I’ve Seen It, and Now So Has She…

So in the ongoing process of reviewing the movies I had already seen when starting this, here are 25 more films from different years, genres, and nationalities.  Thanks to her going nuts on our movie collection in an attempt to catch up, all of these films were simultaneously reviewed by my lovely wife, Ashley, as well as by me.  Enjoy!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Though not as phenomenal as some of his work, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is one of the really good Hitchcock films.  Jimmy Stewart is always pretty likable, but it’s Doris Day who really steals the show for me.  The one thing that the original has over this remake is the ever-wonderful Peter Lorre.  I could watch that guy eat breakfast!

“Don’t F with Doris Day or she will sing you a song!” – Ashley

The Great Escape (1963)

Partly remembered for it’s fun story, and partly because of Steve McQueen, The Great Escape is also worthy of remembrance for being one of the last (as far as I could find anyway) really great, ensemble films.  The list of famous actors that make an appearance here is a pretty astounding one.  Everyone from the CEO of Jurassic Park, to Flint of “In Like Flint”, to the vigilante from “Death Wish”, and plenty more, make an appearance in this film.  Oh, and the story is pretty good too.

“This movie might be set in a prisoner of war camp, but I would liken it to the con or heist movie genres, so it was actually quite enjoyable.” – Ashley

La Battaglia Di Algeri (AKA: The Battle of Algiers) (1965)

The gritty and raw style of this film owes much to the cinema vérité camera work, and black and white film stock, which served to mimic news reel, or documentary style footage.  The cast of actors, or non-actors as they were, was chosen for their look, and the emotional heft they brought the subject matter, with the only “real” actor playing the leader of the French military force tasked with quieting the then French colony, Colonel Mathieu.  As a testament to its message, the film was banned in France for a number of years, before being re-edited and released later on.  As powerful and prescient today as it was when it was filmed, it speaks to our current situation with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the nature, and victims of terrorism.

“It’s a war movie!” (said with fake excitement) – Ashley

C’era Una Volta Il West  AKA Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Gorgeous!  This film is so lush, and beautiful that when I first saw it, it took my breath away.  Though I do love the Man With No Name trilogy, this film, in my humble opinion, is  absolutely Sergio Leone’s masterpiece!  Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and god help us all Claudia Cardinale.  If you haven’t seen this film, you are doing yourself a grand disservice!

“One of the best movies this list has introduced me to!” – Ashley

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

I saw this film around two decades ago, and I liked it a lot.  I was amazed at how much I liked it really, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently with my wife for her first time, that I was blown away.  Dustin Hoffman is so, so very good, and unfortunately for him, John Voight was so incredible that he still hasn’t yet managed to attain such heights again.  Fred Neil’s “Everybody Talkin'” performed by Harry Nilsson, is such a perfect song to capture the wonder, and spontaneity of New York city, as well as the despair and fear that come when good fortune you’re riding flips upside down and smothers you instead.  One of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

“Two hustlers find love.” – Ashley

Serpico (1973)

Though I’ve seen Serpico, I never fell in love with Serpico.  It’s a good film, that I, more than likely, should give another chance.  Known as one of the big tent poles of 1970s cinema, this film went a long way in defining the social, and political unrest of the urbanites of the time.

“Al Pacino grows a beard and takes down some corrupt cops.” – Ashley

Jaws (1975)

The godfather of the summer blockbuster is also an incredibly effective horror and suspense film.  This film comes from the young and hungry Steven Spielberg that helped make a lot of the movies that I grew up on, not the tired schmaltzy Spielberg that ruins every movie he makes now in the last 30 minutes (Don’t believe me?  Take, A.I., War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan, and Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, and the all terrible Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tin-Tin, and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.).  So basically, Jaws was good.

“The push-zoom in it is great, other then that, meh.” – Ashley

Network (1976)

Though Network has some pretty interesting things to say about the nature of television and the nature of fame and martyrdom, and is definitely considered to be another one of those “important” movies from the seventies, I didn’t like the film really at all.  I found all the characters to be pretty repellent  people, and not in the least compelling on any other level.

“I hated every character in this movie.” – Ashley

Airplane! (1980)

The absolute funniest movie that I had ever seen when I was ten years old, it turns out is best marketed towards the young and those who are young in the head.  It didn’t manage to hold onto its title when I recently re-watched it, but it was still really fun to watch.  Leslie Nielson easily steals the show with his trademark deadpan delivery, and square-jawed good looks.  I will always love it for the joy it brought me in my youth.

