Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I've Loved You So Long (2008)

(Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, directed by Philippe Claudel, France, Germany).

The best performance in a film by an actress was not nominated for an Oscar in 2009, but should have been. In a film career playing upper crustic British ladies with couture and hauteur to match, Kirstin Scott Thomas turned 360 degrees and gives an emotional slow-burn performance as an ex-convict reuniting with her sister after an absence of fifteen years.

At first glance, meeting her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) in the airport from England, Juliette is emotionally detached, oddly cool. Lea is also preoccupied with her two adopted Vietnamese daughters and her rather boorish academic husband Luc (Serge Havanacius), as Lea proclaims they are "a real Bennetton family". In the first part of the film, Juliette is rather remote, nearly one of the walking wounded and Scott Thomas plays her with certain brusque touches, shielding her pain until she seems to reawaken from her burnt out state at a party with Lea and Luc's friends.

At the center of the film's plot is the desire for the two sisters to reconnect, to take up broken bonds of family ties after too long of an absence. Juliette does not try to hide why she was in prison and tries to pick up her life while her past continually keeps her back emotionally and behaviorally. When she eventually decides to strike out on her own, after a few false starts (sleeping with a dull macho man, getting thrown out of a job interview by her honesty), she seems to reawaken, to become a full person instead of maintaining the facade of "L'Absente" - the absent one (as she was called in prison).

Her transition is rather moving even though there is an eleventh-hour confrontation in the film between the sisters over why she was in prison. Claudel seems to not know where to go in terms of concluding scenes or of ending this movie. While "I've Loved You So Long" is not exactly a masterpiece, it is an emotionally bare portrait of a woman trying to come to grips with her life and attempt to move on. Kirstin Scott Thomas gives a remarkably poignant and ultimately winning performance and is the real reason to see this film.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Last Command (1928)

(Directed by Josef von Sternberg, 1928, USA)
(Notes from the 46th New York Film Festival, 2008, Part 2)

Emil Jannings was one of the great stars of the silent and early talkie cinema. In my mind, he will be forever associated with F.W. Murnau's silent version of "Faust" playing Mefistofeles, as the downsized hotel porter in Murnau's "The Last Laugh", as the jealous husband in Dupont's "Variety" and von Sternberg's later "Der blaue Engel" ("The Blue Angel"), the film that made Marlene Dietrich a worldwide superstar overnight. Also he was the first actor to win the Academy Award in 1929 for this film and for the (unfortunately) lost silent film, "The Way of All Flesh".
It was interesting that the NY Film Festival would present a restored lovely 35mm print of this film, with a score by silent movie music vets Alloy Orchestra.

The rather convoluted plot concerns a prologue with William Powell as a director casting for a film on the Russian Revolution; while leafing through 8 x 10 glossies, he finds a photo of an old man and wants him for an extra. This leads to a search through a rooming house and a twitchy old man (Jannings) gets the call. He decided to go to Hollywood Central Casting, c. 1920's There is a superb tracking shot of extras going from window to window getting various bits of costume. When someone questions the old guy about a medal he's wearing, he replies he received, he replies "From the Tsar!" After a bit of teasing and tag with the medal, the plot develops to a long flashback back to Tsarist Russia pre-revolution and the old twitcher was a top general in the Tsarist army, and the director (Powell) was a Russian theatrical director suspected of being an anarchist, along with his beautiful sidekick Natalya (the lovely Evelyn Brent).

The fairly melodrammatic plot pits the eventual seduction to power of the lovely Natalya, who enjoys her role as a Tsarist general's mistress. Once the revolution happens though, she reveals her true feelings for the pompous codger, saving him from an anarchist's bomb aboard a train, but not before his humiliation before the revolutionaries. Saved from destruction, (from Natalya's intervention) he develops his facial tic while realizing he is responsible for Natalya's death.

The film flashes forward to the bleak present, wherein the director (Powell) goads the general to his final humiliation in a film studio, the 'last command' of the title.

Josef von Sternberg's films were usually celebrations of the grittiness of life or of decadence ("The Blue Angel", "The Scarlet Empress", "The Shanghai Gesture"). "The Lost Command" is as melodrammatic as most silent movies can be, but the performances of Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings make the film, as well as the director's visual style. While not great cinamatic art, Sternberg's film compresses quite a lot in its 88 minutes runtime.

