Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Wrong Man (1956)

I'm watching all the Hitchcock films I've never seen before, which means I'm essentially watching lesser Hitchcock. What's notable is that, in his least successful films, he is never short of a masterful filmmaker. His shot selection, his composition, the look of all his films, astounds me. This is the case with The Wrong Man, which is essentially an experiment in naturalism, with Hitchcock filming a real-life story of mistaken identity and making it almost like a pseudo-documentary. And he nails it. It's a gritty, sad little drama that feels completely real. Henry Fonda and Vera Miles are both great, and it has a beautiful understated score by Bernard Herrmann that reminded me of the more blown-up piece of music he wrote for Taxi Driver. The problem with the movie is that it's not very exciting; its realness starts to wear on you. Give me Roger Thornhill over Manny Ballestero any day. That's why I go to the movies. This might be Hitchcock's most realistic movie but it's far from his best.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Poetry Monday

Another rainy monday. Another rainy poem.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather
by Sylvia Plath

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then –
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Ghostwriter (2010)

I read the book this film is based on, called The Ghost and written by Robert Harris. I even reviewed it (see here) and one of the nice things about the book was that it was so forgettable that seeing the movie two years later I'd forgotten most of the plot details. Maybe in a few years time I'll catch the film again on cable and it will be like seeing it for the first time.

Well, it is kind of a forgettable film, certainly not one of Polanski's best, but I still liked it. It's got swirling rain, and wintry colors, and Olivia Williams, one of my favorite actresses, who has a much bigger role than her position on the cast list would indicate. The basic plot involves a Tony Blairesque ex-prime minister, played well by Pierce Brosnan, who hires a ghost-writer (Ewan McGregor) to pen his autobiography when his previous ghostwriter mysteriously dies. It's paced well, slower than most contemporary thrillers, and it has genuine atmosphere, enough to cover up some of the hokey thriller cliches. All in all, a decent rainy afternoon film.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gambit (1966)

This is a film I've been waiting to see for years. I even own a poster of it but it's never been available in any format I could watch till now. It's a nicely done 1960s caper comedy with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine and a very good performance by Herbert Lom, not playing the buffoon. The twists are good without going over the top, like so many caper films do nowadays, but really this is a film about a certain time and a certain place, the imaginary world of 1960s jewel thieves, and crepe-soled shoes, and well-cut suits, and cocktails, and a penthouse apartment that opens up to a rooftop helicopter pad. What elevated this particular movie was the direction of Ronald Neame--the lighting and camerawork are beautiful, and while it feels very much a studio picture, despite its location-hopping, it doesn't matter when the set design is so beautiful.

I know this is a particular favorite of Quentin Tarantino's, and there is an early scene set in a Hong Kong bar which was clearly part of the inspiration for The House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Poetry Monday

Just read that there will be a new filmed version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock coming out this year. Made me think of this poem by Bill Knott.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
by Bill Knott

Pinky Brown must marry Rose Wilson
to keep her mouth shut about the murder
which the cops don't know wasn't no accident—

Pinky has a straight razor for slashing,
a vial of acid for throwing into,
a snitch's face. He dies in the end. The end

of the book, I mean—where, on the last page,
'Young Rose' hurries out of church to pray
that her Pinky has left her preggy-poo . . .

Now, this kid—if he was ever born—joined

a skiffle group in '62 called Brighton
Rockers, didn't make it big, though,

just local dances and do's. Rose,
pink, brown, all nonelemental colors, shades
of shame, melancholy, colors which, you

get caught loving too much, you get sent up

to do time—time, that crime you didn't,
couldn't commit! even if you weren't

born—even and if your dad he died with
that sneer—unsmooched his punk's pure soul, unsaved—
Every Sunday now in church Rose slices

her ring-finger off, onto the collection-plate;

once the sextons have gathered enough
bodily parts from the congregation, enough

to add up to an entire being, the priest sub-
stitutes that entire being for the one
on the cross: they bring Him down in the name

of brown and rose and pink, sadness,
and shame, His body, remade, is yelled at
and made to get a haircut, go to school,

study, to do each day like the rest
of us crawling through this igloo of hell,
and laugh it up, show pain a good time,

and read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)

I guess if you need to see one sentimental, life-of-a-schoolteacher movie, then this is the one to see. Robert Donat, who I only really know from The 39 Steps, was great in this, so completely different from Richard Hannay. I liked it all but particularly liked the parts with Greer Garson, the love of Mr. Chipping's life.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Out of the Blackout (1995)

