Thursday, December 31, 2015

Take Me Home

2011, US, directed by Sam Jaeger

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


2015, US, directed by Tom McCarthy

A film of strong local interest for us, as it tells the story of the Boston Globe investigation into sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the Boston archdiocese. The film has an exceptional ensemble cast, and does an effective job of communicating a complicated story without indulging in too many narrative shortcuts. It reminded me in some senses of the original Law and Order, which so studiously avoided intrusions into the characters' private lives. That's pushed to the extreme here -- even where the film acknowledges a spouse's existence, she (usually she) barely appears, even in contexts where this might be natural). There's certainly nothing in director Tom McCarthy's back catalog that prepared me for a well-wrought picture like this (well-wrought, at least, on the levels of script, construction, and acting -- not much of great visual interest or experimentation). 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


1968, UK, directed by Dick Clement

Tom Courtenay at the height of his magnetism, in a breezy London romp that kicks off with a terrific shot on the Portobello Road, and which manages to mesh, among other things, a dose of the absurdity of The Knack and the self-conscious silliness of the Bond films (and their many knock-offs). Still, there's also room for a bit of satirical bite, such as the scene where Courtenay's Otley blunders into a "whites out" protest that gives a sense that not everything in 1960's London was carefree. As much as Courtenay catches the eye, the supporting cast is also quite wonderful -- Leonard Rossiter, Romy Schneider, James Villiers, James Bolan, Phyllida Law...

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Violent Saturday

1955, US, directed by Richard Fleischer

An oddball mixture of crime and romance that comes off a little like a heist film shoehorned into a Douglas Sirk picture (the mining backdrop reminded me especially of the oil fields of Written on the Wind). Despite the mish-mash of genres, it's generally rather enjoyable, and certainly fast-moving -- and includes the arrestingly bizarre sight of Ernest Borgnine in an Amish beard.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


2015, US, directed by Sean Casey

One of those rare times I watched a film with no prior knowledge whatsoever: the title was familiar from several "best of 2015" lists but I only discovered the content when I selected the film on Netflix. The film chronicles a picaresque day/night in the lives of two black transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles, with the additional hook that the entire picture was shot using a series of iPhones (which, as it happened, did a fine job of capturing LA's unique urban light patterns). It's both funny and humane, sometimes both, though as one commentator noted it's still very much a middle-class straight white guy's version of lower-class black transgender life, however positive and celebratory. In that respect, it reminded me of Sembène's Faat Kiné, which is essentially, as I think the academic Ken Harrow once wrote, an older man's version of feminism -- where feminism is reduced to becoming one of the boys. Despite those reservations, there's a good deal to recommend Tangerine: there's a real sense of the vitality of this particular corner of the world, and
 a striking wealth of observational detail combined with some intriguing and unusual shot choices.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Gift

2015, US/Australia/China, directed by Joel Edgerton

A very solid slice of neo-Hitchcock, with plenty of well-crafted misdirection -- the film cycles through a couple of possible genre options before settling on something quite distinctive. First-time director Edgerton makes interesting use of the space in the film's key location, turning something attractive and transparent into an arena of alarm, even in the daytime, although unlike in Hitchcock I had a hard time establishing exactly the physical contours of the space. There's another Hitchcockian echo in the casting -- finding a different shade in someone like Jason Bateman, in particular. 

45 Years

2015, UK, directed by Andrew Haigh

From the large canvas of Bridge of Spies to the small, with two excellent performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay -- especially Rampling, around whom the film revolves. The pacing and damp, chilly setting are perhaps a little too on the nose in terms of the relationship to the central story of a longstanding marriage under sudden duress, but the sense of unspoken tension is very strong, even alarming at times, and the final few minutes are, to my mind, exquisitely uncomfortable. 

