Friday, 23 January 2015

1,001 Films: "Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night with Maud" (1969)

 
In 1969's Ma Nuit Chez Maud/My Night With Maud - either the third or fourth of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales", depending on your chronology - a devout, buttoned-down, solicitudinous engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant), described as "the quintessential Jesuit" by his closest friends, finds all his hypotheses on life, love and "mathematical hope" tested by proximity to two very different women: first, the striking blonde student he locks eyes with at Mass - in what would surely count among the cinema's most daring pick-ups, had their relationship gone any further - then, having been snowed in at her apartment one Christmas Eve, by the spiky brunette of the title, a divorced single mother who becomes our hero's conversational and philosophical sparring partner, and eventually, against the odds, his lover.

The shock, 40 years on from Maud's first release, comes from encountering a film this frontloaded with lengthy, unexpurgated, sleepover chat. The picture is primed with talk, much as Michael Bay's movies are primed with explosions - and, like Bay's movies, Maud might be an equal turn-off for those who aren't really in the mood. (All Trintignant's fussing about Jansenism is Rohmer's version of that unfathomable technobabble Bay has the rocket scientists in his films speak.) There's an especially exasperating (not to mention emblematic) scene early on chez Maud when - having been invited to stay for at least dinner - Trintignant sits with the remains of his cheesecake poised upon his fork, and proceeds to talk, and talk, and talk. Rohmer's characters like to chew things over; you may well prefer them to swallow.

Indeed, without Nestor Almendros' atmospheric photography of Clermont-Ferrand in the snow and after dark - the regional equivalent of what Godard and Varda were trying to pin down in their Paris films - it would be easy to write Maud off as anti-cinematic: to conclude that its lengthy stretches of jawing would play just as well, if indeed not better, on the page, or on the stage, particularly if we could retain Rohmer's superlative ensemble. Only by listening closely, however, do we grasp that talk is actually the film's subject of study - the manner through which these characters stave off action, justify themselves or seek to absolve their guilt. In these lives, talk has become a weapon in an ongoing battle against insecurity, which is why the film's fundamentals feel oddly timeless: these are young adults striving to articulate a path for themselves between the unnameable forces in the universe.

Talk is also Rohmer's own way of seducing the viewer (and, more precisely, the viewer's good intelligence: these are conversations we might actually like to have), just as Maud has to talk her reluctant suitor under the covers with her. As with that onscreen process of seduction, it takes a while, but it happens sooner or later, and it's why these individuals - Françoise Fabian's eponymous heroine, in particular - come to seem like real, flesh-and-blood people, rather than the hepcat signifiers and autobiographical avatars we observe in other French New Wave projects. In this bold directorial statement - a film that's effortlessly good with words, and which ranks among Rohmer's clearest and crispest pronouncements - the characters talk, therefore they are.


Ma Nuit chez Maud is available on DVD through Artificial Eye. A Rohmer retrospective continues at the BFI Southbank, London - full details here.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 16-18, 2015: 
 
 
1 (1) Taken 3 (12A)
2 (new) American Sniper (15) [above] ***
3 (3) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
4 (2) Into the Woods (12A) **
5 (5) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (4) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
7 (new) Whiplash (15) ****
8 (8) Birdman (15) **
9 (new) Wild (15) ** 
10 (new) Met Opera: The Merry Widow (12A) 

(source: theguardian.com)
 

My top five:   
1. Duck Soup
2. The Last of the Unjust 
3. Whiplash
4. Testament of Youth
5. Foxcatcher


Top Ten DVD rentals:  
 
 
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (new) A Walk Among the Tombstones (15) **
4 (10) Before I Go to Sleep (15) ** 
5 (3) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
6 (4) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
7 (new) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (U) *** 
8 (5) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
9 (new) A Most Wanted Man (15) ****
10 (6) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *

(source: lovefilm.com)
                                 
 
My top five:  
1. Night Moves
2. The Circle
3. Obvious Child
4. Stations of the Cross
5. The Galapagos Affair


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. The Artist (Saturday, BBC2, 10pm)
2. The Wooden Horse (Tuesday, BBC2, 3.35pm)
3. Thirteen Days (Saturday, BBC2, 12.35am)
4. The Departed (Saturday, C4, 12.10am)
5. Shaun of the Dead (Friday, ITV1, 10.40pm)

Friday, 16 January 2015

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 9-11, 2015: 
 
 
1 (new) Taken 3 (12A)
2 (new) Into the Woods (12A) **
3 (1) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
4 (2) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
5 (3) Paddington (PG) ****
6 (new) Foxcatcher (15) ****
7 (4) The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (12A) ***
8 (7) Birdman (15) **
9 (5) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **
10 (8) Annie (PG)

