Thursday, July 14, 2005

Enjoy the Silence

The Thief (Russell Rouse, 1952) – mixed+
This thriller is schooled in the deepest of noirs, but it is also ripe with Cold War paranoia and xenophobia. Ray Milland stars as the titular thief; a government physicist who gets tangled up in an espionage scheme. Despite rigorous precautions, including a complicated way of receiving and sending information to the foreign power he works for, the feds find out about Milland’s actions, and he is forced to make his escape. Shot mostly in Washington D.C., with an illuminated Capitol Hill often looming in the background, the film hammers home its message of the importance of vigilantism and upstanding citizens, but it never becomes overly preachy, just slightly obvious – almost endearing, in a way. Milland delivers a fine performance as the tormented thief, but don’t hold your breath for any hardboiled noir banter – there is no audible dialogue! A gimmicky experiment to say the least, and director (also co-writer) Rouse struggles at times with the format, but it also has its merits: the mute menace of the spies and agents following Milland around creates an eerie, ominous ambience.


It’s All Gone Pete Tong (Michael Dowse, 2004) – con+
Rise and fall story of a British superstar DJ, set in that balearic den of iniquity Ibiza. Clearly made by people who know their way around the club scene, but apart from the setting, the result is uninvolving and formulaic: fame and money leads to girls, drinks, coke and an inevitable melt-down. Lead Kaye is a grimacing Shane MacGowan-like ape-man who chews, snorts and drinks up the scenery and everything else in his way. The plus is for the clever – and accurate – way of showing how a good beat mix is performed, from the perspective of the DJ.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Angels, Hitters, and Dicks

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) - mixed
This biopic about quirky and troubled New Zeeland author Janet Frame is both sympathetic and picturesque, and offers a rare insight into the mind of a person who may or may not be mentally ill. Frame herself (played by three actresses from child to grown-up, but mostly by Kerry Fox) comes across as a fascinating personality, but director Campion makes a weak effort to portray the characters surrounding her as little more than cardboard charicatures, from parents and teachers to literary posers in London and mean doctors.


Hard Times (Walter Hill, 1975) – pro
Charles Bronson is a depression-era street fighter who hooks up with loudmouth promoter James Coburn for a series of underground brawls, in this taut, lean feature that was Walter Hill's first as a writer-director. The two lead characters are archetypical - the silent, stoic fighter and the debt-ridden, over-confident promoter - but they both work well in the hands of Bronson and Coburn, and Hill makes an assured directing debut, already displaying some of the traits that would become staples of his style; most prominently, the economy of both the script and the execution. The fight scenes are equally impressive and intense, often shot with the thuds and grunts from the hitters as the only soundtrack.


The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder, 1970) – mixed-
Fifty years after Dr. Watson's death, in compliance with his last will, his heirs unveil a previously unknown Sherlock Holmes mystery, deemed by Watson too hot to handle at the time he wrote it down, due to its delicate nature: it involves international espionage, Holmes' brother Mycroft, and hints of a softer side of the great detective. This is a rather clever device by Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond to kick-start a story obviously not written by Arthur Conan Doyle, but the result is pretty underwhelming. Originally intended as an epic, chronicling a number of different cases and episodes, but later chopped down to a more managable running time, it now resembles little more than a well-crafted detective story made for TV, with an unengaging plot and a disappointing showdown in Loch Ness that would be more fitting of an episode of Scooby Doo than the greatest detective in the world. Still, Robert Stephens is a good Holmes, and the scenes between him and Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Lee) are excellent in showing the brothers' mutual, and restrained, contempt for one another. Wilder directs with his usual flair, but his annoying habit of mixing drama with comedy doesn't work at all, and Colin Blakely's Watson – often reduced to comic relief – is hopeless; for a man of science and medicine, he sure is a clumsy, dim-witted moron.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Women and Fairies

3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977) - pro-
I can see how Altman detractors may see this as a perfect example of how the director time and again, because of his artistic integrity and because of his status as an auteur, gets away with anything – in this case, a movie conjured up in his dreams, very loosely held together and seemingly without much of a script; enigmatic, problematic, deliberately introvert. For all its everyday Californian environments, it’s definitely the most cryptic of the Altman films I’ve seen. And while not trying to make sense of it, there were several things that left me wishing for more – the balance of the three women, in particular (without giving too much away, the third woman of the group is so narratively uninvolved that sans the last act, the film could have been called 2 Women).

But there’s always something to hold your attention in an Altman film. The setting is mesmerizing; just like in California Split, Altman manages to shoot California in a distinct way that, for me, sets him apart from many other directors – the attention to car rides, the bar interiors, the apartment buildings, crowds. And if you’re a Shelley Duvall fan, you’re in for a treat. She carries the film with a bravura performance as the pathetic, cocky, obnoxious and oblivious Millie.


The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935) - pro
Sparkling dialogue by Preston Sturges and slick direction by Wyler make this romantic comedy a breeze to sit through, despite its unnecessarily messy plot, which follows a good-hearted orphan (Sullavan), who stumbles out in the world and encounters a long line of suitors and wannabe tutors, before falling in love. A few scenes are virtually all about talking, with very little physical action, but always with the wit one can expect from a Sturges script. It's not on par with the razor-sharp The Palm Beach Story or Sullivan's Travels, but still highly enjoyable.


"I'm pretty determined to dust off this blog and update it more often, btw." -- me, being foolish, over a month ago

Well, I can always blame the absence on my vacation, during which I tried to stay offline as much as possible (plus, the dial-up I was forced to use made being online almost unbearable). In any case, now I'm back, and I will try to put together some thoughts on stuff seen lately. Among the films I've seen during the last couple of weeks are a handful of classics, and putting together some small sentences about films like Weekend or The Red Shoes really seems redundant, in light of the amount of articles and reviews already written about them. Still, I will try to at least justify my ratings of them - we all love ratings, don't we? I have been toying around with the idea of publishing my screening log here, but at the end of the day, I think what the Internet needs right now is not another boring list with titles, directors, and ratings, without any comments. So unless I have something to say about the films I see, I won't mention them here.

Thanks to Russ for proving that someone actually reads this blog, and - even better! - cares.