Criterion Sunday 160: À nous la liberté (1931)

A fine early sound film which deploys its synched sound only sparingly and has a sort of musical structure to it. The plot is convoluted, but revolves around two friends who attempt a prison escape together, are separated and thereafter take a different path through life. Its key conceit seems to be that prison and factory work are pretty much interchangeable, and for something billed as a comedy, it’s comic in only the most cosmic sense as there’s little that’s really uplifting in the plot and paves the way to Tati’s own later satires on modernisation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Starring Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017

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Criterion Sunday 72: Le Million (1931)

A delightful French farce with musical numbers, this has a comic brio to it that belies its creation in the early sound era (when the limitations of camera technology meant these were largely immobile). The plot itself is almost paper thin (thin as a lottery ticket, that is) as our hero Michel (René Lefèvre) realises he’s won the lottery but — for elaborate reasons — the jacket with the ticket has been taken by the shady Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier). Cue a film-length long series of comic setpieces wherein our hero and his friend/rival for the money, Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert), must track down the jacket and then the ticket, with the help of Michel’s ballerina sweetheart Beatrice (Annabella). It’s the kind of plot that successive decades of rehashing would wear down, but this early form is still light-hearted and nimble, and doesn’t outstay its welcome with an almost-too-sudden resolution to the quest, which the framing story essentially spoilers as otherwise the series of comic mishaps would probably be just too frustrating to bear.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair (based on a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand) | Cinematographers Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet | Starring René Lefèvre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier, Jean-Louis Allibert | Length 81 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016

Frankenstein (1931)

A classic horror film which, some of the excesses of its acting aside, still holds up pretty well today. A lot of its power comes from the excellent photography and set design, with some masterful use of the black-and-white to evoke a lost Europe of creepy castles and demon monsters. Karloff’s monster also embodies a rather touching hint at a grand theme of what it means to be human, and the struggle for outsiders within society, though none of this is really forced. The director James Whale would go onto the somewhat more self-consciously campy Bride of Frankenstein, and it’s this tradition that later takes on the story (like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein) would play on. But James Whale’s original is the first and the best.


FILM REVIEW
Director James Whale | Writers Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort (based on the play by Peggy Webling, itself based on the novel by Mary Shelley) | Cinematographer Arthur Edeson | Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke | Length 71 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 3 June 2015

Criterion Sunday 30: M (1931)

Justly acclaimed as one of the great films of all time, and certainly among the greatest German films, is this early sound-era film by Fritz Lang, which seems to hint at something noxious in German society of the era. It focuses on the hunt for a child murderer, played by a bug-eyed young Peter Lorre, and suggests a parity between the police and criminals, who are both on the case, the latter with somewhat more effective results. If the way in which the criminals try Lorre suggests something proto-Fascist on the rise, that might be the result of hindsight, and yet the film is beautifully shot, all inky pools of darkness on the Berlin streets and effective use of expressionist shadows to suggest the creeping evil. Sound design is restrained, perhaps due to the infancy of the technology, but the repeated whistled refrain from Peer Gynt is effective as a way of marking the presence of Lorre’s murderer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang | Writers Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang | Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner | Starring Peter Lorre | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 5 July 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 March 2015)

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.


© The Weinstein Company

Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.

The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.

D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.

Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.

Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.

© Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.

Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.

Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.

© Winchester Films

Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).

Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.


I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.

Night Nurse (1931)

A fascinating little pre-Code film, largely overlooked these days, but one which revels in its seedy criminal sub-plots and in which, tellingly, none of the characters ever seeks the help of the authorities to solve their problems. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck), whose only dream is to help people, manages to finagle her way into a nurse’s job by flirting with the right doctor, and her first job is to be rostered on the night shift, helping the chronically ill daughters of a wealthy family. She quickly discovers that something foul is afoot: the mother is only ever seen liquored up and partying, while the children’s doctor is a shady character with little interest in their health. Added to the mix is the black-liveried chauffeur (a clean-shaven Clark Gable), looking every bit the fascist footsoldier and with all the moral scruples that might suggest. Stanwyck gets to be a tough no-nonsense central character who is no-one’s stooge, though she falls into a wary relationship with bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon), who wins her heart in the end with some off-screen vigilante vengeance. The director, William Wellman, also has a propensity for showing his two nurses, Lora and Maloney (Joan Blondell), changing into their nurse’s uniforms, which would be leering if it weren’t all so tame by modern standards (though perhaps a little racier than the soon-to-be-enforced Production Code would allow for). Like many films of the period, it clocks in at a brisk running time, and is certainly worth looking out for.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director William A. Wellman | Writer Oliver H. P. Garrett (based on the novel by Grace Perkins [as Dora Macy]) | Cinematographer Barney McGill | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Ben Lyon, Clark Gable | Length 72 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

The Public Enemy (1931)

This is my first post that’s about a film I did not see in the cinema. I hope that this can be excused, given the title of my blog. EDIT: It turns out that upon looking at my cinema spreadsheet, I did in fact see this in a cinema over 12 years ago. I just clearly couldn’t remember it at all.


It’s been long enough since this film came out that a lot has been written about it. It has an early and important place in the canon of American crime films, which largely started a few years before with Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), and of which there have been quite a few over the years. It also shows up in discussions of “pre-Code” Hollywood, that brief period in the late-1920s and very early-1930s before Hollywood started to more rigorously self-censor the content of its films (with a Motion Picture Production Code). Furthermore, the film’s story ties in closely with the prohibition that came about with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 and which was still in force when the film was made.

It’s prohibition, in particular, that really precipitated the rise of the gangster in both real terms and in popular culture, and which led to the emergence of this new genre. The Public Enemy takes this up directly, by showing how quickly the protagonist Tom Powers becomes wealthy after prohibition is introduced, thanks to his involvement with the illegal brewing and distribution of beer.

Nevertheless, for all the punchy charisma of James Cagney’s screen presence in this role, the character of Tom is never anything other than low-level muscle for the real gangsters pulling the strings and making the deals (“Putty Nose” in the early scenes, then Paddy Ryan and “Nails” Nathan later on in the prohibition years). When a youthful heist goes wrong and a police officer is killed, neither Tom nor his friend Matt receive any support from “Putty Nose”, who has swiftly disappeared. In fact, none of the real gangsters find themselves much in the line of fire, and the only death among them comes via a horse-riding accident (a hazard of an entitled lifestyle, more than anything else).

The only power Tom seems to wield is over his partner in crime Matt (the actor playing whom was originally slated for the lead role), and to a certain extent over the women in his life, primarily his blissfully ingenuous and naive mother. His girlfriends don’t fare too well either (the film’s iconic scene features a grapefruit pushed by Tom into the face of one of them over the breakfast table), though none of the women who appear in the film have particularly prominent roles, and even Jean Harlow, who appears on the poster, barely registers in the film itself.

As an early sound film, there’s still a sense of the filmmakers learning what they can do, and some of the sound recording is patchy. The acting too comes across as a little forced, especially obvious when Cagney is on screen, as few of the other actors show his flair. There are a lot of frontal arrangements, though that said, the camera manages to be relatively mobile, clearly limited by what was technologically possible at the time. It remains a strong story, though, with a great lead performance, not to mention being a key early film in the development of the genre, and for that it’s worth watching.


© Warner Bros.

FILM REVIEW
Director William A. Wellman | Writers Kubec Glasmon, John Bright and Harvey Thew (based on the novel Beer and Blood by Glasmon and Bright) | Cinematographer Devereaux Jennings | Starring James Cagney | Length 83 minutes | Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 24 September 2000 (most recently at home on DVD, London, Thursday 18 April 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good