Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)

***½
France

Certainly it contains more thought and humanity than the traditional prison movie - or at least it contains Mozart's Mass in C Minor (the tune of choice to accompany the emptying of slop buckets) rather than a boom-boom Hollywood orchestra. Also, crucial deaths and events are staged off-screen so that they may linger in your mind more pointedly. But precisely to what extent the minutia of Gestapo prison life (and escape) evoke God's absence or presence in one's soul may ultimately depend on the individual viewer.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)

*****
USA

Probably Anthony Mann's last great Western (and last great film) tells a tale of Shakespearean pull and intensity, with a grotesque variation on the family-sticks-together notion. Gary Cooper plays a reformed outlaw unwillingly reunited with his former gang, still run by his demented, alcoholic uncle (a thoroughly and gloriously unhinged Lee J. Cobb, in reality 10 years Cooper's junior), with a bunch of sadistic cousins at his side.
That the picture was greeted with unanimous scorn by both critics and audiences upon its release very likely had something to do with its strands of charred modernism and the virulent, uncompromising portrait Mann paints of the Old West. The majority of its scenes depict or anticipate decay and horrific violence (of both the physical and psychological kind) in a way that will unnerve even the most fanatical of Peckinpah disciples. It's a brutal and profoundly disturbing film, all the more so for taking place against magnificent, often serene (Cinemascoped) scenery. Mann works with cinematographer Ernest Haller to cast the iconic landscapes in a fresher, more organic light, underscoring their significance to the story's psychology as well as suffusing them with an eerie beauty.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (William Dieterle, 1935)

**½
USA

This Warners-backlot history lesson on the man who coined pasteurisation and created a cure for rabies was among the very first earnest Oscar-hungry biopics. Paul Muni's own considerable arrogance sparks off that of the character as written. He won Best Actor for being manically unpleasant. At least director William Dieterle keeps things mercifully speedy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)

***
USA

On the level of campy fun, David Cronenberg's blood-and-entrail-laden foray into murky Russian mafia transactions in London's underworld works perfectly well. Except then you're asked to accept for human-like characters the sadistic brutes who, for commercial purposes, spik to each odder in hevily akcented Inglish and kan even temporarily survive being stabbed through the heart. Not to mention the dead teenage mother, who reads out [again, in Slavic-inflected English] voiceover pages and pages of seemple-Rrrussian-girl dreams and expositori backstory from her diary (all to the accompaniment of the world's whiniest violin). On this level of projected human drama, the whole thing amounts to one dumb joke.
(And is a single one of the actors genuinely Russian?)

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

***
USA

If Olivia de Havilland is to be believed, perennial on-screen victim Joan Fontaine was anything but in real life - which makes this gold-digger melodrama doubly fascinating. She's consciously playing off her reputation as the breathless, delicate ingenue, and for the first half hour, you don't realise this . So for a good thirty minutes, this untypical Nicholas Ray joint just doesn't appear to be getting anywhere. Only gradually do you pick up on hints that ( 33-year-old business school student) Fontaine is in fact playing a social-climbing vixen and the point of the story is that she's been subtly, consummately manipulating everyone around her. And initially, you have to admire Fontaine for choosing not to telegraph her bitchery and also for so ruthlessly exploiting and undermining her Hollywood-financed persona. But then in no time it becomes apparent that those blank-eyed, swaying half-smiles that the camera lingers on at the end of every scene are intended to pass for cold, cutting sneers. And then it hits you: this isn't a meta- performance, it's a bad performance.
Even though this was produced during the period of his artistic peak, Ray's presence behind the camera can only be felt through the occasional cynical one-liners and the much-read-into abundance of staircases.
The most curious and commendable thing about this picture is that in Mel Ferrer's painter it features an early, rare and only arbitrarily veiled representation of a gay man, who comes off as sophisticated, attractive and even dignified.

(All that said - Joan Fontaine is a treasure who turns 90 this week. In her honour, go see Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Letter from an Unknown Woman.)

Forbidden Lies (Anna Broinowski, 2007)

***½
Australia

Comfortably the most compelling Australian picture of the season, Anna Broinowski’s documentary inspects the case of author Norma Khouri, who sold her Jordanian-honour-killing exposé ‘Forbidden Love’ as an autobiographical piece until a pair of diligent Aussie reporters discovered she was in fact an American con-artist wanted by the FBI. In the beguiling, confounding, continually shape-shifting Khouri, Broinowski stumbled upon a goldmine – the woman is compulsive viewing on her own, so all the cutesy flash montages and chapter sub-headings that Broinowski piles on tend to distract from the story more than they jazz it up. And though it’s a polished and expensive-looking piece of work, there is nothing inherently cinematic about the way it's been put together. But with such a dazzling, twist-ladden, larger-than-life tale, it’s enough that you’re able to follow the multiple lies-within-lies-within-lies (not to mention that you’re given the opportunity to watch Khouri in interview) and Broinowski ought to be praised for that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004)

My least favourite part about this movie is that it ends at all. I adore it like I do few others.

And to think that - unlike the last 27 totally dispensible airless French farces - it failed to score a release in Australia (no DVD even!). If you haven't already, please seek it out.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Winchester '73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

*****
USA

Anthony Mann beefed up a declining genre when he decided to carry his fetish for murky psychologies from the B-noir across to the Western with this - the first of eight he made with the formerly wholesome James Stewart (whose acting had become invisible at some point between Harvey and this). They have an unusually clever script to work with - revolving around a lusted-after rifle exchanging hands with two very different men on its trail - and a terrific cast. Beyond the morbidly hilarious casting of Rock Hudson as an Indian chief (I shit you not) and an unbilled cameo for a young (and already wooden) Tony Curtis as a cavalry recruit, there is the nasal cackle and delicious sneering of Dan Duryea as the trigger-happy psycho (who else?) and the lovely, grounded presence of Millard Mitchell as the hero's seasoned right-hand-man.