Bridge of Spies

2015, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Absolutely classical in construction, if not always its shot choices, and I mean that entirely as a compliment -- this is Spielberg entering grand-old-man territory, absolutely in control of his craft and making expert use of the possibilities afforded by the double narrative of the film (the first part focuses on the trial of a spy in the US, the second on the release of an American spy-plane pilot from the USSR). The doubling is echoed time and again in juxtapositions and contrasts -- everything down to the way that Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks sniffle through parts of the film, though also in larger ways, such as the implicit comparison between two different kinds of show trial. On the visual level, the colour palette is used to create yet more contrast -- the striking blues and wide open spaces of the American air force base against, say, the grey, hulking streets of East Berlin. It's not often that I celebrate the virtues of a big budget but you sure see the dollars up there on the screen, most notably in those intensely detailed Berlin cityscapes, although there's a real pleasure in the recreated Brooklyn of the opening, too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Step By Step

1946, US, directed by Phil Rosen

Not a good film, but quite interesting to see again the kind of plotline that was deemed useful in the early post-war period -- unmasking Nazi spies operating on American soil. Lawrence Tierney must have been quite the beefcake at the time since the film did sterling work to keep him in his swimsuit for an extended period of time, though that's about the only contribution he makes, with his line delivery rarely rising above that you might expect in a cast read-through.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Mistress America

2015, US, directed by Noah Baumbach

While Greta Gerwig is certainly fun, and there is the occasional, very unexpected, moment of visual wit (Baumbach does not strike me as a director who has a terrific sense of the camera's possibilities), for the most part the fine line between celebration and subversion seemed to me to be rather fluffed. On a minor note, I rather enjoyed, for most of the film, the attempts of one young fellow to defend himself from his jealous girlfriend -- a gag that reminded me of Lucien, the lovelorn teen in Un Eléphant, ça trompe énormément

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Black Angel

1946, US, directed by Roy William Neill

An inadvertent last film for Roy William Neill, and by the looks of it a shame that his career was cut short because this looks a great deal more interesting than the programmers he had been doing before that (even if some of them, especially the Sherlock Holmes pictures, are in their way quite dear to me). Dan Duryea is front and centre in a race-against-time picture helping to reveal the truth so a man can be freed from death row, and Duryea is unusually sympathetic, at least by Dan Duryea standards. The picture borrows quite shamelessly from other fare of the period, and thus the flavour of mid-1940s Lang and Siodmak is never far away (particularly in some of the unreliable narration). Peter Lorre throws in an enjoyably oily turn, though the actor doesn't look in the fullest of health. 

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Dark Corner

1946, US, directed by Henry Hathaway

Like Douglas Sirk's Lured, this is an atypical role for Lucille Ball, at least by the standards of her later work, although it's a less "straight" part than the 1947 film since she's something of a spitfire secretary type, here, not averse to a spot of banter. Still, the setting is a fairly typical noir backdrop, with a reasonably complex plot to throw up the occasional red herring. I especially liked the highly efficient opening: the speed of the setup is terrific, as you're hooked within a minute or so by the promise of much intriguing backstory, while the supporting cast is full of gems in addition to Ball. The gradual reveal of Webb's character is also quite deliciously creepy. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

1948, US, directed by John Farrow

Not a great film, but one that certainly makes solid use of its resources, most notably Edward G. Robinson -- and most specifically the great man's voice, something that Billy Wilder had already exploited to such notable effect in Double Indemnity. Speaking of that film, cinematographer John Seitz is behind the camera here, too, and that surely accounts for the film's look, as well some of the strikingly mobile shots, perhaps the most eye-catching a quite terrific crane shot during a stage performance by Robinson, who plays a mind-reader suddenly endowed with the actual gift he purports to possess. There's another lovely shot later on, the camera reversing away as Robinson packs his bags and prepares to abandon his life as everything crumbles around him -- the camera seems to echo the distancing in which the character is engaged.

