Sunday, May 30, 2010

WWII #3: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Columbia Pictures, 161 mins.

David Lean's quietly observed war epic is perhaps the definitive film about the hypocrisy of pride and military code. In it, an honorable and resolute British officer named Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) naively commands his soldiers, under captivity, to help build a bridge for the Japanese in Burma that is crucial to the war effort.

Superiority and idleness are what drives his quest to build the bridge, but soon he begins to justify the project to himself, proclaiming that the morale of the men his high and their spirits strong until the bridge ultimately becomes his flamboyant embodiment of British pride and supremacy.

Meanwhile, a cynical, sun-crusted Navy commander (William Holden) witnesses the rigid stubbornness of the British colonel first-hand before making his escape, only to be told to return with the help of a demolitions expert named Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) assigned with the task of blowing up the bridge. Little do they know that Colonel Nicholson and his men, prisoners, are quite content with their confinement, the bridge and their pride now one.

In the first shot of the brilliant opening sequence, we see a hawk circling overhead until the scene moves to the jungle floor. As the camera pans right, the sounds of the jungle slowly amplify as the sight of four graves - simply marked with bare crosses - pull into view.

Later, in our introductory scene with Mr. Shears (Holden), the Commander is seen digging graves with a fellow prisoner and, in a shoddy attempt at a eulogy, openly questions what they died for. Shears is a man with little belief in anything except survival, whereas Colonel Nicholson, who stares down the barrel of a gun with unshakable stoicism, believes in nothing but service, honor and glory.

It is a rare thing for a war film to operate on as many levels as The Bridge on the River Kwai does, and to do so with such a steady, well-versed rhythm. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard on the present-day island of Sri Lanka, the film is a visual precursor (the widescreen vistas barely containing the egos of his subjects) to the epics that director David Lean would later be known for, including Lawrence of Arabia ('62) and Doctor Zhivago ('65).

In the film's climax, the gimpy Major Warden and Commander Shears arrive on time to detonate the bridge just upon completion. It's an act of nature - the receding of the river - that allows Colonel Nicholson the opportunity to quench his suspicions and root out their destructive plans before they would have liked.

When a lunging Shears dies at his feet, the Colonel employs one of his most famous lines from the film, a simple, "what have I done?" The deaths of men who have been his allies detaches the stiff, glimmering pride long enough for those four words, which incidentally are his last, as he buckles from a mortar shell and collapses on top of the plunger.

Never before have the differing philosophies and the conflicting national conducts of war been so evident on screen, playing out in a climactic squabble which results in the deaths of three major characters, all of whom we have grown to appreciate and admire over the film's steady 161-minute running time.

In the end, it's hard to fault anybody and thus The Bridge on the River Kwai more closely resembles a war tragedy than an action film. The hawk, once again circling overhead, punctuates the "madness" below - the force and presence of nature never far from view. [A]

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Classic Rewind: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

For a five-year stretch in the mid-20th century, John Sturges churned out one of the most impressive streaks of quality production in the western genre, establishing himself as a master of the widescreen form and a wily action filmmaker.

Although Gunfight at the O.K. Corral ('57), another retelling of the famous shootout at Tombstone with Wyatt Earp and company, may not have the wonderful small-town hysteria of Bad Day at Black Rock ('55) or the star-power of The Magnificent Seven ('60), I believe it's his most purely entertaining western and certainly the most lusciously photographed.

It's not exactly a film to be dissected or examined the way that a John Ford, Sam Peckinpah or Anthony Mann western could, but for what it is - a handsomely-mounted take on the legend of an unlikely friendship - it's a frequently gripping piece of entertainment.

Throwing his hat into the ring alongside Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as actors who have had the chance to portray Wyatt Earp on screen, Burt Lancaster is solidly stoic in the lead role, although naturally it comes up short when viewed against his greedy, grinning lone gunslinger in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz ('54), playing opposite Gary Cooper.

Here Kirk Douglas, who would team up with Sturges again in Last Train From Gun Hill ('59), has the meaty role as Doc Holliday, the gambling goon with a bad cough and a reputation for trouble who gets tangled with Wyatt in his stand against the Canton gang.

It's the classic story of a selfish outlaw finding purpose through an improbable relationship given a twist in that it's not driven by love but by friendship. (His gal, played by Jo Van Fleet is comparatively tossed around.)

Of course, we also have fun, minor turns by Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and the late Dennis Hopper, but a romantic interlude with the lovely Rhonda Fleming frankly comes up short, just prolonging the inevitable dust-up, which absolutely delivers. [A-]

Friday, May 28, 2010

WWII #2: Flying Leathernecks (1951)

"FLYING LEATHERNECKS" (Nicholas Ray, 1951)
RKO Radio Pictures, 102 mins.

An aerial companion piece to Sands of Iwo Jima ('49), Nicholas Ray's Flying Leathernecks ('51) is a Pacific theater air-combat action film following the ground-strike campaign of the Marine Corps squadron VMF-247 on Guadalcanal.

Leading the squad is Major Kirby (John Wayne), a tough but sympathetic leader who openly opposes to the indecision and camaraderie of Captain Griffin (Robert Ryan), the emotionally compromised second-in-command. (This dichotomy is similar to the one between Wayne and John Agar in the aforementioned Sands of Iwo Jima.)

Ultimately, not unlike Henry King's Twelve O'Clock High ('49), the film is about the relationship between the two men and Captain Griffin's inevitable understanding of leadership in the name of a successful mission and nothing else.

