The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – 1976

Director – John Cassavetes

Starring – Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Timothy Carey

Film noir, was a movement in film, typified by stark, harsh imagery, criminal or crime elements, and an overwhelming sense of foreboding and unease.  This particular style of film saw its birth from out of the optimism and idealism of American life in the post World War 2 era.  The growing unrest Americans were feeling in the early 50s took root in the realization that this feeling of elation wouldn’t last forever, and that the unified nationalism that got people through the war was finite.  This ended up creeping into the social consciousness and eventually made its way out to popular culture, saturating the works with an often disaffected outlook on life that celebrated the strength and ingenuity of the bandit or gangster just as much as it did the policeman or community leader.

As the artists and tradespeople began to realize what it was and gave a name to it, the label of film noir, and all the gravity that came with it, came to be.  Film noir became a tool, much like German expressionism, a visual and atmospheric means of conveying mood and the general psyche of a set of characters.  All through the 60’s, the power of the medium allowed for a more rapid reach to a more and more diverse audience.  Anti-heroes became just heroes, and as such, became more appealing to a wider and wider set of audiences.  These racy and taboo subjects became sought after by the masses, and eventually, gave way to studio sanctioned artistic freedom and championed the subversive nature of a lot of the best films of the 70s.

Films known for challenging the system and pioneering the path between commercial success and artistic integrity are the hallmark of the 1970s, and as such a filmic meeting of the methods and underlying themes that define film noir, with the freedom and influences indicative of the 70s, should be astoundingly and amazingly good.  Add in an artistic, talented actor with a career worth of standout film performances as the director, and this should have been gangbusters. Well, it isn’t, and it wasn’t.

For a film with a very simple, straight forward plot, (man over-extends himself, man runs afoul of shady characters, man struggles to make it right while trying to stay alive) it seems only necessary that crafting and growing the characters would be the obvious emphasis of the film.  Ideally the result would be a lean, mean story, free of excess frills and self-serving script.  As it turns out, however, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a bloated, meandering mess from start to finish, and If you thought that my intro for this review was not only unnecessarily long but also more than a little over proud of itself, then you will be well prepared for what this film has to offer.

Even by 1976, John Cassavetes was an old hand at film work. A talented character actor, Cassavetes played pivotal roles in some of my very favorite films, from Rosemary’s Baby, to The Dirty Dozen, to the fantastically underrated remake of The Killers.  As a director, he is an aimless mess.  He fetishizes and takes pleasure in watching his characters struggle, and ultimately fail to connect with one another as they drift through the narrow, tiny little lives that they lead.  It seems to me that these are people who are so uncomfortable in their own skin that their only chance of survival is to band together and treat life as a war of attrition.  Success for them, in any small measure is nearly impossible, and as such their misery and lack of ambition defines them.  They are effectively one-dimensional personifications of a stick in the mud, or a wet blanket.

None of the charisma or energy that actors like Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel bring to their other work, shows through here.  Perhaps most tragically, Cassavetes himself seemed to be so captivated by the lives of characters along these lines that he steeped himself in this same kind of oppressive, joylessness that became the calling card of his directing career.  Where as Gazzara and Cassel could move on to other projects, and try on other characters, Cassavetes mired himself in films like Shadows, Faces, and Woman Under the Influence, (the latter two also made it on this list, only God knows why).  The terrible part is that I’ve only seen clips of his other directorial efforts, and I was immediately turned off.  I had to force myself to sit through this one, all the while hating the terrible club performances, the clunky “natural” dialog (which by the way, just seemed un-rehearsed, not natural), and the unnecessarily long and annoying closeups.

To call The Killing of a Chinese Bookie a film noir is to insult the genre.  The power of films like Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, as well as modern neo-noir films like Blade Runner, and Brick, is the strengths of the characters, not their weaknesses.  The audience wants to root for capable people facing overwhelming odds, not someone who makes awful choices.  Phillip Marlowe is smart, charismatic and ready for anything, where as Gazzara’s Cosmo Vittelli is short-sighted, reactionary and not very bright.  In short he is a victim of his own actions, and truthfully he gets what he deserves.