Kiss of Death

1947, US, directed by Henry Hathaway

A gangland tale grounded with location shooting, a little awkward in its narrative construction, which has a stop-start quality, but often very atmospheric, though it's most memorable for an indelible debut by Richard Widmark, as a laughing, and obviously psychopathic, hoodlum -- the scene where he shoves a defenseless woman down a staircase remains shocking today and must surely have been deeply alarming to audiences of the time, even those already immersed in noir

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes

1982, France, directed by Jean Girault

This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon hosted, as every year, by Shadowplay-er extraordinaire David Cairns. 

A picture that counts double in the late film stakes: director Jean Girault died during filming of star Louis de Funès's swansong, the last of their dozen collaborations stretching back to the 1960s. Though their work was never of the highest cinematic order, it's still hard to imagine anyone choosing this particular picture as an epitaph. De Funès looks visibly aged, diminished by the heart condition that plagued him for some years, and indeed he's offscreen for lengthy chunks of the film, suggesting that the script was constructed very much with his absence in mind.

The sixth in a series of films that began in 1964, to which the law of diminishing returns applied with brutal effect (imagine the Pink Panther films, without the benefit of starting at a reasonable peak), Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes scrapes the inspirational barrel utterly dry, and de Funès is very much an old dog going through his old tricks. I've always struggled with his particular schtick, almost always preferring his more subtle onscreen partners, most famously Bourvil in the 1960s, though here he’s paired with Michel Galabru, who has roughly the physiognomy and the subtlety of a warthog, and Girault doesn't make any attempt to rein him in (whereas a director like Jean-Pierre Mocky could deploy Galabru's features to more sophisticated comic ends).

Both actors played in all of the Gendarme pictures, which made for some pretty superannuated cops by 1982, though the plot doesn't bother clarifying why they're still hanging around the station house when they should have been pensioned off. Ah, yes, plot, or in this case a device engineered purely to fill the screen with a succession of comely women who play a quartet of gendarmerie cadets as part an "innovative" training program. One of the four is African, and the daughter of an African president to boot, which provides the cue for a ham-fistedly offensive sequence in which she is depicted in tribal garb -- dancing, of course, as a prelude to a cannibalistic feast. Fans of workplace harassment -- all of it cheerfully tolerated, naturally -- will be heaven here, as will those who believe that female police officers are best attired in garb that looks like that of a Pan Am stewardess circa 1965. That the cadets, entirely predictably, emerge victorious over both their criminal adversaries and their lecherous supervisors doesn't quite excuse all that has come before...

Truth be told, this is not the first year I planned to write about this particular picture but getting through this kind of thing is a slog -- there really are astonishingly few redeeming features, not unlike Jean Gabin's final film, also directed by Jean Girault -- a real career-end specialist, that one.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The House on 92nd St

1945, US, directed by Henry Hathaway

Hathaway made something of a name for himself with a string of location-shot, "authentic" 1940s pictures, and this one comes saddled with a good deal of documentary paraphernalia, including a cameo from J. Edgar Hoover, to introduce this purportedly true account of the unmasking of a Nazi spy ring, with the kind of sexual undertones that make you suspect good old J. Edgar would have had a ball with the case files. Unfortunately, as a film it feels neither fish nor fowl -- too plodding to make for great drama, and not effective as a documentary either (though the location footage is quite fascinating).

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Mea culpa

2014, France, directed by Fred Cavayé

The latest in Cavayé's series of action movies is roughly on the same level as his previous film, A bout portant, promising much more grit than it ultimately delivers. I only gave it a shot because of Vincent Lindon, and the actor does what he can with the conventional material. I do like a well-made action film and while Cavayé has the occasional moment of skill in chase sequences he has no idea of how to communicate space and proximity so the sense of peril is fatally undermined. That derailed two big set pieces, and the shame is all the greater since there aren't many French directors seriously committed to this kind of lean genre material. 

