Talking Movies

September 22, 2019

From the Archives: The Serpent

Delving into the pre-Talking Movies archives I find a neglected French film featuring Olga Kurylenko just before Quantum of Solace.

Divorcing photographer Vincent (Attal) is surprised to run into an old classmate Plender (Cornillac) but it is no surprise. Plender is in fact about to destroy his life by a series of cleverly executed frame-ups.

This is a French film which certainly doesn’t conform to stereotype of endless existential debates between philosophising left-bank Parisians. It is in fact distinctly Hitchcockian, most particularly reminiscent of Strangers on a Train, but then this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as the source material is a novel by English crime writer Ted Lewis. Director Eric Barbier and his co-writer Tran Minh-Nam have fashioned a taut screenplay from that brutal work. Vincent (Yvan Attal) is a divorcing photographer locked in a bitter custody battle with his shrill selfish wife (Minna Haapkyla) who wants to move their young children to Germany. Life couldn’t get much worse…or so you’d think. But Mr Plender (Clovis Cornillac) is about to enter his life, a crooked PI who specialises in setting honey-traps with his accomplice Sofia (Olga Kurylenko) and blackmailing judges and lawyers with the resultant photos.

Imagine a young Ray Winstone and you have some idea of the sheer physical menace that Clovis Cornillac brings to his role as Plender. Plender was a classmate of Vincent’s and slowly we find out their shared dark past. It is one which drives Plender to frame Vincent for the attempted rape of Sofia before he improvises in order to blackmail Vincent with a threat of murder based around a missing body. It would be a pity to give away any more of Plender’s machinations but trust me they’re nasty and exceedingly brilliant as from the outside it looks like Vincent is a paranoid maniac offering delusional conspiracies rather than accept his own guilt. Attal is excellent at conveying the desperation of Vincent as the nightmarish net closes around him. Casino Royale actor Simon Abkarian stands out among the supporting cast as Vincent’s beleaguered friend and attorney Sam who sets out to prove the conspiracy his friend alleges has been directed against him is in fact real.

It’s hilarious to have to say it but the flaw of The Serpent is that it has too good a villain. Plender is as terrifying as Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train and then some. He’s a grade A psychopath of formidable intelligence and resources and the ability to switch on the charm to convince people that Vincent is out of his mind. The vise-like tightening of his plots during the first hour and a quarter is so chilling, implacable and masterful that the process by which our hero attempts to squirm out of them can’t help but feel tagged on. It is like Minority Report, where the reveal of the villain could have led to a shock end but the film instead trundles on for another 30 minutes in search of a happy one. A flawed but very gripping thriller.

3/5

September 10, 2018

The Lighthouse Presents Alfred Hitchcock

The Lighthouse is putting the Master of Suspense back on the big screen in September and October with a major retrospective comprising ten films from nearly two decades of work. A new restoration of Strangers on a Train is a highlight of a season showcasing icy blondes, blackly comic moments, pure cinema suspense sequences, and the greatest of director cameos.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

From 13th September

People who’ve never seen the film know what is meant by uttering the title.  Robert Walker’s psychotic socialite Bruno propounds to Farley Granger’s pro tennis star Guy, who he’s just met on a train, a very plausible theory on how two complete strangers could both get away with murder. By swapping murders the complete absence of motive would stump detection. And Bruno means to prove it… Patricia Highsmith’s first novel epitomised her creeping unease and smiling sociopaths, and Hitchcock embellished it with visual flourishes (reflections of murder in a glass, one sports spectator remaining aloof) and nail-biting suspense.

ROPE

From 14th September

Farley Granger and John Dall are the two young men, clearly modelled on the infamous real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, who strangle a classmate they have decided is inferior in their Nietzschean scheme of things. Displaying a sadistic sense of humour they hide his body in their apartment, invite his friends and family to a dinner party, and serve the food over his dead body. Can their mentor Jimmy Stewart rumble the perfect crime? This was shot by Hitchcock in ostentatiously long 10 minute takes that cut together by means of ‘jacket-wipes’ to give the impression of one unbroken real-time visualisation.