Though the settings, and plots of these films are similar, the differences represent a tremendous gulf between what film noir organically was during it’s heyday, and what The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ended up being two decades later.  While reading up on the making of this film, I happened upon an essay that explained, at least in part, one of the ways this film went wrong.  In it, Cassavetes explained that Ben Gazzara was so in tune with the character that he’d had in his head, that he barely gave him any direction at all, and often would just let him roll through scenes without interruption.  After reading that, it seemed pretty obvious that this was true, and served as proof that this film had no one to steer it in any direction at all, which is why it feels like it is in park throughout the entire thing.

Since a lot of people love Cassavetes’ directing work far more than I, some even equate him with Hitchcock, Scorsese or Kurosawa in terms of importance, so it seems fair to include one of his films on this list, but three?  I would have much rather seen the far more rich and noir-ish films of Jean Pierre Melville on this list, such as Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic, Le Deuxieme Souffle, and Army of Shadows.  I guess I’m glad that I’ve seen it, but only because that means I’ve gotten it out of the way, and don’t have to see it ever again.

Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News

Broadcast News – 1987

Director – James L. Brooks

Starring – Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks

Every few years, maybe once or twice a decade, there is a movie that is a watershed moment for the audience.  Specifically it fundamentally changes how the audience perceives their relationship with how they see the world.  A film comes along, and playing with delivery, intention, or the pre-conceived notions of the audience, turns the world on its head, and shows us something familiar in a whole new way.

Films like the Lumiere brothers short “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”, “The Man with the Movie Camera”, and “12 Angry Men”, sideswiped their audiences by manipulating what they were expecting and adding what they never saw coming, in the process waking them up to a whole new way of looking at things.  Shit, even the Sixth Sense caused a whole generation of movie goers to not only watch out for twists, but to almost expect them.  The visceral reaction inherent in the unknown is an addictive, and revelatory experience. It is just this sort of reaction that all films try to go for, but few ever really manage to pull off, not to mention on the scale that is required of a cultural event.

So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I approached seeing how the media shapes and packages the information we consume, making it more palatable, while all the while leaving us craving more.  Broadcast News was one of those films that tried for, but for my money, didn’t quite reach that sort of cultural status.  While I found the actors fun to watch, the script funny, and the story engaging, I felt like it was never able to accomplish its goal of revealing the drive and desires of the media structure that existed in the late 80s and early 90s.  Where the 24 hour news channels of today seem almost theatrically and blatantly disingenuous about their goals and motivations, the news culture that this film seeks to expose was one hiding behind the impression of integrity and virtue, so I felt like I kind of already knew the ending to the story.

The focus of the film is focused squarely on truth in journalism, in particular with the relationship between popularity, ratings, and honesty in the reporting of the news.  Holly Hunter plays Jane, a producer and champion of ethics at a big television news station, who ends up butting heads with Tom, the dumb yet likable reporter who knows that he hasn’t earned what he’s given, feels bad about it, yet succeeds and advances despite himself.  William Hurt is the perfect actor to play Tom, because, truth be told, I liked him simply based on the fact of who was playing him.  To further complicate matters, Aaron, Jane’s workplace confidant, and secret admirer, immediately distrusts Tom based on the budding attraction between him and Jane.

Basically, in the eyes of Jane and Aaron, Tom represents all that is wrong with how the news is presented and delivered.  Attractive faces with little to no knowledge of or interest in the details of the actual facts, delivering the “stories” that are really more geared to engage and attract viewers than to disseminate information.  Seeing this as a personal affront to her code of ethics, Jane, tries first to take a stand against him, then to educate him, and finally, after relenting to his obvious charms, starts to compromise her beliefs and principles.  The false, yet believable emotion that Tom brings to his reporting, begins to win her over proving just how effective he is as a voice-box for the network.

Ironically, I don’t know that Tom’s use of false tears during a story about date rape was really any more or less manipulative than Jane’s juxtaposition of a picturesque Norman Rockwell painting with the less than dignified life of a newly returned veteran.  At best they are equally manipulative, and at worst Jane actually takes it a step further by hiding it a little better than Tom was able to.  And therein lies one of my problems with this film.  The message wasn’t ambiguous enough that it wasn’t obvious what they were pointing at, yet it wasn’t black and white enough to end the film convinced about one side of the argument or the other.  The film had a certain selective subtlety that seemed a little too inconsistent for my liking.  Ultimately I would have liked the film to take a bit more of a stand, whether I agreed with it or not.

