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Sunset Blvd. (1950)
"And must you chew gum?"
It so happens that as I was watching Sunset Boulevard, I was chewing gum, and Gloria Swanson's clipped, derisive tone felt more like it was directed not at William Holden's washed up Joe Gillis in 1950, but at me, sitting on my couch in 2008. I didn't throw my gum away like Gillis does, but still, I did feel a little disconcerted. Norma Desmond knew I was chewing, and she didn't like it one bit.
But this is part of Sunset Boulevard's charm. While it's a movie about the ways movies had changed, were continuing to change, and those they left behind, it also shows us how, in some ways, they've remained the same. Its references to the WGA, popcorn cinema, and the tragicomic nature of washed-up celebrity feel oddly contemporary while simultaneously being firmly rooted in the Fifties.
While some of the period references to actors and directors went over my head - I'm no expert on the silent era - it didn't affect my enjoyment of them one bit. The fact that Wilder and his team were brave enough to include such comments gives the film a cool, relaxed feel even as the web that binds the characters draws ever-tighter.
It's fantastically acted too. Holden is brilliant as the struggling everyman who quickly realises that he's gotten way more than he bargained for, and Swanson is pitch-perfect as the faded screen star whose grip on reality has crumbled far quicker than the walls of her mansion, right down to the wide roving eyes and claw-like hands. They're well-supported, especially by Erich von Stronheim's eerily restrained butler Max.
Of course, great dialogue and performances are nothing without a plot to match. Despite the fact that the beginning reveals the end, Sunset Boulevard still manages to keep you hooked from the moment Holden sits at his desk for the first time right up until the movie's cruel, haunting, tragically human conclusion.
Very rarely do "old" movies actually live up to their reputations, but I'm pleased to say that Sunset Boulevard does, and it's a credit to Wilder's team's ability that this noir-drama stands the test of time. A truly great film.
Ne le dis à personne (2006)
frantic, intelligent, and exciting: what more do you want?
Tell No-one is the debut feature from Guillaume Canet, a guy arguably best known outside of France for being that bloke in The Beach who shouts "Francoise!" a lot. While he may not have seemed to be up to much then, judging from this stunning adaptation of Harlan Coben's novel of the same name, he certainly is now.
Tell No-one is the story of Dr. Alexander Beck, a man who gets an email from his wife. Boring, you say? Beck's wife was killed eight years ago in an attack that left him (in a sense) lucky to be alive. The email instructs him to "tell no-one" and with nobody to turn to, Beck throws himself into a desperate search for the woman he loved and lost.
What follows is arguably a typical array of thriller conventions: the secrets, the lies, and the inevitable betrayals, but what sets this movie apart is its pacing. Canet sheds some of Coben's superfluous subplots which ramps the tempo up so effectively that you soon forget that it's all in French. The move from the States to France also works in its favour, especially for foreign markets (as in the UK & US), as it makes the movie feel edgier and more unfamiliar than a standard American cop-chase movie. The combination of these factors give Tell No-one a freshness and intelligence that a lot of modern thrillers are lacking.
The quality of the acting (especially from Cluzet) and the dialogue, no doubt helped by Coben's writing, keeps the story believable as everyman Beck races ever closer to the truth, and to round it off, the score is great too, with clever use of familiar tracks to help keep the audience somewhat comfortable as Beck's search becomes more and more dangerous.
Tell No-one may sound like another average thriller, but its pacing and finesse place it head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd.
One Last Dance (2006)
enjoyable but very average
One Last Dance is the story of T, a mysterious hit-man contracted by a local mob boss to kill the people responsible for the recent kidnapping and murder of said mob boss' son. However, things don't quite go according to plan, and as the bodies piles up, T finds himself questioning just how close to home his next target will be...
Can you say cliché? Good, because that's what One Last Dance is almost exclusively made of. The characters are exaggerated types and the ordinary plot has delusions of grandeur. While the dialogue does have its moments, such as a particularly informative conversation on the finer points of making a cup of tea, most of it is faux-cool and decidedly average.