Robert Barnard is one of my favorite contemporary mystery writers. He's a little hit-and-miss (who isn't?) and his prose style is closer to Dick Francis than, say, Ruth Rendell, but his plots are always great. This book is a little different for him; it's about a young boy who mysteriously shows as a child-evacuee during the blitz. He arrives in a country village off of a train and there is no record of him, and it is clear that he has made up his own name. He is placed with a family and lives his entire childhood there. As he moves through adulthood he starts to piece together his past, discovering who he was and what happened in the first five years of his life. This book starts great, sags in the middle, but ends well. Like all Barnard books, its got its fair share of despicable characters, and its got unforeseen twists along the way.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Three for St. Patrick's Day

Three of my favorite things with green in the title:

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis. This a terrific ghost story. The twist is that the narrator is a black-out drunk and it's unclear whether he is actually seeing a ghost or just hallucinating.

Green for Danger. A great English detective story about a murder that takes place on the operating table.

A Flash of Green by John D. MacDonald. Maybe the best book written by one of the great writers of the last hundred years. This was also made into a movie with Ed Harris and Blair Brown but I haven't seen it in years.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Topaz (1969)

A much maligned Hitchcock film, and there are reasons for this. It's too long, and very slow moving, the plot is incomprehensible at times, and the lead actor--Frederick Stafford--is deadly dull. However, despite all this, I think the movie is pretty good. First of all, compositionally it is truly amazing--the camera work and the framing are some of Hitchcock's best. And structurally the film is brilliant, broken into three fairly distinct segments (they could be called Copenhagen/New York, Cuba, Paris), and weaved through these segments is the use of color as symbolism (an experiment Hitchcock believed was a mistake). It reminds me in a way of Traffic, with its many character threads and leaping locations.

All in all, much better than I'd hoped. I'll probably watch it again some day, if for no other reason than to see Karin Dor again, the German actress who plays Cuban spy Juanita in the film (the best performance in the film by far).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Poetry Monday

It's been non-stop rain here in my neck of the woods, so here are the final lines from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, sung by Feste the clown.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man's estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain, it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain, it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain, it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain.
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Red Shoes (1948)

Another great film from the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This is a riveting, visually inventive melodrama set in the world of ballet. The dance sequences are stunning, the three-strip Technicolor amazing. Moira Shearer, who did very little film acting, is perfect as the lead. I was lucky to see this on the big screen at The Brattle Theater. It's a recently restored print, the restoration overseen by Powell and Pressburger fanatic Martin Scorsese.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

The first shocking thing about this movie is that Ricky Gervais made an unfunny comedy, something I thought could never happen. It's not a total waste, however, because there are some very interesting ideas about religion embedded in this film. In fact, you can pretty much tell that the original germ of an idea for this was to make a satire, along the lines of Being There, about the roots of religion. If you've seen the ads for this film then you basically know the plot. It imagines a world in which no one has every told a lie, then along comes Ricky Gervais, who discovers that humans have the ability to say something that is not the truth. He doesn't even have a word for what it is he is doing, and he uses his new power to get money and to try and get sex. The interesting part comes when he is sitting beside his mother on her deathbed. She only has a few hours to live and she is terrified about the eternal nothingness, so he tells her a lie about a man in the sky, and a place you go after you die, where there is no pain. The word spreads and, of course, the world changes.

Just typing out this plot makes me realize how great this film could have been. One of the biggest problems is that they shoehorn all the interesting stuff about religion into a trite and unbelievable rom-com plot. There is no chemistry between Gervais and Jennifer Garner, and the stuff about them falling in love is pretty terrible.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Union Atlantic (2010)

The first novel by Adam Haslett, someone I know but also someone whose writing I can highly recommend. This book takes a little while to come together, following a half-dozen tenuously connected characters through chapters that are often structured like short stories and interspersed with lessons on the history of banking. But when it all comes together, and it does, I found I couldn't put it down. It ended up being both incredibly bleak but also moving.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The House of the Devil (2009)

Charlene came in when I was halfway through this movie and asked me how old it was. I could easily have told her 1979 and there would have been nothing about it to indicate it wasn't. But no, it was made last year, and it perfectly replicates a mid-budget horror film from the late seventies or early eighties. Not only that but it's a horror film that would have been a classic, one that for most of its running time builds up a slow sense of dread, then all hell breaks loose in the final act. Really good stuff. If I had been alone at night watching this, I probably would have turned it off.

