This might be it…

21 08 2009

…this might be the end of my run, but it might not be. I leave for college early tomorrow morning and obviously, this will open a new chapter in my life. I don’t know how busy I’ll be in the upcoming months, but if I am very busy, I think writing extended movie reviews will be one of the last things on my mind. In the meantime, I’ll still continue to update my viewing log at TLC (which one can access here) which I have been updating more frequently recently. I’m not sure how noticeable it is, but I definitely think I slowed down a bit this summer, especially compared to last year when updating at least once a day seemed like no problem. Worst case scenario, I’ll still post a few longer reviews here as writing about movies is still something that (inexplicably) brings me great joy, but I think there’s little to no way that I’ll ever be as frequent as before.

Thanks for all those that have read over the past year and a half, as well as to those who will read this in the future.

P.S. I’m not trying to be sentimental.

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Hôtel du Nord (1938)

19 08 2009

Another excellent pre-war effort from the dependable Marcel Carne. He doesn’t have Jacques Prevert’s pen to accompany his sophisticated style, but the story itself is pretty great anyway. In its own special way, this is sort of like the French equivalent to King Vidor’s Street Scene. Like Vidor, Carne places the drama in a centralized location (the titular hotel) and then proceeds to dive into a series of characters. Overall, I’d say Vidor’s film is the better one since it is so straight-forward and perfect in its own theatrical way, but Carne, as I expected, does deliver another powerful portrait of humanity.

The main story, if there is one, concerns a young girl by the name of Renee. Played by the beautiful and far too overlooked, Annabella, Renee barely escapes from the suicide pact that she makes with her boyfriend, Pierre. Pierre is sent to prison for the attempted murder of Renee, who, perhaps unable to move on from the incident, becomes a trustworthy employee at the hotel where the would-be tragedy should have occurred. There are many tiny story lines that Carne’s camera (almost literally) weaves through, and he able to capture these intimate and beautiful moments that do nothing to advance the plot, but do wonders in enriching the atmosphere.

As I have come to expect from Carne, there is a certain visual elegance on display here. There’s no particular shots that brings attention to itself, there are no frames rigorously planned to look beautiful. All the wonderful images that the camera captures (by the way, Louis Nee, an uncredited assistant on Dreyer’s Vampyr and Armand Thirard, a frequent collaborator with Julien Duvivier, are both credited as cinematographers here) seem almost incidental. There’s nothing overwhelmingly picturesque about this film, but I don’t think Carne was ever really that “poetic” (at least visually speaking) of  a director. His strengths instead lie in the attention he devotes to his characters.

This film is no exception to said attentiveness, in fact it is one of Carne’s most strictly observant pictures, with little to no real conventional narrative drive. Things happen, sure, but they don’t happen on the tragic scale of a film like say, Daybreak. No disrespect intended towards that film, as it is absolutely one of my all-time favorites, but where as that film vividly documenting the rise and fall of a romance, this one depicts a period of time in a particular location. The camera swoops into the situation, and then literally, at the very end, tracks back from its origin. It’s a small little touch, but its one of the many things that add up to a universe that is so richly detailed.





Jenny (1936)

13 08 2009

This early Marcel Carne film is, perhaps, best known for being the directors first collaboration with the great screenwriter, Jacques Prevert. The duo would go on to create at least two other masterworks in Le jour se leve and Le quai des brumes. While this was the first time the two teamed up, it is hardly noticeable. The confidence in Prevert’s writing, and the eloquent, never intrusive way Carne executes said writing is so apparent in all three films (there is another collaboration — Drole de drame, which I haven’t seen yet) that it only takes a few minutes for one to realize that they are watching a Carne-Prevert picture.

This story, based on a novel by Pierre Rocher, depicts a mother-daughter relationship. The emotional bond between Jenny (the mother, played by Francoise Rosay) and Danielle (the daughter, played by Lisette Lanvin) is not so stable. Danielle has been on a tour (she’s a pianist) for the past six years, and she has not spoken with her mother within that time frame. Meanwhile, in a move unknown to her daughter, Jenny has taken up a career at a local night club as something of a bar hostess, think Hideko Takamine in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. There are some melodramatic events, such as the two women becoming interested in the same man (something that anticipates Julien Duvivier’s Voici le temps des assassins by exactly twenty years) but for the most part, things are played out on a very subtle and mature level.

