Friday, November 30, 2012

Wild Reeds

Wild Reeds
Director: Andre Techine
Starring: Elodie Bouchez, Gael Morel, Stephane Rideau, Frederic Gorny

There are certain topics that tend to get made into films more frequently than others.  While war movies and rom-coms certainly are done over and over again, the coming of age tale isn’t that far behind.  Wild Reeds is most definitely a coming of age tale, mostly plotless, focusing on four young adults in France in 1962.

Francois (Morel) and Maite (Bouchez) are friends, but everyone thinks they are dating.  Francois is at an all-boys boarding school where he meets Serge (Rideau); considering Serge looks like a Greek god, Francois soon starts to develop romantic feelings for him.  Meanwhile, there is insolent Henri (Gorny) who, at 21, is still in school because he has failed to pass his baccalaureate exam.  He talks back to teachers, but spends all his time listening to reports on the conflict in Algeria. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh

Generally considered the last true classic film noir (as it was the last one made before the term was coined, everything that followed would be mindfully neo-noir), Touch of Evil is completely and utterly embodied to me by one of its main characters. Hank Quinlan is fat, bloated, sweaty, confused, and corrupt. These adjectives most definitely apply to the general tone of the film as well.

Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston in obnoxious brownface) is a Mexican narcotics cop working to take down the infamous Grande family in a border town. When an American business man is killed by a car bomb deposited in Mexico but detonated in the US, jurisdiction gets confusing. Vargas is helping on the case, but American veteran cop Quinlan (Welles) takes charge of the case. Quinlan is stubborn and untrusting of Vargas, who is as straight edge as it’s possible to be. Things aren’t helped when Vargas’ new wife, American Susan (Leigh) is kidnapped by the Grande family and psychologically tortured in order to tarnish both her and Mike’s reputation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Director: Stephan Elliott
Starring: Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Bill Hunter

At its core, you’ve seen the story of Priscilla before. It’s fundamentally a mash-up of a classic road movie and a classic outcast movie, with all the expected scenes and tropes popping up. But thanks mostly to Terence Stamp, the fabulous (in every sense of the word) costumes, and an irrepressible sense of joy and optimism, Priscilla elevates above its predictable narrative.

Professional drag queen Mitzi (Weaving) gets a call from his long-abandoned wife, now a casino manager, asking him to be her new cabaret act. He enlists his co-worker Felicia (Pearce) to get in on the act, and friend and transsexual Bernadette (Stamp) needs the distraction after the death of her younger lover. The three set out on a bus (which they name “Priscilla”) to make their way to the desert casino, meeting people and causing scenes along the way.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

Au Revoir, Les Enfants
Director: Louis Malle
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö

Julien (Manesse) is a privileged young boy whose wealthy mother sends him to a Carmelite school to get him out of Paris in 1944. He’s a bossy little kid who acts tough but really misses his mom. One day, three new students arrive at the school, and Julien is somewhat fascinated by Jean (Fejtö). Which, of course, means, that Julien starts picking on Jean. Ultimately, though, the two form a friendship, each an outsider in their own way. Julien slowly starts to realize that Jean is hiding a secret. This is 1944 Paris. I’ll give you three guesses what Jean’s secret is, and the first two don’t count.

The performance of the two young boys, Manesse and Fejtö, is outstanding, and ultimately, that is what makes the film really succeed. The characters they depict, Julien and Jean, are never, not once, stereotypical movie children. They are never sweetly precocious or overtly mugging. Instead, both are completely naturalistic; mean at times, sympathetic at times, but never forced. Manesse, in particular, turns in one of the most refreshingly low-key child performances I’ve ever seen. I was reminded several times in this film of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (not surprising, given that Malle was also part of the French New Wave movement), and Julien certainly shares a movie lineage with Antoine Doinel.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

 “How singularly innocent I look this morning.” Thus speaks Waldo Lydecker, one of the central characters in Otto Preminger’s film noir Laura. Well, yes, it’s film noir, but it’s also more. It’s a mystery, beyond anything else, and a psychological thriller. It’s an immensely satisfying film, one that feels more fresh and modern than other noir films of the era.

Laura Hunt (beautifully played by Gene Tierney in extensive flashbacks) has been murdered. Detective Mark McPherson (the immensely attractive and brooding Dana Andrews) is the man on the case, going back to interview all the suspects again. And hoo boy, are there lots of suspects. There’s Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price – yes, THAT Vincent Price), Laura’s fiancé, who seems to be more a gold-digger than an honest man. If Laura had broken off the engagement, could he have killed her? There’s Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), an older newspaper writer who seems obsessed with Laura, and was troubled by her engagement to Shelby. Was he trying to keep Laura all to himself? There’s also Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who seems to be carrying something on with Shelby on the side. Did she want Laura out of the picture?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter
Director: Charles Laughton  
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin

The Night of the Hunter is many things. One of Robert Mitchum’s finest and most iconic performances, the phenomenal sole directorial work of Charles Laughton, some of the best work of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, and a children’s version of a film noir. It is that last point that keeps me coming back to this movie for more.

Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a serial killer masquerading through 1930s West Virginia as a man of God. After sharing a jail cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves of Airplane! infamy), he hears of Harper’s hidden $10,000. After Harper is hung, Powell makes a move on the rest of the Harper family, seducing widow Willa Harper (Winters), but he cannot win over young John Harper (Chapin). John knows where his father hid the money, and he’s not telling. He doesn’t trust the preacher. When Powell’s serial killing inevitably claims his mother as his next victim, John grabs his little sister Pearl and runs away down the river, eventually finding their way to the safety of Rachel Cooper (Gish), a woman with a will of steel and a shotgun that she’s not afraid to use. Powell tracks down the children, but must face Rachel first.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Director: Gavin Hood  
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto

 It’s always interesting for me to see a film from a country I know little about, or even one which produces few international films in general. The South African film industry is hardly on par with Hollywood, but they have a solid entry into international cinema with Tsotsi. Although I didn’t feel that it brought anything tremendously novel to the screen, it tells its little story of moral redemption well.

Tsotsi (Chweneyagae), a young hoodlum in Johannesburg, steals a car, not knowing that there is a small baby in the backseat. When he discovers the child, he cannot bring himself to abandon it, and instead, starts to care for it, forcibly enlisting the help of a single mother (Pheto). In doing so, he begins to question his current life of crime and how he wound up there, all while wrestling with whether or not to return the child to its affluent parents.

The narrative focus of this film is squarely on Tsotsi attempting to turn his life around. Chweneyagae turns in a fine performance in this aspect, but I felt his “pre-epiphany” Tsotsi much more a caricature. He is hardened and violent, but somehow, I felt a massive disconnect between this Tsotsi and the one he turned into. The name “Tsotsi” even means “Thug.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I know that the Tsotsi we meet at the beginning of the film felt oddly unreal. To give credit where credit is due, I will end by reiterating what a nice job Chweneyagae does with the metamorphosis of the character, especially considering that this is likely one of his first films, but it seems like he didn’t quite know where to start.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens

It took a few years for sound technology to really find its footing. While talking (and singing) in films hit the big time with The Jazz Singer in 1927, other common sound uses that we expect today – like soundtrack music – would take several years to catch on. It’s interesting watching movies from the first seven or eight years of sound technology because of this; what they use, what they lack, primitive sound technology. At the same time, films were still relatively young, and the stories they were telling were not always the most sophisticated. Each of these considerations makes M stand out that much more from its early sound counterparts. It tells a gripping and morally layered story, using sound in a smart way to further the narrative through the use of voice over for one of the first times in film, and using a piece of music to signify a certain act.

A murderer is on the loose in a German city. He kidnaps young children off the street, molests them, then kills them. The police, headed by Inspector Lohmann (Wernicke) are flabbergasted and frustrated; their investigations are proving fruitless, so they decide to perform a massive crackdown on all criminal activity. This causes the criminal underworld a great deal of inconvenience, so they, headed by mastermind Schranker (Grundgens) decide to take matters into their own hands. Just as the police begin to hone in on our psychopath (Lorre), the criminals too discover his identity. Getting their hands on him first, Hans Beckert is put on trial by the criminal underworld to answer for his sins.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When Harry Met Sally...

When Harry Met Sally…
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby

Back in my college days, I lived in a suite. Of girls. At one point, there were 8 of us sharing very cramped quarters. Despite the inevitable drama (there was one vicious knock down fight over – get this – cake frosting), there was also a LOT of romantic comedy-watching. A LOT. It was pretty much the only genre of film that was ever on our tiny little television. I think it was during this phase of my life that I started to see the cracks in the genre due to my overexposure to it. I also distinctly remember watching When Harry Met Sally… during that time in my life and starting to see just how great a romcom it is.

Harry (Crystal) needs a ride to New York from Chicago, and Sally (Ryan) has a car. They’ve never met, but they share a contentious cross country trip then part ways. Five years later, they bump into one another on a plane trip and continue to bicker, then part ways again. Five years later AGAIN, they meet up, but this time, become friends. And, because this is a romantic comedy, the friendship starts to build and evolve into something more.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Director: Robert Bresson
Starring: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pelegri

A race track. The bell sounds. Everyone is jostling for position, craning to see the horses. Everyone except Michel (LaSalle). Although he is looking in the same direction as the crowd, it is clear that his attention is focused on the people around him, not the horses. His hand reaches for a lady’s purse in front of him. With incredible care and suspense, he slowly unhinges the clasp on the purse, visibly jumping when the clasp breaks free.

