Saturday, December 22, 2007

Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962)

***
Italy



Francesco Rosi's international breakthrough was this biopic of famed Sicilian bandit-gangster Salvatore Giuliano, in which he's barely seen on screen other than as a corpse. In the soon to be popularised political semidocumentary style and with customary visual flair, Rosi builds a near-abstract portrait of Giuliano through the environment and zeitgeist that gave rise to him and then wiped him when he became an inconvenience. The temperament and murky ideals of Giuliano come to stand for those of Sicily.

The plot jumps back and forth in time in a baffling pattern with few signposts. The intention is to throw you into the dense, enveloping quagmire that is a gangster's life in Sicily rather than to order and sanitise said life into an easy chronology.

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No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

*****
USA



The Coen Brothers adapt a Cormac McCarthy novel ostensibly concerning a bunch of disparate men directly and indirectly involved in a drug deal gone bad in the cavernous plains near the Texan border. The Coens are as invested in constructing their immaculately nerve-wracking suspense setpieces as they are in capturing in cinematic terms the parched, unsettling poetry of McCarthy's prose and worldview. From coolly tracking the protagonists' cat-and-mouse game, the picture - at first imperceptibly - moves on to exhuming the roots of their morbid resignation, and not a false note is struck along the way either by the Coens or their extraordinary cast.

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Stolen Kisses (François Truffaut, 1968)

***½
France



François Truffaut picks up his picaresque tale of Antoine Doinel nearly ten years after The 400 Blows (with the sweet but dispensable Antoine et Colette (1962) having popped up in between). Still played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, 20-year-old Antoine is discharged from the army and takes on quirky professions in between unorthodox romances with his boss' wife (the ever-exquisite Delphine Seyrig) and a pretty music student. It's all very warm, cheeky and borderline inconsequential, though there's something unwieldy and transfixing about Léaud's face.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Border Incident (Anthony Mann, 1949)

***½
USA



A semi-documentary B-noir about the Mexican and US governments joining forces to squash the racketeering of illegal immigrants. There is too much exposition and factual reconstruction, but by the third act the tension escalates to an uncomfortable degree and builds with one violent, uncompromising setpiece after another.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Silver Lode (Allan Dwan, 1954)

***½
USA



Pro sniveller Dan Duryea poses as a US Marshal and storms into the titular town and interrupts a wedding to arrest the humble, respected groom on July 4. Initially the community is outraged but Duryea spreads suspicion and paranoia with terrific panache. A famed gunslinger, the hero is fortunately blessed with Jedi-like indestructibility. Presumably awe-struck, his foes wait for him to duck under cover every time before they start shooting.

Despite the lazy action scenes though, Allan Dwan's B-western is uncommonly involving, both for the tension and sense of inevitability it musters up as well as for its explicit attacks on McCarthyism and mob mentality.

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Suddenly (Lewis Allen, 1954)

**½
USA



The title refers to a sleepy California town that forms the backdrop to a plot to assassinate the President. After about 20 minutes of leaden exposition and posturing, Frank Sinatra finally turns up (fresh off his Oscar win) and there's something so relaxed and comfortable about his presence that you feel the picture is bound to pick up from then on. It doesn't, though it has one startling scene where his villainy is revealed.

To emphasise his brawn and no-nonsense righteousness, sheriff Sterling Hayden only ever talks from the back of his throat, like a constipated Troy McClure. The family he's protecting is made up of a bunch of diabolical actors that make you side with the killers.

Reportedly, Oswald watched this movie the evening of November 21st, 1963.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Immortal Story (Orson Welles, 1968)

*****
France



Orson Welles' most neglected masterpiece is a fable, a fairy tale, a dialectic and a dream. In 1860s Macao, an heir-less wealthy merchant approaching a solitary death resolves to reconstruct a legend narrated by sailors around the world in order to 'legitimise' it.

It's difficult to determine how much of the film's depth and resonance comes directly from Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen's novella of the same name, but it's also irrelevant. Employing a stark colour palette, elegantly sparse locations and Erik Satie's lovely, subtle piano, Welles gives it a somnambulistic pull.

It's quieter than his other films. Like the late-career work of all great artists, it's deliberate and unshowy. Its formalism doesn't invite you all that actively to seek out the feeling and poignancy underneath. This may very well have had some impact on its inadequate critical standing as has, no doubt, its being a barely-hour-long drama made for French television. And it doesn't help that hefty slabs of the dialogue are barely intelligible. But if you look past the technical limitations - which, like every diligent Welles disciple, you should train yourself to do - it's an eloquent, enthralling piece of work.

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The Road to Guantanamo (Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom, 2006)

***½
UK



Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom's unwieldy, distressing, enraging docudrama covers the stories of three British Guantanamo detainees who were held for two years without an official charge. Based on Whitecross' interviews with the three men, Winterbottom recreates their accounts of their experiences, which imply disgusting abuse of human rights on the part of the US government.

The film has major shortcomings. The reconstructions are creaky - the American soldiers, for one, all move and sound like bad actors (which, while arguably true to life, doesn't come off as intentional in this context); and it's difficult to keep track of who's whose alter ego. More worryingly, despite gaping plot holes, the 'Tipton Three's testimonies are not once challenged (a misstep that is that much more glaring since in 2007 one of them admitted to his involvement with an Islamist training camp).

But Whitecross and Winterbottom's implicit - and, yes, misjudged - assertion of the men's innocence pales in force and urgency beside their revolt at the unchecked monstrousness of Guantanamo as an institution. If these men's account of the treatment of detainees is at least partially factual - and no viable evidence has so far come up to undermine it - it is vital and horrific proof of humanity's regression in recent years. Ultimately, whatever its misgivings, a film that instigates debate and involvement in an elemental and ongoing injustice as well as documents and probes potentially one of mankind's gravest mistakes of the 21st century ought to be treasured and scrutinised.

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The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955)

****
USA



The last of the dense, bleak, extraordinary series of Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns, this one pits the hardened, disturbed Jimmy against an aging cattle baron and his psychotic son while he seeks revenge for his brother's killing. A heavily involved, absorbing soap opera, it's marked by several outbursts of sadism that are still unsettling to watch. In a supporting role, the grounded and still radiant 1930s starlet Aline McMahon gives a lesson in effortless charisma and soulfulness.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928)

****
USA

Buster Keaton's first MGM assignment isn't as consistently ingenious as his masterworks, but it's jolly fun with a clever point about the kind of artistry that impresses studio-heads. The highlights include - and are not restricted to - a bunch of poetic and all-too-brief double exposures in the Dziga Vertov key, a chaotic Chinatown gang brawl and, above all, the most charismatic organ-grinder's monkey to ever make it to the movies.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry, 1936)

***½
France

A picaresque tale of the maturation of a con artist narrated by writer-director-star-likely-egomaniac Sacha Guitry in non-stop voiceover commentary with occasional dialogue interludes. It's a delight, but it's exhausting.

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The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

***½
USA




A moderately flashy B-noir with a bloated reputation. The story goes through the washed-up-fighter's-one-last-shot-at-glory motions in 'real time', so the film both covers and wraps up in 72 minutes.

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