Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

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In the Name of Love…(and in honor of my wedding!)

So its been a while since I’ve done any of these smaller reviews, and since love is most definitely in the air, (and in honor of my getting married a few days ago) I thought I’d do some more with a nod to the romance genre. These, are all films from the list of 1001 movies, mind you, the label “Romance” has been placed on them (sometimes appropriately, sometimes inexplicably) by the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, not by me, so my apologies for any confusion (Natural Born Killers, and Abre Los Ojos, I’m looking in your general direction). Hope you enjoy!

Tirez Sur Le Pianiste AKA Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Francois Truffaut’s second full length film after the fantastic “The 400 Blows”, wasn’t quite as good as his first outing, nor was it as iconic as his most famous, and most romanticized film, Jules et Jim, which is really the film of his that should have been on this genre list rather than Shoot the Piano Player. Jules et Jim is a portrait of the romance that can happen between men and women, between friends, and can turn from light and positive, to smothering and destructive. All that aside, Shoot the Piano Player is far from a bad film, it just doesn’t stand up as well next to the heavyweights that surround it.

Giulietta Degli Spiriti AKA Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Once again, this film doesn’t quite fit into the tidy little mold of “Romance” that the book sort of lumps it into. Rather, Juliet of the Spirits, seeks to illustrate the freedom of cutting the strings of dependency and exiting a bad relationship. The titular Juliet, trapped in a bad relationship with a distant, and unfaithful husband and judging family, sees in her free-spirited, sexually open neighbor, a chance at being happy by herself. The looping, colorful visuals and the almost song-like nature of the films structure make Juliet of the Spirits a lot of fun to watch. This is my favorite of all of Federico Fellini’s films. Definitely worthy of its place on this list.

Harold and Maude (1971)

By removing the initial motivators of attraction (the age limitations, and socially acceptable standards of beauty), we are able to focus entirely on the real magic of a successful relationship…the relating. Struggling for attention from his parents and peers, Harold manages to find someone, Maude, who causes him to see the world in a completely different way than he normally does, and teaches him to stretch his wings and live beyond the rules that govern everyday life. Aside from teaching this 20-something young man how to deal with other people, the 70-something Maude teaches him all about his own sexuality, both in theory as well as in practice. This off beat little film, fits very well into this “romance” category.

“I wanna be Maude when I grow up.” – Ashley

Manhattan (1979)

This Woody Allen film is one of a select few of his films that I really, really like. Not only does it (famously) make New York seem like a grand, vibrant, and teeming place full of possibilities (most Woody Allen films I feel rely solely on crazy characters), but it also doesn’t make the opposite mistake of making it seem like a mad-cap thing, a ridiculous parody of itself, full of assholes and caricatures of real people. Allen really gets it right in this film.

Tootsie (1982)

Mrs. Doubtfire, but much funnier!

“Almost as good as Mrs. Doubtfire.” – Ashley

The Princess Bride (1987)

I may be a little biased. I grew up with this film and am not able to see it for any of its flaws. Not only is this film a great romance, it has so much more to offer as a movie. Adventure, humor, fractured storytelling, Fred Savage, it has everything!!! This movie really is pretty fantastic and holds up well under scrutiny, it’s a shame there aren’t more films like it out there.

“Romacticomisy!” – Ashley

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

While this isn’t nearly my favorite Rob Reiner movie (This Is Spinal Tap), it does, however, stand on its own as a very good one. It’s tried and true story of a couple of people who discover that after years of being friends and butting heads about the little things in life, they are actually in love with one another and have been secretly (secret to themselves as well as everyone else) been pining away after one another the whole time.

“Awww…” – Ashley

Say Anything (1989)

As pop culture aficionado, Chuck Klosterman, wrote in his book Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, every girl dreams about taking Lloyd Dobler home to meet her parents. Or more accurately, they’re interested in the idea of Lloyd Dobler rather than any actual flesh and blood guy that may or may not share similarities with him. While this could very well be true, there is something to the romanticized tale of the young man who does everything he can to win the object of his affection. Top it all off with socially relevant, and timeless crafting of soundtrack and you’ve got yourself a Cameron Crowe movie before everyone knew what that even was.

