Sunday, May 29, 2011

Classe Tous Risques (1960) - Directed by Claude Sautet

In Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risque, we are given a portrait of a gangster that is uncommon in French cinema: that of the fully-developed character. Lino Ventura plays Abel Gavos, a lifetime crook, connected to an extensive network of fellow gangsters. He is the father of two boys and has a wife named Therese. Hiding out in Italy, Abel and his family realize they must get back to France to avoid capture. When they return, they are ambushed and Therese is killed. Abel must pick up the pieces and care for his two sons by himself, trekking across the country while trying to avoid arrest and ultimately ending up in Paris for a showdown with his old friends.

Lino Ventura’s hardened criminal and caring, devoted father is such a living and breathing person. He has several beautiful scenes with his two boys. One scene that works really well is when he gives instructions to his eldest son while they are sitting in a church, basically telling the boy that he must carry on and take care of things if he is captured. So much of Abel’s heart is poured into this scene that we forget about the bad things he has done in his life and we just want him to be able to get to safety and take care of his family. We are sympathetic with his plight, whether he deserves it or not. This is rare to find this depth of character in neo-noir or post-noir films, especially when compared to those by Jean-Pierre Melville. I reviewed at length two films by Melville, Le Doulos (1962) and Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966). Where Melville’s films are all calculated, perfected detachment, Classe Tous Risque is realistic, more improvisational and lifelike. Melville’s films are peripherally emotive, coming at you through the cumulative effect of ennui and the occasional burst of violence. Classe Tous Risque is directly emotional, pulling at our feelings for this father as he lugs his kids around. We know he is a devoted father because we see the way he is gentle, playful and kind with them. Furthermore, Sautet's frame is not as formalized or composed as Melville's. This is a more natural and realistically shot picture and doesn't feel like there is a strict sense of mise-en-scene. It's not that I prefer this film to Melville's, but it's nice to mix it up once in a while.

In another key scene, once Abel comes back to Paris, he meets up with all his old gang at a hangout. One by one, we realize that no one will help out Abel and his family. Everyone has an excuse and nobody will risk any more than they have to for their old friend. It’s a slow-burn scene of betrayal as cold as any in cinema history, marked by an incredibly pent-up display of anger by Lino Ventura as Abel. In fact, I would highlight this moment as the best scene in the film and the one that sums up Abel’s plight. We sense his frustration both as he realizes how few friends he has, but also his fear for the welfare of his family. He is terrified of his unsure future and has become cornered where he has few options left.

Seeing Lino Ventura opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo (as Eric Stark, the gangster chauffeur), is another huge reason for why this film succeeds. These are two towering French stars of the 60’s and they couldn’t be more different in their styles, with Belmondo and his super-cool, playing off Ventura’s bulldozer facade. Their interaction here is brilliant stuff and the script gives them ample opportunity to spend time together. I’m not sure how Sautet pulled off the coup of getting these two stars in this film together (although it was relatively early in their careers), but it was a fortuitous choice and really makes this film pop. Sautet did not go on to have the illustrious career like many other French directors of the time, but he sure left his mark with this one, giving us a unique look into the life of a gangster.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Blue Valentine (2010) - Directed by Derek Cianfrance

"A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know, it has to constantly move forward or it dies, and I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark."
Woody Allen- Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen's quote seems to apply to the marriage central to Blue Valentine. Cindy (Michelle Williams) has moved forward with her life, but Dean (Ryan Gosling) has not followed suit and is not joining her on the path. He has remained stagnant, inert and content with the status-quo. She is more ambitious and regretful, dragged down by his malaise, seemingly preventing her from bettering herself. He wants things to be normal and the way they’ve always been. She saw marriage as just the beginning. He saw marriage as the final goal and is content with that. Dean and Cindy’s relationship is kind of like an egg yoke at this point in time: the slightest pressure is applied and it runs all over the place.