Produced by the legendary Howard Hughes and directed by 50's auteur Nicholas Ray in one of his early works, the esteemed director was once quoted as saying that he hated war movies and his own try at it certainly reveals itself to be an apathetic and largely unimpressive effort.

Shot in Technicolor at the behest of Mr. Hughes, Flying Leathernecks has a base visual style, a far cry from works like Johnny Guitar ('54), which displays Mr. Ray's bold use of color before he extended his work into the filed of CinemaScope - exemplifying the process in Rebel Without a Cause ('55) and Bigger Than Life ('56)

Of course, history would suggest that Nicholas Ray would be permitted to exercise full creative control until the essential cashiers du cinéma western Johnny Guitar, which would explain why Flying Leathernecks feels measly and second-hand.

The flying sequences are disastrously incomprehensible - a nebulous haze of sound-stage cockpit views and colorized stock footage. It's one of those rare war films that frankly bores when the guns start blazing. The bumping heads of Wayne and Ryan is what keeps the film afloat, but for a good air-combat film, look elsewhere. [C+]

Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Mike Newell's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a gravity-defying, time-traveling sandstorm of an action-adventure. It's heavy on plot, rooftop dives, ancient trinkets and goofy banter - partly resembling the sandy, ritualistic escapism of Stephen Sommers' The Mummy , but mostly it recalls the stale formulism and delivery of the recent Clash of the Titans remake.

Among its more admirable feats is the way that it crams a heavy dose of mythical wizardry and Persian power struggles into a mostly coherent story - if a bit chubby - that clocks in at just under two hours. (If only the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels could have be so pointed.)

On top of which, Prince of Persia is a video-game adaptation that, as silly and conservative as it is, actually evokes the gameplay mechanics of its source while still functioning as an entirely separate entity. If it isn't the best video-game adaptation to date (a distinction that's hardly brimming with contenders), it's certainly one of the most faithful and fashionable.

Attempting to break into the realm of the action star, Jake Gylenhaal proves, if nothing else, that he's a touch more interesting than Sam Worthington. He certainly passes the visual eye test, his balletic free-running contrivances looking effortless while his British accent fades from focus, seemingly becoming potent enough to eschew scrutiny. (Although why it's necessary is another matter.)

It's the silky, radiant Gemma Arterton and the wrapped-up and oafish Alfred Molina that bake away in the desert sun - the former attempting to make up for wit with appearance while the latter (an "entrepreneur" who races ostriches and seeks gold) brings us to the James Kincaid quote which asks, "Who is relieved by comic relief?"

And unfortunately, relief for this unusually flaccid summer season has not yet arrived, for Prince of Persia simply isn't up to it. As harmless and modest as it is, like its heroes, it doesn't feel too concerned about the task at hand, it can always just press a button and try again. [C+]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Short Review: MacGruber (2010)

Inflating a pithy Saturday Night Live skit into an 89-minute film (approximately the same runtime as a full-length episode), Jorma Taccone's MacGruber probably contains more laughs per-minute than its increasingly suspect sketch-comedy show, but ultimately it reveals itself to be a one-note cheese grater of an action-comedy in which all the good stuff is in the trailer and (more importantly) all of the really bad stuff isn't.

Parodying the action genre for all its worth, MacGruber is innocuously amusing when it keeps its pants on, but inevitably it devolves into a crass and low-rent parade of recurring sight gags and dubious acts of vapidity. Often, the film mistakes long, awkward conversations for laughs and repetition for playfulness, frequently recycling lines that weren't funny to begin with. (Dieter Von Cunth, we get it!)

And the problem with comedy is that, for me anyways, two good jokes are always canceled out by a bad one. (And unfortunately, the ratio here isn't nearly that friendly.) As the pronunciations of "Cunth" increasingly seem to be omitting the "h", the film too seems to be slipping into a bout of slurring and laziness until it just becomes flat-out unintelligible. This one simply has two celery sticks too many. [D+]

WW II #1: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

"TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH" (Henry King, 1949)
20th Century Fox, 132 mins.

A compelling and endearingly unsentimental look at the Army's Eight Air Force, which ran high-risk bombing runs across the English Channel in the early days of WWII, Twelve O'Clock High ('49) is just a wisp of an action film, preferring instead to focus on the tough, tumultuous command of General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) and his messy and tattered 918th heavy group.

Like Edmund Goulding's The Dawn Patrol ('38), the action takes places almost entirely inside and out of the air base, dealing with the functions and psychologies of high command. Twelve O'Clock High creates a greater division between the decision-makers and the grunts, examining the intricacies and dual-nature of leadership and the small margin between detachment and over-identification towards your men.

Tough, cold and yet susceptible, Gregory Peck's performance (I really haven't seen a bad one) is the backbone to the film, as he struggles to keep up his disciplined and confident approach without associating himself too much to his men.

Besides stress, fatigue and fear, one of the psychological issues weighing on the pilots is motivation. In one of the many good scenes that have nothing to do with flying, a private openly questions to Gen. Savage (Peck) the disappointment with risky, strategic bombing raids in the ultimate quest to take down Berlin - a goal that may not be seen through to its conclusion by anybody in the 918th.