“Mmmm….John Cusack.” – Ashley

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Based more on the gothic style of Edward Gorey, rather than the more recent works of Tim Burton with the computer generated color spectrum of Milton Bradley board games, Edward Scissorhands is Burton at his stylistic peak. The film puts the normalcy of suburbia under the microscope attempting to find the flaws in beauty and vice versa.

“Ugly haircuts!” – Ashley

Groundhog Day (1993)

Hilarious. Hi. Lar. I. Ous! Do yourself a favor if you haven’t seen this movie, and rent, buy, borrow, or steal it. Bill Murray at his comedic finest, and for once something Andie McDowell is good in. Or more to the point, she isn’t bad in it. Chris Elliot, whether or not you love him or hate him (I personally love him), plays well off of Murray’s short fuse. The small town gags, time travel humor, and of course Ned Ryerson pay off again and again. Totally one of my favorite comedies of all time, oh and I guess it’s got some romance in it too.

“Oh, my gosh!  When the little groundhog is driving the truck…Adorable!” – Ashley

The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion is a rather hard nut for me to crack. While I didn’t fall in love with the piano, I didn’t dislike it either. It actually falls in the middle in terms of appreciation of the three films of hers that I’ve seen. I liked Holy Smoke! better, and absolutely regret seeing In The Cut (the flop with Meg Ryan trying to be luridly sexy. FYI, it doesn’t work.) Still the love story is there. Between both Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter’s characters, as well as between Hunter’s Ada, and the piano she loves so dearly. Unfortunately, like a lot of love stories, this one has a healthy bit of tragedy mixed into it.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

While this film does contain a romance that most certainly moves the story forward, and provides conflict for the main characters (Mickey and Mallory Knox), the film itself is more an analysis of our dependence upon and love affair with television, pop-culture, and mass media as a whole. The rather juvenile and simple love story at the heart of the film is intended to be as such and as a result can’t really be considered a “romance” as it were. All that aside, I do really respect this film, all it has to say, and the skill of craftsmanship that went into creating it. It’s just that calling it a romance is like calling Die Hard a Christmas movie, it is…but it isn’t.

“Shot on every film stock available.” – Ashley

Chong Qing Sen Lin AKA Chungking Express (1994)

The first of two Wong Kar Wai movies on this list (the second being In The Mood For Love), both of which deal with the idealism and theory of love. In Chungking Express, it’s the romanticizing of the love that has passed by, and focuses on the memories and impressions of two love struck cops as they pine over the relationships that have passed them by. The real magic and whimsy of this film comes in through the cinematography and camera work. The sheer color used in this film puts most Technicolor films to shame. Hong Kong never looked so good as it does here, and it never seemed quite as magical either.

Braveheart (1995)

This is it. This is pointed to as the last great Mel Gibson movie before he decided to show the world just how crazy he actually was. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s seen it seems to be helpless against its charms. While it is good, it is not the knockout that everyone said it was before I saw it for the first time. Gibson’s typical formula of sappy sentimentality and buckets of blood and guts is certainly shocking at times, and tries to tug at the heart-strings at others, but it really ends up seeming a little too melodramatic overall. Good not great, but certainly better than The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, or his often publicized rants about religion, race, his wife, and the attractiveness of the officers that are simply trying to do their jobs and arrest him. I’d say do yourself a favor and watch Lethal Weapon, or the second Mad Max instead.