Carne’s ever so impressive camera movements do help downplay this drama, but I think most of this should credited to the performer. Lisette Lanvin, whose most famous role is in Sacha Guitry’s Pearls of a Crown, is excellent as Jenny’s daughter. The opening sequence, in which Danielle breaks off an engagement to a gentleman we know nothing about is heartbreaking in its realism and it gives the narrative a starting point that has to slowly crawl into the main frame of the narrative.

Following this break-up, Danielle returns home from London with hopes of reconnecting with her mother. Things go smoothly, as Jenny’s balances her daughters needs with her secret occupation, but of course, no one can expect a lie to ever last very long. It is worth mentioning here that the club Jenny works at was once a house where she brought up her daughter. When Jenny’s patrons wave to her in the street and reference the club’s address, Danielle begins to develop some suspicions.

Acting on said suspicions, Danielle decides to visit a local club advertised in a city paper. She asks for Jenny, the nickname her mother is addressed by on the street (as opposed to Jeanne, what Danielle calls her) but while she waits, a sad, pathetic, yet extremely wealthy man approaches her and clumsily begins to seduce her. Like many of the male peripheral characters in Carne’s work, this man is part of a not so flattering portrait of male egoism. The central male characters like Lucien, the love interest of both mother and daughter, and Benoit (played by Charles Varnel last seen in Duvivier’s They Were Five), a manipulative man infatuated with Jenny, are portrayed in a much more positive light.

Lucien, played by Albert Prejean (who can be seen in some of Rene Clair’s earliest work as well as the French version of The Three Penny Opera) is a character whose importance is romanticized a great deal. No doubt, he is seen as something of a hero, but a hero that still has flaws. Benoit, on the other hand, can easily be interpreted as the bad guy and yet he is viewed with such respect. His actions are seldom noble, but it is not difficult to see why he is such a scheming fellow. Varnel’s character is a “fancy/wealthy fat cat” — a type of stock character usually intended to provide an audience the opportunity to laugh at the hypocrisy and crude nature of the upper class.  Benoit, however, is not comic relief.

If it seems like I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in describing the moral compass of the characters, then that’s a credit to Carne’s vision. His portraits of odd, idiosyncratic relationships are always so vivid and rich, one can nearly taste them. Jenny is no exception. While these people are far from saints, they are still “complete” — living, breathing, emotion-filled characters that offer more than just human flesh brought on to carry a narrative. Some are detestable, but I can easily see myself wanting to spend more time in Carne’s world, and I definitely plan to do so.





De la guerre (2008)

10 08 2009

While I think this movie is sort of perfect in its own special little way, I also have a hard time saying I loved it. It certainly is an enjoyable experience, and it is interesting to watch, but maybe the sheer perfection, from an objective level, overwhelms any sense of love. It looks amazing, that’s for sure, and it has the best cast one could assemble at the moment, but it almost feels too weird and unique for its own good. It was fascinating, on an almost novelty level, to see something that was obviously over my head and so beyond my usual understanding of movies.

In addition to a lovely visual style and a stellar cast, Bertrand Bonello also has the benefit of expressing something deeply personal here. I haven’t see either of his other two movies, but I’d still say this serves as something of his own 81/2 in that it is so deeply connected to his own life that it feels like as a retelling of his experiences. Mathieu Amalric plays a guy named Bertand, who is wait for it…a struggling film director. He accidentally locks himself in a casket at night, which provides some sort of a revelation. He is then invited, by Guillaume Depardieu (in one of his very last roles) to some sort of refugee camp whose foundation is a mansion in the middle of a forest.