Directed anonymously by Henry King (who was somewhat of the 20th Century Fox equivalent to Michael Curtiz, only less active and less celebrated), Twelve O'Clock High relies heavily on its cast - including Dean Jagger and Millard Mitchell - and leaves whatever aviation dogfights there are to the historians, utilizing reels and reels of archival footage.

King and his triumvirate of writers utilize an intriguing framing device, showing an elderly gentleman on his bicycle (who is revealed to be a former officer of the 198th) cross a field of cows to reveal an airstrip, now defunct and rotted, the story of this undervalued yet unshakable unit committed to memory. [B]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Short Rewinds: Junior Bonner (1972), Green Mansions (1959)

"JUNIOR BONNER" (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)

A contemporary rodeo western meets dysfunctional family comedy, Junior Bonner, although bearing the signature slow-motion and rapid-intercutting techniques, is a far more lax and gentler Sam Peckinpah film.

The first collaboration between he and Steve McQueen (they would team up immediately afterwards on The Getaway) Junior Bonner was not a financial success, but watching it today, although a bit tame, reveals itself to be a well-rounded and deftly arranged film - not so much about facing your past and moving forward, but about hanging on, eight seconds at a time. [B+]

"GREEN MANSIONS" (Mel Ferrer, 1959)

A soggy love-mess, this adaptation of the 1904 William Henry Hudson novel about a revenge-minded adventurer (Anthony Perkins) who falls in love with a forest girl (Audrey Hepburn) is a Pocahontas-like saga of the power of love and redemption, blah, blah.

Trying to take advantage of its wide-canvas CinemaScope form, Green Mansions shot some footage on location in the jungles of South America, but anything involving the cartoon-like Audrey Hepburn and the crooning Anthony Perkins is clearly being performed on the Hollywood backlot. There's even a baby deer that nips at the heels of Mrs. Hepburn wherever she goes. [C]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Harry Brown (2010)

The skinheaded stepchild to Gran Torino, Daniel Barber's Harry Brown is a sickeningly violent retirement home Death Wish, a vigilante thriller encumbered by brooding social issues and repulsive bouts of bloodshed that drown this turd in an air of misplaced catharthis and self-importance.

Attempting to send its legendary star back into the genre that defined his career (the always good Michael Caine), this effort ultimately proves itself unworthy of providing a satisfactory conclusion to the actor who embodied London underworld retribution in Get Carter ('71).

Here, as the titular subject, an aging veteran with a violent past (of course), we watch Harry awake in his apartment as he struggles to get out of bed, glancing dolefully at the vacancy to his left. As he leaves his antiquated yet decorous apartment, the pallid gray walls are revealed to be marred by graffiti and apathy, the streets looming with predators and badmouthed blokes looking for trouble. (At least he doesn't have a lawn for trespassers to disturb.)

When Harry's chess buddy and best friend is brutally murdered (don't worry, you get to see it!) he decides to take justice into his own hands when a well-meaning and savvy policewoman (Emily Mortimer) can't pin anything on the suspected neighborhood thugs in a hilariously rote string of interrogations. ("We dun't no nuffin'!)

Harry's renegade tour through South London's most vicious and abusive gangland may sound like a good time, but in fact, with director Daniel Barber's repulsive meat-hook pulverizings and writer Gary Young's broad incriminations on police inefficiency and youth culture, Harry Brown is a nasty and egregiously portentous genre exercise. [D+]

Guess That Screenshot #2

Hopefully a bit harder this time.

TheAnswerMVP2001 - [1]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Classic Rewind: M (1931)

It's too late in the night to riffle through all of the ins and outs of Fritz Lang's M ('31), which I watched for the first time tonight (I know, sue me), but my initial reaction after just finishing it was that it's a stunning procedural chase film-cum-social drama that hits home in the same way as Akira Kurosawa's High and Low ('63).

Fused with a masterful technical fluency - the reliance on sound for continuity, the whirling, beautifully composed camera movements and high-angle expressionistic compositions - M certainly has to register as the finest and earliest example of what could be accomplished artistically with sound. The fact that it was Fritz Lang's first foray just adds to the mystique and to the craft.

Written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, the film chronicles the pursuit of child serial killer (Peter Lorre) through Berlin and the social unrest and anxiety of such a chase. (It is a rare bird in that both policemen and criminals find themselves sharing a common enemy.)

I love how Lorre's character can't stop humming "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which is the root of every killer-song association in the history of cinema. (The Night of the Hunter clearly owes a lot to M.) And I also love how, for a film made in the 1930's, it delves into the psyche of a murderer in the final scenes, even going so far as to create sympathy.

The second-to-last line, which is spoken just before the judge can make his ruling ("This won't bring back our children") is deliciously cynical, as we, the audience, are denied even the knowledge of our psychopathic subject's fate. [A]

Classic Rewind: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

(Review in accordance with Encore's World of Film & TV Musical Blog-a-thon)

It's not a radical opinion to hail Singin' in the Rain ('52) as the greatest musical of all-time or even to simply profess it as a personal favorite. Certainly not for a film that routinely finds its way to the top of any self-respecting "greatest of" list and its title song (first heard in Hollywood decades prior) can be hummed by almost anybody, regardless of whether or not they've actually seen it.

Preceded by An American in Paris ('51) and followed by The Band Wagon ('53), the film was released at the height of Arthur Freed's prowess, producing both critically-acclaimed and financially profitable musicals at MGM. But in terms of crafting a high-energy Technicolor spectacle, he and director Stanley Donen never equaled the charm, the affluence, or the vitality of Singin' in the Rain.