Few people in Hollywood are so simultaneously revered and nearly as unknown as is James L. Brooks.  Famed for being one of the original writers and a producer of one of my favorite shows, The Simpsons, that is really where my knowledge of him ends.  To look at his list of movies that he’s directed is to be rather disappointed.  The Adam Sandler film Spanglish was one that I thought was supposed to be pretty awful, but  As Good as it Gets, with all of its Oscar wins, was supposed to be pretty great.  Despite all the acclaim,  I never had a real urge to see it, so for all I know it’s equally as good as Spanglish.  And of course, Steel Magnolias.  I’ve heard of it, but that’s really about it.  Now that being said, everyone else I’ve talked to about Broadcast News seemed to really love it, and the fact that I was only luke-warm on it leads me to believe that I must be missing something, or that perhaps I need to watch it again.

Like I said, William Hurt is fun to watch, Albert Brooks is funny, and Holly Hunter plays a character that is just like other characters of hers that I like a lot.  Unfortunately, those positives still don’t make the “just okay” movie that it was, the “exceptional” movie that I was hoping it would be.  Rather disappointing.

All That Jazz (1979)

All That Jazz

All That Jazz – 1979

Director – Bob Fosse

Starring – Roy Scheider, Ann Reinking, and Leland Palmer

This one was a little difficult for me.  I didn’t particularly like or dislike this film, despite the fact that I really liked some of the performances.  Usually with each of the films on this list I have some sort of reaction, and whether it’s shocked disappointment or some degree of elation about how good something is doesn’t matter.  It’s the reaction that I’m interested in.  The most wonderful (sometimes frustratingly so) part of tackling a chore such as this list, is that each and every one of these films make me feel something.  Or they usually do anyway.

The semi autobiographical All That Jazz, wasn’t bad, but ultimately, that is all it ended up being for me.  It wasn’t all that long ago that I watched it, and yet I find myself having a hard time remembering it, and consequently it’s pretty hard to write about something when it’s difficult to remember the plot.  However, have no fear, I did a bit of research on it to get me back up to speed, and I am going to do my best to write something about it anyway.

Joe Gideon is a man who dwells in… no, he revels in his own excess.  It isn’t uncommon for people to glamorize or celebrate something like drug use, alcohol, or casual sex, it is actually quite common for people to claim a vice with some degree of pride.  Gideon, the altar-ego of the film’s director Bob Fosse, can claim them all.  He is a hedonist for the ages.  The good part is that these things are what keeps him creating and crafting his true calling, choreography, the bad part is, it’s also what’s killing him.  So the question becomes, is a life spent fervidly devoted to your work worth dying for, and maybe more importantly, is a life without passion worth living?

On one hand, I found it easy to connect with Gideon (played very engrossingly by Roy Scheider) through his love of what he does, on the other I found I wasn’t very fond of his results, nor his methods of achieving them.  I know it’s blasphemous to say, but I don’t think his choreography (Fosse, or Gideon for that matter) was really all that memorable, or special.  Granted I’ve only really seen this (that I’m aware of), so I suppose his work deserves another chance to connect with me, but based solely on this, I wouldn’t go out of my way to give it one.

Gideon/Fosse, as a human being, is rather sloppy and careless, in love, in his relationships, and even in the way he treats himself.  Watching him walk like a wrecking ball through his own life was  like  a trip to the DMV, long, difficult and very annoying.  The odd part was that I like Roy Scheider in the role, and truthfully the Joe Gideon character is interesting to watch.  I definitely wouldn’t say that I connected with him, or that I even care if he lives or dies by the end of the film, but it did help to balance out the story a bit and bring it closer to center.  I guess it really all comes down to the fact that I liked Roy Scheider’s performance.  I like Roy Scheider.  He was easily the most watchable part of the film.

On a side note, films of the seventies tended to have real looking people in them.  Not everyone was a flawless being of perfect light, unleashed to increase ticket sales in certain demographics.  It’s refreshing to see someone with unique features, or a body shape that isn’t cookie cutter pretty, and to its credit, All That Jazz really embraces that organic trend of natural people and doesn’t relegate them to the background or as the doofy sidekick.  In fact, just about the only thing that I can appreciate about Fosse’s work, this film included, is his attraction to form and movement and artistry based on a multitude of things regardless of what others thought.  I only wished I liked his choreography more.