Summer Hours (L'Heure d'Ete)

(Directed by Olivier Assayas, 2008, France)
(Notes from the 46th New York Film Festival, 2008, Part 1)

Since New York's Lincoln Center is completely dug up from construction, screenings of the New York Film Festival were held at the huge movie barn of the Ziegfield, the Walter Reade theater and as usual, opening and closing nights at Avery Fisher Hall (home of the NY Philharmonic). And tix were usually hard to get for opening, centerpiece and closing night of the Festival. So me and an enterprising friend settled for some festival faves, mostly of a French variety.

L'Heure d'Ete, Olivier Assayas's latest film (and second in a series made by other world directors for Paris's Musee d'Orsay) is an intimate story of a French family coming to terms with basic life issues: in this case, the closing of a summer house in the South of France and the mortality of a matriarchal figure (Edith Scob) who intends to leave her family affairs in order before she dies. This includes discussing with her oldest son Frederic (Charles Berling) where to place some of the rare objets d'art: a Corot painting, and various pieces of rare furniture, and closing the summer home. Indirectly we see the various other family members: Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) a fashion designer living in New York City and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) who runs a sneaker factory in Shanghai, China.

The second part of the film concerns the settlement of affairs after the matriarch's sudden death, family infighting over the house and belongings and the eventual closing of the house. Life moves on and the epilogue to this quiet film is a farewell: the grand-daughter has a blow out summer party with her friends and gives this small film a bittersweet coda.

This is not a major work by Assayas, but a chamber piece with a variety of different emotions at play: memory, mortality, and decisions of family heritage all work themselves out. The explosions are merely verbal sparring matches, but the film on the whole is rather lovely to watch, making this blogger envious for a summer place, albeit on a smaller scale. Recommended. B+

Monday, August 11, 2008

Happy End (1966)

(Directed by Oldrich Lipský. 1966, Czechoslovakia)

The mid-1960's Czech "New Wave" produced some great directors like Jiri Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String); Milos Forman (The Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen's Ball), and Vera Chytilová, the director of the feminist film Daisies, a film remarkably ahead of its time. And then there is Oldrich Lipský, the director of, among other things, "Happy End", the first complete feature film to be filmed totally backwards, where even the dialogue is, yes, backwards.

Not to be confused with the musical Happy End by Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill, Lipsky's film is a bold conceptual experiment: a film where the entire mise-en-scene is shot backwards. Not only is the story backwards, the main actor recites in voice over an alternative story to the reversed story we are seeing: this film goes back and forth simultaneously. Or perhaps one of the greatest Dadaistic filmic experiments ever seen, who knows?

The story is a standard jealousy triangle between a butcher, his airheaded wife and the man who comes between them. Needless to say, it doesn't end happily but thanks to the magic of editing (and some silent movie type backwards gags), the film does end happily, hence the title.

The voice-over narration is completely and ridiculously in-sync with the alternate story: murder and death are reversed instead of proceeding in linear fashion: one sequence has the narrator explain (during a funeral) "That's when we planted Grandpa, but he came back" and, in the next scene Gramps is alive and well. The film itself is a curio and it's earthy humor doesn't lag at 71 minutes. For a surrealistic tour-de-force, Happy End delivers. Backwards.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

(Directed by Werner Herzog, USA, 2007)

What better way to spend a long hot summer day than being in a semi-crowded theater watching a documentary about the South Pole? And what better tour guide than Werner Herzog, giving a sardonic voice-over to the proceedings?

This, the latest chapter in the (as one internet wag called it) "Herzog versus Nature" series of documentaries is one of this year's most enjoyable films: rather oddball and surprising. While giving laconic comments about the environment and the people he meets (the "encounters") in Antarctica, Herzog reveals a world that is rapidly changing as the threat of global warming encroaches.

The beauty of this world is revealed through the amazing cinematography of Peter Zeitlinger: either going under the surface of the polar ice caps to reveal some of the bizarre underwater denizens that live in sub-zero temperatures or filming the barrenness of Antarctica as a surrealistic snow-covered landscape, the photography is breathtaking.

