Saturday, August 19, 2017

MEANTIME - #890


For those of us music fans who romanticize 1980s Britain, let Mike Leigh’s 1984 television movie Meantime be our wake-up call. Whether we dream of the beautifully dreary poetry of the Smiths and New Order or the New Romantic-glitz of early Duran Duran, our belief that it would have been an extraordinary time to be alive and English is based on a false ideal that borders on ghetto tourism. Sure, the hopelessness and boredom of Leigh’s tale is the same kind of situation that gave us Morrissey and Ian Curtis and Martin Gore, but it didn’t make philosophers and kings of everyone. We can hear the music without having to eek out an existence under Thatcher’srule.

Set in a London tenement, Meantime follows an out-of-work working class family--father, mother, and two adult sons--who struggle to get by, packed into a counsel estate apartment, living off unemployment. While Frank (Jeff Robert) has settled into a certain contentment doing nothing, largely enabled by his put-upon wife Mavis (Pam Ferris), his two boys are finding it hard to feel the hours ooze by without going mad. To cope, they go to opposite ends. Mark (Phil Daniels, Quadrophenia [review]) is caustic and confrontational, a prototype of David Thewlis in Leigh’s masterpiece, Naked, while Colin (Tim Roth, The Hit, The Hateful Eight) is quiet and withdrawn, and perhaps a bit behind developmentally. As we watch them kick against the nothingness across the length of Meantime, we will see the sibling dynamic at work, rivalry providing its own kind of support. Mark tears Colin down only to prop him back up (sort of).


Famous for improvising his material with his actors (Leigh is credited as having “devised” the film rather than having written it), Meantime’s drama is less plot and more situational. There are many scenes of doing nothing, of being trapped in the flat or down at the pub, the ennui inspiring cruelty, family and friends picking at each other. It’s a difficult dynamic to watch. Leigh risks inspiring annoyance in his audience, as well as a potential harsh reaction to how little these men seemingly do to help themselves. A scene down at the unemployment office sees both Frank and Mark abusing the woman who gives them their check; the opening of the film shows the family visiting middle-class relatives (Marion Bailey and Alfred Molina) and being passive-aggressively hostile toward their hospitality.

Yet, as we watch events unfold, it becomes clear that their idle state is not laziness, but a combination of defeat and pride. They have accepted that this is their lot, and there is little option for something better; at the same time, the few available options are pitiable scraps, more off-handed charity than considered solution. No one is offering them a viable choice to improve.

And while, yes, characters in Meantime can be annoying, watching them is anything but thanks to Leigh’s remarkable cast. While Daniels had plenty of work under his belt by this time, Meantime was a breakthrough for both Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, who plays Coxy, a brash skinhead. Oldman’s performance is physical, charismatic, and odd, his belching cadence predicting both his turn as Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy [review], and his many villain roles. Coxy is the perfect example of the wayward youth who gloms on to some kind of social movement or manufactured identity to mask his own weakness--which we catch a brief glimpse of in an unsettling scene where Coxy is called on his racist bullshit in an elevator. Oldman says little in the moment, but his vulnerability is evident in his face and body language. Alternately, Roth is restrained, his angst and anger all bottled up, presenting a false gentleness rather than a trumped-up bravado. In some ways, the actors would swap these roles a few years down the road in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Roth going nuclear and Oldman adopting a genial ignorance.


Leigh and director of photography Roger Pratt (Brazil, Mona Lisa) use the limitations of television to their advantage, achieving a lo-fi realism befitting the story. Shot on location, and contrasting the cramped apartments with the wide open spaces that these aimless young adults wander in search of something, anything to occupy the time, the outside world in Meantime is vast and endless, but offering no additional shelter or purpose, except to maybe make the characters feel smaller and more meaningless. (For contrast, see Oldman’s Coxy tucked into a big cylinder, trying to move, banging on the walls impotently...) Leigh’s England is as moody and gray as Joy Division’s, though a lot less tuneful. I don’t know if Andrew Dickson’s score is intentionally monotonous to match the repetition of the characters’ day-to-day, but its constant presence eventually serves to distract rather than enhance. But then, it’s also kind of emotionless to begin with.

All the more impressive, then, that Leigh ends Meantime so warmly, with Mark pulling his brother back from the brink after his pettiness sent Colin in the wrong direction. It’s an error corrected not even by kindness, but simply by devoting a moment to listen. Sure, the real ending suggests that once they are over that hump, the whole family will return to business as usual, but when every day is harsh, the small oases can mean a whole lot. Now if only the boys could take those brief bursts of energy and form a band....


