Talking Movies

September 14, 2013

Things We Learnt From Movies

Martin Scorsese at his most ebullient can give the impression that Old Hollywood taught its audience how to act in every imaginable scenario. But sometimes the things we learn from movies are just slightly absurd…

03-29-51_mesrine-public-enemy-no-1_original

“I’m telling you, Besse, it’s really that easy”

TG4 is showing the second part of 2009 French crime epic Mesrine next Friday night. But while Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 is a sprawling and rewarding saga it’s to be hoped that TG4 don’t fall asleep at the wheel like they did when they premiered the movie. Vincent Cassell’s legendary bank-robber Jacques Mesrine had just escaped from prison by shinning over a wall with Mathieu Amalric’s fellow prisoner Besse when the prison guards finally noticed and started to shoot and give chase. Mesrine and Besse made it to a car, but left behind their third prisoner when he got shot on the other side of the street; making it impossible to bundle him into the car. As they took off in the car, TG4 cut to an ad-break. But somebody while pushing the button to start the ads forgot to also push the button to stop the movie… And so, after the ad-break, instead of the hair-raising stylish escape across town in a car and a train, we caught up with Mesrine and Besse in a flat. It gives the impression that escaping from French prisons is surprisingly easy; almost as if we missed this scene on the street…

 

EXT.STREETSIDE OF PRISON WALL – DAY.

The burly Chief Warden PIERRE runs panting out of immensely heavy doors; which open just a fraction of a second before he bolts thru them. He finds two young prison guards JEAN and MARC standing beside a wounded PRISONER and looking disconsolately down the street. Pierre follows their gaze and sees a car containing MESRINE and BESSE is speeding away…

PIERRE: What are you two imbeciles doing? Why aren’t you chasing Mesrine?

JEAN: (quietly) He crossed the street.

PIERRE: (in disbelief) No!!

MARC: Yes, he just, he came out, and then he just… crossed right on over.

PIERRE: Pierrot Le Fou! I hate that rule…

JEAN: We couldn’t do anything.

MARC: I even had a shot, but he had one foot on the pavement, and I didn’t want to take the shot because I thought that might be against the rules.

PIERRE: You were quite right not to shoot, Marc. The last thing we want is to put ourselves in the wrong.

JEAN: (sadly) If it was even just a little wider, as a street.

PIERRE: Well what do you expect when you put a prison in the middle of a residential part of town? Oh God, that rule is just so infuriating!

MARC: Permission to go back in and beat le snot out of the other prisoners as misplaced frustration?

PIERRE: Granted. Give us your baton there and I’ll start.

Marc hands Pierre his baton. Pierre idly whacks the wounded prisoner about the head a few times; then tosses the baton away in disgust.

PIERRE: (shaking his fist) Damn you Mesrine!

JEAN: He pronounces it May-reen.

PIERRE: Shut up.

March 31, 2011

To the Lighthouse?

The court-case winding up the Lighthouse cinema has been adjourned until April 15th; but will it be mere stay of execution, as in the case of the Sunday Tribune, or a commutation of the sentence?

Last autumn I complained about Cineworld busting thru the psychological 10 euro mark for ticket prices. The Lighthouse was one of the cheapest cinemas that I listed in a price comparison of my regular haunts, but it was never a particularly frequent haunt of mine. Sure, I enjoyed seeing Let the Right One In, Moon, and Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 there, but most of my trips to Smithfield were for press screenings. That’s because of the cinemas I frequent (Savoy, Screen, IFI, Cineworld, Dundrum, Ormonde) the Lighthouse is the furthest away from my suburban southside lair, and the hardest to get to as well: no direct bus link and a 20 minute walk between Luas lines. It was an impractical cinema to get to for a lot of Southsiders who weren’t near the Red line, and no doubt, like me, they were happy to stick with the IFI. Which is a pity as the Lighthouse is a gorgeous cinema aesthetically; even features that shouldn’t work, such as the quirky multi-coloured seats in one screen, do work, making it a notably comfortable cinema experience with a great atmosphere because it has its own distinct and loveably eccentric personality.

But its physical personality rather dwarfs its cinematic personality. It’s great at screening films long after their IFI run has ceased, witness Of Gods and Men running there since Christmas and Animal Kingdom still playing, and their regular re-releases such as The Godfather and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes have been excellent. But the Lighthouse didn’t really stand out as much as it would’ve if it had opened in 2002. The question which the existence of the Lighthouse always begged must now be asked – are there too many art-house cinemas in Dublin? To appropriate the language of politics, where Battle: Los Angeles is Sarah Palin and Submarine is Ralph Nader, just how big is the left-leaning vote? Since the explosion in the number of its screens in 2003, when it took over the adjoining IMAX, Cineworld has screened a huge amount of foreign films and American indie productions that would previously have only played at the IFI. This has pushed the IFI to the left of centre, witness Inception last year playing at the Savoy, Cineworld, and the IFI simultaneously. All too often the Lighthouse, Cineworld, Screen and IFI are redoubtably running the same films at the same times. Given that art-house cinema is a niche to start, can it really be fragmented across four city-centre cinemas and remain a profitable niche?

The dimming of the Lighthouse’s beacon of intelligent cinema would be lamentable, but if the economic logic is against it, it’s inevitable.

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:

2000-2002

Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          

2003-2006

The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction

2007-2009

Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           

 

As of right now…

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