Finally Sunday! / Vivement Dimanche! (1983)

April 21, 2009

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“so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock

I’ve got such a list of films that I haven’t made notes on that I’m having to rattle through them at great speed.  I’m not even going to mention Jules et Jim, which I saw recently and again at the weekend.  I think I’ve got the balance right but I do find my notes useful, so it’s a shame.  I saw Jules et Jim because speciality French movie channel CineMoi had advertised a showing of Vivement Dimanche! but decided to show the 1962 classic instead.  I started watching and couldn’t stop but I couldn’t help being miffed as I’d missed the chance to see the one Truffaut that I haven’t seen and don’t own and then a little digging revealed that I do own it!  It was released in Australia as Confidentially Yours, though having seen the film I can’t see why, and was part of a box set I picked up some years back.  So, I got to see a Truffaut double-bill.  “Who’s the Daddy now?

This is smashing.  It is Truffaut working through his Alfred Hitchcock fixation (the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews make fantastic reading) by making a perfectly-executed homage.  This being a (pseudo) Hitchcock it revolves around a man who is accused of a crime that he may or may not have committed and his attempts to elude the authorities for long enough to clear his name.  It’s suspension-of-disbelief time of course, this is a film where the police have set up road-blocks and search the city for a man who is sat comfortably in his office which they’ve neglected to check.  But it doesn’t matter, the film is so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock that you can let anything go.

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the innocent victim of circumstances- by turns confused, afraid and indignant- with the glorious Fanny Ardant as the secretary who is secretly in love with him and does his investigating for him whilst he is ensconced in the office (a nice nod to Rear Window).  Both are excellent and their chemistry is lovely to watch.

But it’s the Hitchcock motifs that matter the most.  The film is immediately suspenseful from the shooting of Massoulier which opens and is undercut throughout with a tense string soundtrack which is tremendously reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s best.  There are images of telephones ringing in empty rooms, scenes shot from outside through windows, the first person the couple suspect is dramatically revealed to be a Priest, Fanny Ardant’s Barbara zips from city to city looking or clues, she witnesses a murder but can only see the murderer’s legs, the audience is manipulated to believe then disbelieve then rebelieve in Trintignant’s character…

I don’t believe that this focusing upon the Hitchcock angle is doing the film down at all, it is certainly a tense but enjoyable thriller in its own right and the reverence it shows for the Godfather of all modern thrillers is a strength.  There is also a brief reference to Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory– a film which was once banned in France- and, as this was to be Truffaut’s last film it is almost as if he is saying goodbye and expressing his thanks to great filmmakers from before.  Like when Bob Dylan played ‘Song For Woody’ at his 40th Anniversary tribute concert.

It’s far from flawless but I loved it.  Can’t wait to see it again. 7/10

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Dark Victory (1939)

March 20, 2009

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I cried.  I cried myself to sleep after I saw this.

That means it works and it also means that I’m not going to say too much about it.  Bette Davis, full of life and vigour as the doomed Judith Traherne, is exceptional in this.  Now I love Bette at the best of times, so a film designed to showcase her talent to the full is always going to appeal to me.  So what if the elements around her aren’t quite right?  Bette shines in Dark Victory, she positively radiates.

George Brent as Dr Steele lacks charisma and there isn’t much chemistry between him and Bette, in terms of on-screen partnerships the key scene between Bette and Bogey is a comparative sizzler.  Brent actually clicks pretty well with Geraldine Fitzgerald (as Ann, Judith’s closest friend) and it all just seems a bit of a shuffled pack.  Not that I could see Brent playing the Bogart role , nor Fitzgerald replacing Davis at all!  Bogey plays the trainer of Traherne’s horses, a sometimes Irish man called Michael O’Leary- I say sometimes because he occasionally has an Irish accent but usually doesn’t- and his job is to look a bit rough and to take no shit.  He does the role okay but has still not quite grown from actor to star yet.  Bogart’s big scene with Davis is great but aside from that he, like everyone else on screen, is little better than wallpaper.  On the bright-side, this comparative invisibility amongst the support players meant that I didn’t get to notice and be infuriated by Ronald the Ray Gun.  A mercy.  7/10.

