Farväl Falkenberg (2006)

28 06 2009

It is pretty difficult for me to construct a view of this film that isn’t completely influenced by bias. Sure, film is a subjective experience, but I feel a little bit like films such as this one are “cheating” (for lack of a better word) by depicting a point in time that hits so close to me. I don’t intend to turn this into an essay about myself, but I finished my last year of high school in May and I can’t help but feel some sort of connection with a story about a group of friends who are unsure how they move on to adulthood. This kind of narrative isn’t particularly new, but what is, is the way filmmaker Jesper Ganslandt presents the story.

Unfortunately for Ganslandt’s sake, the images are captured with a ugly DV camera. It’s hard to criticize a filmmaker when he is using everything within his means, but the fact remains that despite his best attempts, Ganslandt’s film looks pretty ugly. “Best attempts” just means focused shots of plants, setting suns reflecting in the lens, and a few other key elements from the Terrence Malick school of filmmaking. Some sequences come close to being legitimately beautiful, but there’s just as many that are overwhelmingly ugly.

The other fault in Ganslandt’s otherwise poignant cinematic universe, is the rather unnecessary dramatic turn that occurs in the second half of the film. I won’t give it away, but needless to say, the shift from plotless philosophy to sheer melodrama is a very bumpy one and Ganslandt never really recovers. So there’s two really big problems with this film from a “objective” (or maybe just technical) standpoint, but everything else is wonderful.

A majority of the movie is a group of friends goofing around and reflecting on one of the biggest and most important turnings points in their lives. Throw in some 8mm footage (echoes of Korine’s debut masterpiece) and poetic voiceovers and you got a very personal cinematic experience. It’s difficult to say why this film works, other than repeating the fact that I can completely relate to these characters, but it does. I’m a little hesitant to call it a masterpiece because of the aformentioned faults, but it most certainly is one of the most emotionally accurate films I’ve ever seen. One just has to take that for what it’s worth.

Advertisements




The Tall Target (1951)

28 06 2009

This is the sort of movie that modern day Hollywood is suppose to be so great at making, but actually isn’t. It is pretty much the most perfectly executed piece of “genre cinema” that I’ve ever seen and it comes as no surprise that it is the work of the great Anthony Mann. Like every other Mann film I’ve seen, not a single moment is wasted within this tight 77 minute long picture. While I won’t argue against the fact that it has a watchability as “escapist entertainment” I will say that it is the best example of commerce and art merging. Although it may not have been successful for Mann, it had all the pieces in place to wow a mainstream audience, but still showcase Mann’s personality.

Technically, this is a period piece, which may or may not have thrown off audiences in 1951. It takes play in 1861 on the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. This is made glaringly obvious by being the main topic of conversation between background characters. The protagonist, John Kennedy, is aboard a train to Baltimore in order to foil multiple plots to assassinate the president while on his way to D.C.

Mann, of course, never actually shows Lincoln, which only adds to suspense of the situation. Kennedy is weaving his way through numerous obstacles for the sole purpose of protecting Lincoln’s life, but it is his own life that is most often seen in danger. His dedication to his job presents the only real flaw in the film. It seems unlikely that someone would risk so much just to have an opportunity to save someone else, even if that someone else is to be the president. It’s not hard to believe exactly, but I guess it comes dangerously close to being either a) extremely patriotic or b) not logical. The more cynical viewer would see these two possibilities as being the same.

According to IMDB, this is one of two MGM films to not have a soundtrack. The other is Ford’s Mogambo, which I recall actually having some tribal music. Mann’s tension is real and palpable because it isn’t developed from any sharp music cues, or “jumps” in sound. The music of The Tall Target is the industrial soundscapes of the train that a majority of the film takes place on and it enhances the drama in a way that a conventional orchestral score never could. The lack of music is just another example of Mann’s technical simplicty, which makes his pictures more engaging, not less. Simply stated, this is how its done.





Voici le temps des assassins (1956)

24 06 2009

A pretty significant step backwards from the greatness of Maria Chapdelaine, this is, nevertheless, a pretty impressive (late) effort from Duvivier. Dramatically, it starts out rather simplistic and easy going with an almost Ozu-like sense of pace, but as it delves deeper and deeper into “film noir” territory, the story becomes more and more absurd. Ultimately, its the great Jean Gabin that saves the film from the pitfalls of a far too plotty script. There’s not much that will convert the less than enthusiastic to Duvivier’s cinematic world, but it is a decent way to spend two hours.

1

Gabin, now an ideal actor for “wise old men” roles, plays André, a successful restaurant owner in Paris. His life is fairly repetitious, but he does not seemed to be bothered by this. Instead, he is extremely content with not only his business but his way of living. One day, a young girl by the name of Catherine stops into the restaurant. She tells André that she is the daughter of his ex-wife, Gabrielle, and that said ex-wife recently died. He gives Catherine a place to stay and even a job at the restaurant. André has some alternative motives with his actions, though. He’s hoping to set Catherine up with his much younger friend, Gérard. Catherine is uninterested, and instead devotes her attention to André.