Becks letzter sommer

2015, Germany, directed by Frieder Wittich

A pretty derivative, if fitfully endearing, German dramedy, with very strong echoes of some of Fatih Akin's lighter films (especially Im Juli), as well as every inspirational-teacher/teen-saved-by-music film you've ever seen. Christian Ulmen, the titular Beck, bears a strong resemblance to Paul Giamatti both in terms of facial features and semi-schlubby lovability, and makes it more watchable than it probably deserves. 


2015, US, directed by Paul Feig

La Loi du marché

2015, France, directed by Stéphane Brizé

Right up my alley: Vincent Lindon combined with echoes of Pialat. I'm not at all familiar with Stéphane Brizé's work, though some of the French-language criticism suggests I should be. Lindon, in full-on Tiredest-Man-in-the-World mode, is an unemployed factory worker seemingly caught in a spiral of re-training absurdity, who eventually finds new employment as a supermarket security guard. At its heart, the film is -- as the French title implies -- a pretty devastating critique of the human cost of the frontlines of capitalistic endeavour, and the scenes where Lindon has to preside over pathetically petty infractions are quite excruciating. Many of the parts are played by non-professionals, and the seams are invisible -- Lindon feels fully part of the world seen here. 

12 Citizens

2014, China, directed by Ang Xu

A Chinese re-working of 12 Angry Men, which necessitates some plot gymnastics in the opening since the Chinese legal system is completely different. After the setup, the film sticks quite closely to the original, sometimes almost word for word (at least if the subtitles are to be trusted), though the setting is somewhat less claustrophobic even if equally sweaty. There's a rather archly theatrical aspect to the physical setup, though the camera is far more mobile than in Lumet's version -- far less classical, but generally quite effective. An interesting transposition, in other words, and not without a distinct line of politico-judicial commentary. 

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Jurassic World

2015, US, directed by Colin Trevorrow

Watch Jurassic Park again instead -- more expertly made, less gender stereotyping.


2015, US, directed by Rick Famuyiwa

A fairly decent teen-movie entry elevated by two things: a surprisingly sure blend of tones between comedy/crime/social comment and an excellent cast, particularly the three young actors at the centre of the film. The ending went, to my mind, far off the rails -- far too wish-fulfilment-esque, and yet another endorsement of the Ivy League establishment, however inadvertent.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Un éléphant ça trompe énormément

1976, France, directed by Yves Robert

Enjoyed this one enormously, in particular for the fine Jean Rochefort performance, and despite the not-always forward-looking sexual politics, with the entire film built around the pursuit of an affair. The scene of consummation and aftermath is absolutely exquisite, as are the attempts to preserve some dignity in farcical circumstances, while Rochefort's moustache is a character unto itself at times. I was keenly attentive to the various off-camera points of interest, and had not previously realized that Danièle Delorme, who died just last month after a very long career, was also a very active producer -- including of Le Plein de super the same year. Although I didn't discover the connection until afterwards, the quartet of male pals in both films had already put me in mind of the Cavalier picture (especially since one of the men in each case was dealing with a departed spouse). More tenuous, perhaps, but I couldn't help but detect a reference to Jeanne Dielman in one brief scene where we spy Delorme methodically making dinner. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Je tu il elle

1975, France/Belgium, directed by Chantal Akerman

Watched in hommage to Chantal Akerman, who sadly ended her life recently. I had not seen this before and it was an eye-opener, the work of a strikingly confident young director who has both a very strong personal set of ideas and a set of aesthetic criteria for her project, both visual and aural (the use of sound as a surprising tool for de-eroticization, for instance). The film very obviously sets the stage for some of her subsequent work, in terms of holding the gaze for extended periods of time, the interaction between sound and text (and the disconnects between the two), and so forth. Quite literally mesmerizing at times. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Le Témoin