Derek Cianfrance’s film concerns Cindy, Dean and their daughter Frankie, who’s caught in the middle of a marriage crumbling beyond repair, one that is wallowing in a state of paralysis. Cindy and Dean drop off Frankie at the grandparent’s house and Dean convinces Cindy to stay at a “love” motel in order to rekindle and reconnect. This film documents basically a 24 hour span of time through the night into the next morning as they reach a point of no return in the relationship. During this time, they clash with each other sexually, physically and emotionally. Present scenes of bitterness, misunderstanding, hatred and regret are intercut by scenes of the beginning of their relationship, ones of tender, funny, awkwardly romantic moments that make the present scenes all the more poignant and painful in my opinion. 

This is a film that truly cares for its characters despite their flaws and inabilities. They are both equally sympathetic and unsympathetic at times and yet the film genuinely feels for them. I found that I was invested in the outcome whether Cindy and Dean deserved it or not. Cianfrance chooses to film the "past" scenes with a more open-eyed optimism. Scenes are bright, clear and infused with a joy and improvisation. "Present" scenes are darker and murky, cluttered in the frame and rarely do we ever see both characters in a two-shot. They are isolated and disconnected from each other both in the frame and in their lives. Cianfrance infuses the whole film with a tone I will describe as achingly mournful. This tone at times can be sentimental and nostalgic, but with a realism that belies any thoughts of melodrama. We are only given the beginning and the end of the relationship, not the complete middle section. This is not a flaw but a trusting of the audience. Do we really need to see the entire middle of their marriage where it slowly disintegrates? Can’t we fill in the gaps ourselves? We don’t need to be pandered to and Blue Valentine gives us the benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately, this is a film that succeeds on the talent of its leads. I’ll admit I came into this film already a huge fan of both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. They are two of my favorite actors working today. Gosling brings great presence and intensity to films like Half Nelson (2006) and Lars and the Real Girl (2007). As for Michelle Williams, I’ll go so far as saying that I think Michelle Williams might be the best American actress working today, and possibly the best anywhere, with Amy Adams and Britain’s Carey Mulligan making a run for that title as well. Williams has been absolutely remarkable in a string of films going back to Brokeback Mountain (2005). She has brought truth, clarity, and credibility to roles in Shutter Island (2010), Synechdoche, NY (2009), and Wendy and Lucy (2008). I can’t wait to see her in the new film Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Blue Valentine is a showcase for her incredible range. What I notice about her acting, is that I don’t notice it. She never seems like she’s trying very hard and you can’t “see” the acting. She just is the character and that’s that. You’re never thinking there is a false move and she totally gets it. She can do comedic, lighter moments and terribly emotional ones without ever seeming like she’s forcing it. One scene where Dean and Cindy meet on a bus and Dean is trying to ask her out is probably the best showcase for both Gosling and Williams. Gosling is the awkward guy, trying to be cool but sounding stupid. Williams plays it cautiously and reserved, trying to avoid making eye contact and yet cannot resist his bumbling courtship. I’m not normally a big fan of actor movies, preferring the director’s talents to the actor’s, but this one is undeniably great because of the acting. I think that’s what makes this film so painful and wrenching to watch at times. Both Gosling and Williams are so real, likable and watchable that it pains us to watch them as these people who just can’t function together. As an audience, Blue Valentine puts you through the wringer. It's intense, honest and tends to be a downer, but I found the truth contained to be well worth the journey.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mr. Technicolor- A New Documentary about Jack Cardiff

I came across this really nice piece at the Criterion site about an interview with Craig McCall, maker of a new documentary floating around the festival circuit about the late Jack Cardiff and his brilliant cinematography. McCall's doc is called Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. I think it's well worth the quick read and makes me ever more excited to see this documentary and watch Cardiff's work again. If you've never seen Black Narcissus (1947) or The Red Shoes (1948), these are films to put on your short list of things to see soon.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Trafic (1971) - Directed by Jacques Tati

Jacques Tati made only 6 feature films in his brilliant career, but his cinema is magical, idiosyncratic, and highly inventive. His late career film Trafic, actually his final film released to theaters, is a great capstone and fitting end to a string of films that are incomparable. Tati starred as M. Hulot, a pipe-smoking, umbrella-toting, awkward looking fellow, who seldom looked comfortable with the world, nor the world comfortable with him. He always wore a too-big raincoat that looked balloonish around him, while wearing pants a few sizes too short. M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) concerned the title character's attempts at relaxation at a seaside hotel in Brittany, France. Mon Oncle (1958) saw M. Hulot's attempt to comprehend the latest in technology at a relative's household. Play Time (1967), Tati's most ambitious film, allowed us to watch M. Hulot become literally swallowed by a modern city of steel and glass. In Trafic, M. Hulot is a car designer attempting to get his latest design, a camping car, with his team in tote to the international auto expo in Amsterdam.

