclub in the summer of 2000, though Abrahamson replaces the novel's often artless, ripped-from-the-headlines qualities with a much quieter, more deliberate pace and abandons the narrative trickery that upends the conclusion.

Occasionally, Abrahamson's style is a little too on-the-nose -- the grey, metallic colour schemes and constantly blowing wind foreshadow the titular act, and are a touch obvious in their suggestion that all is not well in this world of privilege. The film's elliptical style works well, though, in economically sketching in patches of narrative -- a burgeoning relationship, the events of an extended party, the aftermath of a tragedy -- while also preserving a strong sense of naturalism. Where the oddball humour of Abrahamson's previous films is almost completely absent, his eye for the minutiae of Irish life continues to be very much in evidence. Indeed, having come of age on the fringes of this private school world, it was occasionally uncomfortable to watch: the film captures the rhythms of speech, the customs, the confidence of its particular world with anthropological accuracy, presumably a partial result of the extensive rehearsal process in which Abrahamson drew on the language and behaviour of the fine young cast.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Falsche Bewegung

1975, West Germany, directed by Wim Wenders (aka The Wrong Move)

Sandwiched between Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, this feels only nominally part of the same road trilogy. It abandons the surprisingly warm black and white of the other films for a damp and chilly colour, and despite the unifying presence of Rüdiger Vogler in all three films, it comes across as an entry from an entirely different filmography -- a Godard film shot across the border with Germany, with an array of literary allusions, strange narrative turns, and that flat affect that's so disconcerting across Godard's films, from Week End to Nouvelle vague. It's a considerably more difficult film as a consequence -- the characters are consciously opaque, struggling with profound questions about their own ennui as well as Germany's history, but with little of the humour that makes the companion films so instantly engaging.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Make Way For Tomorrow

1937, US, directed by Leo McCarey

Though very different in tone -- elegiac, if not tragic at times, rather than comic -- Make Way for Tomorrow has the same remarkable facility with tone, McCarey making the smoothest of transitions between emotional registers such that he gives the sense of packing a much longer film into a brief running time. It's not as though the pacing is breakneck, either: McCarey is perfectly happy to linger over a scene, allowing it to reach the proper emotional climax, before moving on. Thus we get wonderful sequences like that between Victor Moore and Maurice Moscovitch, two old guys reflecting on their lives, or the scene in which a group of bridge players reacts to Beulah Bondi's phone conversation. And, most of all, the long farewell that concludes the film, and moves nimbly from sentimental to amusing to desperately sad. Bondi was just 48 when the film was made, but she plays older so effectively that I found it hard to believe her character was only supposed to be 70... In her rather quieter way, she's like a female Michel Simon, entirely convincing in roles decades her chronological senior.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Le Ballon rouge

1956, France, directed by Albert Lamorisse

My two-year-old son regularly asks us to switch on the TV in the evenings. Occasionally, we oblige and he sits still for all of three or four minutes in front of some children's programming and we switch the box off again. He's perfectly capable of devoting a significant amount of time to a single activity, but thus far TV is low on his priority list, and that's fine with me. Imagine my surprise, then, when he sat on my lap through the 35 minutes of Albert Lamorisse's beguiling film, entranced by balloons, dogs, buses, children, bakeries, staircases and all the rest. Perhaps without quite intending to do so, Lamorisse created one of those wonderful films that can be enjoyed equally by adults and children. On first viewing, the adventures of the little boy with the red balloon command the attention, but the film's documentary qualities, capturing so much of what has disappeared from Paris's streets, are ultimately just as captivating. Those adventures were surely among the inspirations for the Goscinny/Sempé Petit Nicolas tales, which began to appear a few years later.

Monday, May 13, 2013


2012, France/Senegal, directed by Alain Gomis (aka Tey)

Gorgeous to look at, Alain Gomis's film is an elliptical, occasionally confusing take on how one man spends one day of his life -- his last, as the opening sequences inform us, though there's no clear reason for this, simply an accepted-by-all interaction between the worlds of the spirit and physical reality.

The central character is played by the American actor Saul Williams, who barely speaks, presumably because he's not adept at the languages of Senegal, and yet his near-mute progress through the day is very effective, giving the sense of a man drinking in every sensation for the final time rather than getting in the way with his own commentary, while Williams finds other ways to communicate his emotions. His face in the early sequences, where his character is alternately celebrated and lambasted, is quite remarkable, morphing from a prideful glow to abject humiliation; later, he transmits a kind of exhausted, brittle happiness that's deeply affecting.