“Another movie about how awesome the British are!” – Ashley (said with a straight face)

Clueless (1995)

I wrote this movie off when it first came out, but since then i’ve seen it and it’s actually a pretty decent re-telling of Jane Austen’s Emma (although to be honest I had to look that up. I was under the mistaken impression that it was based on Shakespeare). Alicia Silverstone, and Paul Rudd (yup, that Paul Rudd), manage to skewer the early 90’s pretty successfully, although I’m guessing a lot of my new-found affection for it is based on nostalgia rather than an actual interest in the early 90’s. The movie features a laundry list of B level stars who, look familiar and you know you’ve seen in other places, however none of whom are really worth that much excitement (Donald Faison, Brittany Murphy, Breckin Meyer, and Jeremy Sisto, most notably).

“Like, oh my god, you totally made out with your step-brother!” – Ashley

Shine (1996)

Again we have a film that doesn’t fit into the romance category quite right. Don’t get me wrong, there is indeed a romance. That side of the story is shadowed by the larger story of the man (David Helfgott played by the capable Geoffrey Rush) and his tumultuous relationship with his music. As with the recent biography, The Kings Speech, Geoffrey Rush proves himself as an actor capable of doing so much with the time he is given on-screen. The steps of going from his passion through his breakdown, and the long hard journey back again seems utterly believable and not at all melodramatic, which is especially remarkable considering the story features, child abuse, hardship, concentration camps, war, sibling rivalry, poverty, defeat, and redemption. A remarkable achievement indeed.

Abre Los Ojos AKA Open Your Eyes (1997)

I saw this film after seeing it’s much over hyped remake, Vanilla Sky. That may have lessened the impact of the big reveal at the end by quite a lot, but I have to admit that neither film really did all that much for me. Both were okay. Both had the same interesting concept at its core, and both had Penelope Cruz playing the exact same role, but neither really had that spark that most good, and all great science fiction movies have. That concept that blows your mind, even if just a little. The romance in this case tends more towards the obsession end than most of these other films, and as a result it never really knows whether it’s more of a “Fatal Attraction” or more of a high concept “Blade Runner” type movie. In terms of its addition to the list of 1001 greatest movies ever, at least they didn’t pick Vanilla Sky. Yuck!

Titanic (1997)

In terms of ticket sales, record-breaking box office, risk of failure, and even scale of the production, Titanic deserves to be on this list. Where films like D.W. Griffith’s “Intolorance”, and Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” ended up failing, Titanic really, against all odds, succeeded. The film rocketed the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into the stratosphere, and cemented the reputation of director James Cameron as a director who can deliver on the scale of something like “Gone with the Wind” or “Ben-Hur”. As far as story goes, it is a fun story, but not in my opinion worth all the hullaballoo that it’s generated. Instead go see, Aliens for action combined with a strong mother/daughter relationship, or Terminator for a strong action combined with romance movie. I even liked The Abyss better, if you want a sort of action, sort of underwater space alien movie with a hint of romance. I pretty much like everything James Cameron has done without question except for Titanic which was just okay, and Avatar which was just a bloated piece of shit.

Rushmore (1998)

By far this is the most beloved Wes Anderson movie the world has ever known, by almost everyone but me. For my money, I’d take The Royal Tenenbaums any day of the week, month, year, or decade. That isn’t to say that Rushmore is bad, or that it’s craftsmanship isn’t up to snuff. I just happen to connect with and enjoy each of Anderson’s other movies far more than this one. The story, simple as it may be, involves romance but isn’t really focused on it. Max (played by the pretty awesome Jason Schwartzman) finds himself infatuated with one of his teachers at the prestigious Rushmore Academy. Coincidentally, that same teacher is the object of the attention and affections of one of Max’s mentors Herman Blume (one of Anderson’s regulars, Bill Murray). The one-ups-man-ship that follows goes to ridiculous degrees, but ultimately both characters have to learn to find love without Rosemary, the teacher in question, who is interested in neither of them.