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Hush (2009)

March 19, 2009

Low-budget horror films; the easiest type of film to make and yet the hardest of all to make well.  There are, as Wes Craven observed and had great fun with, rules that horror films must follow.  Follow too many and the whole thing descends into farce (like My Bloody Valentine 3D which I saw last month) but put too few in and the audience won’t follow you where you’re trying to lead them.  It’s a difficult balancing act, especially for a first-time director.  What Hush does well is to put in just enough schlock and horror convention- you never see the bad guy’s face, for example, and the girl suddenly hammering on the window makes you jump out of your seat- but it retains enough intelligence to elevate it above your typical fare.  And so when the bad guy dies and then doesn’t spring back to life and die again three or four more times, it feels a bit weird.  It’s certainly right and commendable, but a bit disorientating- like a post-match interview where a player quotes Proust.

The opening scenes have a lot of back-story to cram in and so we endure rather forced conversation between William Ash (impressive as Zakes- by the way, Zakes? That’s just bizarre) and Christine Bottomley (his disillusioned girlfriend Beth).  It’s a blatant exposition but in a first time writer-director I’m not fussed, he’ll sort that no bother.  Against the backdrop of their relationship breakdown and misguidedly interfering local policemen (when will they learn to trust the kids?) they stumble upon a trafficking ring with Beth being kidnapped by them.  Obviously the story is nothing to write home about but it’s okay.  It’s relatively plausible anyway.

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The tension builds pretty well- dark rainy nights with faceless men chasing you to the accompaniment of bass-heavy music always do that- and there are a nice couple of twists and surprises with some pretty gory incidents.  It never verges into self-parody and doesn’t overplay it’s hand, the Director does just enough of everything to be effective.  It’s pretty well measured and even if it’s not really my cup of tea, it’s impressive and economical for what it is.

If only the handheld camera used for much of the opening fifty minutes would have held still or focused upon what we were hearing I’d have loved it.  7/10, keep your eye on Tonderai and Ash.


Lantana (2001)

March 11, 2009

The real tragedy of Lantana is that we see the corpse of Valerie at the very outset.  We know that she dies prematurely from the title sequence and thus are constantly looking out for clues or indicators from the director (Ray Lawrence).  Had we not seen this, then our focus of our attention for the first hour would have been on the spreading and tangled influences of the lives and relationships within the film upon one another.  The film would have then taken a darker, more sinister turn with the disappearance of Valerie and the playing out of people’s lives and loves and choices and fears would have continued from there.  It could have been almost Twin Peaks-y in the way that the malevolence and darkness slowly built while never obscuring the wider themes of the piece.

That said it is still a very good, very powerful film.  Anthony LaPaglia leads as an emotionally-stunted, bullying policeman who jeopardises his marriage and family without thought and then comes to see the depth of that betrayal and the ramifications.  This is juxtaposed with the lives of other people throughout the film and we see an interesting device whereby LaPaglia learns about himself and his life by interviewing suspects.  Similarly, the therapist Valerie listens to her patients as a means of making sense of her own relationship and grief over her recently-murdered daughter.

The film is slow-moving and painstaking, you can imagine that it would drive people crazy in a multiplex.  The themes of love and betrayal and the breakdown of trust are played out in situations where no-one is honest and no-one is solely to blame, there is no black and white and no clear moralising here.  One of the characters utters the phrase “sometimes love isn’t enough” and that could be the theme of the film.  That said, the film also demonstrates that sometimes love is enough.  The couple who retain their trust in one another throughout are the happiest as the film closes, the character who is least interested in trust and honesty but views relationships as a contest (Patrick, played by Peter Phelps) loses the game of his choosing.  All of this without the issue of Valerie’s disappearance and death- it is not a straightforward piece at all.