(source: theguardian.com)
 

My top five:   
1. Duck Soup [above]
2. The Last of the Unjust 
3. Whiplash
4. Testament of Youth
5. Foxcatcher


Top Ten DVD rentals:  
 
 
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (3) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
4 (5) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
5 (7) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
6 (4) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
7 (6) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12)
8 (8) The Fault in Our Stars (12) **
9 (9) The Expendables 3 (15) 
10 (new) Before I Go to Sleep (15) **

(source: lovefilm.com)
                                 
 
My top five:  
1. Night Moves
2. Obvious Child
3. Stations of the Cross
4. The Galapagos Affair
5. Nas: Time is Illmatic


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Sunday, C4, 1.45am)
2. The Naked Gun (Saturday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Last Orders (Sunday, BBC2, 11pm)
4. The Pact (Sunday, C4, 11.05pm)
5. A Simple Plan (Monday, BBC1, 12.20am)

1,001 Films: "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)


Thirty years on from Hollywood's first wave of monster movies and creature features, and with America in the middle of a decade of civil-rights turmoil, George A. Romero cobbled together the funds to make what would prove a landmark indie. Informed to some degree by the sudden outbreaks of violence that had punctuated American life over the previous decade, Night of the Living Dead would benefit from both a flourishing drive-in circuit and a newly relaxed attitude towards screen censorship that meant the crucial action was allowed to be more explicit than it was in those old Bela Lugosi vehicles: let's face it, once you've seen the First Lady getting covered in the contents of her husband's cranium, there would be no particular reason to flinch from the maraudings of crazed brain eaters.

The opening pulls up just shy of parody, and we're reminded The Rocky Horror Picture Show was only a few years away. A couple of squares find themselves under attack when they go to lay a wreath on the grave of the girl's father; the guy, unable to take the threat remotely seriously, is knocked out cold, but his gal escapes to a nearby farmhouse where she holes up with a passing stranger and attempts to see off a wave of reanimated "ghouls". This state of crisis is taken as a given; what's crucial is how these characters react to it. Some immediately hymn the merits of isolationism, and suggest going into lockdown; other survivors insist they should stick their necks out to save anyone else who might be in trouble. Around its halfway mark, Night of the Living Dead starts to mirror the fractious political discourse America had been prone to ever since Hitler came to power around the time of White Zombie.

The film is undeniably savvier than most B-movies up to this point: its most convincing elements are the reconstructed news bulletins that carefully reproduce the tenor of 1968 reportage (even when the reporters are obliged to say such things as "kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul"), and suggest Romero was very much of that generation who'd watched enough TV to know exactly how to replicate its tropes. By comparison, the idea of making the hero African-American - and of making of him a most capable de facto leader, an Obama-in-waiting - now appears rather less groundbreaking than first claimed, not least as the studios had given us Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night not one year earlier.

Forgotten in all the analysis of what the film may or may not say about the America of the time is the fact it's still a film possessed of the ability to creep up behind you and whisper "boo!" in your ear - albeit in a fashion as creaky and clumsy as its own zombies sometimes appear. It is uncanny that the zombification process should apparently start from nothing - radiation from a Venus probe is the official explanation, but we don't know that when the couple in the cemetery first come under attack - and the ghouls' slow march on the farmhouse remains an eerie experience, shot on make-do monochrome stock, scored only to the chirping of cicadas.

It should nevertheless be said that Romero was to refine his technique and his themes in subsequent films, taking on board more funds and better actors: the film's nasty secret is that there would be more accomplished entries in the Dead series. Like Easy Rider, another zeitgeisty gamechanger, Night may be one of those works more significant for what it represented - a rediscovery of a horror aesthetic that came to seem oppositional when set against the lavish slickness of the era's studio productions, a framework for subsequent genre efforts, a reengagement of some kind with pressing social themes - than for what it in fact was: in this case, a patchy low-budgeter whose rep has come to be inflated over the years by those doing the sterling work of making horror a respectable area of study. Clearly something of note is going on within these unruly, indisciplined frames, but you may do better to approach it as no more (and no less) than an above-average midnight movie: let it creep up on you, in other words.

Night of the Living Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.

Friday, 9 January 2015

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of January 2-4, 2015: 
 
 
1 (new) The Theory of Everything (12A) ***
2 (1) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
3 (3) Paddington (PG) ****
4 (new) The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (12A) ***
5 (5) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **
6 (2) Exodus: Gods and Kings (12A) *** 
7 (new) Birdman (15) **
8 (4) Annie (PG)
9 (6) Dumb & Dumber To (15)
10 (8) Penguins of Madagascar (U) ***

(source: theguardian.com)
 

My top five:   
1. The Last of the Unjust [above]
2. Foxcatcher
3. National Gallery
4. The Green Ray/Le Rayon Vert
5. Exhibition on Screen: Girl with a Pearl Earring...