“More like Less Anderson!” – Ashley

There’s Something About Mary (1998)

Certainly the most famous of the Farrelly Brother’s films, this is alas, not my favorite of theirs. My pick would be Dumb and Dumber which would have fit equally well into the genre of romance. Where as with Dumb and Dumber, I laughed so hard that I had trouble breathing, with Mary I only really chuckled a few times. I haven’t seen it since it was originally out in theaters, but I really haven’t had the desire. I kinda like Ben Stiller, and I do like Chris Elliott, but they are no team Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Go see Dumb and Dumber!

“Which creepy guy is a girl to choose?” – Ashley

Dut Yeung Nin Wa AKA In the Mood for Love (2000)

All of the words that get thrown around when talking about beautiful, touching movies, can easily be applied to this film, In the Mood for Love, and they still seem like they don’t do it justice. Sumptuous, lush, vibrant, gorgeous, breathtaking…I could go on, but I think you get the idea, the film had an impact on me. The story of two people who are neighbors, each of whose spouses are cheating on them, find comfort in the friendship and love that develops between them. It’s entirely accurate to say that, though it’s slowly paced and a little difficult to start, once you get going, you will be hooked. This is the love affair that was only hinted at in Brief Encounter, and grazed in Lost in Translation. Quite possibly the most beautiful looking movie I have ever seen. Just talking about my memories of it makes me want to get it down off of my DVD shelf and watch it again.

“Gasp!” – Ashley

Wo Hu Cang Long AKA Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

A little bit long for my taste, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is still a pretty awesome, gorgeous and sweeping kung fu movie. The romance in this film is two-fold. Firstly there is the forbidden romance between master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat son!) and his colleague in kung fu skill Yu Shu Lien (the always exceptional Michelle Yeoh). Secondly there is the love that can only come from impetuous youth, here in the form of a skilled and impetuous assassin and the desert bandit who tested her limits. Both romances unfold during the quest for the stolen sword “Green Destiny”, as well as the assassination plot that threatens all involved…blah, blah, blah….IT HAS CHOW YUN-FAT! One of the coolest people ever to live, and exist, and be alive. See it!

“Sometimes a bitch just gotta run on a tree!” – Ashley

Y Tu Mama Tambien AKA And Your Mother Too (2001)

This coming-of-age come (no pun intended) sexual-awakening movie also serves as a portrait of the Mexico City of today. A place that despite the long distances that it has come, still has a long way to go in order to close the disperate gaps between the social and economic classes. Two young men, Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) aren’t so much vying for the love of Ana, (the young woman who teaches them about their sexuality) as they are trying to one-up each other in boasting and peacockery. We watch these young men start down the road to maturity, starting as selfish, inexperienced children, and heading towards, fully grown, stronger adults. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a document of a modern-day Mexico, it’s citizens, and two young men in transition, and is well worth a watch.

Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain AKA Amelie (2001)

If the joie de vivre of post war Paris, and the existential longing for love and meaning found during the French new wave of the 60’s were to have a baby it would be named Amelie (or Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain in French). I was floored by this movie the first time I saw it. During the whole last 20 minutes or so I held my breath and, as they say, it may have gotten a bit dusty in the theater by the end. Audrey Tautou, as the beautiful, yet lonely, ingenue Amelie is perfectly cast. Director in his own right, Mathieu Kassovitz, plays her counterpart Nino, who together with Tautou, and a whole cast of Jean Pierre Jeunet regulars, brings just enough quirkiness and humor to balance out the sappy sentimentality, and potentially maudlin subject. Amelie is as light and happy as the typical french concertina music that permeates the soundtrack. A joy for the eyes, ears, and heart.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Beautiful, shy girl finds love in a photo booth.” – Ashley

Moulin Rouge (2001)

