Thursday, April 30, 2015

Night Train to Munich

1940, UK, directed by Carol Reed

I couldn't recall if I'd ever seen this before: I might have caught it as a teenager on TV, but it's hard to be certain, especially given the thematic, visual and casting overlaps with The Lady Vanishes. A few critical comments come down rather harshly on this for not being the full Hitchcock in its easy transition from comedy to suspense, which seems to me to miss or at least evade the point of this being filmed and released after the war began while the Hitchcock film was released in 1938 (within a week of the Munich Agreement, as it happens, but obviously the film does not speak to that). In other words, the stakes are considerably raised here: there are no notional villains but rather very specific ones, with whom Britain was already at war (the tropes of cinematic Nazi behaviour are in full flight already by 1940, that much is clear), so the film has to serve multiple functions as entertainment and, to at least some degree, wartime propaganda. Within that context, I thought it remarkably well done -- the montage sequences that include documentary footage are chilling, apt, and useful to establish the context, while the performances, particularly from the contrasting duo of Paul (von) Henreid and Rex Harrison, each essentially having to play two characters, are very good indeed. I also enjoyed the re-appearance of the cricket enthusiasts from the Hitchcock film -- perhaps a little broad, and certainly stretching credibility, but also very much to be relished in that "I say, old chap" kind of way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


2014, Germany, directed by Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold's body of work over the last fifteen years or so is among the finest in European cinema, and one of the more remarkable aspects of his past two films is the seamless transition from largely contemporary themes to fine-grained explorations of the past that are nonetheless the polar opposite of most period pieces. There's nothing airless about these films despite the meticulous recreation of setting (though they share with most Petzold films that sense of being quite deliberately under-populated: Berlin is no teeming city here, but rather a specific time and place sketched in with exceptional economy both in narrative and demographic terms). It's no great surprise that a filmmaker as strong as Petzold was eventually going to turn fully toward some of the great historical questions of his society, dealing with the past and its weight -- quite literally in the case of Nelly in this film, but of course construed more broadly by Petzold. 

I was struck, not for the first time, by the director's ability to take material that could appear quite melodramatic and treat it in a non-histrionic way -- it's precisely the refusal to engage in melodramatics here that lends the narrative its power, the quiet accumulation of details that is so neatly and poetically turned on its head in the final, wonderful scene. Nina Hoss is, as ever, quite remarkable, creating a fully-realized person with the most delicate shades of nuance, steadfastly refusing the "big" acting that many others would bring to a part like this. Other notes: the du/Sie nature of German adds a whole other layer to the interactions between Nelly and her former husband, one which the subtitles struggled awkwardly to convey in the early going with the occasional use of "Miss." The sound design is also quite wonderful: the sounds of (different) clocks in each location, the creak of floorboards, the way that sounds which seem so loud at night (like those clocks) fade into the background in the bustle of the day. Impeccable detail and yet all in service of the bigger picture.

Friday, April 24, 2015


2005, US, directed by Andy Tennant

A com-rom rather than a rom-com, in the sense that the first half is much more focused on the comic setup with the second half squeezing in the hitherto undernourished romantic plotline. The problem is that despite the romantic partners being absolutely charming, they can't hope to compete with the comic chemistry generated between Will Smith and Kevin James, so everything afterwards seems like a bit of a disappointment. Still, there are enough laughs in the first half to just about sustain the momentum when James goes offscreen for an extended period.

Les Reines du ring

2013, France, directed by Jean-Marc Rudnicki

Feather-light, entirely predictable, often very silly and yet also quite agreeable, mostly for its cast. Audrey Fleurot was a touch OTT for my taste, playing what at first seems like a kind of amped-up version of her Engrenages character, although with a good deal more humour, but Nathalie Baye and André Dussollier both had some nice moments and Corinne Masiero made sure she stole a good deal of the show despite being the theoretical support (she too, plays a character not a million miles away from that she essayed in Engrenages). 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter

1972, West Germany/Austria, directed by Wim Wenders (aka The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty)

I first saw this in my mid-teens when it played on TV, before I had seen any other Wenders films, and I was pretty nonplussed -- although intrigued enough to stay with it. It's a pretty significant step up from here to Alice in den Städten and yet this film is still an impressive work in terms of Wenders' intent and ability to deliver thereon. I recently watched an interview with Wenders, filmed much more recently, in which he spoke of his youthful sense of an absence of history, or at the very least an absence of the discussion of history, in postwar Germany, with its literally unspeakable acts. I can't help but hear an echo of that broader need for confrontation with the past in this early film: the central character's own terrible act colours everything that comes afterwards and yet he simply goes on living. Of course, that's only one reading of the film -- it's a film that practically invites you to project your own viewpoint, though it's become remarkably hard to see the film these days.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

