Lubitsch, "Hadewijch," "The Illusionist," More

"What is the famed 'Lubitsch touch' if not the quiet thrill of being in on the joke?" asks Matthew Connolly in Slant. "The director's penchant for sly elisions — the knowing pan away from imminent hanky-panky or the arch relish of his double entendres — rests upon an implicit understanding between filmmaker and viewer, a trust that, coming from such a sophisticated source, feels like a gift unto itself. He takes for granted not only a worldly knowledge of sex, romance, class, and the multitude of ways that adults so royally mix them up, but an attitude toward such foibles that is at once wry and empathetic. This cocktail of urbane compassion is a very specific blend (the eye must roll in bemusement, but also twinkle in self-recognition); or, rather, it feels specific when you watch a Lubitsch film, his observations on human experience as seemingly candid as a wicked bon mot murmured into your ear above the din of a cocktail party."

Cluny Brown opens today for a week-long run at New York's Film Forum. "Ernst Lubitsch's last completed film, from 1946, looks back to the prewar year of 1938 to take stock of the postwar world and to show how it got that way," writes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "The story concerns Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), a Czechoslovakian professor and anti-Fascist, who takes refuge in London and then is invited to an English country manor, where his liberal ironies shake up the staid household. He bonds with the title character (Jennifer Jones), one of the maids, a plumber's nubile niece, who likes nothing better than to unblock stopped-up drains with 'one good bang' — just one of the movie's many gleefully risqué allusions."

For Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich, Lubitsch "keeps things light and frothy, even as some of the story's knottier themes pierce you to the core; at its heart, this is a tale of two misfits gallivanting through a world about to go mad. So go feed some squirrels to the nuts. This is as good as movies get."

Just the other day, Peter Bogdanovich revisited Ninotchka (1939), "which ranks well among the enduring delights of American cinema, yet virtually all its makers were heavily accented Europeans: a Swedish superstar, Greta Garbo; a Polish-German director-producer, Ernst Lubitsch; two Viennese scenarists, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch; a Hungarian story-writer, Melchoir Lengyel; a German composer, Werner Heymann; Prussian, Hungarian and German supporting actors, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi, and Sig Ruman. While the picture is about Russian aristocrats and communists (seduced by the Western world) in Paris, it was shot entirely in Culver City, California, and the closest anyone got to Russia was co-star Melvyn Douglas's father, a Russian-born concert pianist.... Can anyone argue, therefore, that a great part of the golden age of American film — from the 20a through the 50s — was not enormously influenced by the vigorous and various talents from abroad?"

And AO Scott's pick of the week for the New York Times is The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

Update, 12/25: "Lubitsch again makes a film so enjoyable and clever that we too feel like we're getting away with something," writes Nicolas Rapold for Artforum. "Wilde is as much a touchstone as Wodehouse, given the sustained double-entendre and satire going on, and part of the secret to Cluny Brown's effortlessness is the execution of its impeccable writing by one of the era's best comedy ensembles."





"Enthusiasm is to be expected from a postulant nun, but there are worries about [Céline Vel Hadewijch] (Julie Sokolowski)," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "Fingers knotted around her crucifix, surrendering her starvation diet of bread crusts to the sparrows, practicing self-mortification (unseen) — such single-minded ardency draws the disapproval of mother superior, who calls the girl 'a caricature of a nun,' and sends her out to rediscover herself in the world.... Teasing at length the viewer's protective instinct toward Céline, who has no sense of self-preservation of her own, the film eventually jerks a hard turn, reminding us that we should fear innocence as much as fear for it. Céline drifts toward... Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who leads curiously clandestine Koran discussions in the back of a kebab shop. Her ardor discouraged by her mother church, Céline doesn't convert per se, but listens closely when Nassir's calm theological discussions reach struggle — la lutte, jihad — something palpable that might bring her palpably closer to God."

"Arriving at this point via a slow-building series of carefully composed, taciturn images — including overcast landscapes and verdant refuges — French director Bruno Dumont constructs his latest film, Hadewijch (2009), in typically patient and ominous fashion, making the dramatic turn in his protagonist's life plausible as well as palpable." Michael Joshua Rowin for Artforum: "And following the theme of the filmmaker's American desert nightmare Twentynine Palms (2003) and battlefield psychodrama Flanders (2006), Hadewijch completes a sort of trilogy of brooding considerations of violence, faith, sexuality, and warring ideologies in the post-9/11 world. But Hadewijch is nonetheless a different beast from Dumont's prior work, making muted sadness its dominant tone alongside the disturbing provocation carried over from Twentynine Palms and L'Humanité (1999)."

More from Mark Asch (L), Richard Brody (New Yorker), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Stephen Holden (NYT), James van Maanen and Armond White (New York Press). Glenn Kenny talks with Dumont and Sokolowski. More interviews with Dumont: Tom Hall (Hammer to Nail) and Damon Smith (Filmmaker). At the IFC Center in New York. Thursday of last week, by the way, was Bruno Dumont Day at DC's.