Top Ten DVD rentals:  
 
 
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (new) X-Men: Days of Future Past (12) ***
4 (3) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
5 (6) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
6 (4) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12)
7 (5) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
8 (new) The Fault in Our Stars (12) **
9 (7) The Expendables 3 (15) 
10 (8) Godzilla (12)

(source: lovefilm.com)
                                 
 
My top five:  
1. Night Moves
2. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
3. Nas: Time is Illmatic
4. The Guest
5. Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Aladdin (Sunday, five, 5.30pm)
2. Borat! (Friday, C4, 12.30am)
3. Skyfall (Saturday, ITV1, 9.20pm)
4. Shrek 2 (Sunday, BBC1, 4.10pm)
5. The Girl Next Door (Wednesday, C4, 1.50am)

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Vermeer time: "Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis"


Ben Stiller one week, Frederick Wiseman the next: seems everyone's going to the museum before the administrators have the doors closed for good. With Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis, the team behind the In Search Of... series - which did such a good job explaining the appeal of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to tin-eared neophytes like myself - dip both a toe and a brush into the artworld: a celebration of/promotional tool for the recently reopened gallery in The Hague, it uses the Mauritshuis's most famous inventory item as a Trojan horse to access Vermeer's life and work, and the institution's many other highlights of 17th century Dutch representative art. (The competition for tourism bucks is getting so fierce it may well be that, sooner or later, every gallery winds up with a documentary crew dashing around it, compiling the images that might attract art lovers to cinemas worldwide before being repackaged for sale in the gift shop.)

It's bolstered by producer Phil Grabsky's typically sturdy, time-honoured approach: a close attention to each item under scrutiny, backed up by perceptive textural analysis delivered in talking-head format by curators, critics and Tracy Chevalier alike. Most agree that the Girl's appeal centres on an idea (possibly ideal) of female beauty: even the unschooled eye can appreciate how approachable she is, certainly in comparison with, say, the million-miles-away Mona Lisa - something to do with either the subject's watery eyes and parted lips, or the manner in which she appears to "pop out" from her jet-black surrounds. (The discussion of the painter's rare handling of light chimes absolutely with the hands-on demonstration of last year's Tim's Vermeer.) It could have been as fatally dry as the critic who expires before Vermeer's "View of Delft" in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, but the filmmakers keep finding ways of making their eminent scholarship connect with layman and connoisseur alike, not least via frequent dabs of humour: picking out the lovingly rendered cowdung in the corner of Paulus Potter's "The Bull", for example, or having our narrator note, just after the revelation that Vermeer's wife Catharina Bolnes produced fifteen children, that "Johannes also found time to be a painter". Didn't he just.

Girl with a Pearl Earring and Other Treasures from the Mauritshuis screens in selected cinemas on Tuesday 13th.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

For what it's worth...



Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of December 26-28, 2014: 
 
 
1 (1) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A) **
2 (new) Exodus: Gods and Kings (12A) ***
3 (2) Paddington (PG) ****
4 (new) Annie (PG)
5 (3) Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (PG) **
6 (4) Dumb & Dumber To (15)
7 (new) Unbroken (15) **
8 (5) Penguins of Madagascar (U) ***
9 (6) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12A)
10 (7) P.K. (12A) ***

(source: theguardian.com)
 

My top five:   
1. The Green Ray/Le Rayon Vert [above]
2. Kon-Tiki
3. Guys and Dolls
4. The Theory of Everything
5. Enemy


Top Ten DVD rentals:  
 
 
1 (1) Guardians of the Galaxy (12) **
2 (2) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (3) Mrs. Brown's Boys: D'Movie (15) *
4 (4) Transformers: Age of Extinction (12)
5 (5) 22 Jump Street (15) ***
6 (7) Edge of Tomorrow (12) ***
7 (6) The Expendables 3 (15) 
8 (8) Godzilla (12)
9 (10) Bad Neighbours (15)
10 (9) Hercules (12)
 
(source: lovefilm.com)
                                 
 
My top five:  
1. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
2. The Guest
3. Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For
4. Diplomacy
5. Finding Fela


Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. Dog Day Afternoon (Saturday, ITV1, 11.45pm)
2. The Searchers (Saturday, five, 3.55pm)
3. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Friday, C4, 12.10am)
4. Hue and Cry (Saturday, BBC2, 6.30am)
5. The Titfield Thunderbolt (Saturday, BBC2, 7.50am)