Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Hole (1960)

Directed by Jacques Becker.
Starring Mark Michel and Jean Keraudy.
In a Nutshell: Five inmates attempt an escape.

The final film of director Jacques Becker is a marvel; smoothly unsophisticated in its depiction of grimy, laborious escape. Filmed in pseudo-documentary style with long unbroken takes, untrained actors (including real-life prison escapee Jean Keraudy) and no score, The Hole has a somber authenticity to its mechanisms. It does not thrive on grand spectacle or proclamations; the characters’ actions pulse with the animalistic instinct, be it freedom, desperation or brutality. But it is also a world of unity, one tested by the arrival of the fifth (Mark Michel), an adulterer sentenced for accidentally shooting his furious wife. He gradually enters the four’s inner circle as they plan to break through their cell floor to freedom’s beckon.

Drawing the viewer into the exertion is done with minimalist skill. One of the most famous shots has a four-minute take of the men pounding away at the concrete floor. This is real labor, not the sort of detail glossed over in a cut or dissolve. Close-ups of hands, dim lights and sweaty faces shrink close us into the spiritual purity of the struggle. The tremors of each new development and bond resonate against the bareness of the production. Becker has his finger on the pulse of the collective, the scrutiny of the prisoner’s day-to-day and the yearning to escape into the darkness. The underground that the men must traverse becomes a mythical labyrinth where, forgoing all earthly tension, each man becomes one with the same resolute hunger. By the time two of the men get a glimpse outside the walls, each is stirred in awe. But through Becker’s eye, even the slightest glance can tell so much more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Directed by George Clooney.
Starring David Strathairn and George Clooney.
In a Nutshell: Edward R. Murrow brings down Joseph McCarthy over his news show.

America’s anti-Communist movement of the 50’s found a regrettable mascot in Joseph McCarthy whose witch-hunts spread fear and ruined reputations. Sickened by McCarthy’s dishonest slander, Edward R. Murrow sought to disrepute him from the desk of his nightly CBS news show. Director/co-writer George Clooney frames this as an ode to Murrow’s legacy if also a cautionary tale his successors. The film is an undeniable champion of Murrow. By keeping this focus on Murrow, Clooney gives an absorbing account of journalism’s fight for civil liberty, trimmed with all necessary period details. McCarthy is played by stock footage, showing the man as a spitting, raving bully before his shameful Army hearings. David Strathairn’s Murrow acts as a beacon of quiet, reserved principle amidst his anxious newsroom peers.

The McCarthy fight seeps into every single scene, creating an insular world of news and politics. Compounded by Strathairn’s news-ready close-ups, Clooney magnifies the film into a grand struggle for television’s soul. Strathairn’s Murrow feels mythical, though the actor is canny to allow a glimpse of humanity even when the script does not. That the film follows a single-minded approach to Murrow feels refreshingly old-fashioned. Murrow’s epilogue mourns the loss of media ethics and our appetites for baseless fear mongering. If the ending reads too blatantly (but sorely deserving of current audiences), it only exemplifies the unstated social strife beneath every monologue. With the fear of communism antiquated beyond our memories, Clooney pleads for our media to account for the delusions and smears that run our news cycle. With Good Night, and Good Luck, his direction can at least take its advice to heart, sticking straight to the story and nothing less.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bande à part (1964)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Anna Karina and Sami Frey.
In a Nutshell: Two youths enlist a young woman in their next robbery.

“A few words chosen at random. Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.” And the most fun ever to be had at a Godard movie. Bande à part is a crime film only in theory, disposing its pulp origins for a breezy cadence. The plot has two hoods (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) ensnaring a virginal classmate (Anna Karina) into robbing her aunt. That is a plot, but it is not the movie. This outing has Godard’s self-consciousness and pop-culture bitterness in check. His characters are still living through cinema; play acting gangsters while fumbling for the next conquest. For a while, Godard asks us to live this, to want to live it. And we can, because it is just so much fun.