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

UN FLIC - FILMSTRUCK

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.



It's an opening as old as cinema itself. Three men walk into a remote bank, leaving one waiting in the getaway car. Armed with guns and trenchcoats, they rob the vaults. Intercut with this action are scenes of a cop on his nightly rounds, following up on calls, talking to informants. The robbery is precisely planned, while the policeman's trek is subject to the whims of his city; the cop tries to bring order to the human chaos, whereas a robbery goes wrong precisely because the human element can't be controlled.

In most movies, both of these events--particularly the bank heist--would move at a rapid pace, but because Un Flic (a.k.a. Dirty Money) is a film by Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows [review], Bob le flambeur), these scenarios play out slowly, at a measured pace. The robbers are stoic, speaking only when they have to, weighing each move they make. The cop, Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), does his job gravely and by the book, meting out justice indiscriminately, but also being fair when it counts.

Made in 1973, Un Flic is Melville's final film, and it provides a cynical coda to his career. Dropping the Eastern philosophy that he used in some of his earlier crime pictures with Delon (Le Samourai, Le Cercle rouge [review]), this time Melville opens with a quote from 18th-Century criminologist François-Eugène Vidocq: "The only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policemen are those of indifference and derision." Delon will later repeat these words, showing the weariness of his character. People will do the wrong thing, they always do.


Commissioner Edouard has no idea how right he is, in fact, or how tangled in the crime he has become. Nightclub owner Simon (Richard Crenna) is the man behind the bank robbery, and the money is meant for a larger heist, robbing a drug mule (Leon Minisin) on a train heading out of Paris. It just so happens that Edouard is also on the trail of those drugs, working with a cross-dressing snitch, Gaby (Valerie Wilson), to bust the courier when he arrives with the goods. The cop has no idea that the two cases are connected, nor does he realize that Simon is involved, a fact that is going to strike a little too close to home. As it turns out, Edouard is having an affair with Simon's girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve). When it comes time to make his move, this connection is going to muddy the motivational waters for Edouard. Does he make the choices he does because they are the right choices, or is there something deeper, more selfish than that?

The ending of Un Flic actually fits quite nicely with the overall themes of Melville's filmography. As a police detective, Delon's character makes his decisions, right or wrong, and is forced to live with them. It's a harsh ending, but Melville's heroes (and anti-heroes) have always struggled with a world that seems to lack something fundamental, be it the honor of the warrior in Le Samourai or their basic moral freedoms in Army of Shadows. I am not comfortable saying that Melville has given up on his fellow man completely, but he definitely seems disenchanted, as if there is no real solution to the struggle. The final image, the ringing phone going unanswered, leaves us feeling that something has passed, that Edouard is done, he no longer sees the point of trying to stop the bad guys when even the woman he loves would betray him. Cathy gets the most portentous line of the movie when she says to Edouard, "Dead men arrest no one." She then points a gun at him in jest, and he might have been better off had she shot him then and there. Eventually, she will kill him (metaphorically) without ever drawing a weapon, destroying something inside of him, and getting away with it. (His walking away from her has a kind of thematic rhyme in his releasing the transvestite informant. Both women have beautiful blonde hair, and both disappoint Edouard. Yet, with the snitch, it's Edouard who breaks her heart. He wrongfully believes he can't count on her any longer, but the truth is Gaby can no longer rely on him. The man dressed as a woman is the only one who is everything she seems.)


Dirty Money, the English title often used for this film is a bit misleading, it makes us think that the stolen cash will somehow end up in Edouard's hands, that this will be a story about a corruptible officer of the law. The original French title, Un Flic, which simply translates as A Cop, is far more fitting. It puts the movie in line with Le Samourai, making them bookends to a larger story, each about lonely men on their own side of the law trying to do what they think is right, stuck in a system that would have them stick to one way of doing things even when that way is clearly flawed. The Paris of both films is remarkably similar. Simon and Cathy's nightclub could just as easily be the one Delon visits as Jeff Costello in the earlier picture. Except here, Melville and cinematographer Walter Wottitz cast the events in a blue pallor, as if a melancholic ennui hangs over all of France. Life is stuck in a perpetual, topsy-turvy lie of day-for-night.