The perfect confluence of song, dance, sugar-spiked romance and Hollywood satire, the film is one of those rare Hollywood musicals without a flaccid note, number or scene in sight, utilizing its well-rounded cast and catchy verses to win us over time and time again.

Gene Kelly has always been my favorite male dancer for his acrobatic foot-stomping and self-choreographed synchronizations with his dance partners, be it male or female. His genius isn't more readily apparent than on the tongue-tied musical number, "Moses Supposes," in which he and the classic clown Donald O'Connor defiantly stomp around the office of the new diction coach.

Of course, diction (or more directly, voice and sound) play a key role in the film, as our story takes place during the late 1920's, just after the release of Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer ('27), the first sound film ever made.

Kelly, playing Don Lockwood, a Fairbanks-like silent star who faces the threat of becoming obsolete due to the high-pitch squeal of his on-screen lover (and off-screen for the press), the platinum blond, Lina Lamont. (Lina is played by Jean Hagen in an Oscar-nominated role absurdly rich in comedic gems.)

When their new picture, "The Dueling Cavalier," makes the switch to sound, the film spares no attempts at laughter in depicting the violent shrill of Ms. Lamont and the upheaval of Hollywood's sudden transition to the "talking era."

As their film quickly takes the form of something worse than a disaster, the rosy-cheeked dancer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), in between love waltzes with Don on the Hollywood backlot, suggests a musical transformation (which gives us the house-tour joyousness of "Good Morning"). The problem is, Lina can't even talk, much less sing.

The beautiful irony of Singin' in the Rain is that it was released just a year before the implementation of the widescreen CinemaScope process in 1953 in addition to how it eerily resembles the Hollywood we know today as an industry so desperately tied to the trends of the moment. (Just replace The Jazz Singer with Avatar.)

In a film that relies on the plot of a sweet yet undiscovered singer-dancer dishonestly dubbing over the big star's musical harmonies, another touch of irony is the behind-the-scenes reveal that Debbie Reynolds doesn't sing in the film. Among its more immediate qualities and irresistible rhythms, perhaps Singin' in the Rain's greatest achievement is that its sensationalized vision of Hollywood may, in fact, be closer to the reality. [A]

WWII Marathon

The great TCM is running a two-day war movie marathon beginning on the 28th in honor of Memorial Day. Partly with their help, I'd like to do one myself. I don't always, but I usually try to watch movies in a categorized fashion (i.e. by director, actor, genre, etc.).

I have chosen a small list of WWII films (choosing to focus only on the Great War), which consists mostly of films I haven't seen, but also some of my favorites, allowing me to re-watch and write about them. They are:

"TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH" (Henry King, 1949)
"THE GUNS OF NAVARONE" (J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
"STALAG 17" (Billy Wilder, 1950)
"DESTINATION TOKYO" (Delmer Daves, 1943)
"FLYING LEATHERNECKS" (Nicholas Ray, 1951)
"SAHARA" (Zoltan Korda; 1943)
"AIR FORCE" (Howard Hawks, 1943)
"BATTLEGROUND" (William A. Wellman, 1949)
"THE GREAT ESCAPE" (John Sturges, 1963)
"BATTLE OF THE BULGE" (Ken Annakin, 1965)

The WWII Marathon should start later this week.

Classic Rewind: Colorado Territory (1949)

A rare breed of redemptive film noir transplanted from the bustling cityscapes to the old West, any resemblance to the crime films of the 30's and early 40's would be justified, seeing as how Raoul Walsh's Colorado Territory ('49), is in fact a remake of his own High Sierra ('41).

Known as and widely regarded for the star-making performance of Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra is very much the same film as Colorado Territory. Both deal with a run-down outlaw tired of a criminal life and looking to settle down as one final - and inevitably fatal - holdup stands in their way.

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, the bandit in question who is busted out of prison by his longtime boss. Weighed by loyalty, he's pushed into one last job with a couple of goons and their feisty, glamorous half-Indian counterpart, Colorado (Virginia Mayo, in the Ida Lupino role).

But McQueen has his sights on a lonely farm girl, Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone), who resembles his deceased wife and gains her admirer's sympathy in the same way that Joan Leslie and her deformed foot softened Mr. Bogart.

The point in both films that has twice struck me as a bit clumsy is our criminal-on-the-loose and his hovering admiration shifting from the wholesome, gentle object of desire to the tougher, similarly trapped broad who will follow him up into the mountains to his death.

Perhaps its meant as an illustrative example that money and well-standing can't buy the life you want and that a criminal is a criminal, but I will say that the revelation is much smoother here than in High Sierra. At least Colorado Territory spares us the shame of placing the fate of our hardened gunman in the bark of dog named Farb. [B+]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Guess That Screenshot #1

Okay, it counts this time. Shoot. The more you guess, the more clues I'll drop.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Classic Rewind: Vivre sa vie (1962)

The esteemed general of la nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard made a slew of the most discussed and debated films of the 60's, spearheading an iconoclastic cinema movement that sent shockwaves throughout Europe and made a profound impact on the crowded international filmmaking scene.

In what is perhaps the most definable and atypical of his earliest (and greatest) works, Vivre sa vie, the story of an aspiring actress who falls into a life of prostitution, could also be his most reverent - as a tearful trip to the cinema to see Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc would indicate.