I really liked the confident direction and some of the visual touches- the coldness of the police station contrasted with the warmth of the homes for example- were tremendous, the unflinching portrayal of an unsympathetic situation, the attention paid to each aspect of each story- and the performances were excellent throughout (Kerry Armstrong as LaPaglia’s wife Sonja was absolutely exceptional).  All in all it was a great story with interesting undercurrents expertly told.  7/10- it would be 8 but for the opening giveaway!

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First Blood (1982)

March 11, 2009

This movie is unfairly remembered because of the misquote “don’t push me”- it was “don’t push it”, is that so hard to remember?- and the increasingly ludicrous sequels it spawned.  Even the name of the film has now been changed in the same way that the original Star Wars has, this is now apparently called “Rambo: First Blood”.  Fuck that, why would I go along with that.  There are similarly named characters with vaguely similar characteristics in the sequels but no other similarities.  This is an unfairly maligned film; much, much better than its reputation.  In First Blood a Vietnam veteran Green Beret John Rambo (Stallone, obviously) is the innocent victim of a bullying small-town Sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who simply picks a fight with the wrong man.  Rambo escapes and takes to the woods where he is hunted by policemen and the National Guard with machine guns and helicopters.  It’s a Western, a modern-day Western.  Rambo goes to great lengths to avoid killing any of his hunters, despite the constant and excessive provocation, the threat upon his life and despite suffering flashbacks to his torture in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.

There is no deep underlying message in First Blood, unless you count ‘beware who you fuck about with’.  This is simply a documentation of an innocent man fighting for survival, waging a war of attrition and defying overwhelming odds to survive everything that is thrown at him.  It is, to some extent, an elegy to machismo.  Stallone is portraying every reactionary, right-wing, frustrated, pot-bellied, balding, middle-aged man’s dream- taking on everyon who has ever stopped him doing whatever he wants, wherever he wants with whoever he wants and however he wants.  Just like Michael Douglas’s D-Fens Foster in Falling Down, Rambo is a wet-dream for the insecure and the impotent.  That its appeal goes beyond that, however, says more for its quality than its limited macho hand-job appeal would have you believe.

And do you know what else?  Stallone is really, really good in this.  Not in the fat, lumbering “look at me, I’m stupid” way that he mistakes for acting in the likes of Copland and Rocky Balboa, but in a genuinely convincing, steely, haunted way.  At no point does Stallone’s performance fail him- even his ‘tormented by flashbacks’ scenes or his climactic breakdown where I expected him to struggle are fine.  He even looks handsome and hadn’t yet bloated himself into the caricature of a man that he became.  This is as good as it would ever get for Sly.  The second-stringers are solid and the direction by Ted Kotcheff (who I only know from the flimsy and disappointing Jane Fonda/George Segal comedy Fun With Dick and Jane) is straightforward enough to allow the story to work.

It’s a real pity that Rambo survived the film- he didn’t survive the source novel- allowing a fine and intelligent movie became a bloated, dumb, crash-bang-wallop series.  7/10

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Made in U.S.A. (1966)

March 9, 2009

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During this film the phrases “a Disney film with Humphrey Bogart” and “a Disney film with blood” are used.  And you can see what is meant by that.  This is super-stylish and, like all of Jean-Luc Godard’s finest films, mixes the personal and the political into a simple yet complex take on Film Noir.  The simple yet complex theme is evident in the dialogue as well as the construction of the film.

Godard’s work at this point seems far more overtly political than his earlier films and is almost an expression of his doubts and uncertainties with regard to left wing politics and how they can be reconciled with contemporary society.  There are overtly political visuals (the grafittied- there’s no right way to spell that is there?-  phrase Liberté gets machine-gunned) and dialogue (political tracts recounted by tape recorder as a clue in the case).  As an expression of what was happening in the world in general and France in particular (the Paris student riots were about two years away) Made in U.S.A. shows Godard to be both a product of and a leader of his times.