Amalric’s initial experiences at this camp is actually the best part of the movie, at least from a superficial “entertainment” standpoint. His eager attempts to stay open-minded to the new age progressive philosophers he is surrounded by is kind of hilarious. There’s one particularly brilliant sequence in which he points out a crack in the ceiling and attempts to make a profound observation by comparing it to a dinosaur. Depardieu, however, grounds him to reality: “I just see a house that needs renovation.” These are the movie’s best moments because, like Amalric, we cannot make sense of everything that is going on. It is a perverse fascination, but we still want to understand it.

Unfortunately, Amalric joins the ranks alongside Asia Argento, who serves as something of a ring leader to all the madness. He leaves the audience behind by sinking completely into the awkward philosophy of this pseudo-cult. His wife, played by an excellent (and excellent-looking) Clotilde Hesme, arrives and settles down in the makeshift community as well.

This is where Bonello completely loses me. The movie continues to look good, and the performers maintain their charm, but at the same time, they kind of stop acting, things stop happening. People spout philosophical statements like its nobody’s business, but everything the film has established up to this point indicates something far more subtle and deep than just some Tarkovsky-esque monologues. What’s left at the end is a very well-made movie that is just completely confusing to me. It presents something intriguing, a man who experiments with a completely new lifestyle, but it all goes over my head. I mean, this probably makes the film really great but I’m not sure if I can get it — even if the comprehension is intended to be instinctual and not cerebral.





Street Scene (1931)

10 08 2009

King Vidor accomplished many cinematic feats throughout his career, this, however, is not one of them. At the same time, this actually is one of my favorite film of his. It’s just that Vidor does little to nothing to hide the screenplay’s roots as a theatrical production. The entire thing takes place in one location (outside an apartment complex) with almost entirely the same angle, but the script is good enough and the performances are riveting enough for the whole thing to work. It’s a success in the same way as Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party or Akira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths.

The connection with Kurosawa’s film doesn’t even end at the superficial theatrical setup. The stories are pretty similar too. Both take place within some sort of living quarter and both document the many colorful characters that inhabit these housing situations. Vidor’s film has the benefit of being a lot shorter and boasting some much better performances. While this is certainly a “theatrical” movie, the acting is actually quite good. Sure, a lot of the roles are heightened, but not to the point of feeling particularly frustrating.

Beulah Bondi, in her first screen role, introduces a brutally bitter women, a persona that she would reprise in Wellman’s excellent Track of the Cat some twenty years later. For a good twenty minutes (or maybe more, the film, if anything, goes by fast) she is the center of a gossiping group of tenants. Eventually, she becomes something of a background character as Sylvia Sidney is thrown into the spotlight as becomes the closest thing to a central protagonist. Overall, though, Vidor devotes his attention to the entire apartment complex. Maybe he doesn’t dive deeply into every character, but he does give his camera time to observe just about everyone.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative has to toss in some drama, and it comes from a jealous husband slaying his wife and her lover. It seems rather unnecessary at first, but it doesn’t really “raise” the movie into a sense of something substantial. One could still describe the movie as pointless, but that’s why I like it so much. It doesn’t really force anything else, just takes it time and allows the viewer to get in tune with the street. These are some of the worst neighbors one can hope for, but they are s0 vivid and fascinating to watch. Vidor, perhaps more than anyone, is great at creating specific sequences. The one in which a newspaper boy tries to sell Sylvia Sidney the paper that has her mother’s death on the front page is one of the most memorable from this film, but there’s plenty of others.





Broken Lullaby (1932)

8 08 2009

Quite easily the best movie I’ve seen from Ernst Lubitsch so far, though I guess it is also the least Lubitsch-esque. His humor remains in tact here, but the content in which he is exploring is far more serious, perhaps even dreary. While I do enjoy watching some of his “lighter” movies every now and then, I found it much more rewarding to see him experimenting with a legitimately dramatic narrative, while still maintaining his overall humanism. In fact, he handles the story (which has plenty of melodramatic possibilities) in a very mature manner, probably more gentle than any other American film at the time.