Yet another film taking place in the city of lights, a favorite location for romances, Moulin Rouge is a blending of old and new. The tradition of musicals blended with the song-smithing, pro-tools tinkering and visual flair of today. Following up his huge music driven success, Romeo + Juliet, director Baz Luhrman again uses hyper-kinetic imagery and aesthetic to amp up the style of 1800’s Paris. For each step forward he takes in terms of style from his last film, he takes a step backward in terms of appropriate talent of his lead actor and actress. That is to say, though both Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are accomplished actors in their own rights, but they don’t quite have the singing and dancing chops of some of the actors of old. That aside, a colorful cast of secondary characters, engaging set pieces, and a well crafted romance more than make up for whatever minor shortfalls the main actors have when it comes to performance. The kaleidoscopic frenzy that the, cinematography, songs, and story add up to becomes its own sort of metronome-esque pace, and once that rhythm takes hold you don’t want it to let go.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Tuberculosis: The Musical!” – Ashley

So there you have it. Another 25 little reviews of films that I’d seen previous to starting this undertaking done and out of the way. I hope you’ve enjoyed them despite their brevity, or maybe because of it, and please forgive me for getting sentimental…I did just get married after all!

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas – 1984

Director – Wim Wenders

Starring – Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, and Nastassja Kinski

Director Wim Wenders’ (pronounced Vim Venders) other film on this list, Wings of Desire, made quite an impression on me.  It’s use and juxtaposition of color and black and white imagery to illustrate the perspectives of human beings and angels respectively was so masterfully used that I wasn’t really sure it could be topped.  Combined with the fact that Paris, Texas’ story wasn’t about something so grand and complex as the need for faith and guidance, I thought for sure it would be  a let down.  It turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

Paris, Texas tells the story of Travis, a man who has been wandering the southwestern United States and northern Mexico for the last four years.  When he stops at a farm in Texas, overcome by exhaustion and fatigue, he is brought to a doctor who promptly calls his brother, Walt, to collect him and pay his medical bills.  Once Travis is re-united with his brother he begins the long journey home, reconciling the last four years, reconnecting with his young son, and slowly putting his life back together piece by piece.

Harry Dean Stanton plays the lead role of Travis.  The audience learns about his past the same way his brother (played by Dean Stockwell) does, slowly, as Travis remembers it.  As his history unfolds, Travis eventually learns to trust again, and begins speaking more and more openly about why he vanished and where he’s been.  To tell more than just this basic plot skeleton would be to deny those who haven’t seen it the pleasure of discovering it on their own.  Needless to say, it is a fully realized story with characters that are completely fleshed out (and since it was filmed in the mid-eighties, they are also a bit naive).  I had one or more issues with the placement of responsibility at the end of the film, but by and large was completely won over by this film.

Almost more so than Wings of Desire, the visuals in Paris, Texas are so very arresting.  The world that these characters inhabit is so vivid and saturated with color.  The cinematographer, Robbie Müller, has also worked extensively with another director to come out of the surge of independent film in the late eighties and early nineties, Jim Jarmusch.  Based on his resume, it is no surprise that each scene seems like a living oil painting.  Shadow and color play together on-screen to create a palpable atmosphere, one which is as much a part of the developement of the narrative as the acting, directing, or writing.

Where Wings of Desire sought to use color as a sudden rush of emotion and passion (color does represent the human experience after all), Paris, Texas seeks to overpower your senses, so much so that by the end the real world was looking pretty drab and uninspiring (it doesn’t help that it’s winter in Chicago right now).  Texas, a pretty interesting place what with the diversity of landscape afforded to it by mother nature, has never looked so engaging or as strikingly beautiful.

Based on the two of his films that I’ve seen, Wenders has quite a knack for getting nuanced acting performances and matching them with striking visuals.  A quick review of his resume on IMDb has me wondering why he’s been so busy with films that I haven’t ever heard of.   With talent like his, I would have guessed that some of his films would have garnered more attention (despite the influx in popularity of superhero movies and TV remakes that have been so popular lately).  Unfortunately the latest film whose name I recognize is 2000’s Million Dollar Hotel, which I don’t think was received very warmly by critics or audiences.

Paris, Texas more than stands up as a film that has earned it’s place on this list, as has Wender’s other entry on the list, Wings of Desire.  Who knows, since everything seems to go in cycles, perhaps Wenders will even release a new film to the fanfare of his much celebrated classics (in a year when a Terrence Malick film is coming out, anything can happen.)