And it is, of course, an homage to the American B-movies that Godard references throughout.  If not made, this film was certainly conceived in the USA- if a country can also be a state of mind and I’m not getting all up my own pseudy arse with this!  The film features Anna Karina tracking down the murderer of her ex-lover.  The murder was the result of his involvement in or at least knowledge of a political assassination.  Karina, as was mentioned above, is a contemporary version of Bogart’s noir persona- uncompromising, hard-headed and thoughtful.  She is being tracked by a criminal and his callow, hapless accomplice (much like Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon).  As far as a linear plot goes, that’s your lot.  Non-linear plot elements are the constant pop-culture allusions, the tape-recorded monologues on the French political situation and a discussion on perspectives and how they shape our view of the world.

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Being a Godard film, of course, it looks marvellous- the constant juxtaposition of stark white internal scenes with bright primary colours, the beautifully lit exteriors which seem so fresh, the long fixed-lens close-ups, the reflections of Karina barely visible in a photograph frame behind the head of the subject, the twins in the gymnasium- his visual inventiveness is indefatigable.  And it sounds marvellous, with real-life intervening in the form of sirens, telephone rings and overhead planes.  The influence of all of this on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is obvious (the basic storyline, Karina’s appearance, the name hidden by a sound effects etc) and is further testimony to the power of the film to extend beyond itself and take on an importance beyond merely being a piece of cinematic art.  There is a scene where Karina and László Szabó sit down and describe what happens in the next part of the film rather than acting it out- this constant deconstruction of the cinematic myth (the dialogue constantly talks about movie scenes, characters, events, the mise-en-scène– hell even the characters are named after actors or directors) serves to remind us that Godard is making statements that go beyond the simplistic storyline.  The story is not what the film says, it is merely a vehicle to express the director’s statement.  Has the auteur theory ever been supported in so stark and blatant a way?

This is a film that needs to be seen and re-seen for things to make sense.  At present it’s a 7/10 but that should improve as the references become clearer with further viewings.  Of course, the whole thing could be a vacant pop-culture act of pretension, but I don’t believe so.

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Network (1976)

February 26, 2009

I’m really in two minds about this.  It’s great- but not as great as I’d hoped.  The direction, cinematography and performances are all great.  What holds me back from loving this is the script- and I can see myself getting tied up in knots about this.  For a film from over thirty years ago, the film is remarkably prescient.  I don’t think that ratings chasing, dumbing down, callous corporate politics or exploitation were new concepts in 1976 by any means- but the exploitation of a mental breakdown, on-screen deaths or murderous political activitism would all follow in the years that followed Network.  I just feel that the way that these things unfold here is unrealistic- even when they have, in essence, come to pass.  This is the apex of melodrama.  And do ordinary people really decide upon a murder so calmly and certainly.

The other thing about the script which irked me was that every character in every scene no matter how animated or sullen or overwrought or in control or even psychotically deranged spoke in exactly the same polished and seamless voice.  They all had a fantastic range of vocabulary, never stumbling or searching for the right phrase or capable of being misinterpreted as if they all had thesauruses (thesaurii?) to hand.  Life isn’t like that and so real-life drama shouldn’t be like that.  It’s just a bug-bear of mine.  The dialogue is great and quotable, it is beautifully delivered and sticks in the memory but it’s never that easy to find the right… erm… you know, the right means of delivering an emotional message… articulating, that’s it- it’s never that easy articulating your thoughts off the cuff.

Aside from those gripes, this is first-rate movie making.  Peter Finch gives a great performance as the deranged Harry Beale (like the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear), William Holden is more understated but no less effective in the role which holds the whole piece together, Faye Dunaway delivers her usual performance of the era (usually very good, never excellent) and Ned Beatty with just one powerful scene in the whole film is mind-blowing.

Notwithstanding my reservations about the script (and it does make important comments about exploitation, dumbing-down and spoon-feeding) this is still a fine movie.  7/10 and I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.

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