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.

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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

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!

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.