Category Archives: ★★★½

Jour de fête (1949, Jacques Tati)

It’s about fifteen minutes before lead (and director) Jacques Tati appears in Jour de fête. The film opens with a travelling fair arriving at its destination and starting to set up. Paul Frankeur and Guy Decomble are the two main fair workers–actually they’re the only fair workers with anything to do except Santa Relli as Decomble’s wife. Besides starting to set up the merry-go-round, Decomble has time to make eyes at local girl Maine Vallée. Delcassan plays another resident, an old woman who narrates the goings on for the benefit of the audience–and, presumably, the goat she’s always got with her. The device is rather charming. Tati usually employs long shots, letting the action play out gradually, individual elements building until they intersect–for example, Tati, as actor, gets introduced in dialogue when Relli sends Decomble to mail a letter instead of making eyes at Vallée.

Jean Yatove’s music perfectly accompanies the gentle action.

Tati–as actor–arrives as some men are trying to put up a pole for the fair. Decomble and Frankeur are on the sidelines, offering unhelpful commentary, then draft Tati into action. He’s a bicycle postman, he gets around, he should know how to put up a pole. For most of the film, Jour is a series of intricately connected vingettes. Tati and cowriters Henri Marquet and René Wheeler occasionally pause one vignette to move on to another–Tati’s postman is easily distracted, whether by putting up a pole or getting blasted at the café, making the movements organic.

There’s a lot of physical comedy and callbacks to previous gags. Tati introduces himself biking into town and battling a bee. As he moves, in the distance, across the frame, the bee jumps forward to pester the farmer who’s in the foreground of the shot, before returning to Tati as the bicycle moves past the farmer. There’s a lot of subtle, inventive shots. There are also some obvious sight gags, which usually work–and manage to be charming thanks to the filmmaking and, particularly, the music–but are still kind of cheap.

After introducing Tati’s postman and getting the fair setup on track, the film jumps ahead a bit–with Delcassan offering some more commentary–as the townspeople head to square for the fair, which includes a cinema. The cinema becomes important later. Before it does, however, there’s a lot more with Tati. He can’t refuse the multiple invitations to drink at the café, culminating in Decomble and Frankeur–in a genial malice–getting him incredibly drunk. Sober, Tati’s postman is scatterbrained. Blasted, he’s wholly incompetent.

In between some of the drinking, Tati sees a short film in the cinema showing the U.S. postal service, which implements all the latest technology to deliver the mail. Latest technology like helicopters and skydivers and stunt motorcycles. How can the French compete. Especially since Tati spends the rest of the day in the bar before heading out at night to finish his deliveries. The townspeople have gone to bed, leading to multiple complications, before Tati just passes out drunk.

The next day, however, he’s invigorated and ready to show off how fast he can deliver the post. No surprise, Decomble and Frankeur have given him multiple bad ideas on how he can increase his efficiency.

Tati’s wild ride–which includes some incredible physical comedy and elaborate action direction–happens about an hour into the film’s ninety minute runtime. It doesn’t take the whole last third, but most of it. It’s always inventive, always amusing (or better), but somewhat detached from the rest of the film. Jour’s no longer about the townspeople or the fair, now it’s all Tati and the hyper-speed mail delivery.

Tati, as director, brings it all together for the finish but far less organically than anything else in the picture. The long sequence works–Tati’s hitting familiar places populated by now familiar faces–but it doesn’t fit with the rest. The wrap-up is well-executed, effective, closes all the open threads, but is far from seamless. It treats Tati’s wild ride as a tangent, while the rest of the film built up to the wild ride as though it were the intended result.

So a disjointed–while still more than adequate–finish.

Wonderful direction from Tati throughout. Great composition, great pacing, whether he’s setting up for comedy or narrative–though, really, it’s always both. Mostly excellent cinematography from Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot. The day-for-night is somewhat lacking but the content makes up for it. Similarly, Marcel Morreau’s editing only has any hiccups when they’re trying to get goats and chickens to behave.

Jour de fête is superb. Sure, the last third has its problems, but they’re masterfully, sublimely executed problems.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tati; written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and René Wheeler; directors of photography, Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot; edited by Marcel Morreau; music by Jean Yatove; produced by Fred Orain and André Paulvé; released by DisCina.