Before the heist, Frey, Brasseur and Karina engage in youthful delectation, rendered by a parade of set-pieces aped to this day. Take the Madison sequence where the characters dance to a jukebox swing. For just a few minutes, they move in step (Karina in between the boys) unnoticed by the café’s patrons. Godard’s amused voiceover cuts through the soundtrack. “Parenthetically, now’s the time to discuss their feelings,” as if such isolated bliss could never be so pure.

Godard leaves a distinct nostalgia-infused tinge on his film, from the mist-covered villa of Karina’s character to the confused materialism of Frey and Brasseur. But his smoother pacing and camera movements diffuse his pretensions. As with the later Masculin, feminine, the characters are not cultural figures, their America worship an oddity of their own delusions. That fantasy eventually shatters (death is involved), but is quickly followed by the cheeky promise of an American sequel. It is those humorous reflexive touches that make Bande à part so enjoyable, such freedom from Godard’s chord of disdain. At least for some.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.
In a Nutshell: A barber’s blackmail scheme goes awry.

Pre-Cold War era noir casts a hard-bitten glare over the alienating suburbia slice-of-life that is the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coens have proven insidious manipulators of whatever genre strikes their fancy. Here they bring an expert’s restoration to film noir, bustling with timely idiosyncrasies. Its protagonist, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), is the quintessential noir icon; a man condemned to misery for wishing a better life. Though Ed is a greater puzzle, narrating about his dull barber job and unpleasant wife with deadened candor. He hardly seems aware his life is one worthy of unhappiness. When Ed is offered a business investment, he blackmails his wife’s boss (Ed suspects they are having an affair) without pause.

But something goes wrong and Ed kills one of his transgressors. I will speak no more of the plot, though the manner in which it circles back to Ed is more happenstance than contrivance. Such plot mechanisms benefit from the ease of the film’s languid pacing filled with ancillary subplots and other asides. Plenty diverts from the film’s core conflict, moving in step with its solemn narrator, musing on the little details. This is pure narrative style, nearly supplanted by Roger Deakins’ chillingly crisp cinematography and Thornton’s dry calm. It can feel far too mannered and insular, like a malevolent puppet show. Taken as an exercise in lavish cinematic aesthetic, it will not disappoint. Besides, it is not as if Ed Crane was there to begin with.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Big Sleep (1946)

Directed by Howard Hawks.
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
In a Nutshell: A PI is hired to untangle a family’s underworld involvements.

Sometimes all a film needs is charisma to overcome its own limitations. Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the hardboiled Raymond Chandler novel succeeds this, with no small thanks to the studio. The executives behind The Big Sleep recognized its overly convoluted plot as too disposable for audiences. Re-shoots and re-edits changed the film’s rhythm from a morose noir into a coy love story amidst a tumultuous underworld. Even with the outsider influence, the current incarnation of The Big Sleep remains definitively Hawks-ian; relaxed and cynical, but hardly morose.

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is sent to clear the names of an infirm general’s daughters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers) centered on a family employee’s disappearance. Though Marlowe becomes quickly steeped into a web of hoods, gamblers, pornographers and other riff-raff. Bogart was the first to play Marlowe, honing the weary romanticism that has lived in film PI’s for decades. The plot throws out tight bits of suspense, with Bogie retaining his collected wits. It is as “cool” as movie “cool” gets. Bacall, Bogart’s love on and off set, matches the whip-smart repartee with the aplomb of a seasoned pro. With the murders and motivations fading from moviegoer memory, it is their crackling, cutthroat courtship that has burnished their reputation as one of cinema’s most iconic couples.

If The Big Sleep could keep one distinction, it demonstrates exactly how to bottle star power. It rolls along good-naturedly through sin and vice without acting wary of its own shadow. This effortless “cool” can be distilled to the inward manner Bogart sizes up an adversary or deflects a sexpot’s advances. Hawks and a trio of screenwriters punch up the noir gloom with droll self-amusement, nimbly avoiding histrionics. Without a proper structure, it could be argued that The Big Sleep coasts on its surface strengths, but that’s just it. It is not the plot that leaves us spinning, but great dialogue, great acting, great scenes. As free floating as cinematic jazz, albeit with some outside improvisations.