Friday, May 29, 2009

The Men of June

Since I frequently go on about Actresses on this blog, and truthfully tend to lean towards them when choosing my "high priority" rentals, I've been trying to redeem my neglect of the men of cinema. I made a conscious decision a few weeks ago to catch up on the Leading Actor nominees of the 1930's, which range from tyrannical monarchs to alcoholic lawyers to double-persona scientists.

This testerone-heavy experiment has therefore led me to proclaim June as the "Men of the Thirties" month on this blog, in which I'll throw some stats out and analyse the nominated performances that I did manage to catch. As per usual, the eventual winners of the prize are often bewildering but I'll save the bitching until later on.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Murder, He Thinks

Bad Day At Black Rock
Directed by John Sturges
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Anne Francis, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan
Grade: C

Bad Day At Black Rock
is one of those films with a stiff upper lip. Its stolid structure is of the assured ilk that often meant success for the old, simple, effective melodrama, beginning and ending with a train passing through a town; a town embelished in apparent dark secrets and entombed mystery. The film surely pimps this mystery: a tale of a Japanese farmer in an isolated Western American town, who disappeared shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The maths are rational, and for all of the proposed enigma Black Rock rashly and bravely lays pretty much everything on the line. Spencer Tracy's investigative, disabled stranger (he is only capable of using one of his arms) saunters into the town of Black Rock like only Spencer Tracy can, stubbornly aware and remarkably resilient, and the reaction of the townsfolk to his entrance solidifies the vague presumption: Black Rock is a guilty place.

Tracy's attempts to coax the less narrow-minded members of the town to his way of thinking is rather like the task of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, with justice the ultimate goal. But while the courthouse drama dealt with appearance, logic, and politics, Black Rock feels more like a bad episode of Murder, She Wrote, with Spencer as the infallible Jessica Fletcher (or should that be the other way around?), sleuthing and smoothing his way through a murder investigation as if he'd lost a pair of slippers. All the more surprising then when he is roped into a fistfight with Ernest Borgnine, one-handed, and proceeds to make Uma Thurman in Kill Bill look wimpish.

Once Black Rock eradicates the mystery by making it plainly obvious what has happened, it turns into the kind of factional warfare that really requires more emotional penetration. Small-town politics are addressed through the bullying and intimidation of horribly standard villains; racism present but rarely explored beyond fleeting references to World War II. You can see how the town dynamic may have become so volatile, and you can even see the eery backstory of its demise, but the polarisation of morality that dominates Black Rock's final act is disappointing. The emphasis of brains-over-brawn and good-over-evil makes a routine operation out of what should be raw and powerful, fatefully absent of the scathing clash of beliefs that thickened 12 Angry Men. It could do with a bit of the sweat, too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eurovision: 3 Days to Go

The 2009 Eurovision Song Contest is just three days away now (excited, aren't you?) and last night the first semi-final took place to a thunderous atmosphere. I always think this semi-final system makes the Eurovision seem a bit of an arduous process, since I found the one-off/'what on earth are you going to get?' element very appealing. I've already got the Bacardi and mint for the mojito's on Saturday. Eurovision is a serious business, you know.

The Qualifying Countries from Semi-Final 1

Bosnia and Herzegovina

As you would have expected there's a decent balkan contingent in there. I hope this new jury system compensates somewhat but something tells me there's gonna be a lot of confusion come Saturday when they try to explain it. Tonight's line-up sees the first test for Alexander Rybak's "Fairytale" (the huge 13/8 favourite from Norway) as well as that weird "Firefly" song I embedded a few weeks ago.

Bon Soir!

Hottest Track: Camera Obscura - French Navy

Friday, May 08, 2009

Personal Canon: 89. The American Friend (1977)

Directed by Wim Wenders
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Gerard Blain

A discussion of Wim Wender's The American Friend in a Film Studies seminar a couple of years ago instigated a bit of an argument. My suggestion of a gay subtext in the film went down like a lead balloon, to which I responded defensively -- as anyone would. All I know is that my gaydar was going like the clappers all the way through The American Friend, which is adapted from one of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels. Ripley has a pretty ambiguous sexuality himself -- even if Highsmith has publicly denied that he's gay she more than hints that he's a dabbler.

Regardless, The American Friend feels oddly weighty and harsh in its derelict urban setting, and Wenders' direction often accentuates the grime of workshops and bedrooms through heavy tinting and intent close-ups. It's all so sparse: the broken community of the film's modest amount of characters and settings alluding to the disarray of international relations, culture clashes, and the pummelled identity of a people lost to fascism. Bruno Ganz's illness-stricken German picture-framer forms a friendship with a dealer of forged art (Dennis Hopper as the aforementioned Ripley), who in turn mentions to gangland friends that the German would make a good hitman.

Jonathan Lynn's hilarious biting satire Clue offers up a mini-revelation in the form of the line, "Why should the police come? Nobody's called them.". The power of suggestion similarly takes hold in The American Friend, and the willingness of woodworker Jonathan to accept such suggestion is rather like the assuming role of Germany in the Hitler years. This suggestion is also embodied by the bravely-alienating flirtation between Jonathan and Ripley, who don't quite reach the prick-teasing efforts of Jude Law and Michael Caine in the recent Sleuth, but certainly more than hint that they're pining for one another. Since The American Friend bears a lot of the hallmarks of 70's crime drama's like The French Connection, its remarkable that it has time to fully integrate the sexual endeavours and rich politics: a potent mix.