The father-daughter complex displayed between André and Catherine represents Duvivier’s film at its most subtle and nuanced. Their relationship, though created with a Hallmark-esque narrative turn, seems incredibly gentle and incredibly real. The story, and Duvivier’s style change drastically, though. As it turns out, Catherine is only interested in André’s money and their potential marriage is just a scheme mapped out by Catherine and Gabrielle, who is very much alive. The aforementioned echoes of Ozu from the first twenty minutes, become shades of Preminger and the Wilder of Double Indemnity.

As the narrative starts to constantly twist and turn, the film’s greatest strength begins to shine and that strength is Duvivier’s leading man. Gabin, in a way, is not unlike Randolph Scott. He’s the sort of male lead that almost inherently makes any film twenty times more enjoyable. Sure, this particular piece would be alright without him, but I’m not sure I would have watched it in the first place. The absurdity reached in the final minutes is off-putting at first, but it begins to resemble the craziness achieved in the conclusion of Walsh’s They Drive By Night. My love of Gabin aside, the ending is something everyone needs to see. The rest of the film is decent, but not mindblowing.





Tire au flanc (1928)

22 06 2009

The earliest, and quite possibly the lightest film I’ve seen from Jean Renoir, yet possibly my favorite as well. The characters are drawn very broadly, but I can’t consider this much of a fault when the film has so many other things to fall back on. Unlike Renoir’s later and much more famous work, this isn’t some deep, intricate, and complex character study. It is, instead, a war-time comedy, and as long as one can accept a certain degree of hokeiness, then this is absolutely one of Renoir’s easiest films to enjoy.

While the characters aren’t as fully drawn as the ones in The Rules of the Game, they are photographed just as elegantly. This is one of Renoir’s earliest collaborations with Jean Bachelet, who would later team up with Sacha Guitry. As one would expect, the film looks amazing. Something one would not expect is the early handheld (looking?) cinematography which doesn’t describe the entire film, just merely a few impressive sequences. Surprisingly, the shaky camera approach is not primitive-looking, but rather smooth and pleasant to watch.

The story concerns a privledged men sent, along with his servant (played by a rare beardless Michel Simon) to the military. His upperclass manner alienates and unintentionally threatens everyone else. A few love stories surface too, but they seem to mainly exist for more comedic setups. The shallowness of the story is apparent immediately. The humor is of the same vein as every other “boot camp” drama made in the next 80 years. However, I do think there is something special going on here. Maybe it’s just the fact that it is an early Renoir film, or the fact that it looks stunning, or the ability to see Michael Simon without facial hair. Whatever the case, it really is a treat. Recommended for all Renoir fans, as well as to those that haven’t really been impressed with his other efforts.





Kon’yaku samba-garasu (1937)

17 06 2009

Another really great effort from Yasujiro Shimazu, perhaps even better than his (slightly) more famous masterwork, Our Neighbor, Mrs. Yae. This film, made three years later, has the benefit of more famous cast including such heavyweights as Shin Saburi and Ken Uehara, not to mention sadly forgotten performers like Mieko Takamine and Tatsuo Saito. The 65 minute running time doesn’t give much chance for rich character development, but Shimazu still manages to create a fairly complete cast of characters, while simultaneously juggling elements of shomin-geki and Hollywood screwball comedy.

Shuji Kamura is out of work and as a result, he and his wife are forced to separate. Their reasons are completely financial, as both still carry romantic feelings for the other. Shuji becomes an employee at some sort of extravagant clothing store. There he becomes acquainted with his co-workers and friends to be, Shin Miki (Shin Saburi) and Ken Taniyama. (Ken Uehara) Despite solving the issue of unemployment, Shuji and Junko remain separated, while the ill-tempered and not-so-frugal Shin takes up residence with Shuji. Despite being already engaged, the three all fall in love with the boss’ daughter, Reiko, played by the lovely Mieko Takamine. Just when all three think they have a chance, their past lives float to the surface.

This potentially hokey narrative unravels naturally, as one would expect with Shimazu, and the content is handled brilliantly. The opening sequence between the soon to be separated Shuji and Junko is undeniably heartbreaking, but Shuji’s job interview is a real riot. There were more than a few hints of comedy in Miss Yae but nothing to indicate the comedic talent on display in this particular sequence. The tone begins to settle down after the extreme contrast within the first five minutes. From then on, the story proceeds in a more natural, yet equally delightful manner.