MARNIE

From 19th September

Tippi Hedren’s second film for Hitchcock cast her as the titular compulsive thief, troubled by the colour red, and the touch of any man, even Sean Connery at the height of Bond fame. Bernard Herrmann’s final Hitchcock score (though his rejected Torn Curtain music appeared in Scorsese’s Cape Fear) buoys some dime store pop psychology as Hitchcock displays a less than sure touch in navigating the line between twisted romance and twisted obsession. There is an infamous scene between Connery and Hedren that is arguably the beginning of the decline towards ever more showy cinematic conceits housed in increasingly mediocre films.

VERTIGO

From 20th September

Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus recently toppled Citizen Kane from its perch as the ‘greatest film ever made.’ Hitchcock burned money perfecting the dolly-in zoom-out effect so crucial for depicting Jimmy Stewart’s titular condition; and Spielberg cheekily appropriated it for one show-off shot in Jaws. The twisted plot from the French novelists behind Les Diaboliques is played brilliantly by the increasingly unhinged Stewart, Kim Novak as the anguished blonde he becomes obsessed with, and a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the friend who tries to keep him grounded. Visually gorgeous, lushly scored, and dripping pure cinema sequences without any dialogue – see this.

SPELLBOUND

From 22nd September

Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist protects her new boss (Gregory Peck) who turns out to be an amnesia victim accused of murder. On the run she attempts to recover his memory, while her old boss Leo G Carroll insists that Peck is a dangerous killer. Salvador Dali famously designed the dream sequence to explain Peck’s trauma, but producer David O Selznick cut it to ribbons. He had insisted Hitchcock make this picture anyway to fulfil his contract because Selznick had had a wonderful time in therapy. Hitchcock had a less wonderful time, even Miklos Rozsa’s score introducing the brand new theremin irked him.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

From 23rd September

The trouble with Harry is a bit of a curate’s egg. Foreign Correspondent’s hit-man Edmund Gwenn returns to the Hitchcock fold, and Shirley MacLaine makes her very winning film debut, but this is a black comedy that ends up more of a droll half-romantic drama. Four people in a Vermont village, led by his estranged wife, spend a Fall day running around with Harry’s dead body; one step ahead of the authorities, and each convinced twas they that did him in. After from MacLaine’s debut one must point out that from this unremarkable beginning grew the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

From 26th September

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman abandoned a fruitless novel adaptation for a scenario dazzlingly showcasing scenes Hitchcock had always longed to film; a murder at the United Nations, a man attacked by a crop-duster in an empty landscape. Cary Grant’s MadMan (cough) Roger O Thornhill; a man as hollow as  his affected middle initial; blunders into spymaster Leo G Carroll’s elaborate ruse and is ruthlessly and lethally pursued across America by the sinister James Mason and his clinging henchman Martin Landau, all the while dallying with their dangerous associate Eva  Marie Saint. Hitchcock’s preoccupations were never explored more enjoyably…

THE BIRDS

From 30th September

Hitchcock spun out Daphne Du Maurier’s short story which had been inspired by her simple thought when watching a flock wheel towards her over a field, “What if they  attacked?,” into  an unsettling and bloody film. Socialite Tippi Hedren’s pursuit of the judgemental lawyer Rod Taylor to his idyllic small town on the bay seems to cause the local birds to turn homicidal, but don’t look for explanations – just enjoy the slow-burn to the bravura attacks. Watch out for Alien’s Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s young sister, and a bar stool philosophiser allegedly modelled on Hitchcock’s bruising encounters with Sean O’Casey…

DIAL M FOR MURDER 3-D

From 3rd October

Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock join the 3-D craze, so he perversely adapted a play without changing it much, something that had bedevilled cinema during the transition to sound. Hitchcock has immense fun layering the furniture of Grace Kelly’s flat, but after the interval (sic) largely loses interest in 3-D and focuses on Frederick Knott’s, ahem, knotty plot in which tennis pro Ray Milland blackmails Anthony Dawson into bumping off rich wife Grace Kelly. John Williams, who also appears in To Catch a Thief, is in fine form as the detective trying to puzzle out the crime.