1978, France/Italy, directed by Jean-Pierre Mocky

Vintage Jean-Pierre Mocky, an absolutely acid take on sexual relationships between young and old and, ultimately, on miscarriages of justice. The confident management of tone from the sex farce of the opening twenty minutes or so to the brutal realism of the final shot is quite remarkable -- a very difficult trick to manage, but Mocky was clearly very much in control of his material and his two fine central actors. Noiret already had a well-established "type" by the late 1970s, which the director uses very much to his advantage, and the same is true of Alberto Sordi, who I've only seen in Italian films. Indeed, the use of Sordi was so apt that it was a great surprise to discover that the role was originally intended for Jean Gabin -- it's hard to imagine he would have captured the innocent abroad tone that's so crucial to the first half of the film. Also of note was the mise en scène, particularly the placement of actors in many scenes -- there's a wonderful sense of movement within the frame, to often comic effect. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Signé Furax

1981, France, directed by Marc Simenon

The film derives from a 1950s radio show with which I have no familiarity whatsoever and thus no sense of fidelity to the original. Absent that knowledge, the film came across as something close to a French Zucker-Abrams-Zucker film, with the scattershot approach to visual jokes, verbal gags of both high and low levels, absurd plotting, and general zaniness, though the hit rate was a good bit lower than in the best ZAZ outings. In other words, for every decent part there were a couple of sections that just didn't work for me, although the bit-part appearances kept the interest up (Coluche's appearance was abbreviated in the extreme, two quick scenes). I had not made the connection before but the film was directed by Georges Simenon's son, and there is a brief and reasonably subtle reference to the paternal oeuvre near the end. Simenon fils did not have a distinguished directorial career, mostly assisting on a variety of (high-profile) comedy films in the 1960s before a short career as a director himself.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shanghai Express

1932, US, directed by Josef von Sternberg

It has been a while since I sat in a cinema seat realizing that I was watching a genuine masterpiece unspool in front of me, on almost every level: the cast (with perhaps the exception of Clive Brook, though that may be as much the character he is playing as the actor's style), the astonishing set design (the scenes in crowded "Chinese" towns are magnificent in their detail), the interlocking aspects of the script, and of course von Sternberg's remarkable stylization on the rhythmic level. More surprising to me in some ways was the sense of humour -- it's often very funny, and surely was a major influence on The Lady Vanishes a few years later. Amazing, too, is the sense of genuine depth to the Dietrich/Brook relationship -- real feeling there, even if Brook's character is a bit limited in some ways.

Monday, September 28, 2015


1942, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

One of the few films available from the time period (1940-1943), during which new Hollywood arrival Siodmak was pegged as something of a comedy hand before he was unleashed on the more familiar noir material. It's a rather enjoyable genre mishmash that seems to me quite characteristic of its time -- and which Siodmak proved to be good with (see: Son of Dracula but also, in terms of wild mishmash, Among the Living). While I don't love the screwball elements there are some effective darker scenes and the whole thing moves along with quite astonishing brio despite the stranger aspects of the plot. I often think there's a good deal of overlap between these 40s programmers and serial films -- all kinds of plot strangeness of a kind that might not seem quite so odd spaced out over several weeks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cry of the City

1948, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

This would make a great double bill with Anthony Mann's Side Street as another example of the use of urban locations as characters in their own right, although it can be quite hard to discern which are genuine New York locations and which are artful studio backdrops (in part a testament to the technical skill on display). Richard Conte is a hoodlum battling it out with cop, and fellow Italian-American, Victor Mature (the usual two sides of the same coin, grew up in the same neighborhood stuff though thankfully with no sentimental priests in sight). The focus on immigrant life is distinctive for this period -- quite a bit of Italian spoken in certain scenes, and a sense of the tension between different moralities and ways of dealing with the police is nicely drawn. The gathering storm is, as you might expect with Siodmak, expertly orchestrated and there's the usual smattering of fine compositions (though some of the camera movements caught my eye more than the light/shadow effects on this occasion). Intriguing support, too, as so often with the rich array of talent on the studio payroll: the imposing Hope Emerson as an unusual female hood (she has one especially terrific scene with Conte) and Shelley Winters in a very small role just around the time of her big break. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Behind Locked Doors