Starring Jacques Tati (François), Guy Decomble (Roger), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Jacques Beauvais (Bondu), Santa Relli (Germaine), Maine Vallée (Jeannette), and Delcassan (Old biddy).


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The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

The Apartment does whatever it can to remain a dramatic comedy when it shouldn’t be anymore. And sort of isn’t. When the film shifts into real drama, there’s no going back. Director Wilder gets it too. The film has a good comedy opening, a breathtaking dramatic middle, and a decent comedy end. The comedy in the opening and the end is very different. The opening comedy is sort of bemused–oh, isn’t it funny how office drone Jack Lemmon gets into management because he lends out his apartment to company managers to use with their girlfriends. You know, away from the wives.

Now, there’s drama of some kind forecast in the opening comedy. The comedy, drama, and comedy split doesn’t exactly fit the three acts. But is sort of shoe-horned to fit. Anyway. There’s some inevitable character drama forecast during the comedy. Lemmon’s got a crush on elevator girl and confirmed non-dater Shirley MacLaine. Turns out she’s not a non-dater, she’s just more discreet than the rest of the office staff. And by office staff, there are thousands of employees. An absurd number of them, actually, for the space. Because before The Apartment becomes a romantic pursuit comedy, it’s a modern office comedy.

Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do pretty well at the modern office comedy. It all hinges on Lemmon, who’s really got to do everything for twenty-five minutes. It’s a two-hour and change film. So the first fifth is all Lemmon and the modern office comedy involving his apartment. MacLaine shows up, but she’s just another piece of the office comedy.

It’s when Lemmon finally gets busted and big boss Fred MacMurray demands use of The Apartment does the film start moving. All the setup is Lemmon–quite spectacularly–spinning his wheels. There’s no narrative drive to Lemmon’s promotion goals because it’s unclear they’re goals. Certainly why they’d be goals. Lemmon’s character is the force of his personality and performance. It isn’t until the scene with MacMurray Lemmon has to do anything different. That scene changes the whole movie.

Then there’s sort of this mini-first act to the dramatic material, moving the film away from the comedy, bringing in MacLaine’s story. Told in exposition. There’s a lot of character revelations through exposition in The Apartment and they’re often spectacular, but never explored. Lemmon and MacLaine never get to develop in their scenes together. They spend most of the dramatic middle together. The middle of The Apartment is this short film within the film, where the direction changes, the script changes, the performances change.

And the middle is wonderful. Both Lemmon and MacLaine are fantastic. They have this parallel development arc. Lemmon’s falling for MacLaine, MacLaine’s getting back together with MacMurray. There are dramatic stakes involved; the film doesn’t prepare for them. Wilder and Diamond have some absurdism at the beginning, then they’ve got some shock value. But all very mild. The script relies on these sturdy narrative devices, but always carefully; making sure they never creak.

Wilder’s direction is outstanding. He, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, and editor Daniel Mandell create a seamless visual experience. So seamless when it detaches from Lemmon and MacLaine in the last third, the second comedy section, it does so ahead of the story. The filmmaking and the writing are both phenomenal. Even when The Apartment is skipping character development for these short, tragic, cynically comedic set pieces in the last third. Wilder and Diamond make the film into a drama–almost entirely straight drama–in the middle, then try to avoid having to do a dramatic finish.

Because they want to do the romantic comedy, which is cute–Lemmon and MacLaine are cute, MacMurray’s great as the sleazebag boss–but they haven’t really set up. There are some big Lemmon revelations in the finale and they don’t fit with the rest of the character. Not how Wilder and Diamond handled him in the opening. The script also has a problem with MacLaine’s naiveté. Sometimes she has so much she couldn’t have gotten to where she’s gotten. She also gets some big revelations, but in the middle dramatic area–so not played for comedy like Lemmon’s later revelations–and they scuff with some of the earlier character development; the finale could fix it. But doesn’t. Because as much as the final third distances itself from Lemmon, it abandons MacLaine.

And when she is in it, Wilder and Diamond keep her as flat as possible. It’s very strange. The finale just feels perfunctory. Technically inspired, beautifully written, but perfunctory. The film stops worrying about its characters and concentrates on the most efficient way to finish things up.