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke – 1967

Director – Stuart Rosenberg

Starring – Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Strother Martin

Combining religious imagery, southern drawl, male bonding, and a healthy dash of exuberance, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke has become more than the small story of a man’s stint in the clink, it has transcended its reach and become a meditation on the importance (or the lack of) of authority for authority’s sake.  Paul Newman, arguably one of the most iconic actors of his time, perfectly personifies independence, and the idea of anti-establishment.

The story deals with capture and incarceration of the titular, Luke, and his relationships with his fellow inmates, the guards that drive them, and with the bureaucratic warden who oversees everything in the prison.  In the first 5 minutes of the film, we see Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters, being caught, and sentenced to 2 years in prison.  While he is doing something technically wrong, the 2 year sentence seems a bit of an over-reaction to the weight of the crime.

Once in prison, Luke spends his time testing the boundaries set by both the inmates as well as those set by the guards.  Eventually bonds begin to form, and a precident is set as the other inmates begin looking up to Luke.  It is in this part of the film that the main relationship, that of Luke and George Kennedy’s Dragline, is solidified.  The two men start off as rivals; Luke is simply pushing buttons, a behavior that Dragline sees as threatening to his authority among the other inmates.  Over time, the men become friends, Dragline eventually becoming Luke’s biggest advocate.

There are many different theories on the internet about what the different factions represented in this movie represent.  There is quite a bit of religious iconography that appears in the composition of the film, and while that is a perfectly valid interpretation, I fell more in line with the societal similarities.  To start with, Luke.  He gets his own group because he is really a free radical.  He doesn’t follow any one set of guidelines despite what anyone else tries to force him to do.  Luke disrupts the set in stone flow established by the system (the Warden), and maintained by the guards.  He inspires change, and therefore straddles the line between respected and feared. 

Next we have the prisoners.  These men represent society, everyday people with faults and flaws.  Each has a place, a role in the story, and each seems to run on a set path (ones that eventually get thrown off by the arrival of Luke).  Despite the fact that each these men are convicted prisoners, all of them are relatable, and the majority of them are downright familiar, almost good.  They represent all mankind.  The guards are an obvious stand in for the law, specifically the police.  These men keep the peace, and enforce the will of the bureaucracy, often utilizing fear, threat of violence and force (most personified by the anonymous and imposing “man with no eyes”). 

Finally, we have the warden.  In the story, the warden is one man, yet he represents a system of rule, or government that is infinitely larger than one man.  Since this system is most disrupted by the arrival of Luke, the warden is the most afraid of him.   What Luke represents is dependant upon which group you are from.

Despite it’s rather serious themes, Cool Hand Luke remains a rather jovial film, thanks in no small part to Newman’s performance as the eminently likable, Luke.  Newman and George Kennedy were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, with Kennedy taking home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.  Balancing out the weight and likability of the main characters is Strother Martin as the warden.  His measured performance never travels too far into the cartoon villain territory, yet it’s just strong enough to get the proper reaction.  Cool Hand Luke is another film that is populated with famous faces before they were famous, including Harry Dean Stanton, and Dennis Hopper. 

The film looks like a sweltering hot summer feels, sticky sweaty clothes and all.  The era, and the setting of the film are perfectly evoked in the cinematography, with sunbleached days and hot, dark nights. 

