Saturday, August 3, 2013

Short Take: The Impossible

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Impossible, directed by J. A. Bayona from a script credited to Sergio G. Sánchez, is an earnest disaster-genre melodrama. The setting is Thailand in December 2004, when a massive tsunami swamped the Indian Ocean coastline in several countries. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as a vacationing British couple who were caught in the flooding with their three young sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergrast). The production values are first-rate, and Bayona does a fine job of staging the action and pacing the film. The scenes featuring Watts and Holland (who plays the oldest son) trying to make their way through the flooded landscape are especially gripping. The depiction of the tsunami as it strikes the resort where the family is staying is also quite impressive. But the script isn’t very imaginative. It simply follows the family members as they become (repeatedly) separated and reunited. One wishes the filmmakers had put together a more substantial story. One may also be put off by the use of WASP characters to dramatize a catastrophe whose victims (over 200,000 killed) were almost entirely South Asian. Watts and McGregor give good performances in rather banal roles. The most compelling member of the cast is Tom Holland, who completely catches the viewer up in the travails of a child forced to rise to the physical and emotional challenges of the situation. The film is based on the account of María Belón, a Spanish woman whose family survived the tsunami. The fine cinematography is by Óscar Faura.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Short Take: Personal Best

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

With films such as Chinatown, Shampoo, and The Last Detail to his credit, Robert Towne is rightly considered one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood history. But with Personal Best, his engaging 1982 directorial debut, he handled the project as a director’s film. He doesn’t appear to have started with a fleshed-out screenplay. The film’s story--the relationship of two track-and-field athletes (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly) over the four years they spend training for the 1980 Summer Olympics--is rather slight. There’s an offhand, casual feel to the dialogue, and the only notable suspense comes from the question of how Towne will handle the anticlimactic ending. (The United States and several other countries boycotted the Moscow-hosted 1980 games, so the athletes trained for a goal they were not allowed to realize.) Towne’s approach to the film was to use the script as a bare-bones foundation; he seems to have discovered the film in the shooting and shaped it in the editing. The picture has a loose, improvisatory feel. Towne is also enamored with the physicality of the athletes. He builds whole scenes out of the drama of their exertions and repose. He also doesn't hide his admiration for their physical beauty. The admiration is platonic, though; there’s nothing prurient about his tone. His tastefulness extends to his handling of the relationship of the Hemingway and Donnelly characters, who are romantically involved for most of the film. The film was unusual for its time; Towne treats lesbianism as no big deal. He isn’t judgmental, and he doesn’t congratulate himself on the enlightenment of his portrayal. Romantic inclinations are depicted as just another aspect of the women’s characters. Overall, the film is a fresh and lively effort. It holds up quite well over three decades after its release. Scott Glenn co-stars as the women's coach. The cinematography is by Michael Chapman.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Short Take: Les Bonnes femmes

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Les Bonnes femmes, French director Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, is a gem. It embodies the spirit of French New Wave filmmaking as much as the best early efforts of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. There’s not much in the way of plot. The film is an episodic, slice-of-life portrayal of four young women who work at a small Paris appliance store. They are a compelling bunch. Ginette (Stéphane Audran) is an aspiring singer who is terrified of being judged for her ambitions. Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is engaged, and her upper-class fiancé is anxious about how well she’ll fit in with his family. Jane (Bernadette Lafont) is a bored party girl who often gets in over her head with men. Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is a shy romantic whose poor judgment with the opposite sex ends in tragedy. Chabrol’s approach in this picture is very different from the tightly controlled, even bloodless style he became known for. The picture embraces spontaneity. It is energetic and freewheeling, and one is completely caught up in the personalities of the four women. The jazzy ambience carries one through the most mundane scenes, such as a lunchtime visit to the zoo, as well as the unfortunately pulpy climax. All four actresses give strong performances, but if there’s a standout, it’s probably Stéphane Audran. The scenes of her facing her fears about singing onstage are probably the most urgent in the film. The screenplay is credited to Chabrol and Paul Gégauff. Henri Decaë provided the handsome documentary-style cinematography.