Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950)

***
USA

The last chapter in John Ford's moderately pleasant, generally uninspired and intensely romanticised Cavalry trilogy. This one's as much about commander John Wayne and his boys suppressing them nasty Injuns as it is about Wayne rebuilding his broken marriage to Dixie-blooded Maureen O'Hara and learning to bond with his estranged son. Wayne is adequate but the rest of the performances range from grating (Victor McLaglen's 147th variation on a burly comical Irishman) to clogged-up (O'Hara channelling the Joan Crawford school of cheekbones under pressure) to vacant (the blank-faced runt you're supposed buy as the progeny of O'Hara and the Duke). And though it's clear that Ford is deeply and emotionally invested in his story (there's a sense throughout the movie that somebody's about to break into tears for no tangible reason), you're not necessarily sure why this is.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

*****
Sweden

Although thoroughly - and innovatively - cinematic in execution, Ingmar Bergman's study of a hushed regret with death encroaching has the richness and complexity of a fine novel. Victor Sjöström is the elderly professor, who, after a striking vision of his own funeral, travels with the radiant Ingrid Thulin (in what resembles a hearse) to the University at Lund to claim an honorary degree. Along the way, he remembers, reflects and regrets.
Bergman's first big American success contains glimpses of the major hangups that would haunt the rest of his work (death, bitter marriages, half-repressed hysteria, death), but it's an infinitely softer-edged film than his others. This isn't to say that he's being sentimental or naive or remotely optimistic in any way, but he is gentler to the Professor than he has a habit of being to his protagonists. Maybe it has to do with Sjöström's face. Maybe in it Bergman sees a manifestation of his own future (Sjöström was, after all, a personal hero, and every bit the cinematic revolutionary that Bergman was, only 40 years earlier). Or maybe in it he sees the wrenching, the scars and the weariness of a war that has singed the core of a being across decades, only to have finally reached the point where it continues as a state of normalcy, a strain so familiar as to bring with it its own sense of serenity (of sorts). It's a gorgeous, galvanising face.
And the supporting actors are no less vivid.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

RIP Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)


A great actress and a great lady. In her honour, go see The Innocents right now, followed by The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and From Here to Eternity.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)

*****
France

Generally considered the film wherein conflicted-but-devout Christian Robert Bresson found his modernist mojo, this lucid, luminous probe into a cancerous young curate's spiritual crisis could quite comfortably be classified as a cornerstone of European art cinema. Bresson spurns traditional plot machinations and lets his [anti-]hero's murky interior life determine the course and pace of the story .
"I don't think I'm doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery," announces the priest at the outset, before going on to grapple with the grave, searing and fundamental mysteries of life and death. The patience, the purity and the soft-hearted rigour with which Bresson presents these render a subdued, austere psychological battle with the epic force and wrenching fatalism of a war film.
Though he's desperately eager to engage with you both intellectually and emotionally, Bresson won't play to any of your biases. Irrespective of whether you're an atheist or a believer, Bresson won't offer you any concessions. Part of the picture's impact stems from this very attitude, which ensures that even heathens can tap into the various beauties, conflicts and transcendences of faith and a life based on religion.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984)

***½
USA

The Academy-Award-winner of its year, this documentary on the gay San Francisco councillor (whose assassin coined the Twinkie defence) is as much a portrait of the man himself as it is a loose essay on the gay rights frontier in the US in the late 1970s. The swarm of talking heads that take up the bulk of the screentime are notably lucid and paint a vivid picture of a time when homosexuality was a political statement and deep-seated ignorance bore a morbidly sunny exterior. If you were to take out the cheesy synth score and tone down a couple of the hairdos, you could still sell it as a contemporary summary of the gay rights struggle. What once may have served as an almost militant call to asserting your freedom, today plays like an eerie reminder of the sluggishness of progress.