Tati's comedy is one of endless sight gags and brilliant timing. There is very little dialogue in the film and that which occurs is mostly side conversation to the action. I found this film to be somewhat more hilarious at times than all his other previous films, if maybe a bit less ambitious. Nonetheless, three brilliant sequences lead to big laughs. M. Hulot attempts to get a large van's tire changed next to the highway, all the while being buzzed in the rump by passing cars. Another inventive scene is where M. Hulot introduces all of his car's gadgets and gizmos at the police station. Perhaps the funniest scene in the film is of a car crash where all the injured parties come stepping out of their cars with aches and pains in different spots, creating a choreography of neck rubbing, back rubbing, and elbow twitching. Watching this scene in particular makes me think of dance choreography for some reason. In fact, one could argue that Tati invented a cinema choreography all his own. No other filmmaker ever worked with the sort of mise-en-scene and comedy that Tati did. Not even Chaplin or Keaton attempted to throw this much into a frame.

Nothing that occurs in Tati's films feels like real life. There is always the sentiment that what we are seeing is exaggerated, like a cartoon played out in live-action. But, he seemed obsessed with making us take stock of what we do in our daily lives and finding the humor contained there. Tati lampooned our social oddities, absurdities, and obsessions. We are always striving for bigger, better, faster and more. Tati seems to always be asking us whether this progress is the best way, whether we truly are improving ourselves, or are we just making things more complicated? Tati was able to take a step back and make us laugh at our ambition and our daily lives through the lens of his camera. Interestingly, at the end of the film, M. Hulot is fired from his job as car designer. It's a dose of bad news at the end of an upbeat film. Tati never made another film featuring M. Hulot, and perhaps he was giving a notice that he would never appear as him again. In fact he never made another feature film, only directing the Swedish TV film, Parade (1974). In my opinion, Trafic is underrated in Tati's cannon and is a perfect send-off for M. Hulot.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Shadows in Paradise (1986) - Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki made a series of three films from 1986-90, now known as the "proletariat trilogy" as packaged by Criterion. They are Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990). I just watched all three of them on successive nights and had never seen any of them before. These are all films examining the lowest class of society in which the characters struggle to get above the poverty line, working blue-collar jobs if they have a job at all. Kaurismaki's script makes particular use of the potential humor found within this world where everyone feels like a cog in the wheel of life. These are all beaten down characters and life has become a series of habits and instincts. Kaurismaki throws in some very dark, dry humor into these films which lightens the mood considerably from the bleak surroundings, elevating all three films into something unique.

All three films are good in their own right, but Shadows in Paradise is the best of these three in my opinion. At its heart, this is the most uncharacteristic romantic comedy ever made. Nikander (Matti Pellonpaa) is a garbage man. This is not only his job, but it's his identity. He's single beyond all hope, but meets Ilona (Kati Outinen), a wallflower and cashier at a grocery store. They have an awkward, kindred moment together in the checkout line. From that point, their relationship (and the lack thereof at times) is what drives the film. Yet it's the brilliantly dry performances of the actors that makes this immensely watchable. Kati Outinen and Matti Pellonpaa truly embody these characters. They understand their quirks and what makes them tick. To say these are completely understated performances is an understatement in itself. You have never seen anyone so mopey on screen as these two, yet they are hopelessly romantic and you root for them even though they are so pathetic.

In a way, Wes Anderson shares quite a bit in common with Aki Kaurismaki. I wrote a review recently of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, discussing his use of dry, emotionless acting to add to the mood and comedy of his films.  Here I go again espousing this type of film. I mentioned Buster Keaton and how he perfected the stoic comedy. Aki Kaurimsaki, Wes Anderson, and even Jim Jarmusch in films like Dead Man (1995) and Ghost Dog (1999) make use of this dry humor with similarly rewarding results. Kaurismaki's genius script is sprinkled with little bits of slang and in-jokes that come across as hilarious. I'm not sure why I like this kind of movie, but I do find this very funny. I also find these types of films are a bit more intelligent, as far as comedies go. Even Kaurismaki's continued use of American Jazz and Blues music throughout the film adds to the odd and darkly comical tone of the film. 