The movie isn't helped by director Max Makowski either, with his unnecessary just-out-of-film-school camera tricks and gratuitous use of CGI for the smallest of things.
Its saving grace is the performance of Francis Ng, who plays T with the right balance of world-weariness and romanticism essential for any hired killer, and when he's off-screen, you certainly notice his absence. Ng's T keeps holds your interest when the plot fails and keeps the film afloat.
Good hit-man movies are stylish, smart, and cool, but for all its glossy trickery and pop-culture references, One Last Dance is not.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Wes Anderson delivers. Again...
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzmann as three brothers who haven't spoken for years, on a train. In India. By Wes Anderson.
It's a good idea, isn't it? No...it's a great idea. Three good actors in three-well written roles in an open, exciting and unpredictable environment, while they're also stuck with each other in a cramped an uncomfortable train carriage. With more than a little baggage...
However, despite the bright, new and fantastically shot environment and the well-cast new member of the Anderson family, The Darjeeling Limited is what has become a typical Wes Anderson film. Despite its relocation from the suburbs, or more recently, the deep blue sea, it's still a film about a dysfunctional family and their endeavours to become...slightly more functional. The comedy is derived from sibling tension and the conflicts of the past, and even the music, that typical Anderson blend of quirky yet affecting relatively unknown tracks which is very good and works in all the right ways, feels comfortable and expected despite its "newness".
I seem to be griping because Anderson's fifth movie is as good as the others. And in a way, I am. The Darjeeling Limited is the work of a director who has found his groove (or in this case, his track) and doesn't show signs of trying to get out of it. As a result, not much of it really feels surprising. It's just as well he's good at what he does then, isn't it? It's the way Anderson handles the family drama that sets Darjeeling apart. While it's funny in all those idiosyncratic ways, making light of familial relations and awkward interactions, Anderson's warm, tender approach draws you into the lives of these characters. And, because of their respective flaws and quirks, they become more than characters; you can see them as people.
Anderson's movies have always had genuine heart buried not too far below the layer of offbeat style, so despite its familiarity, Darjeeling is arguably in this respect his best work. You can see a part of yourself in each of the Whitman brothers, and in cinema there is no substitute for that.
Bob le flambeur (1956)
flambling back when it was still cool
Bob le Flambeur is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of Bob le Flambeur, a reformed gambling man/con-artist who's down on his luck and dreaming of a big score. When an idle remark alerts him to the opportunity to take the Deauville casino for its entire 800 million Franc-vault however, he can't refuse...
It's a heist movie from the days when audiences hadn't been overfed on diets of second-rate cool like Confidence and the Ocean's sequels. While its age and our inevitable familiarity with this sort of criminal underdog movie make the story a little predictable, Melville's stylish direction gives it a freshness fifty years on that even its most recent of modern counterparts tend to lack.
And a lot of it is down to Melville's vision. His camera captures the essence of what makes these movies cool: the black and white noir atmosphere, the sharp suits, the hats, and of course, the obligatory drinking and cigar smoke, and combines them, often in single smooth shots, giving the characters and their environments an element of stylish cool that they'd otherwise lack.
As a result, it's a movie that places style over subplot, with the majority of the characters never really becoming much more than types or fringe players. However, the movie is tied together by Bob, the titular flambeur, played with understated flair by Alain Delon. He exudes a cool authority and dominates the film, and while he is clearly an addict, his apparently casual approach to his victories and defeats quickly draws you in.
While the story is predictable and precious few of the characters engaging, Bob le Flambeur is not the best film you'll ever watch.
But it sure is cool.