Beyond his general concerns of genre stories as philosophical vehicles--or perhaps in conjunction with the same, given his methodical approach to the crimes--as with any Jean-Pierre Melville crime picture, the robberies are meticulously constructed things of beauty. The opening bank job is fairly standard, but the theft of the drugs, which involves trains and helicopters, is ingenious, echoing in its own way the crooks dangling from a hole in the ceiling in Jules Dassin's Rififi [review]. Richard Crenna goes about his work with a silent resolve, taking each step with grim determination. What is interesting this time around is it's also the same determination that Delon's detective takes in tracking the misdeeds. The line between criminal and cop has been erased. Long sequences pass with no dialogue, just the sound of the surrounding world. It's as if words are more precious, and more dangerous, than bullets.

Un Flic is a fitting end to a distinguished career. Jean-Pierre Melville was a master of his craft, and his powers had not yet begun to wane. Sadly, he passed away a year later at the age of 56, far too young for a filmmaker this spry. Perhaps that is why that final image remains so haunting, the police telephone unanswered. On the other end of the line is information about a new crime, a new case that is now a story that will never be told.



Tuesday, July 25, 2017

SUDDEN FEAR - FILMSTRUCK

Originally reviewed for DVDTalk in 2006 as part of the Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood set.


Joan Crawford and Jack Palance both got Academy Award nominations for their performances in David Miller's Sudden Fear. Crawford plays Myra Hudson, a playwright who has taken little time to cultivate real-life counterparts to the romantic plots she crafts for the stage. After dismissing actor Lester Blaine (Palance) from her latest hit production for not being appropriately seductive, he proves her wrong by seducing and marrying her.

Only, Myra was right the first time. Lester is a heel, and he and his real girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place [review]), are plotting to create a tragic exit for Myra and collect all of her Broadway money. It's a classic game of criss-cross when Myra uncovers the scheme and tries to beat Lester and Irene at their own game. Miller (Lonely are the Brave [review]) has put together a nerve-wracking final act. He sets it up with an excellent montage in which Myra imagines every step of her counterattack where everything goes right, and with that as a reference point, it increases our anxiety when we see how badly it can go wrong. The action happens in the dead of night, providing plenty of opportunities for people to hide in darkened doorways and skulk around corners.

Jack Palance is a large man with chiseled features, and his presence is imposing. When Myra screws up his sure thing, he grows desperate, and that actually makes him scarier. There is also something to be said for how much more tension is created when the victim is appropriately scared. Crawford's large eyes and severe mouth are a blessing in such a situation, and her fright makes Palance's threat even more palpable.



Monday, July 24, 2017

L'ARGENT - #886


There was an “everything is connected” subgenre in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s that was perhaps kicked off by Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but that really traces roots back to Max Ophuls and La ronde [review]--films where characters are connected by social happenstance (13Conversations About One Thing) or perhaps an object (Robert Altman’s Gun TV series). One chat leads to another, one careless act affects a passerby, a butterfly flaps its wings and a writer looks for meaning.

Linklater is a devotee of Robert Bresson, and it would stand to reason that Bresson’s 1983 crime drama L’argent was an inspiration. Based on a story by Tolstoy, L’argent tells the tale of several lives thrown into upheaval by two selfish teenagers choosing to pass a counterfeit bill at a small camera and photo shop. When the storeowners decide to unload it, along with other fraudulent notes, on a trusting deliveryman, they not only expose their own unscrupulousness, but force the driver into a legal wrangle he can’t get himself out of.


This man, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), is the closest we get to a main character--or at least he's the one we root for, if only temporarily. His life is the most damaged by the initial crime and the several more it inspires. His plight is transformative. He is the good man forced to be bad. It's a gradual change, one that seems natural, despite of--or perhaps because of--Bresson’s technique. The French director is famous for extracting emotion from performance and approaching his actors as poseable “models.” His cast blandly hits marks, delivers its lines with little intonation, and maintains a steady gaze. To some, it's stiff and amateurish, but once you tune in to Bresson’s wavelength, his narrative theories begin to make sense. You just have to lock them in place.

It's almost like kabuki in its formalism. By staging L’argent with such a rigorous dispassion, we are spared the melodrama, we are spared being swayed by our own feelings, and instead we watch the pieces move, staying in the moment rather than trying to guess the plot twists, reserving judgment until it has all passed, the audience serving as an observant jury. We don't judge Lucien, we don’t put ourselves in his shoes, we instead just watch. In fact, when he does show some real emotion, it's such an affront, Bresson has him bury his head in a pillow. Open weeping is for other movies.