PSYCHO

From 10th October

Hitchcock’s low budget 1960 classic boasted one of the drollest trailers imaginable  and his direction is equally parodic in the first act, with its sinister traffic-cop pursuit and endless misdirection, because Hitchcock relished investing the audience  in a shaggy-dog story which sets up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences as well as some  chilling suspense. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates emerges as a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Herrmann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism. The shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Herrmann’s bravura stabbing strings orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

Tickets can be booked at the Lighthouse’s website  (www.lighthousecinema.ie).

September 9, 2016

The Blue Room

Mathieu Amalric co-writes and stars in his second outing as director, an extremely lean adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel.

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Julien Gahyde (Mathieu Amalric) seems to have it all. He is a pillar of a rural French community, and has a thriving agricultural machinery business, spacious modernist house, and loving wife and daughter – Delphine (Lea Drucker) and Suzanne (Mona Jaffart). And yet Julien is dissatisfied. So when old flame Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau) reappears in his life he begins on a torrid affair conducted in the titular hotel locale. But Esther is even more dissatisfied with her husband, the perenially ill Nicolas (Olivier Mauvezin). As a pharmacist how easy it would be for her to poison him. But such a notion is idle speculation, a sick fantasy. But when Julien is trying to explain himself before the juge d’instruction (Laurent Poitrenaux), he finds that gossip, coincidence, and appearances may count for more with the forces of law and order than the truth…

Amalric co-wrote the screenplay with co-star Cléau, and they mischievously withhold telling us exactly what crime Julien has been charged with, or what has actually happened, until quite late in the film; when the blue room of the title takes on a new and chilling meaning. While famous Belgian Simenon may have written the source novel, the film also has Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On a Train hovering over it, as you begin to suspect Esther of being a psychopath who has carried out her half of a trade of murders not agreed to by Julien. But then Julien would say that, wouldn’t he…? Amalric’s direction is extremely brisk as this is only 76 minutes long, just beyond Christopher Nolan’s no-budget debut Following. It is also unabashedly an erotic thriller as it features eye-wateringly explicit nudity from the co-writers Amalric and Cléau.

The Blue Room is a slight film, which feels like it could’ve used one more draft to add some details and trim some repetitions, but it creates a palpable sense of impending doom.

3/5

January 13, 2016

Top 10 Films of 2015

Steve-Jobs

(10) Steve Jobs

The combination of Michael Fassbender, Aaron Sorkin, and Danny Boyle produced a far warmer movie than Sorkin’s previous tech biopic The Social Network. Sorkin’s theatrical script was tense, hilarious, meta-textual, and heart-warming as if each iteration of the same confrontations pushed Jobs closer to doing the right thing, as Daniel Pemberton’s rousing score became less electronic and more orchestral, while Boyle’s changing film formats emphasised the passage of time and  thereby generated unexpected pathos.

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(9) Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Since JJ Abrams became Tom Cruise’s producing co-pilot this vanity franchise has suddenly become great fun. This doesn’t equal the blast that was Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol, but writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s combined great comedy and stunts, with a truly mysterious femme fatale, and some well staged action sequences; the highlight being assassins’ night out at the Viennese opera, riffing shamelessly and gloriously on Alfred Hitchcock’s twice-told Royal Albert Hall sequence.