Southland Tales (2006)
big, messy, but enjoyable
You can get a pretty good idea of Southland Tales from a quick description of its characters. Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star in Richard Kelly's all-too-near dystopian future. But it's not that straightforward. Johnson plays The Rock playing Boxer Santaros, while Boxer is playing the role of a character he's researching, one Jericho Kane. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an ageing porn-star with a business portfolio that includes energy drinks. And Sean William Scott? Well, he plays a cop's amnesiac twin brother, as part of a neo-Marxist scheme to overthrow the government. Or does he? And you thought Donnie Darko was confusing. Welcome to Southland...
The year is 2008. Justin Timberlake - did I forget to mention him? He plays a drugged-up Iraq war veteran with a huge scar on his face. Who sits in a huge chair with a huge rifle, guarding "Fluid Karma", an ultra-valuable perpetual motion wave machine that is the new form of power since oil has become rare and therefore massively expensive. Politics, anyone? Anyway, JT (who might be telepathic) narrates over an introduction comprised of graphic novel slides and MTV-meets-FOX news bulletins that guides us from our present to the "present" of Kelly's 2008 Southland. The passage of time has not been kind to the US; a nuke has gone off in Texas, and the country has become a police state. The most "recent" clip reveals that Boxer (played by Dwayne Johnson playing The Rock) has disappeared without a trace, which is where the movie begins. Or does it? By this stage, you just might have gotten the impression that Southland Tales is a bit of a mess. And you'd be right. Kelly's attempt at a politically-charged all-encompassing comment on the world that can also appeal to the youth of today does ultimately fall flat, but that's not to say it's without its merits. The satire's often sharp, and the way the movie skips from genre-to-genre (dystopian conspiracy to Scooby Doo farce to musical to action movie) works surprisingly well without jarring too much. The music, while not perfect (I'm pretty sure Black Rebel Motorcycle Club won't have the kind of comeback that allows them to host LA's 4th of July weekend party next year...) creates some of the movie's more memorable moments, such as JT's Killers dance number and the captivating three-way dance toward the end.
The deliberately exaggerated performances are, for the most part, very good, with Johnson capturing the action man (playing an action man - going through a crisis - playing an action man) role very well. The way he switches from the kind of guy who pours beer over himself as a form of refreshment to jittery neurotic mess is both funny and engaging, allowing you to see a little of the man beneath the steely facade.
Unfortunately, this is as close as you'll get to the characters. While the overplaying is amusing, it excludes you on an emotional level. Donnie Darko worked so well because it drew you in, but Southland seems to deliberately keep you at arm's length lest you miss out on some of Kelly's political messages. For all its mystery, intrigue, and action, it feels a bit soulless, and goes out with a whimper as opposed to the bang it so desires.
Southland Tales is an ambitious film, but a messy one, and while it may not work on the kind of level it's aspiring to, in a movie climate where so many films play it safe, at least Kelly tries. Very flawed, but entertaining nonetheless.
Honour. Duty. Betrayal. Cliché.
Shooter opens with Swagger (Wahlberg) in the middle of a failing black-op in Ethiopia. His spotter is killed, and he's left for dead by the agency that sent him in, leaving him to somehow escape the situation on his own. Cut to 3 years later, and Marky Mark is set up in a ranch in the snowy mountains in a remote location, sporting an awful haircut, and owning perhaps the best dog in the world. His reclusive existence is interrupted by Colonel Johnson (Glover), who arrives with a mysterious offer that he just can't refuse...
It sounds a bit...obvious, doesn't it? For a man who's been betrayed by his government once before, Wahlberg falls for Glover's dubious plan a little too easily. And it doesn't even seem like he's trying to conceal the duplicitous nature of the operation. Glover plays his role like Nosferatu in a suit; I half expected him to bite into Wahlberg's neck, although he obviously couldn't find the time in between his evil-caricature gestures and husky whispering. Taking the bait, Swagger sets himself up for quite a fall, and, luckily for us, quite an enjoyable film. Cue the government conspiracy and the one-man-killing-machine's mission to reveal the truth...