“Better then the parody movies done today but still not my favorite kind of comedy.” – Ashley

The King of Comedy (1983)

Robert De Niro’s selfish, celebrity-obsessed, Travis Bickle is in love with the idea of fame, so much so that fixates on it.  It is all he sees and all he desires.  At times, tense, at others comic, the film goes a fair way towards predicting the phenomenon of instant fame that shows like American Idol, and YouTube have come to inspire. “The King of Comedy”, just may be one of Scorsese’s lighter works, but one of Martin’s lesser works is often times better than someone else’s best.

“Robert De Niro being creepy.” – Ashley

The Terminator (1984)

I was raised on this film.  I have probably seen it upwards of 100 times.  It is incredible.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is bad.” – Ashley

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

This little flick is a fossil of another time, a time when the name Eddie Murphy meant you were going to see something that was actually funny.  Not solely for children, no fat suits or unnecessary makeup, but an actual, honest to God funny movie.  Murphy made a fair amount of them in his heyday, my only guess is that he just ran out of funny stuff to say, and now is only capable of making crap.  Too bad.

“Oh, I didn’t know Eddie Murphy use to be funny!” – Ashley

‘A’ Gai Waak Juk Jaap (AKA: Project A, Part II) (1987)

I went through a big Hong Kong cinema phase in the mid to late 90s.  Films like A Better Tomorrow, My Lucky Stars, Full Contact, and Hardboiled filled my movie collection.  Some of my favorites were the films of Jackie Chan, including the Project A films.  Packed with action, impossible stunts, and lots of slapstick humor, these films are intensely rewarding, and loads of fun.  Though I like Project A, Part II a lot, I wouldn’t put it as my favorite of Chan’s films, that honor would go to the absolutely insane Drunken Master II.  The last half an hour of that film was just about the craziest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

“Jackie is a god.” – Ashley

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Another film that I suppose I should devote another viewing to.  Most people seem to love, A Fish Called Wanda, however I thought it wasn’t all that good.  Since it was written by John Cleese, I should by all rights love it, so I can only assume that I saw it at too young an age.

“A raunchy comedy from the 80’s that is actually still funny for a first time view.”      – Ashley

The Naked Gun (1988)

Another of my favorite films from when I was 10 years old.  Leslie Nielsen rode the slapstick gravy train for many years, culminating in The Naked Gun.  Though the films sequels turn out to be rather hokey and one-note, the original film still stands out as one of the best examples of this type of comedy.

“Not bad but just not my kind of comedy.” – Ashley

Die Hard (1988)

As an only child, I spent a lot of time watching movies.  Every Friday night I would have my Mom drive me to the local video emporium, where I would pick up the newest action movies, along with the grossest or most obscure comedies and horror films.  I remember renting Die Hard when if first came out of Video.  I put the VHS tape into the VCR, sat back and spent the next two hours and twelve minutes getting my mind blown!  Easily one of the best action movies ever, and the best Christmas movie by a long shot.  Absolutely deserves to be on this list.

“My husband looks like Bruce Willis, so I’m allowed say how much I like how little his shirt is on in this movie, right?” – Ashley

Total Recall (1990)

Far and away the best film that either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Paul Verhoeven ever had anything to do with, and both men made some goddamned awesome films!  Groundbreaking visual effects, a truly compelling science fiction story, and action for days.  I was lucky enough to see this film in the theater, where at the tender age of eleven, I fell in love.

“Amazing special effects makeup. I wish they still did makeup this way.” – Ashley

Terminator 2: Judgment Day  (1991)

Not as impacting to me as the original, but this was yet another fantastic film.  James Cameron at the peak of his career thus far (yes I am including the disappointing Avatar).

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is good.” – Ashley

JFK (1991)

As a devout fan of film, I have a constantly shifting set of films that revolve in and out as my favorites of all time.  Reed’s The Third Man,  Kurosawa’s High & Low, Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, and of course Oliver Stone’s JFK.  This labyrinth of a film traces the known facts right along side the potential possibilities, watching the two dance with one another, seeing what happens.  Some of my favorite cinematography ever committed to celluloid juxtaposes the black and white of the accepted reality of the Warren Commission with as many points of view as there were watching that day on the grassy knoll.  Black and white, high and low, right and wrong, fact and fiction.  All blend together in this film, tied by the exceptional cast, character actors and famous faces alike.  The best you’ve ever seen Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Michael Rooker in any film.  This is one of those films that no matter what time it is, if I find it starting on TV, I will watch it all the way through.  I think I’ll go watch it right now.