I am coming more and more to believe that Paul Newman was one of the industry’s best actors that never got the full recognition he deserved.  I am writing this (in part) to commemorate his birthday (01/27/2010).  So belated happy birthday to the late Mr. Newman!  What we have here, is a failure to communicate!  Well…I hope that’s not the case, anyway.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident – 1943

Director – William A. Wellman

Starring – Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, and Anthony Quinn

The Western, as of late, has gone through a bit of a transformation.  What was once a nice clean depiction of black and white, good and evil, has changed over the years flitting across many different themes and archetypes into the  metaphorical and allegory laden period pieces that they have become today.  As I’ve said in my review for the fantastic McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I have tended to discount westerns in general, and early westerns in particular as being fluff, and devoid of value.  My appreciation for the genre came to me fairly recently, and I’ve been working to shake my initial impression ever since.  The Ox-Bow Incident goes a very, very long way in repairing my misconceptions of what the western is capable of, as well as make me wonder why I haven’t seen Henry Fonda in more films.

As the title suggests, the plot centers around a single horrific incident, that we the audience don’t even see.  Everything that inspires what we see happens off-screen.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino took a little inspiration for how to achieve the bank heist from Reservoir Dogs from watching this film. There is not a word of dialog wasted in this almost too-brief potboiler that deals with fear, anger, and the tenuous connection between the two.  Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (better known as, and from here out, referred to as Col. Potter from the M*A*S*H TV show) play a couple of ranchers who, fairly new in the area, come into town for a bit of relaxation and a bit of drink.  Conversation in the saloon quickly turns grim when word comes that a local cattleman has been shot to death and his herd stolen.  Fear quickly turns to anger, and despite the best efforts of the few level-headed townsfolk, a posse forms and rides on the word of rumor to intercept the criminals.  Soon enough, the lynch mob happens upon a group of three sleeping men, who quickly become a target for the aggression and fear of the scared towns folk.

So we have a typical western-ish set up, and a cast of characters that also seem a little typical for your average western, so what makes this one so different?  Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.  Henry Fonda’s character, Gil, is neither good nor evil.  He doesn’t moralize, blindly standing up to do “the right thing”, nor is he driven by nefarious motives toward the typical tying of a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.  He is a cynical observer who is no more exempt from the actions of the mob than the rest of them.  Despite his objections, he believes without question that there will be no redemption, no help for the three accused men.  He is a beaten man from the beginning.  The real hero, “Good Guy” is played by Dana Andrews, as Donald Martin, one of the suspected cattle rustlers.  He tries to reason with the mob for the lives of him and his companions, a senile old man, and a Mexican man (played soulfully by Anthony Quinn) who is instantly demonized by the crowd due to his race.  Together Gil and  Donald juxtapose the humanity of individuals as well as the monstrosity capable of indifferent men, a struggle that wouldn’t creep into mainstream cinema consciousness till the noir films that came out later,  after the war.  It is in these two men, that we see victory battle defeat, and true good versus true evil.

As far as the artistry and construction of the film, it is economical, taking place in two main locations (the Saloon, and at the accused men’s camp site).  The film doesn’t rely on flash, massive set pieces, or spectacle.  Instead, it simply lets the solid, well-told story play out as it should.  The fact that it was shot in black and white (although probably more of a decision based on when it came out rather than as a conscious artistic choice) really helps to underpin the fact that the characters see each other as well as themselves in terms of black and white, good and evil.  Similarly, the “trial” of the three men takes place out in the wild, literally and figuratively outside the bounds of civilization.  Civility is not a quality that the mob has going for it, and the creaky, shadowy setting suits this subtext perfectly.

I chose to watch this movie via my streaming Netflix choices mainly based on it’s length (it’s only 74 minutes), but I was wowed by everything about it.  The message of the film can be seen in both the overt imagery, the subtext of the plot, and the finely honed dialog.  Each element of this film works together so incredibly efficiently, that 74 minutes was all it needed to do the job right.  You owe it to yourself to watch this film, I promise it won’t take long and you’ll be happy you did.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

ButchCassidySundanceKid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – 1969

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross

Growing up as a kid, I would visit my dad on the weekends.  Together we would watch shows like “Bonanza”, and movies like “The Outlaw Josie Wales”.  To my dad, the western was a big deal, and as a result I got pretty burned out on watching them.  So I stopped.  All through high school, and some of college I avoided them.  To me, they all seemed the same.  Gritty, boring, long, and worst of all, un-interesting.  It was in college that I began my love of foreign film, from the French new wave, to Italian neo-realism.  The angry young men of British films, to the heroic samurai from Japan.  It was one samurai film in particular that caught my attention (Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”), and eventually led me back to the western through the work that it inspired (A Fist Full of Dollars).

