The two principles of David Lean’s Brief Encounter never consummate their love, or even acknowledge it, but of all the movie characters to have fallen in love over the past century, no two may mean more than Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). When they meet at a railway station cafe, they fall for one another, but they are denied their romance by social convention; they are both married, and, although the film doesn’t state it, the then-knowledgeable sense that divorce was frowned on in their world becomes palpable almost from the first instant. Which is the essence of Brief Encounter: not ashamed of itself and totally sincere, but minimalist and hauntedly hinting when other movies would openly declare. More than realism, Brief Encounter is the ultimate study in unfulfilled love and the quiet doom of knowing the end is near, only to have it forced upon you against your own terms. Continue reading
Now, for “Film Favorites”, two of the most beautiful experiments in color ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the champions of feverish color and quintessentially British cinema, probably never found a subject more perfectly attuned to their signature style than The Red Shoes. A tale of upcoming ballet star Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) studying under the dictatorial, monomaniacal Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), torn between Lermontov’s demands and her true love for his composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), The Red Shoes is the pinnacle of their fixation on obsession and oppression as they intertwine and tangle to the point where flying into the sun is indistinguishable from crashing and burning. Under their vision, art and the pursuit of art become an Icarus act, and it is only fitting that the two men seemed primed and driven to obsessively push the limits of color cinema until they too would burn brightly before falling into the sun. Continue reading
There’s something a little bit magical about The American’s devious nature; I’m not sure it was intended by director Anton Corbijn, but you have to admire the way it gallantly seduced American audiences into approaching it like a classical ’70s spy-action film starring George Clooney (a perfect match for that sort of role if ever there was one) and then tricked them into watching what is a deliberately challenging, resistant film. Vaguely setting itself up with a harried narrative about an assassin scoping out and setting up for a contract in a small town in mountainous, rural Italy, the film is instead a thoughtful, reflective, molasses-slow work about an old soul and the resolution only a natural cleansing in a small-town locale can bring. It is a meditative film, above all, and an extremely effective meditation at that. Continue reading
Christopher Smith’s Black Death certainly aspires to be holier-than-thou with its morbid, deeply unsentimental darkness, and it almost gets there. Aspirations of Herzog and Bergman abound, and while Smith is much more plainly a genre-fried director than Herzog or Bergman ever aspired to be, he gets points for effort, and almost as many for success.
Following Sean Bean as the leader of a cadre of warriors-of-god on their way to an untouched village in the middle of a Capital-P Plague in 1348 England, Smith submerses himself in the mud and generally revels in the festering pestilence of a Europe that had and, for the characters in this film, never would see better days again. Sebastian Edschmid’s cinematography, heavy on the chiaroscuro, effectively splits the difference between husky naturalism and a throatily omnipresent sense of mythic dread, adopting lighting that conveys an odyssey more than anything else. Meanwhile, the production details lend a really hearty impact to Smith’s malnourished take on the destitution and outcast terror of the film’s hellishly frosty Europe. No doubt, some of the malnourishment is a product of filming the scenes in the order they occur in the film, likely causing the actors and crew to grow weary and dejected over time as the characters do in the film. The effect is a hurting, bruised film that relishes in meaty melancholy, and we feel the plague-ridden sickness of the characters in the air of the film itself. Continue reading
From Russia with Love is a curious beast. It does not “work” according to the distinct rhymes and reasons of what would become the “Bond film” archetype. It does not establish its own vision of what cinema ought to be, as so many other Bond films went on to do, starting with the very next film in the series, Goldfinger. It lacks the pop art, it lacks the pizzaz, it lacks the chutzpah of those other glammy, punchy Bond films that established a certain modern cool-chic lifestyle porn take on watching movies simply because they could give you visions of things that life in its mundane reality never could. On most of the basic “rules” by which Bond films are generally judged, it doesn’t even attempt to pass muster. In fact, it is, excepting its predecessor Dr. No, a work that could charitably be described as “mundane”.
But Terrence Young’s film may very well be the best film in the entire series, and it may be the best specifically for how it does not meaningfully have anything to do with “being a Bond film”. What the lack of a formula bestows upon it is the freedom to simply focus on being itself, on being the best individual film freed from the expectations and rules of a specific form and a style. It is freed to the point where it can utilize its editing, its framing, its acting, and its writing, to simply be the best film it can be, freed from any expectations in the world of fitting a well-defined formula. Continue reading
Because I reviewed Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End and couldn’t stand the gap in the middle…
As it turns out, not only do Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost love horror movies, but they love action movies too. And, although I suspect this is no surprise to anyone, they can bust out a pretty dynamite one of their own when they need to. For it is the great secret of all of their films that they parody what they parody not by existing above it but by emulating it, recreating it with an eye for detail and a studied approach, and in some cases reading it past itself to expose some of its silliness and lunacy. Thus is Hot Fuzz, not quite the genuine surprise that Shaun of the Dead proved to be (what, the guys who made one of the best comedies of the modern era made another comedy and it’s stupendous… consider me staggered). But it’s a genuine barn-burner nonetheless, firing on multiple overlapping comic cylinders and staking its claim as one of the few modern comedies for which the filmic arts – that is to say directing, editing, and the like – are as fundamental to the nature of the laughs as the writing and the acting.
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright simply “get” genre comedy. They may be the only ones to really nail it since Sam Raimi, and for the same reason. What Raimi understood is that making a comedy out of a noted “serious” genre was about more than making fun of it. It was about teasing out the fundamental intersections between emotions and exploring how filmmaking – that is the literal process of shot to shot structuring of a film – could divulge different and seemingly contradictory emotions simultaneously. His preferred contradiction, of course, was between lingering dread and gut-busting Warner Bros comic anarchy. His masterpiece Evil Dead II was not simply about scaring us and then making us laugh, but about dissecting the language of film to explore the intersection of technique and emotion in prismatic, multitudinous ways. Put simply, it was about exploring the way that something, be it a shot or a performance tick or a line or the film itself, could be both funny and scary, rather than, say, take a funny scene and follow it with a scary one. Continue reading