“Was there anyone who didn’t want to kill Kennedy?” – Ashley

C’Est Arrive Pres De Chez Vous (AKA: Man Bites Dog) (1992)

This mockumentary about a vicious serial killer being followed by a documentary film crew attempts to find the line between documentation and complicity.  A dark film with some very subtle comic undertones, Man Bites Dog is more uncomfortable than it is successful.  It felt about 45 minutes too long, which would have shortened the film by about half.  Interesting, but ultimately not really very good.

“Oh this was suppose to be a comedy?” – Ashley

The Crying Game (1992)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film, so my only real memory of it is that I managed to see it twice in one weekend, once with each of my parents who didn’t know what it was about…awkward.

“Despite knowing the spoiler twist for a couple decades now I found this a really interesting look at the fluidity of human sexuality.” – Ashley

Dead Man (1995)

Long, slow, and still.  Three things that describe the films of Jim Jarmusch.  Dead Man is all of those things, and it was great.  Not a film for every occasion, nor is it for everyone, but if you appreciate thoughtful introspective and occasionally spiritual films, this one may pique your interest.

“So fucking boring!” – Ashley

Fargo (1996)

Of all the Coen Brothers films to put on this list, both this film, and Raising Arizona are two of their most average.  They are certainly good films, not nearly as reprehensible as Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, or The Ladykillers, but also not even close to as good as Miller’s Crossing (my personal favorite Coen Brothers film), The Big Lebowski, or Barton Fink.  That being said, Fargo did open up the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities to a whole new crowd of viewers and introduced the masses to William H. Macy, and Peter Stormare, so in that respect, it was a good choice.  Otherwise, a real missed opportunity for this list of “best movies”.

“I love that the lead is a smart strong women. Really great movie too.” – Ashley

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Awful, over-hyped, manipulative, horror-porn along the likes of Hostel, and Hostel 2.

“Yeah, yeah we get it Jesus got his ass beat.” – Ashley

The Aviator (2004)

Even genius doesn’t shine all the time.  Yet another movie where the mega-talented Scorsese teams with the mega-mediocre DiCaprio, and turns in underwhelming results.  One of the greatest living cinematographers in the world said it best, describing The Aviator as a “handjob” for Hollywood, and while I don’t think it’s quite that, he certainly spends the entirety of this film writing an elaborate love letter.  Cate Blanchett was really wonderful as Kate Hepburn, if only DiCaprio could do some acting that isn’t just his usual approach of squinting and leaning forward into the camera.

“Leonardo is actually tolerable in this movie. Though he still can’t do an accent worth a shit.” – Ashley

So, there you have it.  Another 25 in the bag.  See you next time!

Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (AKA: The Young Girls of Rochefort) (1967)

Les Demoiselles De Rochefort

Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (AKA: The Young Girls of Rochefort) – 1967

Director – Jacques Demy

Starring – Catherine Deneuve, George Chikiris, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly

The goal of any movie poster is to filter down all the important elements of the film, the who, what, where, and even sometimes why, and give potential viewers the urge to seek it out later on.  There are films that are so enamored with the who, that the poster is nothing but a series of giant heads of famous actors looking vaguely off into the distance (any romantic comedy out in the last 30 years or so).  Still other films are so excited to let you know that there is a twist, one that they all but give it away (the instance that springs to mind is the remake of the wonderful Charade, into the terrible The Truth About Charlie.  Do yourself a favor and don’t seek out this poster, or the movie till you’ve seen Charade, and maybe not even then.)  But this film does a dynamite job of illustrating just what the viewer can expect from this film, best of all their was no condensing necessary either!

Really the poster tells you everything, except for the fact that their isn’t anything else.  No captivating story, no dynamic twist, no edge of your seat confrontation, or heartfelt resolution.  The story isn’t really what I am going to review here, if the truth be told, it wouldn’t really be fair to judge it solely on its story. It is really more the equivalent of a 1960’s concert film, than it is a movie.  So the Young Girls of Rochefort is, how shall we say, a little light on plot, but it more than makes up for it in exuberance, color, and having a few honest to god Gene Kelly numbers in the picture.

The story is thin, but plausible enough to hold a series of dance numbers together, however non-important enough to drop at the end without resolving some of them.  The key here seems to be instant gratification.  Once you see it, you can forget it in order to watch the next thing.  With so much effort put into the set pieces, the color, and the dancing, does a fan of musicals need any other reason to watch?  Probably not, but as someone who isn’t all that enamored with musicals, I certainly would have liked more.