1948, US, directed by Oscar (Budd) Boetticher

A Budd Boetticher from the pre-Budd period. An efficient 60-minute programmer, with an absurd plot (not in the Strange Impersonation sense but rather with respect to the rapidity with which the lead character is able to assemble information: he's a private dick in league with a journalist and goes undercover as a mental patient to uncover a hitherto unassailable secret) and some extremely effective and atmospheric staging. In other words, a pretty perfect example of the genre. It wouldn't take the most skilled of clairvoyants to predict the finale, but several of the shots and the use of light/shadow are striking. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

L'Ibis rouge

1975, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Mocky

A film I'd seen once before twenty years ago, before I appreciated the position Mocky occupied in the French comic firmament. While he was well-known for his acid take on French society (and, especially, French political life) early on, that tendency really accelerated in the 1970s and L'Ibis rouge is a fine example of his style from that period. The strain of almost aggressively absurdist humour was very prevalent in the immediate post-1968 era -- Mocky, Blier, the various performers associated with the café-théâtre and/or the comic-book world. As humorous world-views go, Mocky's is pretty bleak stuff -- as much as there were moments of high comedy here and there the ending is pretty downbeat, to say the least. Also characteristic are the moments of visual humour, particularly the splashes of colour in the form of the yellow-clad cyclists or the red-tracksuited men. There's a bit of a kitchen-sink feel to his humour on occasion, a scattershot approach that's both deliberate and perfectly willing to miss the target for some viewers some of the time (that, too, is very much a hallmark of the French comic tradition of the 1970s, including in the print sphere). 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Provincial Actors

1979, Poland, directed by Agnieszka Holland (original title: Aktorzy prowincjonaln)

It has been a very long time since I've watched anything from Poland, but not for the first time I was struck by the way in which a number of Polish directors were able to make interesting, even pointed films in apparently unpromising circumstances in the 1970s and 1980s. There's a strong, and welcome, female perspective at work here -- a male director might have pushed the theatrical satire further but left to one side the exploration of how the lead actor's problems on stage and at home were part of a continuum, and I found the character of the lead actor's wife to be quite fascinating in her own attempts to navigate a world of power (in multiple senses). Her journey is also very affecting on the emotional level. The debates between actors and other theatre personnel were deeply compelling for the sense in which they must surely have mirrored the processes of daily life in Poland for the people employed on the film. 

Monday, September 07, 2015

Pather Panchali

1955, India, directed by Satyajit Ray

A big-screen outing for the brand-new restoration of a film I'd only ever seen on TV, this was hugely compelling. It's quite extraordinary how skillful and resourceful Ray already was as a filmmaker, whether in individual shots -- a dolly into a face to emphasize a point, for instance -- or entire sequences, such as that opened and closed by the auntie rocking the infant Apu, or the multiple scenes intercutting parallel action (the children off in search of a train while the mother and auntie interacted, among other examples). Given the shared importance of Italian neo-realism in their development, it was hard not to think of early Sembène, although they are of course very different filmmakers: as much as both were quite consciously creating an alternative to commercial cinema, Sembène was a good deal more uncompromising in that regard, and while he was a very sophisticated filmmaker in terms of his editing and symbolic techniques, from the earliest days, I'm more reserved as to his skill with the camera -- indeed, even quite late in his career I thought he made rather poor use of things like the zoom. Of course, since silky camera movement, for instance, tended to imply commercial filmmaking perhaps this was a more conscious rejection than I give Sembène credit for -- and that's where personal taste also comes in.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Mr. Holmes

2015, UK/US, directed by Bill Condon

I quite liked Bill Condon's Of Gods and Monsters when it came out, given the Old Hollywood subject material, although it's not a challenging film -- and this is really more of the same, except less fresh and even less complicated despite some narrative intercutting in the early going. It's been a while since I saw a film with less visual interest, even accounting for the attractive shots of summery southern England. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Side Street

