Friday, January 18, 2008

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

***
USA

A compelling enough look into the rivalry of two turn-of-the-century London magicians, though it's too solemn to be much fun and too taken with itself to be taken seriously.

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The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943)

*****
USA



William Wellman's taut, unaffected Western explores the bloodlust that overwhelms the outwardly wholesome folk of a frontier township when news arrives that one of their own has been found murdered on the outskirts. The picture is overtly incendiary in its evisceration of mob mentality and the nastier basic human impulses, yet so subtle and probing in its characterisations that a silent sideline exchange of glances between old lovers is enough to evoke a scarring, tangled shared history. It mixes a traditionally literary concern with the human condition with a traditionally Hollywood sense of escalating tension as well as a visceral and unusually confronting threat of violence. And it wraps up in just under 75 minutes.

With its cynical undercurrent and blistering assault on frontier mythology, this is the kind of 'classical Hollywood' Western that makes you wonder how much of the claims of subversiveness and exposé of the revisionist craze that began in the late 60s (and is yet to really go away) is purely a matter of self-serious posturing.

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The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943)

****½
USA



George Stevens was mostly a conventional director but he had a gift for capturing intimacy. He was responsible for some of the most gush-inducing scenes of Hollywood romancing, several of which take place in this gem that brings together Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn in a cramped Washington apartment during the WWII housing shortage. Technically it's Arthur's vehicle, and Coburn was the one to snap up an Oscar, but it's ever patient, unassumingly sexy McCrea who steals the picture. As well as his usual goofy charm he brings weathered melancholy and yearning to a stock role. The script helps, for sure, as does Arthur's charm and groundedness, but the love scenes wouldn't be half as resonant without McCrea's conviction and half-buried vulnerability.

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Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

***½
USA



Vincente Minnelli's first film, this all-black musical fable is often accused of racism. While such accusations are in part valid, in his defence, Minnelli does treat his stereotypes with a warmth and compassion that allows them some humanity. The earthiness and natural charisma of the likes of Ethel Waters, Eddie Rochester, Lean Horne and Louis Armstrong also help.

The plot - head generals for God and the Devil battle for the soul of a pious woman's gambling husband - and the dialogue sections are hokey. But every number is a treat.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931)

**½
USA



This overripe Best-Picture-winning dinosaur opens with a spectacular - and, visually, even quite sophisticated - land rush sequence, then quickly runs out of air with just under two hours worth of soap opera to go. It's a tough sit, leavened only by Richard Dix's mutant-like approach to emoting.

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2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, 2007)

***½
France/Germany



Julie Delpy seems to be apologising for French mentality and customs in this meet-my-non-English-speaking-parents comedy, which gets grating - particularly in the opening sections, riddled as they are with clammy voiceover, unwieldy banter and forced jokes. But she builds up an easy, absorbing rhythm with her actors, so that by the end even the homilies and stereotypes are easy to swallow.

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Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932)

****
USA



Before this scandalous comedy about a ruthless small-town social climber, Jean Harlow was a blank face with hips and tits. It was as the titular redhead that the archetypal platinum blonde first got to show off her natural gift for tough, sassy screwball.

The picture is also notable for its pre-Code permissiveness (Harlow ends up neither dead nor domesticated), and for a script which Anita Loos reworked from a reportedly much soggier draft by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)

***½
South Korea
It's hard to say whether the world needed another Korean stylised revenge saga, but for what it's worth this is an especially shrewd, bracing one.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Private Fears in Public Places (Alain Resnais, 2006)

***
France



The traces of zest and resonance in this dramedy about six desperately lonely, interconnected Parisians have less to do with the slight and slightly pretentious source play by Alan Ayckbourn than with Alain Resnais' playful, often inspired handling of it. The characters and their various connections and disconnections feel very much 'written', but at least for as long as the movie lasts, the actors convey enough warmth and charm to distract you from this.

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Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)

***½
USA



Fritz Lang's anti-Nazi propaganda thriller opens with one of several startling sequences: in a windy, secluded German forest, we see Hitler through a gunman's crosshairs, then the gunman takes a 'practice' shot. Subsequently, the gunman is revealed to be American-accented Walter Pidgeon playing an aristocratic English game hunter (in his defence, he does say 'cahn't' instead of 'cain't'), while the Nazi commander is played by George Sanders, speaking awkward German and flawless English. The film's conception of Britain and the British also includes a misjudged cardboard cityscape and a gut-busting attempt at Cockney by (the ravishingly beautiful) Joan Bennett. It gets difficult to determine whether you should it all that seriously, even though Fritz Lang is patently desperate that you do. The suspense setpieces at least, are handled with the expertise you'd expect.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited (2007, Wes Anderson)

**½
USA



Various quirky misadventures befall Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody playing depressed brothers on a quirky spiritual quest aboard a quirky, lumbering locomotive traversing the cleanest parts of India. It's ironic that moving out of an oppressively art directed studio has resulted in Wes Anderson's first thoroughly airless picture. The trouble isn't in the rigid visual composition, cutesy humour or self-consciously hipster soundtrack so much as it is in the hollowness of the protagonists. Their crises feel cursory. They only serve to accentuate the artifice of the whole venture. Anjelica Huston pops up towards the end and breathes some life into the story, but it's too little too late.

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Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1951)

***
Sweden



Hailed once upon a time as the first sign of Ingmar Bergman's maturation as an artist, this mildly pretentious love story between a ballerina and a fresh-faced fan contains several plodding bits of reflecting on cracked personas, the creeping spectre of death and, naturally, God's silence. The more atmospheric passages are quiet and subtle, and include an entrancing early sequence where the brooding heroine encounters an old woman strolling near the seaside.

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