The aforementioned Gene Kelly appearance was quite a welcome sight.  I really really really really enjoyed Singing In the Rain, and really appreciated An American in Paris to the point where I thought “If all musicals are this good, how have I been so wrong about them my whole life?”  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t found all musicals to be worthy of either of those two just yet, although I’m still looking.)  No matter how much I like Catherine Deneuve as an actress, she wasn’t given all that much to do in this film.  I’m not sure whether she actually sang or if she was lip syncing, but either way, she seemed like just a name and a face tacked onto this film to sell tickets, so Kelly’s appearance midway through the film really got me interested in watching again.

Needless to say, this film was unable to live up to the magic that was “Singing in the Rain”, like a lot of other musicals I fear, was relegated quite quickly in my head as an “also-ran”.  No amount of enthusiasm or color usage was going to bring it back up to that level for me.

My wife on the other hand,is someone who enjoys most musicals simply for the fact that they’re musicals.  She found quite a lot to like and this film was a joy for her to watch.  Despite the limitations I attempted to place on it, it won her over with its energy and determination to be.  If for only that one reaction, it was worth it.  It was more than worthy of my time, and it also brings to mind other films that I like purely on an aesthetic level.  I don’t really need a reason to love “The Man With the Movie Camera”, or appreciate “Un Chien Andalou”, or relentlessly watch all the rather brainless 80’s and 90’s action films that I love so well.  None of them have stories (well that’s debatable I suppose, but each of these films is focused on something other than the story), but each has an equally unmatched exuberance,and verve for itself.  Each has a determined will to be, despite what others try to pigeonhole them as.

So it is true with “Les Demoiselles De Rochefort”.  Though it wasn’t my cup of tea, it was most definitely made for a specific audience, one that loves it just for what it is.  But the question remains, “Does it deserve to be on this list?”  Ultimately, no.  I would say there are other musical and dance films that go further, with more interesting music, more dynamic dance numbers, more story integration to transcend and become more than just a musical.  So it may not the best, but in a pinch it’ll cure what ails you.

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa) (1990)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa) – 1990

Director – Agnieszka Holland

Starring – Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, and Solomon Perel

What’s more uplifting than a story of a young Jewish boy lasting out the war by imitating those who want him dead?  Apparently, it’s that exact same story plus the lusty escapades of a hormone addled teen movie tossed in for fun.  It’s the lighter side of the Nazi fueled war machine!

Like I said already, as far as Jewish survival stories set during World-War II go, this one was surprisingly lusty and light.  Though the main character, Salomon’s, journey is a difficult one, it was oddly punctuated by sexual encounters, camaraderie with those who want him dead, and seemingly, the joys of growing up.  Also, oddly enough, deep in the heart of Nazi, Germany, this young interloper manages to find a surprising number of sympathetic people who help him along the way.  One or even two instances along these lines seem plausible, human nature even, but as many lucky breaks as young Solomon gets during the length of the movie skews the film into the realm of the surreal, and removes from it, some of the danger that other films such as Schindler’s List, and The Pianist seem to exude from their very pores.

While that fact doesn’t make it a bad film, as such, it definitely makes it unique.  An oddity even.  Seeing it now, through the lens of history, makes the film seem somewhat in-authentic.  A farce dressed in the clothes of history.  If dramatized reality has taught me anything, it’s that people who are/were Nazis weren’t really people, clearly they were actually just murderous machines, blindly spewing rhetoric and hate (sarcasm).  I realize of course that the film is a biographical one, and tells the actual story of a very real Salomon Perel, it is just a novel thing to see a film that doesn’t completely demonize Nazi’s, and in many ways treats them as people too, and some of them are worth our pity.

Though it served to lessen the overall impact of the horrors of war in general, and the holocaust in particular, this general humanity that was  bestowed upon the antagonists was indeed a refreshing change from the usual.  Not only does our main character struggle with feelings of fear, jealousy, lust, and love, but so do the people who condemn him so, and it’s not only limited to the Germans.  We see the human side of the whole of eastern Europe, with realistic portraits of Poles, and Russians as well as the Germans who Salomon encounters on his path through the war.

Being a young man at the age where hormones threaten to take control of the thought processes, Salomon indulges himself quite a bit in some pretty shockingly dangerous ways, some of which threaten his safety, others of which are the only things keeping him alive.  One of his amorous encounters with an instructor in the Hitler youth, has him (a Jew) being compared loudly, and often, in a sexual way to the “fuhrer” himself (the accuser of Jews).  This film was never one I’d talked about, or read on during film school, so I’m not sure if I am to infer this comparison to mean that even Hitler is/was a human being, or if it was relying solely on the irony of the situation to inject humor, and a sense of heightened stakes into the situation.  I like the idea that this film might have been making a bold statement, so I choose to believe that it humanizes everyone.