La Gueule ouverte

1974, France, directed by Maurice Pialat

The more I watch and re-watch Maurice Pialat's films, the more I'm convinced that he belongs in the very first rank of directors of the past forty years or so. Whether he's working with major stars or non-professionals he extracts performances of a rare conviction and humanity, and his observational skills are peerless. It sounds like his rough cut for this film was far, far longer so the final product is the result of he paring down a tremendous amount of material, including snipping away more or less any reference to Philippe Léotard's professional life (in contrast, say, to the constant references to work in Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble -- though no-one actually works that much onscreen!). The rhythm of the film is quite similar to its immediate predecessor, constantly moving back and forth toward the central narrative of the decline of a seriously ill parent, and there are other connections with earlier Pialat films, most notably the wonderful final shot taken from a departing car -- clearly referencing one of the best moments in La Maison des bois. Like that film/series and Nous ne viellirons pas ensemble, Pialat spends a great deal of time exploring the deep tension between Paris and the provinces, one of the great oppositions in French life, though here he chooses to make Paris a virtual absence in terms of its onscreen depiction. The image above is from one of the film's most remarkable sequences, an early scene that runs an uninterrupted eight minutes or so: it's a notable technical accomplishment but also provides exceptional insight into the relationships between the film's four central characters and most particularly the mother-son pair. Filmed from a slightly elevated perspective, the two actors never directly face each other yet the scene is a kind of final confrontation as they lay bare their lives together, no subject off limits now that cancer has reared its head. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Horse's Mouth

1958, UK, directed by Ronald Neame

A terrific portrayal of the artistic temperament that's surely one of the best films on the creative/destructive potential of art and its makers, and yet one which resists the temptations of cliché. Alec Guinness's characterization of Gulley Jimson is quite wonderful -- apparently the actor had been fascinated by the story for years, and ended up writing the script -- capturing an entirely convincing amalgam of genius and (sometimes inadvertent) rogue. It's not hard to see some of the makings of his later Fagin, either, both in voice and gesture. I found the soliloquies on the meaning of art genuinely moving and the film's ability to transition smoothly between the (sometimes broadly) comic and the profound reminded me of some of the best of Leo McCarey.  

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

La Clé sur la porte

1978, France, directed by Yves Boisset

Though it caught me eye because it features Patrick Dewaere, this is very much Annie Girardot's film -- as enlivening as Dewaere is, he doesn't appear for a good half hour, by which time we're deeply invested in Girardot's character, a lycée teacher who also functions as a kind of de facto youth leader for the various local teens friendly with her daughter. It's a very affecting portrait of a woman trying as hard as she can to create a reasonably sane space for her adolescent charges, whether formal or informal, and the sense of the shared bonds of community is both effectively sketched and quite convincing. Boisset wisely resists the temptation to portray Girardot in saintly terms: she's not immune to the errors of judgment, but she's also grounded by a strong ethical sense, and it makes for an compelling portrait of late-1970s French society, still negotiating between poles of adult authority and youthful liberation.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Adieu au langage

2014, France/Switzerland, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

A film that's very much in keeping with later-period Godard: dense, narratively confusing, potentially pretentious/infuriating/illuminating, visually magical (and certainly not populist: I was 50% of the audience for this screening). It certainly resists any easy categorization, and it's not a film that's going to please someone motivated by narrative progression and resolution more than anything else. For me, it's hard not to be impressed by the vitality of an artist constantly trying new things no matter what stage of his career he happens to be at: here, the experimentation is especially obvious on the visual level, with the director make intriguing use of a wide range of cameras. The different equipment generates a strikingly varied set of outcomes, from very grainy, almost lo-fi pictures to crisp and astonishingly detailed close-up shots depending on which camera he chooses. As David Bordwell suggested in a post recentlyGodard is interested here in visual texture in a way that seems more familiar from painting, and as such it's no accident that he includes a variety of shots of palettes, brushes and paint (and finds visual equivalents for these in other places, such as the coat of the dog we see throughout the film). Inevitably, Godard also uses 3D in ways that no commercial filmmaker would imagine, most notably when he splits the two cameras required for 3D filmmaking and has each follow a different bit of action (if you close one eye and then the other you can flip back and forth between the two images, editing them in whatever sequence you'd like yourself). The first of those instances was, to my mind, the most successful for a number of reasons: it worked quite naturally with the onscreen action as well as having the element of surprise, and it had me laughing with delight. 

Tchao pantin

1983, France, directed by Claude Berri

1983 was the high point of Coluche's not-all-that-distinguished cinematic career, between this film, which won him a César, and Bertrand Blier's La Femme de mon pote, loosely based on Coluche's own complicated private life (and particularly his relationship with Patrick Dewaere, originally supposed to play opposite Coluche in the latter film). Very few directors seemed to have known what to do with Coluche's raucous, populist comic persona -- while their comedy is quite different, it reminds me to some degree of the challenge that Robin Williams' manically energetic improvisation posed to directors right through the 1980s. Like Williams, Coluche could tone it down when required, sometimes to rather syrupy effect, but here the tone stays spare and generally unsentimental. Claude Berri is no cinematic innovator but the first half of his film is strong, sketching in the tentative and spiky friendship that develops between a night-shift petrol station attendant and a young North African (played by Richard Anconina). The second half proceeds in an increasingly obvious and rather less credible direction, despite the welcome insertion of Philippe Léotard, though this is partly due to the structure of the picture: we go through the first half of the film with essentially no information about Coluche's character except for a loose architecture that allows us to project a variety of troubles on him, and the second half fills in a good deal of the missing detail. Coluche doesn't have to display an enormous range but he does jaded very effectively, his downbeat demeanour well-matched with the overall vibe of Paris noir


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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