During his quest to clear his name, Wahlberg finds allies in the form of rookie FBI Agent Nick Memphis (well played by Michael Pena) and his former spotters' girlfriend Sarah, played by Kate Mara, and these two partnerships affect the film in quite different ways. When Swagger is teamed up with Memphis, Shooter plays out like an action-heavy buddy movie, but when Swagger's placed in the care of Sarah and the movie's romantic dramatic sub-plot is gestured at, it slows down awkwardly. We know Marky Mark has to recover from his bullet-wounds somewhere, but perhaps it could have been the recovery that was suggested instead of the awkward forbidden romance scenes that this pairing generates. The rest of the supporting cast are generally good, although a special mention should go to Elias Koteas for his role as Glover's oversexed supervillain henchman, who provides a great deal of sex-fiend-caricature entertainment. That being said, Wahlberg's presence is missed and the film appears to jar awkwardly and slow down without him. Without his moral outrage and willingness to shoot his way through his problems, the movie loses its momentum. While it handles similar issues to the Bourne franchise (government hunter becomes hunted) and attempts to make the same sort of contemporary political statements, Shooter doesn't quite have the same sort of grittiness. Instead, its polished look, complete with lush landscapes and Fuqua's sun-soaked direction, seems to nod continuously in the direction of Michael Bay. However, that's not a bad thing. The movie is very set-piece oriented, and Swagger's gung-ho approach keeps things moving forward at a relatively exciting pace.
The only problem is that it never really seems like Swagger's in any real danger, despite the fact that he's being chased by pretty much every law enforcement agency in America (social comment, perhaps?). This makes the film quite predictable, its sequences and dialogue clichéd, and its conclusion pretty much an obvious inevitability, but if you just sit back and accept it for what it is, you'll find Shooter an enjoyable, action-packed movie that's worth a look.
The Haunting (1963)
dated and disappointing
The Haunting tells the tale an experiment designed to discover the mysteries of Hill House, a sprawling Gothic mansion believed to be haunted because of its colourful history of death, suicide, and insanity. Dr. Markway (ably played by Richard Johnson) invites a group of people he believes to be sensitive to supernatural occurrences in order to monitor their responses to the house, and indeed, the houses responses to them.
We're introduced to Eleanor (well played by Julie Harris) as she attempts to escape her stifling home environment. After caring for her recently deceased mother for 11 years, she has grown sick of servitude, and longs to escape the confines of the home she shares with her sister and her husband. Despite being denied access to a car she half owns, she sneaks out of the house, and sets off to take part in Markway's experiment.
While ostensibly a film detailing the supernatural vigil held by Markway and his fellow guests, The Haunting is really a film about Eleanor's tragic quest to find her place in the world. 11 years of tending to her dying mother have stunted her emotionally, something which comes across in her interactions with Hill House's other guests (especially Theo) as well as Hill House itself.
She quickly falls under the spell of Hill House, identifying with the stories of its past, and also falls under the spell of the charming Markway, mistaking his pleasantries for romantic advances. It soon all goes wrong for Eleanor however. The sudden exposure to such a different environment from what she's used to begins to take its toll on her sanity, and the audience are invited to share her thoughts via Harris' voice-over.
This is where the film began to lose its grip on me. While I'm capable of appreciating her plight, I couldn't really identify with her or her somewhat flighty thought processes. Her interior monologue puts her across as an unhinged character, which she clearly is, but one that's far removed from a typical modern existence. Although the camera-work and lighting all remains very good, complete with Hitchcockian angles and heavy use of obscuring shadow, without an sympathetic main character it's not really much use. It seems as though there is a good horror story in the source material somewhere, and that this was probably the right way to tell it at the time, but for me it has lost most of its effectiveness as it has aged.
While the staircase set-piece is tense and well-paced, the terror lacks a physical immediacy that would make the film genuinely threatening. The internalisation of the house's effects exclude us, as we only really receive the events through Eleanor's maladjusted eyes.