It's still very much a Godard film however, as his twelve-part novelistic storytelling structure and experimental camerawork makes evident, including some unique, backside bar-stool conversations between Nana (Anna Karina) and the many men whom she engage in businesslike chit-chat.

Nevertheless, Vivre sa vie feels as minimal and as Bressonian as anything Godard has ever done. The jump-cuts, the esoteric cameos, references and endless philosophizing are there (as is Raoul Cotard's stunning black-and-white cinematography), but it appears that the French auteur is coming from a more sympathetic place this time around in depicting the tragic existence of his alienated subject and doing it with a studious, existential eye.

But the question of whether or not Nana is responsible for her imminent outcome, as she states, or if she is simply a victim of cruel fate (free will vs. fatalism) is a bit nebulous, complicated by her endless philosophy discussions over the final few "tableaux," including a rough table-chat with the real-life philosopher Brice Parain in which Godard threatens to garble the proceedings.

On the other hand, a reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait" (in Godard's own voice, no less) provides an apt discussion of art imitating - and in fact surpassing - life itself. Substituting the woman in Poe's short story for Nana (and thus Karina, Godard's then-wife), the allusion to the couple's inevitable demise five years and four films later, becomes sufficiently clearer. [B+]

Friday, May 21, 2010

Forbidden Planet Blu-ray

I will certainly buy the 9.7 Blu-ray release of Fred M. Wilcox's Forbidden Planet ('56), a space-travel reworking of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

It's certainly one of the seminal Hollywood science-fiction productions made during the 50's and indisputably the most glamorous and seductive - the CinemaScope pinwheel colors trying to contain the sexual tension between Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis at all times.

I love the opening credits (below), with that Louis and Bebe Brown all-electronic score that marks a first not only for film, but for music. Forbidden Planet was the ultimate marriage of mid-20th century science-fiction hysteria and Hollywood spectacle, and the results are goofily wonderful.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stanley Kubrick: Director's Chair (June 6-8)

For the first time as a member of LAMB, I'll be participating in the Director's Chair coming up. I'm usually too stubborn in my viewing schedule to alter it, but having already seen every Stanley Kubrick film, I'm looking forward to getting involved this time around.

Posts will be coming likely over the next week or so, and seeing how I've never really written about any of Kubrick's films, so I'm anticipating the challenge.

Classic Rewind: The Lovers (aka Les Amants) (1958)

A firecracker of controversy upon its release, Louis Malle's The Lovers ('58) would appear tamely suggestive as viewed by modern audiences, but its stark and explicit depiction of a woman's liberation amidst bourgeois tedium and alienation sent more than few ruffles around markets both foreign and domestic.

Though not necessarily associated with the heavyweight Cashiers du cinéma of the French New Wave or the movement in general, certainly Malle and his sophomore effort, The Lovers, has the fingerprints of a seminal work in subject matter and visual composition, if not in form and structure.

Henri Decaë, a renowned cinematographer who frequently worked with Jean-Pierre Melville (Les enfants terribles, Le samourai) and René Clément (Purple Noon), brings a lush, dreamy quality to his black-and-white widescreen images, alluding to the soon-to-be visual masterstrokes of Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim ('62), shot by Raoul Coutard.

Both on the verge of stardom and on becoming the female face and voice of this new cinematic movement, Jeanne Moreau (who had just worked with Malle on his debut, Elevator to the Gallows) takes this portrait of a neglected and imprisoned bourgeois housewife caught between two loveless relationships and runs with it, leaving a mess of admirers behind here both on and off the screen.

In her character's newly rediscovered passion that erupts in the final act like an erotic fantasy, the film swells with passion and social emancipation as the strings of Brahms refuse to cease in the background.

The fact that her new object of desire is an adamantly iconoclastic romancer who recites poetry and admires the moonlight (in direct contrast to her husband) clearly establishes the revolution at play, both within and around the world of The Lovers. [A-]

Cannes: Round-Up #6

Olivier Assayas delivers 319 minutes of revolution in Carlos.

Only a couple of these things left, but we seem to be getting bigger (and longer) films demanding all of the attention on the red carpet of the Grand Lumiere as the festival winds down.

First up is Olivier Assayas' Carlos, the 319-minute epic charting the rise-and-fall of real-life revolutionary Carlos the Jackal, and the reception has been overwhelming to this point. Reactions:

Anthony Breznican, USA Today: Review (positive)
Geoff Andrew, Time Out London: Review (mixed)
Justin Chang, Variety: Review (positive)
Jonathan Romney, ScreenDaily: Review (positive)
Todd McCarthy, IndieWire: Review (positive)
Jeff Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere: Review (positive)
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist: Review (mixed)

Meanwhile, today's screening of Doug Liman's Fair Game, the only American film screening in competition this year starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, is being met warmly. Reactions:

Eric Kohn, IndieWire: Review (mixed)
Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon: Review (positive)
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist: Review (mixed)
Dave Calhoun, Time Out London: Review (positive)
Jeff Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere: Review (positive)
Anthony Breznican, USA Today: Review (positive)
Mark Adams, ScreenDaily: Review (mixed)
Justin Chang, Variety: Review (mixed)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Classic Rewind: Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Throughout the 1940's, America's favorite action hero John Wayne starred in a slew of predictably propagandist WWII films, most notably John Ford's They Were Expendable ('45), Edward Dmytryk's Back to Bataan ('45) and lastly, Allan Dwan's Sands of Iwo Jima ('49).