Don’t get me wrong, at no point do I think that the actions of the Nazi party, or of Adoph Hitler deserve a pass, or even a re-evaluation.  I don’t.  All I’m saying is that the only path forward from a wound as great as the Holocaust is acceptance and ultimately forgiveness.  I was surprised to find that forgiveness in this film along side the anger, fear, joy, and sadness that every human is capable of.

So, Europa, Europa wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I started it, and looking at it objectively, I would say it doesn’t have as much impact as the Schindler’s Lists or The Pianists, or even something as singular of purpose as the incomparable, Inglourious Basterds.  Still, the tale of Salomon Perel is one that seeks to open the eyes, as well as the mind.  It chooses a different formula through which to process this history, deal with it, and ultimately heal both the physical as well as psychological wounds left on the soul of a people by the holocaust.  Like I said, it is not the most effective, it’s not even my favorite, but it’s a new take on the same old story we’re used to.  Not just a tale of one survivor, but of many, and that is why it made it on this list.

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man

Rain Man – 1988

Director – Barry Levinson

Starring – Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, and Valeria Golino

What is more awful, the imitation of the famous character, or the famous character, himself?  It’s not as easy a question as I was guessing that it would be.  With such well-defined mannerisms, speech patterns that inspire imitation, and the constant repetition that drives it into the brain of the collective public, a film like this one can easily become parody.  Before seeing this film, my only knowledge of it was of the imitation of Ray Babbit that just about everyone seems to know, regardless of having seen the film or not.  I had grown rather sick of these imitations and had developed the opinion that I didn’t like Rain Man because of it.  I felt that Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the aforementioned Babbit was hammy and over the top, and I wrote off Tom Cruise as having played himself…again.  All before having seen one frame of film.  I was wrong.

For something that could have easily delved into the realm of the predictable, layered with melodrama, and schlock that I feared so much, Rain Man keeps a remarkably level-headed assessment of Hoffman’s mentally challenged Ray and his hot-headed brother, Charlie played in a remarkably subtle way by Cruise.  Immediately my impression of the film shot up as the characters turned out to be not only grounded in reality, but more importantly, utterly believable and even likable as well.

Driven mostly by his anger, and to a lesser degree by his fear, Charlie Babbitt,tries to fill the hole inside himself with things and with money.  Constantly he is reminding himself of what the world owes him, and it is with this attitude that he greets the news of his estranged fathers death.  Not willing to deal with how this makes him feel, or his own sense of loss, Charlie looks simply at what was left to him, and feels he is owed more.  He is not a terrible or a bad person, he is just so filled with anger, it’s all he can feel anymore.

The majority of his father’s money, it turns out, has been left to a brother, that Charlie never knew he had.  Ray Babbitt, the new-found brother, immediately becomes a target for Charlie’s anger, despite the fact that he’s unable to understand, let alone deal with either the anger or the blame.  Charlie is left with the choice of leaving with nothing, or leaving with Ray, hoping to get a sort of paltry ransom from the executor of his father’s estate, and the rest of the film deals with the two brothers learning to find value in one another.

While the union isn’t ideal for either of them at first, the two brothers eventually get to know each other, and in time come to trust each other too. As I mentioned before, Tom Cruise, wasn’t yet the Tom Cruise we know today.  The 1988 version could actually play more than one character, each one with subtlety and definition, too.  Watching Babbitt stretch and grow, first straining against then breaking through the confines of his anger, was one of the most rewarding experiences thus far in this endeavor.  Combined with the muted performance that Dustin Hoffman turns in, Rain Man showed itself to be the real deal.

While not my favorite of what I’ve seen during this little endeavor, Rain Man was surprisingly good.  What could easily have fallen back into the gimmick of method acting or even a plain, stale buddy movie, really blossomed into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Well worth it.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, TheThief, HisWife & HerLover

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – 1989

Director – Peter Greenaway

Starring – Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, and Michael Gambon

By far, the most dramatic visual statement a film can make is the use of color.  The use of color in a film, any film, immediately sets for the audience and then maintains the tone of the story throughout the rest of the film.  Amongst all of the important elements of filmmaking, plot, acting, directing, art direction, editing, etc., the choice of how to present your film’s color scheme is arguably the most immediate and subjective choice you can make.  A very washed out color palette says something completely different from say a very saturated one, or even a monochromatic one.  From the first frame the audience is instantly on board and facing the direction you’ve pointed them.