Ah, Michel, the “hero” of Bresson’s crime drama Pickpocket. Of course, because this is a Robert Bresson film, Pickpocket does not fit the mold of a traditional crime drama. Michel is a pickpocket by choice, not by situation or circumstance. He sees himself as being better, somehow, than other men, and actively uses it as an excuse for his crime. Even the death of his mother does not imbue a sense of law and order into him, but it does introduce him to Jeanne (Green), a young woman who tries to show him the way to his moral salvation.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Quiet Earth

The Quiet Earth
Director: Geoff Murphy
Starring: Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routledge, Pete Smith

It’s 6:11 in the morning. Suddenly there’s a flash of light. Something has happened. Zac Hobson (Lawrence) wakes up in his motel room and prepares for work. As he sets out on his day, however, he slowly discovers that everyone else is gone. Just… gone. No bodies, no nothing. Given that the film stars two other people, you can probably anticipate that Zac does not stay by himself the entire time. Indeed, he discovers two other survivors, and the three must work against their infighting in order to figure out what happened.

This is a science fiction film, to be sure, but it’s done on a very modest, meager scale. Sci-fi does not necessarily mean alien spaceship props and bizarre costumes and makeup. In fact, I rather think that when sci-fi is forced to be made without those trappings, it tends to produce a far more intellectually provocative product. The Quiet Earth asks the question: what would YOU do if you were the last human being on the planet?

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian

Borat (Cohen) is a television personality for Kazahstan national television. In order to, well, make benefit glorious nation of Kazahstan, he and his producer Azamat (Davitian) set off for America. Once there, Borat becomes infatuated with Pamela Anderson from watching old Baywatch reruns, and becomes insistent on traveling across America to California in order to meet her. Along the way, he interacts with several unwitting Americans, exposing uncomfortable cultural truths about our country.

In order for me to write about Borat, I have to explain something about myself. I’m kinda snooty. And I’m okay with that. After all, a little pretension never hurt anybody. I’ve always liked things that are kinda snooty. I love intense film dramas, classic literature, classical music, and bel canto opera. I do not listen to pop music, I think it’s a waste of time, and I realized that when I was in sixth grade. You give me a choice of anything in the world to listen to, and I’ll probably pick Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore or Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. See, I’m such a snob, I call the operas by their Italian names.

Common or lowbrow humor usually does phenomenally little for me. Superbad was gawdawful. I had to physically leave the room about thirty minutes into The Hangover, I was enjoying myself that little. Real Housewives, Kim Kardashian, Jersey Shore - I weep for the future because of the success of such things.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Director: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Amalric), or Jean-Do to his friends, is a highly successful editor at French Elle. The film opens when he wakes up from a stroke, completely paralyzed from head to toe, save for his left eye. Jean-Do, after running the gamut of emotions about how completely his life has changed, starts working with a therapist (Croze) to learn to communicate again. She reads him the letters of the alphabet and he blinks when she gets to the one he wants to use. He decides to dictate a book using this method about his experience as a man trapped in his own body.

The first half hour of the film is entirely from the point of view of Jean-Do. As the film opens, we see a hazy, foggy, slanted view of a hospital room. The camera goes in and out of focus repeatedly. We are seeing through Jean-Do’s functioning eye, and it is tired. We are disoriented and confused because he is disoriented and confused. We continue to experience exactly what he does as a string of doctors and specialists come in to see him. The camera continues to be blurry and at odd angles. The first time we actually see Jean-Do in his stricken state is as he sees himself in a reflection along a shiny wall. He shudders at his reflection, and frankly, I did too. When a friend visits him and puts a fuzzy hat on his head, part of the camera shot is blocked by the hat because part of his vision was blocked by the hat. Both Schnabel and Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer, did an amazing job in creating the first-person camerawork. I’ve never really seen anything else like it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

42nd Street

42nd Street
Producer: Busby Berkeley
Starring: Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel, Dick Powell, Bebe Daniels, Warner Baxter

I’m going to admit something right now that is going to make me incredibly unpopular in film blogger circles. I love musicals. I do, god help me. I was raised on them; they are the cinema of my childhood. A weekend afternoon wasn’t complete without Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire singing and dancing. They remain my ultimate cinematic feel-good flicks.

Having said all of that, though, I will now say that despite my adoration, all musicals are not created equal. I can’t get enough of the Golden Age MGM musicals, with all their Technicolor glory and extended fantasy ballet sequences, but give me Rodgers and Hammerstein and I will leave the room. Early Hollywood musicals, which started as soon as sound in film began, were one of two varieties. There were the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals, the type to which 42nd Street belongs, where all the musical numbers take place in the context of a stage act and have precious little to do with what is going on in the film. Because this is what Busby Berkeley liked to do, these types of musicals also typically involved a ridiculously stagey and showy final dance number. The other variety of musical is the type where the musical numbers further the plot; or at very least, deal with the plot. You know the kind, where the hero sings about how much he loves the heroine right after meeting her. A theater needn’t be a part of the plot of these musicals; they can be about anything, and the song and dance numbers fit in with the overall emotional arc of the film. Think René Clair’s 1931 duology of Le Million and À Nous la Liberté.

Guess what: I love the latter type of musical, and am really not a fan of the former.

In case you forgot, 42nd Street is the former.