Clearly the rest of the actors and performers in the film felt very strongly about the impact that Bob Fosse has had, including Fosse himself, but even with that devotion and belief in it, All That Jazz was still only tepid at best.  In the end, after reading a bit about it, and doing a little analyzing of my own, I got more out of it than I had initially thought, but truly the motivation for me writing this was because I’ve been putting this review off now for a month and I just wanted to get if off my plate.

As far as the list goes, the spot would have been better served by any number of different films.  Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, has similar voyeuristic qualities, with a lot of the infidelity and familial drama, yet it resounded with me far more on every level, from the film’s technical craftsmanship, to Bergman’s direction, to the deep, heartfelt acting.  I guess all I’m saying is that, while I never really hated it, this film never really impacted me like one of the 1001 best movies ever should have.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – 1954

Director – Stanley Donen

Starring – Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and Russ Tamblyn

So I know that, by and large, I give musicals a pretty hard time.  Harder than maybe they deserve, but truthfully I’m just not a big fan of a lot of the ones that I’ve seen.  I’ve been proven wrong on a handful of occasions, most notably with “Singing In The Rain”, which I have a tendency to gush and gush about because it really is that good (no really).  But then there are those examples of Musical film that defy logic, mine anyway.  How is it that people can sit through them?  Bright colors, and loose plotting do not a movie make, a point which “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” makes all too successfully.

On paper, the very fact that Stanley Donen is the director of this film should have meant it was going to be outstanding.  I mean, he directed the afore-mentioned really really really good musical, Singing In The Rain.  On top of that, Donen also directed one of my favorite movies of all time, Charade.  So by all means, this could have been great, nay, the greatest…ever.  It wasn’t.  At best it was overly long, with an utterly ridiculous story that makes zero sense, and at worst, it’s a misogynist and tone-deaf film in which the characters learn that abduction and abuse are rewarded with laughs and affection.

The story.  Well the story is about a rough and tumble mountain man, Adam, who arrives into town with the intent of claiming himself a woman.  After judging each and every girl on the street, and measuring their flaws, he finally finds someone he deems worthy of him, and pops the question.  The lady, Milly, a sort of all-purpose cook, waitress, and janitor at the local inn, immediately falls in love and regrettably assumes the feeling is mutual.  She daydreams aloud, often in song (blarg!) about her romantic notions of getting away from the daily grind of constantly living her life in the service of others, and instead spending meaningful time working alongside her true love and partner.

Of course, all Adam really wants is someone to be the cook, waitress, and janitor but with the added benefit of keeping him warm and satisfied during the long and cold winter nights spend out in the middle of fucking nowhere.  Oh, and did I mention he has six functionally retarded brothers that are dirty, violent and completely un-socialized?  Yeah, neither did he.  Adam cleverly withholds this fact from Milly till she meets them after their whirlwind one-day courtship/wedding.

***(Warning Spoilers)***

Later on, after an attempt to acclimate them to civilization spirals into a fist fight, the six brothers are encouraged to steal each of themselves a woman, just like Adam did, in order to salve their wounded pride.  The tried and true method of tricking the girl they fancy into coming outside, then tossing a blanket over their head and forcing them into their kidnap wagon understandably alarms the town, and a chase ensues.

To emphasize just how irresponsible Adam is, when Milly chastises him for inciting this wonton kidnapping, he storms off to a secret pouting cabin in the woods leaving her to take care of the mess that he fucking caused, all while keeping up the high standards of cleanliness and cooking to which they’ve all become accustomed.

To go too much further would be to give away too much of the story, not that you can’t really see where it’s going from here, but in the interest of not giving away everything I’ll stop here.

***(End Spoilers)***

Now, I realize that this is a 1950s musical, and as such, is supposed to be breezy and fun.  Just an excuse upon which one could drape a little choreography and a bunch of songs.  The story is really more of an afterthought, a necessary evil.  Unfortunately it seemed more than a little dated and seemed to really champion just taking what you want from women.  After all, it’s for their own good and they’ll end up loving it anyways, right?