Despite all the nastiness, pain and anger this film has on display, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is such a lush and visually sumptuous exercise in color use, that a critique or review could be written solely on its use and impact alone (although I’ll try to touch on other stuff too).  Peter Greenaway, angry with the political climate in Britain loaded this film with vitriol aimed at the Thatcher government that was in power during the making of this film in the 80s.  Thanks to my limited knowledge of 1980’s England, the not so subtle symbolism and rather heavy-handed commentary on the state of his home nation was all but completely over my head.  Thankfully, however, that didn’t take away from the overall message of the film, nor on the long-lasting aftertaste it left in my brain.

To start with, I should mention that the entire film is shot in the confines of or immediately outside of a fancy french restaurant, each area of which is dressed in its own specific color.  The exterior of the restaurant is blue, the kitchen green, the dining room red, and the ladies room is white.  Not only that, but each of the character’s clothes change to match the setting when they go from one to the next. (ie: as a character moves from the kitchen to the dining room, their clothes change from green to red, etc…) Not only does this stay constant, but each color is indicative of the character who dominates that setting.  The blazing, angry gangster holds court in the dining room.  The ladies room represents a sanctuary for the adulterous couple.  The kitchen is the realm of the cook, and the outside represents the real world.  There is one exception, however.  Michael, the rather nebbish man who captures the eye of the gangster’s wife, is always clad in a rather drab brown color.  He is the exception to the color rule, he is his own constant.

The thief of the title refers to Albert Spica, mercilessly and ravenously played to the hilt by Michael Gambon.  Spica is a gangster of the most reprehensible variety, used to getting his way through intimidation, anger, and violence.  Spica dominates and controls (or tries to) everyone around him.  While I doubt very much that Thatcher and her cronies went so far as to actually spread shit on her enemies, taking what was theirs, and leaving them bloodied and broken, he apparently represents her, and her government.

His much abused, much put-upon wife Georgina, played somehow still gracefully by Helen Mirren, stands for the trampled citizenry of Britannia.  Her dutiful acceptance and depressing outlook on this relationship is indicative of most abusive relationships whether they’re between two people or on a much larger, country-sized scale.  This subservient behavior that typifies Georgina from the beginning of the film, is immediately thrown off track when she connects with a quiet, lonely soul who represents everything that her gangster is not.  To Georgina, Michael represents safety, happiness (or at the very least less sadness), and something more than simple survival.  The first half of this romance is purely visual, as it transcends the boundaries represented by the different rooms and their colors.  It is fully halfway into the film before we even hear Michael utter his first word.  As I mentioned before, his is the only characters’ color scheme that never changes.  He wears a consistently brown colored suit throughout the film, which helps exemplify the inherent stability, and staid nature of his character.

The cook, of the film’s title, acts as an overseer.  Not so much an omnipotent god as an observer.  He is privy to more information than everyone else in the film, but unlike a simple observer, he does tend to meddle a bit.  Since he has a rather strong dislike, with good reason, for the brash, un-refined gangster that has hijacked his restaurant, he helps to facilitate, and even protect the blossoming love between Georgina and Michael.  Where as Michael has limited to no ability to stand up to Spica, the Cook is at times outright defiant.  He is more than willing to poke this dangerous man’s ego with a stick, because the thing he loves most (his restaurant) has already been taken from him, and he has little left to lose, save his dignity.

The film is certainly bit heavy handed, however, I don’t think it would have had the same impact or effect if it had been treated otherwise.  Large bold strokes are required here to convey the hurt, the anger, and the sadness of this film.  It was said by another essayist that the nudity of the film isn’t so much revealing as it is exposing.  This couldn’t be more true.  The numerous sexual encounters between Georgina and Michael are equally about opening up, showing off flaws, and fear of trust, as they are about intimacy, arousal, and lust.  The glamour and sensuality of it isn’t gone really, but juxtaposed with the violence and inhumanity demonstrated by Gambon’s Spica, it has a much more comforting effect.  It makes them, and us, feel safe and connected, and what a wonderful way to use sex in a film.