The acting’s all great. Lemmon, MacLaine, MacMurray (whose paper thin character never gets any thicker). David Lewis and Ray Walston are awesome as a couple of Lemmon’s apartment leches. Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens are Lemmon’s neighbors, who think he’s a sex addict with all the activity in his apartment; they play a big part in the middle. They go from being bit comedy background to this spectacular dramatic support.

Hope Holiday is hilarious. It’s kind of an extended cameo; the part’s beautifully written and Holiday’s fantastic. The other thing about The Apartment is how little Wilder and Diamond try in the final section. They employ these particular, different, precise narrative devices–always beautifully executed–and then they give up on trying for new ones in the finale.

Edie Adams is good as MacMurray’s secretary. She too goes from background to… well, not support, but also not background. The way the script makes room for bigger parts for the characters is another phenomenal quality of it. And another one the finale ignores.

The Apartment is rather frustrating. It’s spectacular film. Masterfully, exquisitely produced. But still disappointing. It pulls off this great transition from comedy to drama and then shrugs at the transition back. It never runs out of enthusiasm just ambition.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by United Artists.

Starring Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D. Sheldrake), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Dreyfuss), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Naomi Stevens (Mrs. Mildred Dreyfuss), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Johnny Seven (Karl Matuschka), and Hope Holiday (Mrs. Margie MacDougall).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE GREATEST FILM I'VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)

What’s particularly stunning about Get Out is how nimble director (and writer) Peele gets with the protagonist, Daniel Kaluuya, and the narrative distance to him. Peele’s very patient with his cuts. Lots of long shots, establishing what Kaluuya is seeing (as well as the audience); the audience has no point of view outside Kaluuya. Then the film gets to the third act and Peele completely changes up the point of view. He sort of changes protagonists for ten minutes or so, long enough to ratch up some more suspense; it also serves to open up Get Out. Peele doesn’t save the reveal for the last moments, he lets poor Kaluuya live through it, because–while the film’s suspense horror and Kaluuya sort of a damoiseau at times, he’s still the protagonist. And it’s kind of an action movie. Kind of.

It’s also a terrifying social commentary comedy.

Kaluuya and girlfriend Allison Williams are in the country visiting her family. He’s meeting them for the first time. He’s Black, she’s white. She assures him it won’t be an issue with her progressive family; Obama-loving dad Bradley Whitford, psychiatrist mom Catherine Keener, and creep brother Caleb Landry Jones. Whitford bonds with Kaluuya thanks to his social awareness, Keener’s accepting but doesn’t like Kaluuya smoking and wants to hypnotize it out of him, Jones wants to fight him. Oh, and then it turns out the family has some extremely docile and socially awkward Black servants, who (rightfully) weird out Kaluuya.

But he’s got Williams and she’s on his side and, as things get weirder and weirder, even she starts to think maybe they ought to head home. Of course, they’re her family so she’s not on Kaluuya’s side when he’s just been hypnotized against his will by mom Keener or fondled by party guests (turns out Williams forget she was bringing him home on a big party weekend), it takes until the only other black guy (Lakeith Stanfield) at the party–not a servant, anyway–kind of flips out and attacks Kaluuya.

The film runs an hour and forty-five minutes. The party probably doesn’t finish up until seventy minutes in, with Kaluuya unintentionally discovering the secrets of his visit after it’s over. Get Out takes place over five days at most, with most of the runtime dedicated to the first two days, which is Kaluuya and Williams’s arrival and then the party the next day. Those first two days of present action are creepy, disturbing–the movie opens with a Black man, lost in suburbia, attacked so Peele gets the audience on edge before his leading man even appears on screen–and they’re also funny, they’re also (socially) gross. Kaluuya gives a fantastic performance; he holds it all together.

And then, all of a sudden, the movie shifts entirely over to his best friend and dog sitter, TSA agent extraordinaire Lil Rel Howery, trying to figure out what’s going on with Kaluuya’s weird weekend.