Which isn’t to say we aren't invested. We totally are. The sheer cruelty of humanity underlying every callous turn is undeniable, it's just that we follow the events as we would a true crime story rather than a fiction, as if they already happened and are thus beyond inevitable. We can't help but feel for Lucien, but perhaps it makes us less sympathetic when he makes wrong turns. L’argent does not romanticize his crimes.

Ironic, then, that showing the crimes themselves is the only place where Bresson’s theories fail him. While the mechanics of the violence are evident, the abstraction renders them ineffective and even confusing. Is it that showing the actual blood and gore as evidence would bias us more than the director would like, or is he just squeamish? If we are the jury, we would need to consider the victims--even after some of them are declared unlikable--otherwise the testimony is incomplete. Lucien’s actions already seem outsized, and Bresson’s editing—chopping up the scenes, showing the beginning of the action and an implied outcome (jumping from a raised weapon to blood splatter, etc.) but never the in between, proves only to make them less believable.

Luckily, this does nothing to lessen the tragic poetry of L’argent. Particularly as the truly bad people, unmoored as they are by the appearance of this fake cash, suffer very little consequence. Bresson carves out a world where heeding one’s conscience only leads to mistakes and punishment. The survivors mostly serve themselves, or feign charity for effect. Which, when you really think about it, means the themes of L’argent are perfectly in sync with the storytelling. Remove emotion, stick to what can be known--and done.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

THE PARTY - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com.



Peter Sellers reteams with his Pink Panther [review] co-conspirator Blake Edwards to cut loose and indulge their love of silent film comedies. The concept for The Party is something Chaplin or Keaton could have done wonders with, and though the movie does have quite a few verbal jokes, the majority of the more elaborate gags could run without sound and still inspire a huge round of guffaws.

Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, a recent transplant from India to Hollywood trying to make his way as an actor. After a particularly disastrous day on the set, where Bakshi's clumsiness brings the production crashing down, a mix-up causes him to be invited to the studio head's glitzy soiree rather than be fired. From there, comedy ensues, as the good-natured Bakshi just tries to fit in. He loses his shoe, runs afoul of parrots and dogs, tries to communicate with starlets, and even learns to play pool from a cowboy actor (Denny Miller), who is the only person in the movie that has an accent more extreme than Sellers.

The Party is a fantastic showcase for Peter Sellers' true talents. Not only does he completely lose himself in the role, but his physical agility as he traverses the many architectural oddities in the thoroughly modern home (inspired, perhaps, by Tati's Mon Oncle?) lets the actor show just how marvelous of a comedic athlete he is. The Party is one of those films I can watch a million times, and it never fails to make me laugh. I can even put it on while doing other things and check back in and out as the task demands, and every time I check in, I know it will make me smile. It's no hyperbole to call it a masterpiece.


I think a big reason for that is it's all just so good-natured. While there is definitely a sense of making fun, the only people really being made fun of are the stuck-up fatcats whose old-world mentality and opulence are becoming passé. Note the exchange that Bakshi has with the impossibly tall daughter of the hosts (Kathe Green) about the painted elephant, and how quick she is not to offend. It's 1968, and Edwards and Sellers are definitely "with it," seeing a more colorblind world on their horizon (those incorruptible optimists!) and adjusting accordingly. Though a Brit playing Indian would be a little harder to pull off today, Sellers' caricature is less about racial stereotyping and more about capturing the genuine anxiety of a well-meaning outsider. The scenes where he wanders the room alone, on the outskirts of the crowd, have a surprising pathos, identifiable by anyone who has ever ended up at a shindig where they don't know anybody. I would guess that's why they chose Claudine Longet to play the love interest. She is also an immigrant, though one assumes she would have an easier time since she's a cute French girl (read: pretty and white). Still, theirs is a sweet courtship. Plus, we get the singer's performance of the super sugary Henry Mancini-penned pop song "Nothing to Lose." (Not to mention the awesomely cool-daddio title number.)

I should note, though The Party is very funny, it's not a gutbuster. The largely improvised comedy is of a kind that is observed and absorbed more than it is convulsively reacted to. As noted, it's more Chaplin and Tati than it is Jerry Lewis. Its slapstick is designed around character and as a send-up of the unnecessary conceits of the modern age rather than just silliness for the sake of being silly, and one could argue that The Party has likely aged better than most just for that reason.