Herzog's off camera delivery was rather poignant in certain places: showing the last outpost of the failed Shackleton exploration as a "turn of the century supermarket frozen in time" or the absurdist peril of a penguin heading away from its flock to certain death; when he wasn't being sardonic and making fun of the oddballs met on the way. Yet, he adds, he didn't want to do a standard "Discovery Channnel" documentary: he has succeeded in bringing a little known part of the world to the screen in all its latent, bizarre glory.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Wetherby (1985)

(Directed by David Hare, UK, 1985)

A young man crashes a dinner party given by a middle-aged schoolteacher for her friends. Being British, they are too polite and all believe he came with or knows someone, hence his presence. The next day, the man shows up again and explains that his attending the previous night's dinner was a hypocritical lie, since he didn't know anyone and they all pretended that they did. He suddenly places a gun in his mouth and commits suicide while the teacher watches in shock.

This is the start of David Hare's film Wetherby, focusing on the aftermath and investigation of the suicide of the young man, John Morgan (Tim McInnerney) and simultaneously an investigation of the life of the schoolteacher, Jean Travers (Vanessa Redgrave).

The main reason to see this film is Vanessa Redgrave's excellent, heartfelt performance as a woman who has, in response to a tragedy earlier in her life, has nullified her feelings to the point where she just simply exists. She proudly declares, at one point in the film that she believes she is alone, not lonely and treasures that fact. The point is that she and the friends around her, the Pilboroughs (played by Dame Judi Dench and Ian Holm) are empty and hurting as well. To get by, there are the dinner parties, the pub drinks that Jean shares with Stanley Pilborough where they play elaborate games of one-upmanship and the endless activities that Marcia, Stanley's wife arranges. Into this arrangement of
her semi-lived life comes Karen, a friend of the man who committed suicide. Karen disturbs Jean with her listless approach to living and disaffection and just hangs on. The investigation becomes complicated with a local constable (Tom Wilkinson) asking too many questions. In flashbacks, Jean reveals that she has had a love affair with a long dead man, who died as a result of a stupid chance of events.

Hare's film owes a lot of its structure to Alain Resnais' Muriel, although not having seen that unavailable film, it is hard to comment on the similarities. Hare's film is quite moving and ambitious, being hard to pin down the central mystery on why a young man kills himself over societal rules, but I almost want to believe that the core of the film is that his act forces the schoolteacher to reexamine her life and somehow move on. As one character says in the film, 'Life is messy'.

This is Redgrave's film, her performance lights it up extremely. With this and Karel Reisz's film of Isadora Duncan, this is her best. See it for her.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Them! (1954)

(Directed by Gordon Douglas, USA, 1954)

For those of us of a certain age, watching 1950's sci-fi/horror films on television became something of a rite embodying somewhat ecstatic religious heights. Let's see: there were killer shrews, giant behemoths, a rampaging prehistoric lizard imported from Japan and creepy crawly spiders. And also those films involving predatory aliens in all sizes and malevolence. All of them involved either atomic mutilation or consequences of atomic bomb testing or interplanetary exploring (or hazards thereof). The average viewer can read into this the cold-war paranoia of 1950's-1960's Cold War politics: or US against them.

Them! was the first 1950's film to deal with gigantic mutant monsters: in this case monstrous ants irradiated by desert A-bomb testing and is one of the best. The predatory giant killer ants were not seen until midway through the movie and only alluded to by a weird high-pitch electronic signal, or a very high frequency noise.

This is particularly eerie and haunting in the very beginning of the movie, when two cops pick up a small girl in the desert, listlessly wandering around, clutching a doll. She only responds when she smells a beaker of folic acid and screams: "THEM!!!"

That's one of this movie's most effective highlights. One of the cops (played by James Whitmore) is joined by an FBI agent (James Arness) and an eccentric old scientist/doctor (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter (Joan Weldon). The movie involves the standard plot of tracking the killer ants as they migrate westward to sunny California, after laying waste the girl's trailer and family, decimating a general store for sugar and other mayhem. It is gradually revealed that the ants were the products of atomic testing in the New Mexico desert and along the way, the doctor gives a lecture on ant behavior and organization. If only the Bush administration were so organized...oh wait, take that back.

Now for the ants: before CGI and special effects, the 1950's movie monsters were extra-clunky and completely low-tech: the ants of Them! are basically puppets that don't exactly look like ants, (a bit too many pipe cleaners and puppeteers) but who cares? The movie still is great 1950's escapist fun and easily enjoyable. With a grand showdown in the Los Angeles sewers, how can one go wrong?

Them! is great escapist movie for a dull weekend morning. It is enjoyable as a great nostalgic return to low fi horror.