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
Kevin Macdonald more often dons the cap of documentarian than fiction filmmaker, and his Black Sea shows it. He brings a grimy, festering, “you are there” realism to this lean, efficient work. This story of a deep, dark sea revealing mankind’s darker heart puts Jude Law in the position of a beleaguered, disgruntled, Scottish workaday ship captain unceremoniously fired from his day job. He takes it upon himself to seek a personal form of revenge and get rich quick in a damp, deep excursion into the crumpled, blistered quarters of a worn out submarine, surrounding himself with a crew of unsavory, functional types and the hopes and dreams of a treasure of gold deep within the hard-lost depths of the Black Sea. Troubles abound, from tension within the men, to physical difficulties in actually procuring the gold, to corporate lies and deceit, but all of them filter through and debate with the darkest secret of all: man’s worst enemy in his own unquiet self. If it sounds like a story out of the rough-and-tumble mid-’60s, a Sam (Fuller or Peckinpah, take your pick) or John Sturges dude-picaresque “picture” (as opposed to a film or a movie), you’d be right. It’s an ode to a style of film lost today, a sort of rivetingly adult, high-concept entertainment as scruffy and chiseled as a machine after a hard day’s work, and, for what its worth, it earns the comparison. Continue reading
Vantage points for comparison to Blue Ruin abound. The Coen Brothers and their more dark-hearted works like Blood Simple are obvious progenitors, as are the modern space-and-place indies most popularly epitomized by the works of David Gordon Green (and on some level Terrence Malick before him). Older, more expressively masculine works from the likes of Walter Hill also grandfather Blue Ruin’s more visceral critique of modern masculinity. But if Ruin isn’t anything original or particularly adventurous, it is still entirely game for the ride, and director Jeremy Saulnier is so adept at stitching together these disparate parts in uneasy ways (and leaving just enough space between the stitches for the wounds to threaten opening up) that the film never loses its fleshy fascination. Continue reading
Update late 2018:
Upon another re-watch, I remain enamored of Black Narcissus, not only the truly sublime potency of its art but its more silent intimations of unknown forces and mysterious evocations beyond the mental capacity of its protagonists, and possibly us, to register. With Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger, with an irrevocable assist from cinematographer Jack Cardiff, conjure the transcendent powers of terrifying, exhausting melodrama. Not melodrama as it is usually understand, as a beacon of deceit, but melodrama as the possible reality which we repress from considerations of the rational, the moments and suggestions and sensations which fluctuate and flutter outside the bounds and demarcations of European rationalism’s vision of realism and reality.
Insofar as the narrative is essentially the push-pull of colonial forces colonizing the boundaries of the sensible, to cop from Ranciere, the most telling intimations in Black Narcissus are not the ones which seemingly corrupt the missionaries at the heart of the tale but the ones which intoxicate and haunt the film’s periphery, the ghosts of other realities and mysteries which are not assimilable to that colonizing vision of what kinds of images can and should be “sensible”. It is the alluring mystery of Black Narcissus that the film transcends the “sensible” reality the protagonists would wish to impart upon it. Not so we can transcend to a higher reality inaccessible to them, but so the film can evoke the unknown intrinsic to any state of being. And, unforgettably, to revoke the supposed ability of British empire to truly colonize that unknown.
Michael Powell, especially when paired with his long-time partner in crime Emeric Pressburger, was a director cripplingly ahead of his time (although they shared credits, Pressburger favored writing and Powell handled most of the behind-the-camera work). Literally crippling, in fact, for his provocative, lurid, deeply confrontational 1960 horror Peeping Tom, at that point perhaps the most daring and subversive commentary on filmmaking and film-watching ever released, essentially killed his career. Dark-hearted in a way even Hitch’s fellow 1960 release, Psycho, never approached, Peeping Tom grabbed a world not ready for it and shoved itself right up into humanity’s soul with voyeuristic, directly implicating POV filmmaking and sickly green hues to induce malaise and shock. It was an atomic final gasp on one of the all-time directorial careers. Continue reading