 

OPENING TOMORROW


"The threat of obsolescence pervades every aspect of The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet's follow up to The Triplets of Belleville," writes Chris Wisniewski at Reverse Shot. "A defiantly 2D, hand-drawn cartoon in a 3D CG world, The Illusionist tells the story of an over-the-hill magician who, at the end of the 1950s, finds himself increasingly irrelevant to audiences, a dying breed of performer who cannot compete with the upheaval the rock-and-roll 60s are about to usher in.... Chomet's film is based on a 50-year-old screenplay by Jacques Tati, and there is a simpatico quality to the pairing. Though Tati demonstrated true mastery of sound design, his hilarious send-ups of ultra-modern French society in movies like Playtime and Mon oncle (Chomet's key touchtone) have a retro-sensibility; his dialogue-free films are Chaplin- or Keaton-esque oddities that have one foot in the silent era, despite — and also because of — their aural richness.... Aesthetically and structurally, The Illusionist is wonderfully anachronistic, a near masterpiece of handcrafted animation and visual storytelling."





For Nick Schager, "the film ultimately finds itself quite a ways away from comedy, and be it via two peripheral performers' devolution into destitution, or a finale of heartbreaking abandonment (of tricks, dreams, loved ones and the past), The Illusionist's rending, if slight, saga proves mired in an adult sense of melancholic loneliness and loss."

"The illusionist — whether he's pulling a string of lights from his mouth or selling brassieres in shop windows — is the film's true charm," finds Manohla Dargis in the NYT. After she saw The Illusionist, she "learned that it has been sharply criticized by Tati's grandson, Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, who claims that the story was inspired by Tati's guilt over abandoning his daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne, Mr McDonald's mother. His complaints have been circulated in the British news media, and in May Roger Ebert posted a long letter in which Mr McDonald calls The Illusionist a 'grotesque eclectic nostalgic homage to its author.' His pain is palpable. But to see The Illusionist exclusively as a Jacques Tati film — to read it only through his biography or, as regrettably, to see it, hoping for a new Tati — is to disregard the actual extant film. Mr Chomet, as evident from The Triplets of Belleville, is not Tati (no one else is), but rather his own artist."

More from J Hoberman (Voice), Elise Nakhnikian (L), Matt Singer (IFC), Bill Weber (Slant, 3.5/4) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6/10). Earlier: David Cairns here in The Daily Notebook. Update, 12/26: More from Richard Corliss (Time), William Goss (Cinematical), Susan King (Los Angeles Times) and Scott Tobias (NPR).

One out of a possible five stars for Gulliver's Travels from Time Out New York's David Fear: "It's a good bet that no one — literary scholars, college professors, Tenacious D fanatics — was expecting this Jack Black star vehicle to be a to-the-letter adaptation of Jonathan Swift's comedic novel about a seaman stumbling upon exotic civilizations great and small.... But no amount of plot tweaks (Gulliver is now a mail-room slacker trying to impress Amanda Peet's travel editor; there will be robots), pop-culture references, 3D retro-conversions or set pieces involving gigantic streams of piss can save such an embarrassing misfire."

The New York Times' AO Scott has decided to write his review in the form of an email to himself from Jonathan Swift. For example: "Now, my good Sir, I hope I do not err in venturing a Comparison. Perhaps you are familiar with Night at the Museum? Indeed, I observe that you have offered learned Commentary on its second Episode, Battle of the Smithsonian — though I confess that I was unable to discern from your Prose whether it met with your full Approbation. To put the matter briefly: This is more or less like That (which also issued from the mighty hand of The News Corporation) insofar as it offers agreeable Novelties and inoffensive jests."

More from Derek Adams (Time Out London, 2/5) Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 2/5), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 1/4), Michelle Orange (Movieline, 7.5/10), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph) and Paul Schrodt (Slant, 1.5/4). Sarah Phillips talks with Billy Connolly for the Guardian (video, 4'14").

 

LISTS AND AWARDS


"No single film emerged as a runaway favorite in SF360.org's survey of critics, exhibitors, cinephiles and filmmakers," notes Susan Gerhard, introducing a first batch of two dozen lists. "In the days that come, look for the other Bay Area best lists, memorable moments and thoughts on the film trends of 2010."

Ioncinema editor Eric Lavallee has "asked our team of world film correspondents to dish out their top 5 films of the year from their respective countries." The lists so far: Marin Apostol (Romania), Christine Davila (Mexico), Tony Kitchen (South Korea), Thomas Taborsky (Germany) and Eithan Weitz (Israel).

"Six Brits, three Americans, and a Frenchman make up the shortlist for this year's Guardian first film award, and their work spans almost every genre imaginable." Andrew Pulver introduces the nominees.

The Independent's Anthony Quinn picks his five favorite films of the year.

In the New York Times Magazine's annual special issue, "The Lives They Lived," Daphne Merkin remembers Lynn Redgrave; Anthony Giardina, Robert Culp.

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