Paul Renaud, a French soldier recently dismissed from the first World War, returns home with an enormous burden on his mind. It turns out that, in the middle of combat, he stumbled upon an (otherwise calm) German soldier, Walter Holderlin. As one might predict, he responds quickly by killing Walter, but exercises compassion towards his victim almost immediately. Haunted by Walter’s letter, Paul attempts to eliminate his guilt by meeting the Holderlin family. When they welcome Paul into their home, he cannot find the courage to tell the truth and surprisingly, he becomes something of second son to the family.

Lubitsch throws in an obligatory love story involving Paul and Walter’s ex-fiancee, which begins to tip-toe into the realm of the melodramatic. At a certain point, I was almost positive that Lubitsch was going to lose all the Ozu-like gentleness he had for his characters, but thankfully, he never does. The relationships created as a result of a family tragedy are not only fascinating on a dramatic level, they are also extremely life-affirming. While they hold prejudices strongly at the start, the Holderlin family is shown to be caring, compassionate, and open-minded. In other words, they are everything that the rest of the people in town are not.

There is a bit of that “new kid in town” element present upon Paul’s arrival in Germany, which reminds of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s (very, very different) Katzelmacher. While Fassbinder’s film is definitely the more accomplished feature, I have to say Lubitsch’s effort is much better. The two films seem to be in direct dichotomy: Fassbinder documents how evil can be while Lubitsch expresses his overwhelming faith in human embrace. While it maybe a romanticized portrait of family life, it is still a very vivid and “full” one. Considering the running time of 72 minutes, it is quite impressive how much Lubitsch can build from his characters. Paul and the Holderlin family make up some of the richest and most complete characters for a pre-code Hollywood film. Needless to say, this is a masterpiece.





Splendor in the Grass (1961)

7 08 2009

A very, very difficult film to swallow, not because it is that real (it’s rather melodramatic half of the time actually) but instead because it seems to wear its controversy so proudly on its sleeve. While there was obvious something more behind the film then just the “dark” thematic territory, it is a little hard to not see Elia Kazan and screenwriter William Inge getting all excited about all the publicity such a heavy story would undoubtedly generate. Ultimately, though, the film manages to overcome its occasional lapses in subtlety by coming out the other end with a very mature conclusion.

If nothing else, Kazan’s sprawling drama works as a perfect companion piece to Robert Rossen’s far superior effort from three years later, Lilith. In that film, Warren Beatty is once again involved with a “crazy” girl, but Rossen’s content is far more pragmatic than the glamorous tragedy of a lost first love that is depicted here. Kazan is more likely to get some tears out of the audience, but I’m not sure that is exactly a good thing. Before its final bittersweet, yet fitting and understated conclusion, the story takes a hard turn into a lane of self-parody. The emotional fits performed Beatty and Natalie Wood come awfully close to simply being too much. Wood’s breakdown in the bathroom with her mother is a perfect example of Inge trying too hard to make a sequence “harrowing” or “unflinching.” It’s easy to see where the movie is suppose to be a intimate, Cassavetes-like drama, but obviously, it never quite reaches that level.

Like Rossen’s movie, Kazan manages to ground some (but not all) of the melodrama by interjecting these little spontaneous and personal moments. There’s this odd subplot involving Beatty’s sister, played by Barbara Loden who, ironically enough, would go on to make a legitimately intimate Cassavetes-like drama in 1970 with Wanda. She, like everyone else excluding Beatty, plays her part to the most exaggerated point, but I can’t help but find her b-story as this bizarre interlude in the middle of Beatty and Wood’s much more “juicy” romance.

The high drama and tension build up, in volcano-like fashion, to a conclusion which one would anticipate to be far too physically “sad” but is instead, beautifully understated. While considering my admiration for filmmakers like Ozu and Naruse, I should probably hate a movie like this, but I can’t help but find it fascinating. Sure, it is a far cry from reality, but it manages to hit certain notes that ring true,  in spit of how serious the script takes itself. Had Kazan ended his film in any other way, I certainly wouldn’t be nearly as impressed, but I think it is to his credit that he could end a film filled with “big, serious, important” drama on a note more akin to the films that came from far East during the same time period.