Okay, so it’s just a goofy love story with some fish out of water elements, and sure it has a lot of sexism which isn’t good, but either way the story isn’t what’s important.  Likewise the singing didn’t really stand out, there was one really good dance number, and a bunch of forgettable ones, but that’s not really the point. But, it features a young Julie Newmar (for the uninitiated, she played Catwoman on the 1960s Batman TV series)…whose name was, of all things, Dorcas (!!!?).  Oh, but it was filmed in Technicolor, and had some well thought out set-pieces…so essentially, bright colors and loose plotting.  It still doesn’t a movie make…too bad they did anyway.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom – 1992

Director – Baz Luhrmann

Starring – Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, and Bill Hunter

I hadn’t realized before sitting down and watching it, but seeing Strictly Ballroom pointed out just how I’d been missing Australia, not to mention Australian film.  There is a certain quality of the acting, the tone and the intonation.  The characters are at once relate-able and larger than life, and the initial cartoonish impression I had of Australian cinema turned out, I realized, to simply be a vehicle for a more universal set of truths.  In an effort to be funny, and make for a more compelling read, I have had the tendency to make jokes at the expense of, and be rather hard on some of the films that I’ve seen.  The caricatures of the people in those films seemed unrealistic or even laughable on a first viewing, but ultimately, once the stories were done and the reviews written, I continued to think about films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Muriel’s Wedding.   Each stayed with me longer than I would have thought.  I have come to rather like Muriel’s Wedding, despite feeling a little indifferent to it when I wrote the initial review. Like each of those other films, Strictly Ballroom, is completely an Australian film, and just as before, it’s got me thinking.  Thinking about the film itself, and about going back to Australia.  Hopefully soon!

My wife in particular was excited about this film, thanks in no small part to the fact that it centers around dance.  Though, the film isn’t really what I would call a dance film in the same way that something like Singing In The Rain is a dance film, it is instead to dance as Rocky was to boxing, an important plot point, but not necessarily the focus.

The story centers around Scott, the promising dancer who yearns to break out of the rigid formula required by the Pan-Pacific Ballroom Dance competition, and dance his own movies, from the heart.  Everyone from his partner, to the judges, to his family all try to warn him that he is being reckless with his chances of winning the competition and making something of himself.  It’s only, Fran, the mousy, seemingly inexperienced dancer in his class that sees otherwise, and encourages him to break free from the rules, and from everyone else’s expectations.

Scott and Fran both are both good enough characters, played well by actors Paul Mercurio, and Tara Morice respectively, filling out the roles nicely with likable, engaging characters that the audience wants to root for, but it’s really the supporting characters that populate the world around them that make this movie such a joy.  Take Fran’s parents for example…at first her father seems like an angry, possibly abusive guy trying to commandeer his daughter’s future, but it turns out that he is a passionate dancer who truly doesn’t want to see his little girl waste her time with someone who doesn’t treat her as she deserves.  Her mother, likewise, is a rich breathing person who deeply loves her family.  You can tell at once that each of them, outside of the reality that this film covers, has lived a full life, each with their own experiences and trials.  This is a testament not only to the filmmakers, but to the actors as well.

Likewise, Scott’s parents harbor their own desires and regrets, as they strive and scrabble trying desperately to reach for past glories.  Scott’s dance coach, Les, as well as his rival Doug, are both great fun to watch as they blunder through the narrative, successfully wresting my attention away from our two leads.  Good as each of these secondary and tertiary characters might be, certainly the most watchable performance was turned in by Bill Hunter, as the detestable, corrupt, Ballroom Federation president, Barry Fife.  Chewing each bit of scenery that he’s given, Fife is sooooooooooo much fun to watch, that I almost wish the film were about him.

At first watch, this film, as well as a lot of other films that come out from down under, seem a little simple, a little cartoonish, or even more than a little over the top, but each film that I have had the good fortune of seeing, is saying more than what is on the surface.  Priscilla, as well as Muriel’s Wedding, have strong messages of acceptance, and Muriel in particular has more than a little to say about forgiveness (of yourself just as much as of anyone else.).

Similarly, Strictly Ballroom is more than what is evident on the surface.  It preaches passion for what you love, and acceptance of others, not despite, but because of what they are.  I really enjoyed this film, more even than watching it, I enjoyed thinking about it afterwards, which is really a sort of first for me.  I am looking forward to giving this film another viewing to see if I can glean anything further from it.  More than anything, though, this film makes me miss Australia.  It brought back memories of traveling along the coast of New South Wales, from Kiama back to Sydney (although I’m not sure I could tell you why it made me think of that…), and for that I loved it!