The director was Ti West, and the main girl is played by Jocelin Donahue, who is the spitting image of Margot Kidder, circa 1981.

The Pacific (2010)

I wish I liked this show more than I did, but it wasn't great. Then again, I haven't seen it all so my opinion might change. Check out my review here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Poetry Monday

A poem about movies, the day after the Oscars.

by A. E. Stallings

Late at night,
One of us sometimes has said,
Watching a movie in black and white,
Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen,
"Surely by now all of them are dead"--
The yapping, wire-haired terrier, of course--
And the patient horse
Soaked in an illusion of London rain,
The Scotland Yard inspector at the scene,
The extras--faces in the crowd, the sailors;
The bungling blackmailers,
The kidnapped girl's parents, reunited again
With their one and only joy, lisping in tones antique
As that style of pouting Cupid's bow
Or those plucked eyebrows, arched to the height of chic.

Ignorant of so many things we know,
How they seem innocent, and yet they too
Possess a knowledge they cannot give,
The grainy screen a kind of sieve
That holds some things, but lets some things slip through
With the current's rush and swirl.
We wonder briefly only about the girl--
How old--seven, twelve--it isn't clear--
Perhaps she's still alive
Watching this somewhere at eight-five,
The only one who knows, though we might guess,
What the kidnapper whispers in her ear,
Or the color of her dress.

(a note: it seems the movie that Stallings is discussing might be the 1934
The Man Who Knew Too Much. If she is, then the actress who played the girl, Nova Pilbeam, is still alive, in case anyone cares. I love this poem and wish I'd written it because I have the same thoughts when I watch old movies. There's the lovely Nova below.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Paris, je t'aime (2006)

A bad anthology film, or is that redundant. This one is a collection of 18 short films, each one set in a different neighborhood (arrondissement) of Paris. Some are downright bad (I'm looking at you, Richard LaGravenese), most are just forgettable, and then a couple are pretty good. Tom Twyker's film starring Natalie Portman is visually fun to watch, and I liked Oliver Assayas' piece that follows an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) scoring drugs on a film set.

With all that said, the last short film of the bunch, directed by Alexander Payne, a director I'm not particularly fond of, is a complete stunner. In it, a Kansas mail carrier (played by the amazing character actress Margo Martindale) narrates in terrible French her trip to Paris. It borders on a slightly cruel parody of the ugly American tourist, then, all within the space of about 5 minutes, transforms into something incredibly touching. Almost worth watching the rest of the movie for.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wait for the cream

I found these screencaps on film experience blog and the one above, in particular, made me laugh out loud. There are many things I love about Tarantino's movies but the thing I love most of all is his randomness. Why does this scene work? It does, but I can't exactly put it into words. It's an incredibly tense scene interrupted by the arrival of food (all of Tarantino's films fetishize food at some point with the possible exception of Jackie Brown). What makes this so good is that Landa, of course, is toying with Shoshana, even if he does not entirely know her identity.

Then there's the cutaway close-up to the actual strudel, and then--my favorite shot in the sequence--Shoshana taking a bite and acknowledging with her facial expression for a moment that it tastes good, even though she is sitting across from the man who murdered her entire family.

I know down deep that this won't win the Oscar on Sunday night but if it managed to actually do it then I'd be a very happy moviegoer.

April Evil (1956)

One of four novels that John D. MacDonald published in 1956. This is a short, gritty heist-gone-wrong book. It starts great and is a little weak at the end. By weak I mean still far better than the majority of crime fiction ever written. There are some character types in this book that MacDonald didn't typically write about, including a young boy who fancies himself a Hardy Boy, and a serial killer. Well worth reading in whatever cheap paperback copy you can find.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Crazies (2010)

I went in very cold to this movie. I knew nothing about it--don't think I'd even watched a trailer. All I'd heard was that it was a good horror thriller. And it was. Not great, but definitely good. Solid acting, nothing stupid, and, most importantly, genuinely frightening in several scenes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Poetry Monday

It's not often you hear poetry quoted on sports shows but last night during the closing ceremonies of the Olympic games, they read the first two stanzas of A. E. Houseman's "To an Athlete Dying Young," in order to commemorate Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in a training run on the opening day. Here's the complete poem.

To an Athlete Dying Young
by A. E. Houseman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early through the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of ladys that wore their honours out,
Runner whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.