The film's most remarkable scene is a sequence where Williams's body is ceremonially "washed," a preview of what will happen following his death. His body is manipulated and arranged in practiced gestures by Thierno Ndiaye Doss (in his last role; one of his first screen appearances was as Guelwaar in Sembène's eponymous film). It's a hypnotic sequence, reminiscent of the scenes in Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en hiver that feature Daniel Auteuil repairing violins -- skilled craftsmen absolutely sure of each movement.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


1960, US, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Testament to the continued impact of Hitchcock's film, which is so strikingly modern in many respects: it silenced the hip/hipster audience at the Brattle. Sure, those assembled for the late screening guffawed knowingly in the early going, most especially during the blackly comic sequence in Marion Crane's office as Marion deals diplomatically with both Pat Hitchcock and the attentions of a lecherous customer, but they fell utterly silent as the film began to weave its peculiar spell. The shock moments clearly retain their power, if one can judge by exclamations alone, though what makes them work is the tension created in between, with every interaction fraught with worry. Even now, despite countless pale imitations, Norman Bates is one hell of a villain, played to innocent perfection by Anthony Perkins.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Alice in den Städten

1974, West Germany, directed by Wim Wenders (aka Alice in the Cities)

Thematic similarities abound, unsurprisingly, with the later entries in Wenders' road movie trilogy, but especially with Im Lauf der Zeit. It's not hard to imagine that Rüdiger Vogler is playing literally the same character, notwithstanding the change in name, as though this film's Philip ended a chapter of his meanderings in Bavaria before wandering on as Bruno a couple of years later. The same geniality and willingness to go, for the most part, with the hand dealt are essential to both characters; also present here is the striking warmth of Wenders' take on the world notwithstanding the ennui at the heart of both films.

Like so many films, one of the major themes here is the creation of one's own family -- often unlikely in composition, and yet somehow seen as more authentic than one's inherited family simply because there's a degree of intention rather than accident. Where the American scenes are about the obliteration of anything authentic under a blizzard of soul-destroying advertising and consumerism, the German sections are suffused with a sense of loss of the past, the paving over of places of youth in the interests of progress -- with perhaps small remaining window to change direction before the American way wins out, though by the time of Im Lauf der Zeit Wenders suggests that the American way may have had its subconscious victory already.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Christmas Holiday

1944, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

Watched as a small tribute to Deanna Durbin, who died last week, this is very much the atypical film in her roster. She made the picture specifically to give her a more adult image after the juvenile fare that made her name (and her studio's fortune) in the 1930s. Both Durbin and Gene Kelly are effective against type -- Kelly is even further away from his normal persona, and it's a clever casting choice, finding the dark side in the actor's charm. Still, the film is very much Robert Siodmak's: he's at play with atmospherics in locations as diverse as a brothel and a cathedral, and looks considerably more at home with the noirish inflections of this tale than with the Technicolor silliness of fare like Cobra Woman.

I'm fairly sure some enterprising blogger made the screen capture used above, but I can't figure out the original source as it has been used by numerous sites at this point. Apologies for perpetuating the theft... Durbin is in tears numerous times during the film -- carefully aestheticized tears at that, with one glorious shot in the cathedral where a single tear appears as a pinprick of light against Durbin's silhouetted form.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Im Lauf der Zeit

1976, West Germany, directed by Wim Wenders

For a film that is in many ways about alienation from modern life, especially modern German life, this is a strikingly warm and often humours piece, in which Wenders weaves big ideas about society and social relations into a portrait of two men on the road. The interaction between character and idea is far more natural here than in later work like Wings of Desire, which never quite worked for me -- it seemed to signal its own perceived importance, notwithstanding individually successful elements.

That's not to say that every scene here comes off: the sequence with the bereaved man and that in which Robert (Hanns Zischler) reunites with his father are both a little on the obvious side, though each has passages that are successful even if the overall execution lacks subtlety. But those scenes hardly set the overall tone, of constant, elegiac movement in which we're always aware of the end of the journey even as it might seem to unspool to infinity.

Wenders provides us with a very different look at Germany: there's little about postwar recovery and economic success, but instead small towns that have seen better days, and the abandoned countryside (in which both central characters are complicit). The film celebrates much that has been lost in Germany's recent history -- whether it's old vehicles or disappearing skills like cinema projection, printing, even rowing across the Rhine (Wenders and Robby Müller show that they've not forgotten much about how to create gorgeous black and white images, though).

The central characters might be expected to embrace the modern given their complicated relationships with their personal histories but they are instead driven to revisit the past in an attempt at understanding. That process of understanding also relates, of course, to understanding where they stand as Germans born after the war -- the the chill, never verbalized, that descends when the Third Reich is mentioned takes the smile off the face of even Bruno (Rüdiger Vogler), that most good-natured of characters.


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