Moonstruck (1987)

Moonstruck

Moonstruck – 1987

Director – Norman Jewison

Starring – Cher, Nicolas Cage, Danny Aiello, and Olympia Dukakis

Through the years there have been many messages, poems, and letters delivered through the medium of the motion pictures. Some are about strong women, some are about the enduring strength of an ideal, and some messages are just downright personal (love for an idea, a theme, or a people or demographic), but there is no more popular subject than community. Groups of people bound by something larger than each of the individuals, something definable and relatable.  Or in the case of Moonstruck, a community of people that works and lives in New York City.

The film, features a rather typical sort of love story.  A widowed woman, Loretta (Cher), is currently in a relationship that is going nowhere.  Her boyfriend isn’t ready to commit to more, but she comes to realize that maybe she is just settling for less to avoid loneliness.  She lives with her parents, and grandparents and spends all day entrenched in the lives of her loud, boisterous, Italian family.  All day long she listens to her mother, Rose, worry about whether or not her husband is cheating, her father just seems to want to be left alone, and she is caught in the middle.

When her boyfriend, Johnny (Danny Aiello) proposes to her, she travels to the bakery where his long estranged brother works to invite him to the wedding.  Ronny (Nic Cage), is a fiery, passion filled man who is nursing a resentment over the girl that his brother stole long ago.  Naturally, this spirited and outspoken man intrigues Loretta, and she falls in love with him instantly.  Tortured by her guilt over the new-found love, and her betrayal of the man who proposed to her, she is forced to choose between the lie that she loves or the love that’s a lie.

The other, of the two, over-arching themes of this film seems to be lies, and though lies and community seem like disparate things, they end up being very closely intertwined.  Each character has a secret, or at the very least a social quirk that they are trying to repress, but due to close quarters of New York City there is always someone paying attention to what they are doing.  This sort of involuntary interaction with neighbors, family, and co-workers means that privacy is really an illusion.  These people then, for lack of anyone better equipped to deal with the situation, become the support system to either validate or discredit what they are doing.

Loretta is seen out on the town with Ronny by her father, who actually IS stepping out with another woman behind Rose’s back.  After watching the constant fighting and break-ups of a fellow lonely soul in the neighborhood restaurant, Rose is spotted by her father-in-law walking home with him after the two share a friendly, yet intimate dinner.  And everyone who surrounds Ronny at the bakery has been silently watching him grieve his failed relationship for years.  These people are all witnesses to lives, and hidden pains of one another.  They catch each other at their very worst, but at the same time represent to each other, a support system that is deeply important and personal.

Though she doesn’t approve of her father stepping out without her mother, Loretta is bound by the guilt brought on by her own infidelity.  They are locked in opposition with one another, yet they still end up helping each other work out a solution by the end of the film.  Perry (the unlucky-in-love, restaurant patron) and Rose can relate to each other’s feelings of loneliness, rejection, and the humiliation that is a natural part of relationships. And though their support is misconstrued by someone else, they are simply providing support for one another.  Finally, Ronny’s support system is his job, and he uses it as a way to give his life meaning until something else, something more rewarding (read: Loretta), comes along to snap him out of it.

Even though the film is a love story, we understand as an omnipotent, the all-seeing audience, that the support structure would be the same if it were a drama, or a slapstick comedy, or even a mystery.  The love story is the background, the paint on the house that is the story of the community.  More than anything this film emphasizes the ideal that communities are not only important, and necessary, but all around us.  They may get us into trouble sometimes, but more often than not, it is these important connections in our lives that inevitably get us out of trouble as well.

I realize that Moonstruck is just a fun little romantic comedy, but it does strive to describe and illustrate the connection that exists in its story.  Cher, Nicholas Cage, and Director, Norman Jewison, are well aware of this, and though it may not reach this ideal consistently throughout the film, the fact that it tries raises Moonstruck up far above the level of most.  Once again, I’m left wondering why something so glorious and wonderful as “Paper Moon” never made this list, as it features similar themes, and in my humble opinion is a far superior film.

“The one thing we can all agree upon when it comes to the art of cinema, is that all movies should have Cher in them.” – Ashley