Taking the film away from Kaluuya and letting Howery do a bunch of exposition does a few things. Like I said before, it ratchets up the tension. It also has some humorous relief valves, because even though the audience knows some of what’s going on, Howery’s investigation doesn’t have any of those details. It just perturbs on Howery’s–sometimes hilarious–concern. Including a fun cameo from Erika Alexander as a missing persons detective.

The conclusion mixes suspense, horror, sci-fi, action, and comedy. Peele knows how to pace all the different genres. Get Out’s not a kitchen sink, all those different genre approaches work in conjunction. He and editor Gregory Plotkin do a magnificent job with the film’s cutting; Peele and cinematographer Toby Oliver always have these precise shots and Plotkin cuts them just right. Michael Abels’s score is fantastic (and essential) too.

All of the acting is good. Even Keener, who’s the least effective in the film–she’s always something of a creep. Whitford can be terrifying, but he also can be really funny. Peele’s direction of the supporting cast is phenomenal; he can follow them around for five minutes, with them running the scenes (giving Kaluuya a tour, for example), but then it turns out he’s just been showcasing Kaluuya’s perception of them. Get Out’s exceptionally well-made.

Besides Kaluuya, Williams and Howery give the best performances. Once the party hits and there are all sorts of new people coming on screen, getting introduced, Whitford, Keener, and (thankfully because he’s such an unpleasant character) Jones become background. It’s just Kaluuya, experiencing all these weird, indescribably suspicious white people, and then checking in with Williams about it.

Peele’s ambitions with the film are matter-of-fact. He’s making a suspense thriller with some humor and some social commentary. The social commentary he does make is more potentially disturbing than anything the film actually discusses. There’s no obvious, “aha they’re racist” moment. It’s far more disturbing, even at the connotation level where Peele keeps it throughout. It’s unspoken observations, sometimes passed between Kaluuya and Williams–which makes the unspoken observations passed between Kaluuya and Whitford even crazier after the reveal. It’s delicate. Get Out is a very, very delicate and precise film.

Even in its action movie conclusion, where Peele decides to reward the audience since it turns out he doesn’t have a particularly deep message with the narrative. Get Out is, while disturbing and scary and grody, entertainment. It’s superior entertainment, masterfully produced, and often exquisitely acted.

Even if Keener and Jones do utterly lack subtext; they’re not bad, their characters aren’t thin, their performances are just obvious. Kaluuya, Williams, and Howery easily make up for them.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jordan Peele; director of photography, Toby Oliver; edited by Gregory Plotkin; music by Michael Abels; production designer, Rusty Smith; produced by Jason Blum, Sean McKittrick, and Peele; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya (Chris), Allison Williams (Rose), Lil Rel Howery (Rod), Bradley Whitford (Dean), Catherine Keener (Missy), Caleb Landry Jones (Jeremy), Betty Gabriel (Georgina), Marcus Henderson (Walter), Lakeith Stanfield (Logan), Stephen Root (Jim Hudson), and Erika Alexander (Detective Latoya).


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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends up being about three criminals–of varying type–hunting down some stolen Confederate gold. But that Confederate gold story line takes a break after getting setup in the first ten minutes–for almost an hour of the two and a half hour plus film–so Good, the Bad and the Ugly can introduce its protagonist and his antagonist. Eli Wallach, playing the Ugly, is the protagonist. Clint Eastwood, the Good, is the antagonist. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, but he doesn’t really figure in until the second hour.

Wallach’s a criminal. Eastwood’s a bounty hunter. Only they’ve got a scheme worked out where Eastwood will bring Wallach in, collect the bounty, then save him from hanging. Only things go bad in their partnership, partially because Wallach’s such a scumbag, partially because Eastwood’s greedy. The film follows Wallach, with Eastwood getting maybe five scenes to himself away from Wallach. And at least two of them are Eastwood with Van Cleef. Eastwood’s practically a special guest star in the film, despite being top-billed.

The film opens with vingettes setting up the three characters. Well, not Eastwood. His setup vingette is a continuation of Wallach’s. Van Cleef’s vingette introduces the missing Confederate gold. He then gets some occasional investigation scenes before disappearing for a half hour or so. The film’s got to move Wallach and Eastwood into position to intersect with the missing gold plot line. Through exceptional plot contrivance.