In contrast to the selfless Colonel who stays behind to train a group of Filipino resistance fighters against the Japanese in Back to Bataan ('45), Wayne's Sgt. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima is a much rougher and intermittently antagonistic character - a testy, curt and heavy-drinking squad leader whose demand for perfection leads to mild unrest among the troops.

Beginning with the invasion of Tarawa and ending with the infamous flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi in the titular battle, the film is at it's best when the bullets aren't flying. When focusing on the father-son dynamic of the unrelated Sgt. Stryker (Wayne) and the young newlywed Private Conway (John Agar), Sands of Iwo Jima flickers with vitality - the kind that coursed through Wayne and a young Mongtomery Clift in Howards Hawks' Red River ('48).

Though to the film's detriment, it never quite takes that plunge, settling in as a slight war effort that doesn't even skirt the isolation and squad dynamics of say, William Wellman's Battleground ('49). Instead, it settles for easy stock footage and nebulous geography on the battlefield that lacks the verisimilitude of its genre brethren. [B-]

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cannes: Round-Up #5

Javier Bardem in Biutiful.

Around the web reactions to the hotly contested and divisive competition heavyweight, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful. Reactions from yesterday:

Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon: Review (positive)
Eric Kohn, IndieWire: Review (negative)
Justin Chang, Variety: Review (mixed)
Kirk Honeycutt
, HollywoodReporter: Review (positive)
Jonathan Romney, ScreenDaily: Review (negative)
Dave Calhoun, Time Out London: Review (mixed)
Kevin Jagernauth
, The Playlist: Review (negative)
Sasha Stone, AwardsDaily: Review (positive)
Jeff Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere: Review (positive)
Guy Lodge, InContention: Review (mixed)

Meanwhile, just after the Biutiful screening was Stephen Frears' comparatively springy Tamara Drewe, playing out of competition. Reactions were mixed, but nobody is exactly laying down for it:

Gemma Arterton in Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe.

Jeff Wells
, Hollywood Elsewhere: Review (negative)
Mark Adams
, ScreenDaily: Review (positive)
Ray Bennett, HollywoodReporter: Review (positive)
Leslie Felperin, Variety: Review (mixed-positive)
Geoff Andrew, Time Out London: Review (mixed)
Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon: Review (negative)

Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, as part of the competition portion of the festival and which screened later in the day, has a willing and loyal group of followers already, despite a spattering of boos after the screening. Reactions:

Tuscan romance in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy.

Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon: Review (positive)
Geoff Andrew, Time Out London: Review (positive)
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist: Review (positive)
Deborah Young, HollywoodReporter: Review (positive)
Lee Marshall, ScreenDaily: Review (positive)
Jeff Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere: Review (negative)
Guy Lodge, InContention: Review (positive)

That's it for now. Still much more to come from Cannes and I'll be updating as soon as I can.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cannes: Round-Up #4

The Cannes Film Festival certainly picked up a bit over the weekend, although according to some, it wasn't exactly the quality level that was peaking, but rather the quantity.

First off we have the objectionably quality of Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier, a French-language 16th-century costume drama screening as part of the festival's 18-film competition portion. Going by early word, the reactions are mixed, but it does have its fair share of fans.

Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier.

Rope of Silicon
's Brad Brevet found it a "repetitive misfire," while InContention's Guy Lodge called it a "Harlequin-grade love triangle," giving it two measly stars. IndieWire's Todd McCarthy found much to admire, calling it a "fine film," while ScreenDaily's Dan Fainaru called it a "lavish production" with a "powerfully emotional love story". Time Out London's Geoff Andrew expressed his love for any medieval costumer that flies in the face of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. And finally, Variety's Leslie Felperin called it a "compelling period drama."

Meanwhile, Takeshi Kitano's Outrage, a hyper-violent yakuza crime film, and another anticipated film screening in competition at Cannes, was a dud with reviewers.

Takeshi Kitano's Outrage.

's Rob Nelson was one of the few admirers, calling it "visually stunning," while ScreenDaily's Dan Fainaru considers it a mild return to form, further explaining that "Kitano is back at what he does best." IndieWire's Todd McCarthy, however, believes that the "well has indeed run dry." Rope of Silicon's Brad Brevet found it one-note and "assuredly violent," while InContention's Guy Lodge called it "thin, obstinately single-minded."

That's it for now, I'll be back later in the day for a round-up of Mike Leigh's Another Year and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

Ugly and mean-spirited, this Swedish-language adaptation of Steig Larsson's worldwide bestseller counters its brutal sadism with a dose of its own medicine. Titled Man som hatar kvinnor ("Men Who Hate Women") in its native language, Tattoo is too unremarkable as a horror-mystery and too oppressive as a feminist revenge-fantasy.

Essentially an icy Swedish backwoods whodunit, this 152-minute thriller has enough sexual abusers and Nazi dungeon-dwellers to please a genre fan who gets off on the torture-porn of the more recently broad variety.

When it isn't testing its audiences tolerance, it's holding our face up to a computer screen or a stack of paperwork, apparently attempting to get us to play along with the Vanger family mystery of a beautiful young girl who went missing 40 years ago. For most of the time, the film seems to consist of people just staring at pictures set to loud, overbearing music.

And it's unfortunate, yet painfully clear, that director Neils Arden Oplev has no keen sense for pulling any kind of meaning or substance out his frames. (The catharsis of our heroine purging the world of woman-abusers needs the touch of a filmmaker who knows how to handle the confused emotions more clearly than through a barrage of flashbacks.)