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(8) The Martian

Director Ridley Scott may have demurred at this being a Golden Globe ‘comedy’ but Drew Goddard should write all Scott’s future movies on the basis of this screenplay chock-full of great jokes. You know you’re looking at an unprecedented ensemble of scene-stealers when Kristen Wiig ends up straight man to the Fassbendering all around her, and this valorisation of can-do science arguably realised Tomorrowland’s stated intention of restoring technological optimism to the popular imagination.

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(7) Sicario

Denis Villeneuve once again directed a thriller so spare, savage, and elemental that, like Incendies, it invited comparison with Greek tragedy. Amidst Roger Deakins’ stunning aerial photography and Johann Johannsson’s unnerving score Emily Blunt’s steely FBI heroine, in her conflict with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro, became a veritable Creon to his Antigone: for her devotion to upholding the law is the right thing, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing.

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(6) Listen Up Philip

Jason Schwartzman was on top form as an obnoxiously solipsistic novelist who retreated to the place in the country of new mentor Jonathan Pryce, and alienated his girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss), his mentor’s daughter (Krysten Ritter), his students, and, well, just about everybody else. This was a tour-de-force by writer/director Alex Ross Perry who threw in a wonderfully gloomy jazz score, a narrator, and alternating perspectives to create an unashamedly literary, unhappy, ‘unrelatable’ story.

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(5) Mistress America

Expectations were high after Frances Ha, and Baumbach and Gerwig’s follow-up did not disappoint. Their script provided compelling characters, with great jokes and screwball set-ups, as well as a literary sense of melancholy. The story of Brooke and Tracy is one of the best observer/hero films I’ve seen lately; from Tracy’s loneliness at college, to her meeting with the whirlwind of energy that is Brooke, to her co-option into Brooke’s restaurant dream, and all the fall-out from Tracy’s attempts to have her cake and eat it; sharply observed, but with great sympathy.

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(4) Carol

The Brief Encounter set-up of the extended flashback to explain the true nature of what superficially appeared to be casual meeting was played out with immense delicacy by stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Maray in a feast of glances and little gestures under the subtle direction of Todd Haynes. Carter Burwell’s score added the emotion forced to go unspoken in Phyllis Nagy’s sleek adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel which mixed romance with coming-of-age story as Mara’s shopgirl followed her artistic path and so moved from ingénue to the equal of Blanchett’s socialite.

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(3) Eden

Mia Hansen-Love followed-up Goodbye First Love with another exploration of 20 years in a character’s life. Paul (Felix de Givry) was the guy standing just next to Daft Punk in the 1993 photo of Parisian house music enthusiasts, and the story of his rise as a DJ wasn’t just about the music. We met the women in his life, including Pauline Etienne’s Louise and Greta Gerwig’s American writer Julia, and the male friends who came and went. Eden was always engaging, hilarious, tender, poignant, and rousing; in short it felt like a life.

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(2) Furious 7

Paul Walker bowed out with a gloriously nonsensical romp which made pigswill of the laws of physics because Vin Diesel, The Rock and The State said so. This franchise under the direction of Justin Lin, and now James Wan, has broken free of any link to humdrum reality to become distilled cinematic joy. And it’s so much fun they can even break rules, like not killing the mentor, yet still set themselves up for an awesome finale. CC: Whedon & Abrams, there are other ways to motivate characters and raise the stakes…

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(1) Birdman

Michael Keaton made a spectacular leading man comeback in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s meta-riff on Keaton being overshadowed by his Bat-past. Keaton was hilarious and affecting by turns, and in support Edward Norton shone in a play on his persona: preening self-regard with notes of self-loathing. Emmanuel Lubezski’s camera-work was spectacularly fluid in maintaining the illusion of a single take, but the time-lapses made you suspect it was a cinematic conceit designed to conceal the theatrical nature of essentially four long-takes. Indeed the characters were highly conscious that theatre was the only medium for a Carver adaptation; the days of Short Cuts are gone. Birdman was interesting, funny, and experimental; and to consistently pull off all three of those at the same time was enough to overcome any quibbles.

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