The simplicity of the story doesn’t give much to work with on a visual level, but the work of Shojiro Sugimoto (an early collaborator with Ozu) is more than just servicable. It’s definitely in the vein of the track-heavy style of Shimizu and Mizoguchi, though to make a direct comparison would be overlooking a lot. Overall, though, the photography isn’t a particularly important element. Shimazu uses all of his 65 minutes with his characters. Maybe it’s just the high quality of the cast, but it is absolutely a joy to spend a limited amount of time with these characters. Shimazu has shown the ability to make a cinematic portrait that is as rich as the work of his peers.





The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

16 06 2009

Couldn’t really ask much more out of this simple, downplayed, slice-of-life 70s crime drama. It’s no Mikey and Nicky (although incidentally enough, the films feature the photography of the same cinematographer) and it’s probably not even as great as Cutter’s Way but it is a very solid, enjoyable, well-executed piece of rather austere entertainment. It looks really good and nearly every performance is brilliant. If there’s anything “wrong” exactly with the film, it’s that it is simply too downplayed, but I can’t really criticize a film for accomplishing what it sets out to be. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is definitely worth at least one viewing.

The big selling point here is the presence of Robert Mitchum in one of his later performances. I can’t quite cosign the statement that this is his best performance, but I can agree that it is one of his most nuanced. He seems to do very little actual “acting” here, and the same can be said about the rest of the cast, which includes Peter Boyle, perhaps most famous for his performance as Wizard in Taxi Driver. Like Scorsese’s much more canonized film, director Peter Yates is able to keep his characters and their otherwise dramatic interactions (mostly bank robberies) seem natural and not sensational.

A perfect example of Yates’ intrusive-less camera comes in the second bank robbery of the film, in which one of the bank’s tellers attempts to sound an alarm. He does so, and his movement is immediately recognized by the bandits. He responds in a confusing yet retrospectively accurate manner with “I just uh, pushed the alarm.” He is immediately shot and killed, but there is no music swinging the audience’s attention to the tragedy at hand. Instead, the film’s few action sequences occur in a detached and observational manner.

Having said all that, I have to admit that some of the narrative details here aren’t entirely captivating. I liked that Yates never bothers to catch the audience up on the proceedings, let alone introduce his characters. Instead, we are thrown immediately into the underworld of small town crime. It’s a fascinating depiction, and it is extremely realistic, but it just doesn’t achieve anything mindblowing. Of course, it doesn’t really want to, but it’s never quite as low-key as Mikey & Nicky, a film which has a similar sparse narrative but at least is “about” something, i.e friendship. I suppose it could be argued that Yates is too trapped in the genre, but what he does within these conventions is quite impressive.





Maria Chapdelaine (1934)

13 06 2009

At last, a Julien Duvivier film that works for me. I suppose one out of three isn’t bad, especially since I moderately enjoyed both Pepe Le Moko and Au bonheur des dames, but there’s definitely something special going on here that must be absent in those films, unless I just forgot to notice. Perhaps the limited running time (of 73 minutes) helps since I think Duvivier’s other films struggle to reach their conclusions, but overall, I’d say this is a much more impressive effort technically and a far more enjoyable one as well.

Jean Gabin plays one of three men who fall hopelessly in love with the titular character, a young woman living in rural Canada. She is pursued by a respectable aristocrat from France, as well as another lumberjack, one that is far less charming than Gabin’s. Chapdelaine herself seems to only share these romantic longings with Gabin’s character, but needless to say, things don’t come out ideally – do they ever? Thus, Maria finds herself settling for a less attractive option, which possibly means living a life in the big city, far away from her close-knit family.

Duvivier uses a lot of rear projection here, to say the least. Nearly every close-up of every character is obviously shot with a fake video backdrop. Duvivier seems to embrace this archaic technology, and almost turns it in to some form of genuine expression. The scene with Gabin marching through the snow storm is a perfect example. The backdrop here is inexplicably rotating around, perhaps intended to be a very simplistic attempt at reflecting the character’s internal struggle. The sequence also works as being bizarrely kinetic. Clearly fake, but extremely visceral all the same. It helps a great deal that Duvivier’s editing, in this sequence in particular, seems as refined as any modern montage-heavy film. Needless to say, it is quite a sight to behold.

While Duvivier has unquestionably made a technically competent film here, he does begin to lose his footing when he starts to deal with his characters. His characters aren’t fully-developed or what not, but that’s a improbable task to complete within 73 minutes. Perhaps I make this comparison more often than I should, but I couldn’t help but think of Hiroshi Shimizu’s best work here. While Shimizu thrived shooting on-location, Duvivier made a good deal of this film in a studio. In the simplicity of the characters, though, there is a poetry. It’s a dreamy retelling of a realistic and tragic myth. It’s not something that many people can specifically relate to, but the narrative ultimately works because of the skill of the filmmaker. No doubt, one of the most impressive French films of the 1930s.