This obviously isn't the case, and thus is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's fatal flaw. Oplev is just along for the ride, his job simply to construct Larsson's 600-page novel into a reasonably coherent big-screen illustration. [C-]

Review: The Secret in Their Eyes (2010)

It's certainly disconcerting that, when pitted against Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, this well-acted piffle from Argentina emerged as the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

It's respectable in certain areas, but Juan Jose Campanella's decades-spanning drama about a tragic murder case and the effect it has on the people involved - chiefly a non-committal federal justice agent (Ricardo Darin) called to the scene - is a phonily momentous mystery-thriller.

Told in an expansive series of flashbacks before playing out in the present, The Secret in Their Eyes does a fine job of keeping a grip on its characters, while allowing any semblance of logic to slip right through its fingers.

The chase-for-the-killer diversion takes up a good portion of the first part of the film, and while allowing the audience the ability to dive right in to these characters (including a wonderful Soledad Villamil), it plays out about as conveniently and authentically as an hour-long primetime CBS procedural.

Even looking past a contrived lead involving an old photograph, the film takes a turn for the worse with a loopy one-shot take through a filled-to-capacity soccer stadium. Sure, it showcases remarkable camerawork, but it serves no logical purpose other than perhaps to conceal the severely questionable believability of two makeshift detective spotting their suspect (whom they've only seen in photgraphs) amongst a sea of thousands.

While themes of unfulfillment and a delicate little romance lead to a haunting portion of the finale, a big zinger of a twist, endlessly shrouded in flashbacks, further illustrates the film's lack of pointedness and its propensity for artificiality. [C]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cannes: Round-Up #3

Stealthily beneath the glamor of Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps premiere were two films playing out of competition on the third day of the Cannes Film Festival. One a Romanian slow-burner and the other a British-backed horror film from the Japanese helmer of Ringu starring that guy from Kick-Ass.

The former is Cristi Puiu's Aurora, the Romanian director's follow-up to the much-beloved The Death of Mr. Lazarescu ('06). A three-hour exercise in minimalist character depreciation, some may argue its more of an exercise in patience. Nevertheless, reviews are in and it appears that most really dig it.

Time Out London's Geoff Andrew called it audacious and intelligent and IndieWire's Eric Kohn found that it seeps under your skin, while Variety's Jay Weissberg described it as the "product of a master filmmaker". InContention's Guy Lodge, however, was not impressed, calling it "perversely languid".

Personally, out of all of the films described so far, the one I would most likely pay to see tomorrow would, in fact, be Aurora - sounds fascinating.

Cristi Puiu's Aurora - at three hours long - will (and has) divided critics.

Depending on who you talk to, Hideo Nakata's Chatroom is either the worst film of the festival or one of the worst. Widespread disdain abounds for this out-of-competition horror effort, starring Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Hannah Murray ("Skins").

InContention's Guy Lodge despised it, calling it bafflingly misguided, while Variety's Leslie Felperin notices that it has "major bugs in its system." Time Out London's Dave Calhoun was mostly okay with it, it seems, admitting that it gets "a little hysterical". And Total Film's Matthew Leyland calls it terribly po-faced.

Well that's it for Day 3. If you can't find a review for Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, you're terrible at navigating the web. (That's why I left it out of the round-up.) Tomorrow apparently looks big, with films from Mike Leigh and Woody Allen taking center stage in the morning. Until then.

The Playlist Nation: Ridley Scott

I love the idea of this Ridley Scott retrospective/reevaluation and The Playlist Nation doesn't disappoint with their harsh criticisms at turns, yet noble reverence when needed and deserved. From top-to-bottom, the crew quickly revisits the filmography of much-disputed American action filmmaker Ridley Scott, from Alien to Body of Lies.

Here are their rankings, in order from highest-graded to lowest:
Blade Runner [A+], Alien [A+], Thelma and Louise [A-], Gladiator [B], Legend [B], Matchstick Men [B], Body of Lies [B-], Black Rain [B-], 1492: Conquest of Paradise [C], American Gangster [C], A Good Year [C], Kingdom of Heaven [C-], G.I. Jane [C-], Black Hawk Down [D+], Hannibal [F].

For the most part, they get it right. Blade Runner ('82) and Alien ('79) are undisputed masterworks, two of the most influential, fully-formed and expertly-designed science-fiction films of the last thirty some-odd years.

Kingdom of Heaven ('05) is a slog. I know the director's cut has a sparkling reputation these days, but until they can edit out any scene that Orlando Bloom is in, it still sucks, I'm sorry. Gladiator ('00) is a ripe piece of entertainment to this day, nearly impossible not to enjoy on some level despite a clear-cut Hollywood presence at every turn. It's not a "great" film so-to-speak, but it clearly works because the scale matches its emotional pull.

Legend ('85), which I reviewed a few months ago, is quite remarkable in many ways despite the fluttering, fairy-tale syrup. Like his previous films, it's a visual marvel, and despite the elementary simplicity to the tale, there is genuine dread and darkness in Tim Curry's evil Lord - it's certainly one of Ridley's most underrated and undervalued films.

Mia Sara and Tom Cruise in Ridley Scott's Legend (1985).