1950, US, directed by Anthony Mann

I'm not sure how I hadn't "discovered" (relatively) early Anthony Mann previously, especially given my interest in both the cinematic time period and in other directors with a similar interest in visual texture, like Robert Siodmak. The film itself is something of a mixed bag but when it's good it's very, very good, most obviously on the visual and location-shooting levels. With respect to the latter, you can certainly see the skill-set put to such good use in the Westerns later in the 1950s, while I was also much amused by David Bordwell's comment that Mann never saw a ceiling he didn't like. The director uses the same angles outdoors too, so you get the Empire State building looming up behind the characters just as you see a tin ceiling do the same thing in a bar. The final chase scene is quite eye-popping -- interesting, given later films like The French Connection, that the elevated train lines are used at times as a prop/hazard, although that particular line is long gone. My favourite shot, with many to choose from, was from a high overhead perspective with a tiny car disappearing into the concrete canyons (very covered-wagon-in-Utah). 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

La Machine

1977, France, directed by Paul Vecchiali

On the strength of this film Vecchiali clearly requires further investigation -- he seems essentially unknown in the English-speaking world and I found only the barest of references to him in most academic works. Despite certain key tonal differences, this would make an interesting double bill with Slap the Monster on Page One -- two 1970s films exploring the role of the media in criminal cases. The media has an especially complex role in Vecchiali's film given its simultaneous reflection of the story and desire to sell it, but also as an important vector of the debate on capital punishment, circulating ideas in a sometimes serious-minded way that provides a marked contrast to its treatment of the individual crime. 

It was only afterwards that I discovered how closely the circumstances of the case paralleled those of a highly controversial death penalty case in 1975, that of the execution of Christian Ranucci -- a case controversial enough that Giscard is still questioned about it occasionally today. Many of the details in La Machine were quite similar, though the film never raised doubts about the subject's guilt. As it happened, the final French execution took place the same week the film was released in 1977, although the death penalty was not actually banned until 1981. 

Formally, the film is quite fascinating, using a great deal of realistic footage -- some of the sequences of journalists/interviews/vox pops go on for strikingly long periods, but then are contrasted with much more obviously artificial sequences, like the barroom scene that comes across like a scene from a play, the barflies artlessly moving from one spot to another as the camera pans back and forth outside the windows, before the characters unexpectedly break into song, a wonderfully destablizing moment.


1980, France, directed by Maurice Pialat

A film that follows very much in the steps of its predecessor, Passe ton bac d'abord. While the social milieu is different -- a combination of characters drawn from both slightly lower and slightly higher tranches than the earlier film, with the socio-economic specificity of Paris also added in -- there's a great deal of continuity between the late-adolescent mistreatment of friends and lovers and the adult version of the same thing in Loulou. There's also a continued sense of a terrifically depressing drift in the France of the Giscard era, despite the often positive social liberalization of French life in that period. Not for the first time, I have the sense that Mitterrand's 1981 election was as much as anything a desire to move on from the grey decade of the 1970s, during which it became increasingly difficult to take seriously the promises of French social life. From such unpromising social turf you often get wonderfully interesting films, of course. It was an exquisite pleasure to see Jacqueline Dufranne as Depardieu's mother here: she was both wonderful and heart-breaking as the mother/foster-mother in La Maison des bois, one of the warmest and, as that film progressed, most distressing performances I've seen. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Que la bête meure

1969, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

Very impressive, with an especially strong Chabrolian signature -- a blend of suspense, clear-eyed moral inquiry, and merciless dissection of the bourgeoisie, or, perhaps even more to the point, of the aspiring bourgeoisie. The apéritif scene before Jean Yanne makes his first appearance is absolutely exquisite in its sense of life-sapping awkwardness, the camera constantly probing the gathering, and the whole thing capped with a wonderful, lacerating shot of the mother, her face alight as her dreadful son arrives home. Jean Yanne really did play some awful people in the late 1960s/early 1970s; you can understand why he might have elected to go in a rather lighter direction later on. Yanne's character is also an extremely recognizable French type -- not necessarily in the outer reaches of his behaviour, but the kind of guy who truly believes he knows everything and dismisses those around them, even those who are his ostensible friends (the muttered asides about the absent boat-builder, for instance). 

