Friday, February 28, 2014

Les Inconnus dans la maison

1942, France, directed by Henri Decoin

No great surprise to discover that the first filming of this Simenon story is superior to the 1990s remake, and even less surprising to discover that the script, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, displays a good deal of the acidity he'd unleash with full force a few years later in Le Corbeau. The film is a good deal tighter, with Decoin and Clouzot spending less time establishing Raimu's bona fides as an unreliable drunkard -- one suspects the Belmondo ego requirer more screen time -- although the sheer unlikeliness of the scenario, and the apparent absence of questions of conflict of interest in the French legal system, persist. Here, though, the scenario is used in the service of a commentary on the insidious relationships between the haute bourgeoisie of a small town; 1942 audiences in France may well have read the plot, with an unwelcome home invader shot to death in the opening sequences, in rather different terms, and indeed the dead man is of virtually no interest to anyone except in so far as he motivates the plot. The last third of the film is an extended courtroom sequences, and Decoin uses the ornate courtroom to good effect, with the witnesses often filmed from above, as though from the judge's or the jurors' perspectives; he picks up, too, on the ways in which the various players cannot hide their distress or consternation in this most public of forums.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Act of Killing

2012, Denmark/Norway/UK, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

A troubling film on many levels: most obviously in terms of its content, which includes interviews with members of Indonesian death squads from the 1960s, and their relationship to the paramilitary forces that seem to play a major part in Indonesian politics today. But also discomfiting for the questions it raises about the documentarian's role and the context in which the film was shot. While there is some effort to provide the historical context of Indonesia in the 1960s, we gain virtually no insights into the processes that led to the rather extraordinary collaboration between Oppenheimer and his subjects except to deduce, from the tone of the back and forth, that they know one another quite well.

The men re-enact some of the worst of their atrocities, initially in the most straightforward way possible, taking us to the actual locations and demonstrating how they, for instance, strangled a person. Subsequently, though, they engage in full-on dramatizations: scenes of actual interrogations as filtered through the participants' imaginations, and quite consciously taking on the stylings of Hollywood movies. At times, the participants make reference to the fact that they are, themselves, making a film, and it's not always clear where Oppenheimer stands in relation to that process. 

In many ways, the Hollywoodization of the atrocities is entirely apt, for many of the death squad members got their start as movie ticket gangsters -- selling black market tickets to movie-goers -- and in one especially chilling sequence, Anwar Congo shimmies across a street in the present day, remembering his younger self emerging, ecstatic, from an Elvis Presley flick, before crossing the street and resuming the brutality in an interrogation center just steps from the movie theatre. Last year, while doing research on the American movie industry in Africa, I saw files on their efforts to expand the Indonesian market in the 1960s, and one wonders to what extent Hollywood was at least aware of, if not complicit with, the gangsterism surrounding its business activities. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Lorax

2012, US, directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

I'm not sure there's much of the spirit of Dr. Seuss remaining -- the colour schemes and artwork don't owe much to the original book, as the end credits, which are more faithful, make clear -- except perhaps for a touch of general whimsy, particularly in the behaviour of the titular creature. His method of celestial locomotion is certainly arresting, and it's amusing that there's no attempt whatsoever to explain this unexpected skill. Viewed simply as a kid's movie, and using my sample size of one to measure success, this is pretty solid entertainment -- some good voice work, eye-popping chase scenes, and just enough darker material to keep it interesting without causing too much fright. As to the notion of giant movie companies trying to teach us lessons in responsibility, that's surely one of the distressing ironies of the corporatized world.

Patience: After Sebald

2012, UK, directed by Grant Gee

As elliptical and absorbing as the book, W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, that inspires it, Grant Gee's film provides glimpses into the physical world that Sebald encounters during the course of the long walk that gives the book its framework, while also suggesting that a literal re-tracing of steps is not the most productive way to understand Sebald's process or intent. The book is almost like a series of Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit holes -- one moment we're strolling along a stretch of coastal Norfolk, the next we're considering the ramifications of the Taiping Rebellion, Roger Casement's work to publicize abuses in Congo, or the cultivation of the silkworm. At times, this reminded me of the effect of clicking on too many hyperlinks: you can't quite re-trace your steps to figure out why you're suddenly reading about some new and absorbing topic.

And yet there's nothing accidental about Sebald's intent -- the silkworms provide a haunting example, with the long section on their cultivation foreshadowed throughout the text, and working in parallel with other sections on connections forged across time and space. One commentator here discusses the extraordinary effect of Sebald's method, whereby an apparently benign beginning suddenly brings us to the camps of the Second World War, for instance, confronting us like a slap in the face amidst the apparently bucolic setting of his book. There's an image in the book, reproduced in the film, that encapsulates that effect rather brutally -- bodies lying on the ground in the kind of forest that the Romantics might have celebrated (an image that recalls Simon Schama's extraordinary discussion of forest imagery in Landscape and Memory, published the same year as Sebald's book).

Friday, February 07, 2014


2005, Germany, directed by Christian Petzold

Most of Christian Petzold's work is set in small-town Germany -- even where he uses Wolfsburg as the title for a film, the bulk of the action takes places on the fringes of that town -- but here Berlin has the same depopulated feel as Petzold's provincial locations: there's almost none of the bustle you might associate with the city, and the director prioritizes a sense of sterility, the institutional feel, in almost all of his locations. His characters, too, are often devoid of the range of emotions one might expect -- they struggle to express themselves, or behave unexpectedly, even inappropriately. The title can be taken quite literally in that regard: many of the characters seem to be shadows of normal human beings, seeking connections but failing to establish them in the midst of a plot that would likely descend into melodrama in other hands. Julia Hummer is especially good in the lead role -- a lost waif if ever there was one, spiky and difficult yet still vulnerable.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Jack Reacher

2012, US, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

A straightforward action flick, translating the book's geographical specifications quite well to a real place (Pittsburgh) in the early going, before abandoning the very precise ending of the written version in favour of a greater degree of shoot-'em-up spectacle. Though barely used, Robert Duvall and Werner Herzog deliver some ripe ham in counterpoint to Tom Cruise's more or less fixed expression (which is entirely consistent with the book, at least).


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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