And finally, American Gangster ('07) and Body of Lies ('08) should be flipped. The latter is a middling, uncontentious spy thriller and the former actually works on a narrative level. I know I'm in the minority, but I actually liked American Gangster when I saw it in theaters three years ago and I still like it today.

Once again, for the full list of The Playlist's Ridley Reevaluation - including grades - go here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cannes: Round-Up #2

Day 2 at the Cannes Film Festival saw the premieres of two films from the significant Asian presence in this year's main competition slate. Bright and early in the morning (8:30am local time), the patrons were treated to the familial sludge of Wang Xiaoshuia's Chongqing Blues. Despite a few words of encouragement, the Palme d'Or temperature gauge is deathly chilly.

's Justin Chang calls it plodding, affecting. Hollywood Reporter's Maggie Lee describes it as "average father-son angst". Awards Daily's Sasha Stone radically thinks it's a Palme contender. Total Film's Jamie Graham believes it to be solid, but "never truly gripping". InContention's Guy Lodge meanwhile, calls it "drab and maudlin". Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells hated the "grimness" and the "slow pace".

The early start time of Wang Xiaoshuia's Chongqing Blues didn't seem to help its glacial pacing win over reviewers.

The other half of the double-edged Asian sword, screening a bit later in the day, was Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid, a loony-sounding erotic thriller (think Brian De Palma), which seems to have been received a touch more warmly around the web.

Rope of Silicon's Brad Brevet liked the twisted eroticism to a certain extent. Total Film's Jamie Graham calls it demented and over the top. Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells described it as broad and lurid, but was more or less okay with it. Hollywood Reporter's Maggie Lee was enamored with its operatic sensuality. ScreenDaily's Lee Marshall, however, found it smart but shallow.

The twisty eroticism of Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid won over a few willing viewers.

Those were the highlights for Day 2 at Cannes. Reviews are starting to pour in for Oliver Stone's Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps kicking off Day 3, I'll have more info on that film and more in the next round-up.

Classic Rewind: The Man From Laramie (1955)

Anthony Mann's westerns are of a different breed - brooding, cathartic and lean, these films were influential in the development of the western as a tool for high-stakes sophisticated drama that had been absent from the genre since it became fashionable in the late 1930's with films like Stagecoach ('39), Dodge City ('39) and Jesse James ('39).

More readily identifiable were the collaborations between Mann and Jimmy Stewart, who teamed for five such westerns in the 50's beginning with Winchester '73 ('50) and ending with one their best, The Man From Laramie ('55).

As per usual, Stewart plays a lone gunman on a mission who gets caught up in a ruthless, testy conflict. Far from the well-mannered country boys he played throughout the 30's and 40's and the law-abiding men he would later play, Stewart's career was rejuvenated with these obsessive, on-edge performances - culminating into his role in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo ('58).

In The Man From Laramie, Stewart's Will Lockhart makes himself an unwanted guest in the town of Coronado when he tangles with Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) over the trivial pickings of a salt field, owned by Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), Dave's father, who dominates the landscape with sheer power and fear - the massive Barb Ranch.

Lockhart refuses to leave until he gets the money owed to him from the burning of a few wagons at the hands of Dave, but when he refuses to leave, the suspicions of the Coronado residents (specifically the Waggomans) as to the motives of "the man from Laramie" boil over.

The dry, flat widescreen vistas (shot by the prolific Charles Lang) give Laramie a distinctive flavor in contrast to the chilly mountain passes of The Far Country and the wet greens of The Naked Spur and Bend of the River.

As Alec Waggoman recounts a recurring dream to the titular mystical figure, in which he describes a man arriving to kill his son, the delicious irony is in the misplacement of his apprehension.

Lockhart will inevitably leave Coronado unscathed - his elusive quest simultaneously revealed and fulfilled - yet we get the impression that further scuffles and dark alleys await his unwavering persistence. Sadly, for Stewart and Mann, there would be no more Will Lockharts in their future. [A-]

Cannes Round-Up #1

The first screening as part of the Competition Slate (18 films) was Mathieu Amalric's Tournee, which bowed last night overseas, about noon-ish stateside. Reactions were decidedly mixed.

's Jordan Mintzer isn't impressed with it at all.
InContention's Guy Lodge liked it, but found the third act disappointing.
Rope of Silicon's Brad Brevet landed on the positive side, but wasn't bowled over, either.
Meanwhile Jonathan Romney at ScreenDaily likes Amalric's performance in front of the camera rather than behind it.

Mathieu Amalric's Tournee kicked off the Competition portion of the Cannes Film Festival on opening day.

Meanwhile, Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells (who clearly isn't all that into the competition portion of the festival) apparently saw Oliver Stone's Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, but oh, he can't talk about it. If you ask me, based on the clues given, he was displeased, but we'll have to wait a bit.

Today there was an 8:30 am screening of Wang Xiaoshuai's Chongqinq Blues, and despite a reverent approval from Sasha Stone at AwardsDaily, I'm reading a few adamantly differing opinions. More to come on that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Trailer: The Adjustment Bureau

The first trailer for George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau (Universal, 9.17) is out and it certainly looks interesting. I love seeing John Slattery in Mad Men garb on the big screen, but mostly this trailer leaves me a bit disappointed.

I'm reminded of Richard Kelly's The Box and Martin Brest's Meet Joe Black for some reason, and the inclusion of the John Murphy piece from Sunshine in the trailer is disconcerting, no film that has used that music in its trailer has turned out unscathed, think about it.