Friday, July 21, 2017

LA MARSEILLAISE - FILMSTRUCK

Originally written for the Jean Renoir's Collector's Edition released in 2007. Read the full review of that collection here.


In this early entry from Jean Renoir's sound pictures, the maestro does his part to inspire patriotic fervor and maybe goes a little too far over to the propaganda side. La Marseillaise, an historical epic set during the French revolution, follows a battalion of citizen soldiers--painters, masons, and other working-class warriors--as they gather together to stop aristocratic rule and take down Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir) and his foreign-born queen, Marie Antoinette (Lise Delamare). They march from Marseille to Paris. Along the way, a humble hymn gathers steam to become the anthem of the forces of revolt, and "La Marseillaise" becomes a phenomenon.

The script by Renoir, Carl Koch, and N. Martel Dreyfuss often feels more like a string of anecdotes than a wartime narrative. The movie strikes an odd tone, dramatizing the French Revolution as the most polite of wars. Rather than duke it out, combatants stop to discuss philosophy and politics--quite literally. When Honoré Arnaud (the singly named Andrex) leads his ragtag bunch in the takeover of a state fortress, the presiding commander, Saint-Laurent (Aimé Clariond), shrugs and asks his rival what's it all about. Arnaud explains the common man's cause to the rich man before sending him on his way, taking him at his word that he'll leave the country and the battle to the righteous. When there is fighting, it all takes place elsewhere, and we only hear about it later. You get the sense that this whole thing could have been settled over a good glass of wine if the right folks could have just sat down and talked it over. It's a revolution where cross words hurt worse than crossed blades. When a swordfight does break out in Paris, the sky immediately opens up and a sudden rainstorm sends the brawlers scurrying for shelter. Even Mother Nature wags her finger at the prospect of violence when there are more speeches about brotherhood to be made and complex dissertations on the new power structure.

Paradoxically, for all the history lessons, I often found myself lost, not knowing who certain historical figures were or what faction was fighting for what rights. I suppose attention to such reality may not be important in a story so broadly drawn. The revolutionaries are all genial, caring men who'd rather stop in on a puppet show than fight, while the rulers are clueless gadabouts who are more concerned with remembering their dance steps than the needs of the people. La Marseillaise definitely has a satirical bend, but it doesn't go very deep. Renoir nearly suckerpunches himself with this approach. When the unavoidable is finally encountered in the last fifteen minutes of the picture, his band of merry men look like they've been caught in a joke that's gone too far. Though the people do rally, and it's likely Renoir wanted to show from what humble beginnings great things spring, the brutality of the insurrection is off-kilter with the comic journey that got us there. The end result leaves one feeling a little nauseous and confused rather than fired up.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

YOUNG & INNOCENT - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

Originally written for DVDTalk.com as part of a review of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection.


Though arguably a minor Hitchcock effort, this fugitive story is also prototypically Hitchcock, showcasing a man wrongfully accused on the run, searching for the one object that will clear his name. In this case, it's a stolen raincoat, and if down-on-his-luck movie writer Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney, Spitfire) can find it, he can prove he didn't kill the actress whom he may or may not have been having an affair with. Helping him on his flight from justice, at first reluctantly and then with the romantic fervor befitting the teenage heart, is no less than the constable's daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam, previously in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much [review]). The more Erica becomes convinced of Robert's innocence, the more dangerous the situation gets--both her life and her heart are under threat.

Both De Marney and Pilbeam are fairly charming in the leads, though neither of them really distinguishes themselves as stars on the rise. The true stars of Young and Innocent are the many back-road locales Hitchcock takes us to, flitting between opulent country estates and rundown flop houses. The Tisdall character has basically been living his recent life as a tramp, and tracking his coat takes him and the girl deeper into the poor underbelly of 1930s England. Thus, the Innocent of the title both refers to Robert in terms of his involvement in the killing and Erica in terms of the life lesson she will learn. In some ways, she prefigures the young girl in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt who discovers that the way of life she has been raised to believe in may harbor darker shades of morality, including gray areas that aren't as simple as her law-enforcing father would have her believe. (This black-and-white world is also very much a man's world, as evinced by Erica being the only daughter in a motherless clan of boys.)

The tone of Young and Innocent is pretty light, with lots of humor and, of course, a healthy dollop of romance. Hitchcock has some fun with bumbling cops, but also is fairly ambitious in some of the action sequences, showing cars racing trains and one harrowing scene inside a collapsing mine.