Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gunner Palace (Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker, 2004)

**½
USA

Another leftist Liberal-guilt-driven Iraq doc, this one focuses on the underqualified, overwhelmed younger soldiers. It's built around interludes of the 'gunners' hip-hop and co-director Michael Tucker's misjudged, ponderous voiceover, where he compares his experience of the war to the troops'.

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Let's Make Love (George Cukor, 1960)

***½
USA


Yves Montand plays a billionaire lothario about to get lampooned by an off-Broadway musical. When he goes to cancel the show, he meets the star - Marilyn Monroe. C'est l'amour.
Where the plot goes after doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but whenever Marilyn's on-screen, it doesn't need to. With customary pep and conviction - looking startlingly beautiful and wearing less than she has in any other film - she performs tracks called things like "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", "Specialization" and the title tune. There are a couple of lengthy stretches where she disappears, and you feel the picture sagging. These sections are interchangeable for the bloated, clogged-up big-budget sitcoms, which the studios started churning out around this period, and which usually starred Rock Hudson.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Killer's Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955)

***½
USA

Before Stanley Kubrick mastered the fundamentals of pacing, storytelling, character development and directing actors, he was already a consummate visual stylist. So, while this limp, budgetless, crudely patched-up noir never gives you the sense that it's going anywhere worthwhile, it's bewildering to look at and it regularly breaks out into stunning, indelible setpieces of an intensity rarely found even in sophisticated productions.

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La Souriante Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1923)

****½
France


Regularly cited as the first feminist film, Germain Dulac's domestic drama was also one of first to take in a woman's point of view. Through various primitive trick effects (slow motion, superimposition etc.), it depicts Madame Beudet's dreams, fantasies and neuroses as she experiences them subjectively. Its enduring value however, doesn't lie in any insight it offers into the oppressed woman's state of mind - since it doesn't, really - but in the delicate, evocative beauty of its images.

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La Peau douce (Francois Truffaut, 1964)

***½
France


François Truffaut's carefully observed, clinically detailed, highly sophisticated and deeply cynical account of adultery. With no evidence of charisma or physical appeal, you have to assume it's through intellect that Jean Desailly has managed to attract and marry the alluring Nelly Benedetti, and it must be intellect that helps him seduce the comparably sexy flight attendant, Françoise Dorléac.
The awkward cover-ups and hide-and-seek games that the adulterous couple is forced to endure in this film stand against everything the movies have taught us about the casual and irreproachably glamourous methods of infidelity in French society. So this must be a truer depiction of how these things would have functioned in real life - except for the explosive finale: irrespective of how many newspaper articles it was probably based on, it screams Movie!

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gervaise (René Clément, 1956)

***½
France

René Clément goes to great lengths to preserve the period detail in this adaptation of an Emile Zola soap opera of (what else?) working-class degradation. As an evocation of mid-19th-century Parisian slums it's impressive and always atmospheric. But it suffers from the awkward pacing that typically haunts slavish literary adaptations where faithfulness to the plot is prized above the development of human-like characters.

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Germany, Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

***½
Italy

The third and least sustained chapter in Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy. In his search for an elemental humanity in the crushed enemy, Rossellini discovered some striking locations and a fascinating social context but he failed to come across any half-competent actors. Whenever anyone speaks in this melodrama of Shakespearean aspirations, the illusion is wrecked - and this illusion is crucial to neo-realist story-telling. Still, the glimpses of post-War Berlin are galvanising and the film's finale, which unfolds in excruciatingly tense real time (and, thankfully, in silence), packs a punch.

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The Ear (Karel Kachyna, 1970)

****
Czech Republic

It's only logical that Karel Kachyna's biting, claustrophobic assault on political surveillance in Communist Czechoslovakia was banned in the country for however many decades. It's a hothouse marriage melodrama crossbred with the daily terror of living in a police state. Not only is it stuffed with incendiary information, it's startlingly vivid too.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Cremator (Juraj Herz, 1968)

****
Czech Republic
Made around the time when the Czechs were really eager to misbehave, this grotesque, high-pitched allegory is ostensibly telling the story of a family man who runs a crematorium in the days leading up to Nazi rule. But the subtext relating to what in 1968 was a much more contemporary evil is pungent and throbbing. Director Juraj Herz mixes absurdist, surrealist, gothic and expressionistic flavours with free abandon. It's very grating to begin with, but the surface quirks become much more intriguing as the underscoring menace rises through and a relationship between the two becomes apparent. It's all still much-too-much, but it becomes easy to ignore all the excessive bits in favour of all the arresting bits. It's one of those cases where the experience of a singular, piercing vision renders the many flaws irrelevant.


Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)

***½
USA

Maybe because Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the script while still in high school, this teen comedy - yet another one about a bunch of scruffy hornbags seeking to lose their virginity before prom night - feels authentic. The drinking, the vomiting, the awkward sexuality, the fixation on genitalia, the burden of virginity - everything seems lifted from lived experience, not market research. And the three leads - two of whom are genuinely high-school-aged - are switched-on and note-perfect.

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

***
Sweden

One of Ingmar Bergman's lesser existential-horror-mindfucks. He inundates you with expressionistic nightmare visions, dense monologues and promises of perverse sex. But not enough to distract you from the fact that at its core, this is a tortured, self-hating artist's whine-fest about a tortured, self- hating artist.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Forbidden Games (René Clement, 1952)

*****
France
Probably the most honestly devastating of all war films, René Clément's only covers a couple of air raids, barely features any guns or soldiers, and for the most part takes place in an idyllic subsection of the French countryside, left entirely unscathed by the invading Nazis. This is where Paulette - played with uncanny naturalism by 5-year-old Brigitte Fossey - wanders off to, clutching her dead puppy and having just witnessed Nazi fighter planes mow down her parents. She's shocked, to be sure, and petrified. But - on the outside, at least - she isn't paralysed by her fear, or snivelling like every well-behaved, sufficiently briefed movie child ought to. The grief process she undergoes - or, more precisely, doesn't - is all the more viable, arresting and thought-provoking for being so unorthodox and unsentimental.


Shock and denial and mourning and [non-]acceptance don't filter through her in any neat trajectory. They descend simultaneously in a nasty jumble. Despite her considerable resilience and tenacity, she isn't equipped to sort through it - even the most evolved 5-year-old is unequipped to grapple with death. But because of the war, Paulette is forced to, and - what's more - determined to. Death is set to define her worldview from this day onward, and she is bent on researching it and examining its every facet. Since her understanding of death and grief is unconventional, her means of coping with them are even more so.


The only person in the village who can relate to her plight on a primal level is another child, Michel (the similarly indelible Georges Poujouly, who - as an actor - already possesses an adult's dignity and sensitivity). Michel isn't as struck by the morbidity and the absurdity of Paulette's eventual demands as he is by his desperate need to see her happy and at peace. So, if this means stealing crosses from the villagers' graves and constructing a miniature but (in their eyes) no less legitimate cemetery of their own, he is prepared to go along.


In presenting their actions, Clément takes on an alert but unassuming stance to match the children's. Where others would pile on violins and restless pianos, he opts for a lyrical acoustic guitar or, more often, simple silence. Where others would prod lumpy crocodile tears out of their pre-pubescent puppets, he stands back to let them breathe and take in the surrounding circumstances spontaneously and without force. His images are stark and organic. He drains the picture of every drop of bathos or melodrama - in fact, he strips it to a core, non-invasive portrait of what is, from this perspective, a perfectly valid way of going about things.


The adult characters' ignorance, confused prioritising and casual hypocrisy threaten to turn them into caricatures throughout the movie. But they're portrayed with an open-faced, mellow spirit, which - if it doesn't quite pass for warmth - still speaks of a basic, though weathered, humanity: a pattern of behaviour not easily perturbed and on many levels bizarre, but completely palatable within the context of an ingrown, unfussy day-to-day survivalism that has already withstood one war.


If you're not prone to sympathise with these particular grown-ups, it's because you're given the sense that even war and brutality are no match for their obstinacy and self-preservation. If they're struck down, they can either succumb to that already-inevitable state of permanent peace (that doesn't seem all that removed from a content and uneventful life in the country), or they can get up and continue with the house- and field-work. There is very little conscience or compassion left in them for a war to extinguish.


In this context the crucial terror of war doesn't lie in its maiming and bloodletting, but in the violence it can do to to an unformed, still-shatterable mind. The opening images of anonymous lives annihilated on a country field are horrific in a very immediate way. But their horror doesn't begin to compare to the final impact of watching an ocean of aid-seekers swallow up Paulette in her doomed search for the only human being that could offer her the warmth and understanding to combat a stolen childhood.