Timo Salminen has continually been Kaurismaki's cinematographer over his career. His work here is nothing less than inventive. His greatest achievement is using the frame to enhance the developing romance or emphasize the divide between the characters as the camera observes their interactions. We always feel like we're privy to the quiet lives of Nikander and Ilona and the camera never gets in the way. Although really short at 76 minutes, Shadows in Paradise doesn't feel rushed at all. We watch the beginning of the relationship and it plays out in front of us: completely, slowly, cautiously. This is a brilliant little gem of a film from a director who is probably the greatest his country has ever produced.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Small Back Room (1949) - Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Directing and writing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are arguably the greatest filmmaking duo in history, along with Joel and Ethan Coen. Also known as The Archers, their string of British films in the 40's ranks them as some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, making some of my personal favorites. Usually Pressburger did most of the writing, while Powell did most of the directing. Everyone knows about The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947), which are justifiably two of the greatest films and greatest Technicolor achievements ever made (I haven't seen them on Blu-Ray yet, which is a crime, but I'm looking forward to doing so someday). In fact my single-most memorable experience of watching a "color" film, one that used color to the greatest effect, is with Black Narcissus. I remember the first time watching that and feeling so much passion and life coming from that film and how it used color to create emotion that it became an overwhelming experience. Their employment of Jack Cardiff, the great cinamatographer was certainly a choice that added to the beauty and passion of the three films he helped make for The Archers. Outside of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, they also made several other brilliant films in this stretch: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946). They are truly great pillars of cinema even though most of their films are relatively obscure to the general movie-watching public.

One movie that has in fact slipped past me all these years is their 1949 feature, The Small Back Room. Following on the heels of The Red Shoes, it seems like a curious choice. For one reason, it's in black and white. David Farrar plays Sammy Rice, a bomb disposal and munitions expert, holding a job as a scientist for a unique war outfit who works in "the small back room" for the British Army. Several curious bombs or booby traps begin appearing in parts of England, apparently planted by Germans. It becomes Sammy's job to deal with them. Sammy is an interesting character, suffering from a bomb injury that blew off his foot and recovering from alchoholism, a theme that at times dominates the focus of the film. He has a hard time sticking up for himself on the job and tends to get pushed around by his boss, played by Jack Hawkins. Meanwhile, he has a love affair with the office secretary Sue, played by Kathleen Byron.

Sammy and Sue have a surprisingly forward relationship depiction for this time period, not hiding any fact that they are having sex. This is quite a progressive portrayal of an adult, unmarried couple. David Farrar and Kathleen Byron both appeared in Black Narcissus together 2 years prior. Here their chemistry is easily apparent. Playing well off of each other both in dramatic and lighter moments, showing us they have fallen in love, not just talking about it. There is a passionately filmed scene of the two of them inside a doorway, darkly lit except for a single stream of light illuminating their faces, which is one of the best scenes in the film. Both of them show a range for this type of character study. Neither of them look too polished and movie-star like. Kathleen Byron in particular is absolutely mesmerizing. Her screen presence makes you uneasy and comfortable at the same time. She makes you want to watch and commands the screen whenever she's on it.

There is a brilliant sequence toward the end of the film where Sammy has to diffuse a new type of bomb. This turns into a 17-minute scene on a pebbled beach where some great use of editing makes the scene much more action-like than it really is. As you're watching it, you might be thinking that this scene is out of place. it might appear too separate from the rest of the film. However, I would argue that we see Sammy's true calling come out. He was born to diffuse bombs and he's actually really good at it. This is important for Sammy to have this moment, and it's important for the film to have this conclusion. Powell and Pressburger's movies are always smarter than most. Their ideas about cinema and its form are progressive, singular, and hold up really well today. The Small Back Room is an underrated work from them and worthy of being mentioned with their best films.