With everything it has to say, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover really needs to be watched more than once to glean all you can from it.  Despite the difference in tone and message, and despite the rather disparate nature of the films I’m about to compare it to, there is a definite connection between this film and something like the Three Color Trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge), by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (especially Amelie), and to a much different yet no less important extent, some of the films of Paul Schrader, especially Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters for it’s use of color, Affliction for it’s use of tone and message, and Auto Focus for it’s mixing of both of these things.  This film is defintely worthy of your attention.  I was certainly glad I gave it mine.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Sho tLiberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962

Director – John Ford

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin

In the westerns of the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a clear line of right versus wrong, good guy versus bad.  At the beginning of the film, when someone new rides into town, all you have to do is check out the color of his hat, and by paying careful attention, you can fairly reliably ascertain whether they are a hero or a villain.  In the films of the late sixties and seventies, the west is filled with anti-heros, outlaws, and characters whose motivations are all colored in shades of gray.  A good man and a bad man are harder to tell apart, both through their deeds and their choice of clothing.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is roughly halfway between these two extremes.  Our main character may be obviously good, but he has a limit and can be pushed over it.

A sort of companion piece to the earlier Jimmy Stewart film, Destry Rides Again, this film explores the somewhat darker side of being an upstanding citizen.  Where in Destry, Stewart played a character who overcame the danger and conflict through sheer force of will, never letting his ideals falter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him as a strong-willed man left with no further options than to turn his back on his idealism and resort to violence.  Whether one film was a commentary on the other, or if it was just a sign of changing times is something I can’t say for sure, but together, each illustrates the glory and the grime of standing up for what you believe in using what is essentially the same character as a means of illustration.

Liberty’s story is a familiar one.  Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a well-meaning yet naive lawyer, who while on a stagecoach heading into the small town of Shinbone runs afoul of a local desperado and general bully, Liberty Valance (the one from the title).  Valance, played by the deliciously malicious Lee Marvin, beats Stoddard to such a degree that he is in need of treatment by the local nurse/doctor, which forces him into the lives of the local restaurant proprietors (including the love interest of local tough guy and town hero Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne).

As Ransom mends, he searches for a legal means of defeating Valance, educating the town, and unbeknownst to him he works his way into the heart of the restaurant owner’s daughter Hallie Stoddard.  As this affection becomes more and more plain, Ransom runs the risk of ostracizing his best and only chance of beating Valance at his own game.  Without Tom Doniphan standing in between the outlaw and himself, Ransom will be forced to either use violence and maybe live, and or stick by his ideals and likely die.

Well, hopefully the title of the film should explain that someone, at some point, actually does deal with Valance, but the grand question is who, and ultimately the question becomes Does it matter?”  The world is a violent place full of trials and challenges.  Is rising to face those challenges on those terms a failure of character?  Does it diminish the fact that you do what you can to find a better way, or does the need for self-preservation trump such minor concerns?  Not to mention if you go against your ideals, resort to violence, then find out that it wasn’t even you who ended up solving the problem, what then?  Are you still culpable for the choices you made, or do you get a pass?

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The film posits that it is all about perspective.  Ransom Stoddard, gets teased, taunted, beaten and worn down so low, that he finally picks up a revolver, squares off with Liberty Valance, takes aim, and shoots.  Liberty ultimately got what he wanted.  The high-minded, goody-two-shoes, was knocked from his high-horse and forced to come down to his level.

Ransom drew, shot, and Liberty ultimately died, but it wasn’t Ransom’s bullet that did the killing.  Tom Doniphan, watching from the darkness, made the shot that killed Liberty Valance and saved Ransom’s life.  The towns people held Ransom up as a hero, and by saving his life, Tom made sure the woman he loved was happy, but did it negate or tarnish Ransom’s sacrifice?  I think it did.  Ransom took the woman Tom loved, whether he meant to or not, so through his bullet Tom responded by robbing Ransom of  both his ideals and the ability to deal with the problem himself, although ultimately it cost him everything.

Tom tells Ransom what he did, freeing and trapping him with his choices at the same time, but it doesn’t change what everyone in the town thinks happens. The outcome is still the same.  The only ones affected are Stoddard and Doniphan.  Their perception of their own actions defines how they see themselves, and ultimately informs their actions on into the future.

(***End Spoilers***)

That’s pretty heady stuff considering that Destry Rides Again was really more of a typical hero cowboy story about men wearing white hats saving damsels in distress from the men in black hats.  Wayne’s Doniphan and to a different yet just as important degree Stewart’s Stoddard are each wearing multifaceted hats made up of constantly shifting shades of gray.  Each man is not what you might consider a bad guy, nor are they as undeniably good as compared to the heroes of earlier westerns, but I would argue that this makes them each more compelling characters, capable of a more realistic portrayal, and ultimately more relatable to the audience.