Les Doigts dans la tête

1974, France, directed by Jacques Doillon

A film that would pair well very with Pialat's Passe ton bac d'abord, as a Paris-set examination of the lives of young French people in a decade of increasing crisis and ennui to match Pialat's provincial picture. As you might expect for a film set in France in 1974, it is a film very much concerned with worker-employer relations, though having the key conflict between a baker and his employee (rather than, say, between a factory boss and his many underlings) lends the examination of labour issues an extra degree of interest, not least because small business owners have often otherwise been valorised in French cinema (especially in provincial contexts). It's also an unsentimental, sometimes quite warm, occasionally even funny, examination of the way that young people interact and try to negotiate their relationships with one another. 

Sunday, August 09, 2015


2015, US, directed by Judd Apatow

Friday, August 07, 2015

Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation

2015, US, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Knack... and How to Get It

1965, UK, directed by Richard Lester

Watched in the interests of enjoying David Cairns's impromptu Film Club in spoiler-free mode, although plot is hardly the prime driver for the film, so unusual in terms of British filmmaking of the period. Perhaps it's the young-ish cast, but it put me very much in mind of the zest and experimental spirit of a Godard picture from roughly the same timeframe, including on the visual level (the cinematography is frequently gorgeous, while there's a beguiling what-might-happen-next aspect to the overall tone). Like most people of my age group, I first encountered Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer in the sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, so the mere idea that he had an earlier -- and entirely respectable -- existence comes as a continued revelation. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

La Chambre bleue

2014, France, directed by Mathieu Amalric

A very nice latter-day Simenon film, with one of the writer's great virtues, brevity, intact -- not always something that survives in other filmed adaptations, including by Chabrol, often such an economical filmmaker. It's also an interesting study in adaptation: for the most part it is exceptionally faithful to the book, both in tone (Amalric's flat responses to the questioning, almost resigned to his fate) and plotting. 

Still, there are intriguing changes: I don't think there's any suggestion that Amalric's character routinely indulges in extra-marital affairs whereas in the book his brother owns the hotel where he plans his assignations, adding a level of perfidy. Amalric also changes the profession of his lover: she is a pharmacist rather than a shopkeeper, which makes her access to poison easier to explain but then makes her delivery of the fatal dose rather more cumbersome. The cross-cutting between quite intense depictions of the affair and the dry legal follow-up is also very much from the book, which has a very frank tone taking advantage of increased permissiveness in the 1960s. And then there are, of course, the choices that are unique to the film -- the sun-dappled holiday accompanied by foreboding music that wouldn't be out of place in a Hitchcock picture. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Les Godelureaux

1961, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

Surely one of the strangest films to emerge from the nouvelle vague period, and probably the most Godard-ian of Chabrol's films (it's hard not to see its influence, in turn, on Bande à part, though there's nothing quite as glorious as that film's dance sequence). The film is a gleeful and sometimes literal destruction of bourgeois life and yet I couldn't help but also detect an affirmation of the likelihood that the same values will win out in the end -- a kind of foreshadowing of the performative aspects of 1968 as well as the surprisingly conventional aftermathe. There's a plotline -- Jean-Claude Brialy enacting a bizarre form of revenge after a joke is played on by a bunch of St-German larksters -- but that's secondary to the set pieces, most notably the central, quite extraordinary bacchanalia that results in the more-or-less consequence-free destruction of a stately home. The film is very much of its time in terms of its response to the early years of the nouvelle vague, and also a film of Paris, with great period views of the city. 


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States