I can appreciate the merits of the storytelling, I just couldn't connect to the lead character, which means I was left more than a little disappointed by this one.
Die Fälscher (2007)
laughter in the dark
Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Markovics) is a master counterfeiter, living a life of debauchery in pre-war Berlin, until his luck finally runs out, and he is captured and shipped out to the Mauthausen concentration camp. He witnesses the horrors of camp life; fellow prisoners are beaten, shot, and starved, but Sally, determined to survive, looks out for himself and uses his skills as an artist to secure a more comfortable lifestyle during his incarceration. After taking advantage of his talents, his superiors transfer him to Sachsenhausen, where he is to oversee the largest counterfeiting operation in history.
Here, Sally is provided with all the men and equipment he needs to crack the pound and the dollar; his criminal enterprises are now government funded. The price of failure is made clear, but the counterfeiters are also wary of the price of success, as once the currencies have been cracked, they will be surplus to requirements; their lives depend not only on their successes but also their failures.
This is where Burger (Diehl), the film's moral centre, comes into play. Unlike Sally, he sees the bigger picture, struggling to come to terms with the fact that while his work keeps him alive, it helps the Nazi war effort. Neither can he reconcile himself with the fact that while he lives in relative comfort other detainees, including his wife and children, live in squalor.
These moral dilemmas form the basis of the film, and in the face of the horrors of camp life, Sally tries to shrug them off with De Niro squints and smiles; the maxim that one must look after oneself is one repeated throughout the film. It's a very interesting idea, and it's one that is presented very well, both in terms of style and performance. The camera-work captures the bleak setting effectively, and the lead performances are uniformly excellent, but the use of tango for the score is inspired. The contrast between the music and the images adeptly complement the film's complicated moral tone. There is also a surprising amount of humour; while the bigger picture is indeed bleak, there are moments of comedy, and even if it is laughter in the dark, it is welcome and helps not only to carry the film along but humanise it and its characters.
The Counterfeiters is a very enjoyable film, which isn't something that can be said for many World War II "true stories". Its interesting exploration of adaptation and survival under extreme circumstances makes for an engaging story, and one that is definitely worth seeking out.
style with the substance to match
Fracture is the story of Ted Crawford (Hopkins), a rich engineer who shoots his wife after discovering she is having an affair. When the police arrive, he confesses and hands in his weapon, and the case is passed on to hotshot DDA Willy Beachum (Gosling), who sees this, his final public service trial before he moves onwards and upwards, to be a slam-dunk case; but alas, thanks to Crawford's mind games, things are not what they seem and the case undergoes a series of twists and turns as Crawford and Beachum engage in a tense battle of wits.
The most obviously noticeable thing about Fracture is the how well-polished it all is. The whole thing looks so...expensive. The cars are expensive. The phones are expensive...even the cutlery during the Thanksgiving dinner scene looks expensive. Beachum seems to wear a new suit in every scene, and even the outdoor location shots look glossy; South California looks like it has been lacquered up especially for the camera lens.
It's all very smooth, well edited, cleverly shot, and well-paced, but without these two actors, this movie would have been nothing more than a glossy second-rate courtroom "thriller". Hopkins and Gosling take it to the next level with great lead performances. Hopkins clearly enjoys playing this sort of manipulative role, controlling events, making sly remarks, and winking in that very obviously shifty way, and he gets to drive flashy cars and live in a big house while he does it, which I imagine only increases the amount of fun he has. Similarly, the cockiness arrogance of DDA Beachum allows Gosling to strut around, make wisecracks, and generally be a smug git. While the Hopkins-Gosling clashes make the movie, they are ably supported by David Straitharn, Rosamund Pike, and Billy Burke, who all inject a bit more life and background into the film.
While the ride is comfortable for the most part, Fracture slips a gear towards the end; the shift from murder mystery to moral crusade feels a little bumpy, but nonetheless, strong performances and great artistic direction make Fracture a stylish, clever and enjoyable thriller that's definitely worth a look.