Definitely worth a look, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is leagues better, in my opinion, than another John Wayne film Stagecoach, but not nearly as good as some rather grittier and challenging westerns out there like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Oxbow Incident, and a film not on this list (though it should be), The Proposition.  Check it out.

All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve

All About Eve – 1950

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and George Sanders

It’s rare that a film, good or bad, can be boiled down to a single sentence.  All the complexities and nuance that goes into the crafting of the story, the acting, the production value, or in the case of some films that just get it all wrong, the lack of these things, makes a film a difficult thing to summarize.  Harder still, is boiling down the power of these works still further to describe it in terms of only one word.  Though it doesn’t give any detail about the plot, or characterization, it speaks volumes of the impact these raw elements have had on the final product.  So how, you ask, does this film boil down? In the case of, All About Eve, all I can say is…wow.

Despite this being more than a decade after the revelation of film architecture that was Citizen Kane, Eve borrows to great effect the re-arranged timeline, dramatically changing how we see the three main characters at the beginning as compared to how we see them at the end.  Though the central part of the movie plays out in a very linear fashion, the film is bookended by a scene that gains vast amounts of context from when it opens the film to when it closes it.  The middle portion of the narrative periodically skips and jumps forward to flesh out the characters fully and fill in the questions asked at the beginning. Not only do we see the characters evolve, and grow, but we the audience steadily gain an awareness of each of them, their motivations, and their back-stories.  With each turn of the corner, more of the plot is revealed.  We come to find that what we thought we knew, was wrong, and that the truth can be far more dismal and malicious than the fiction we had been invested in.

The most contentious of these characters, played by Anne Baxter, is the titular Eve Harrington.  A rather meek, yet still rather suspicious woman, she is obsessed to the point of stalking with a well-respected and seasoned theater actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  Eve spends so much of her free time idolizing, and brown-nosing Channing, that Margo, eventually begins to buy into the hype so much so that she hires on the young sycophant as her personal assistant.  At first her actions and motivations seem innocent enough, but as the film progresses her agenda seems increasingly dubious.

The tide really turns when the smarmy theater critic (also the occasional narrator) begins trying to manipulate the situation in an effort to exercise some control over both Margo and Eve.  The relationship becomes strained to such a degree, as it does with all of her important relationships, that Margo is nearly ready to cave.

Our second character, Addison DeWitt is the aforementioned culture critic for the newspaper and also functions as our narrator for the film.  The sardonic, unflattering commentary he delivers, immediately paint him as a wounded and more than a little bitter.  DeWitt credits himself for a good portion of these actors success, due to his favorable (or unfavorable) reviews, and is clearly upset that his view is not shared by them.  When he sees in Eve a chance to exercise some control over those he deems in his debt, he makes grab for it, spinning a web of deceit matched only by the one that is being spun around him.

Finally we have Margo, played by the legendary Bette Davis.  Her scowl wreathed in cigarette smoke that are delivered within the first 30 or so seconds of her screen time are enough to convince us that we fully understand her relationship with Eve.  She seems a cold, cunning and angry person.  Although, as the film progresses we see Davis paint Margo Channing as a completely fleshed out person, not simply the one-dimensional character portrait we get from some films of this period.  She is at times cocky, at others she is scared of growing old, or blindly angry at what she perceives as a slight.  Davis is each of these things, and all of them at the same time, delivering one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Beneath the glitzy New York theater setting, the backstabbing, and the drama, All About Eve is really the story of a woman, Margo, peeling away the facile, superficial elements of her life (not by choice, mind you) and seeing what it is that she really has.  The film seeks to determine the value of what you have left once you lose the extraneous things that populate your daily life, and by comparing these two women, Eve and Margo, it is obvious which has the better foundation.  Not only is this film an extraordinary example of the quality of work that came out of the studio system of Hollywood in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, it is also a remarkable achievement that it deals so frankly and honestly with the aging process from a female perspective.  This era can easily be described as somewhat of a boys club, so it is refreshing to see some diversity (I’m still waiting to stumble upon a film from this era that tells the tough as nails story of a gay, African-American, scientist, who is also a post-op transgender individual.)

Totally and completely worth it’s spot on this list, All About Eve blew me away.  After the film was over, for days and weeks afterwards, I found myself thinking about it.  Even though I had never had any interest in her before, I am very excited to see more of Bette Davis’ work.  When watching this film, you should indeed buckle your seat-belt  it will be a bumpy ride!

“Fuck. Bette Davis can act her ass off!” – Ashley