It’s fine though, because Good, the Bad and the Ugly can get away with plot contrivance. Director Leone’s style and Wallach and Eastwood’s performances (more Wallach, Eastwood just has to be charming) can carry it through. There’s a lot of humor–Wallach’s such an abject bastard he’s lovable–and some rather excellent action scenes.

But then, in the second hour, Good, the Bad and the Ugly changes completely. It’s no longer a Western with Civil War trappings, it’s a Civil War picture with Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef shoehorned in. Even if Van Cleef’s working as a Union prison camp sergeant hoping to get a line on that missing gold. During that sequence, which involves Van Cleef’s enforcer (Mario Brega) viciously beating Wallach for information, while the Confederate soldiers play a song to cover the noise, Leone transitions from making that Western to the Civil War picture.

Only he still then follows the plot of that Western quest for gold, gunfighters, bandits, doublecrosses. But until the end of the film, none of the non-Civil War stuff (save Wallach’s solo hilarities) can compare to what Leone’s doing with the Civil War stuff. The prison camp sequence is jarring and affecting, it’s also nothing compared to what Leone’s got coming.

There’s a shorter sequence involving Eastwood and Wallach coming upon a Union encampment. They’re on one side of the river, the Confederates are on the other. They’re fighting over the bridge. The Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè, in what’s got to be one of the best dubbed performances ever) is a drunk, crushed under the weight of sending his men to needlessly die twice a day for a bridge he wishes he could destroy.

If Eastwood had a real character arc, this sequence would kick off its final stage. He doesn’t though, but the movie uses him like he does and–for a while–gets to pretend it’s a thoughtful look at the two bandits encountering an entirely different kind of violence than they’re used to experiencing. It doesn’t even last as long as Eastwood and Wallach are at the Union camp, but it’s spectacular. It picks up again a little when they continue on their way to the inevitable showdown over the gold; just for Eastwood though. The film’s back to treating Wallach as the lovable bastard.

The Civil War material is passionate–with the Ennio Morricone score having a different, more romantic tone than the Western action sequences–and technically ambitious in terms of scale. The Western action sequences (for the most part, Eastwood and Wallach taking on Van Cleef’s thugs is a confused mix of the two styles) are a glorious mix of composition, editing, music, and photography. The cemetery-set finale, with Van Cleef, Eastwood, and Wallach in a standoff, the cuts getting more rapid between their faces, the tension (and music) intensifying with each cut, is a fantastic style culmination.

It’d be even better if Leone could’ve somehow figured a way to integrate the film’s differing tones. He doesn’t even try. He toggles away from the war rumination and back to the Western action. It’s great action. It’s just nowhere near as special (or as ambitious) as that war rumination.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a technical marvel, with some great performances–Wallach, Van Cleef, Giuffrè–and superior photography, editing, and music. Eastwood’s perfectly good, he just doesn’t get any material. Visually, Wallach’s his stooge. Narratively, with the two Civil War reaction exceptions towards the end, Eastwood’s Wallach’s stooge. Van Cleef isn’t in it enough to be distinct to the narrative, his vicious, brutal performance does wonders what little he does get.

In the supporting roles, Giuffrè is the standout, but there are some other strong ones. Despite a large cast, the supporting players don’t get a lot of material. Brega’s a great villain, Antonio Molino Rojo has a good scene as Van Cleef’s knowing commanding officer, and Enzo Petito has a swell single scene as one of the unfortunates who encounters Wallach. And Luigi Pistilli has a good scene as Wallach’s brother; it’s the two and a half hour film’s single attempt at character development.

Morricone’s score, both for the Western action and Civil War sequences, is singular. Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli’s editing is glorious. Leone’s composition, ably facilitated by Tonino Delli Colli, is excellent. Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an outstanding success.

It’s just nowhere near as ambitious as it ought to be, as Leone seems to want to make it to be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Leone; screenplay by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone, based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone; director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Carlo Simi; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; released by Produzioni Europee Associate.

Starring Eli Wallach (Tuco), Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), Aldo Giuffrè (Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Cpl. Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramirez), Antonio Molino Rojo (Capt. Harper), Enzo Petito (Storekeeper), and Antonio Casale (Bill Carson).


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