Despite this rather circuitous route, I’ve since come to embrace the western as the praise-deserving genre that it is.  With these newly opened eyes, I’ve seen some real gems that I would have otherwise missed, among them, Once Upon a Time in the West, 3:10 to Yuma (the 2007 version, as I have yet to see the original), The Proposition, and now…Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!

Newman and Redford are positively magnetic as the titular pair of outlaws in this late 60’s film by George Roy Hill.  Redford in particular stands out for me.  He is quiet, introspective, dangerous, and complex.  He has an intensity as well as a light-heartedness, all conveyed through “simple” posturing, or through a smouldering stare.  Before this, my only real knowledge of Robert Redford came from a small selection of his acting resume (Three Days of the Condor, Sneakers, and Spy Game), none of which gave a consistent feel for his ability.  In Butch and Sundance, I feel that I got a much clearer glimpse into why this actor became as popular as he did.  As the Sundance Kid, he is the calm, cool and capable partner of Butch Cassidy, the smooth-talking, idea-man played by Paul Newman.  Despite Butch being more of the main character, and having more dialogue, he was continually out shone by the quiet, almost Harry Lime-esque character of the Sundance Kid.

Don’t get me wrong, Paul Newman is great in the role of Butch Cassidy, but since I expected less of Redford, I was left with a more lasting impression from his performance.

Both characters seem wholly entranced by, and are ultimately slaves to the impending future.  They are living through the events of the present, with their eyes firmly forward, ever planning the next heist, fleeing the current town for the next one, and orchestrating the next caper.  As the film progresses, they slowly become aware that this shiny future they admire has no place for them, that they are a dying breed.  In every aspect of their lives, there exists strife.  From the dissent in their own gang, to the special posse contracted to deal with them, to the overwhelming odds they face by the end of the film, it becomes clear that their time is through.

The thing about this impending doom, though, is that they are seemingly un-willing to change in order to stop it.  While trying to escape their pursuers, they are told “It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”  Throughout the film, they are given multiple chances to turn away from their destiny, but they never do.  The glamour and and excitement of this lifestyle is all they know, and it keeps them constantly committed to their outlaw trade, looking for fresh starts, second chances and new hideouts (New York, Bolivia, Colorado, etc.).  The eventuality of their communal fate, illustrated in the scene where Butch Cassidy is riding his brand new bicycle, doing tricks, and taking risks, only to end up in front of a stampeding bull.  And so it is with Sundance too.  The railroads are bringing civilization and law to the once lawless terrain measured and ruled by the gunfighter and his gang.  They are literally and figuratively being driven to extinction.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fantastic watch, and is well deserving of it’s place on the list of 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die.  Highly Recommended.

“What the shit, bicycle montage?” – Ashley

…there’s more…

So it’s time again for a batch of the movies that I HAVE seen.  We are starting to get more into the time frames from which I’m more familiar with, although there are still a ton of movies from this roughly ten year span that I haven’t seen.  Either way I have some work ahead of me, so without further ado…

The Stranger (1946)

This was one my more recent Orson Welles views.  As one of his less talked about films, I didn’t know whether it was something that I should expect to really enjoy like The Third Man, or Mr. Arkadin, or if it was more of a “I was young and needed money” type of movie.  I was pleasantly suprised to find that it was the former rather than the latter.  Welles plays a former member of the Nazi party hiding out in plain sight in small town America.  He is being pursued by the ever vigilant Edward G. Robinson, who isn’t quite sure whether this is the man he is hunting, or if he is simply a small town school teacher.  The Stranger is a fantastically underrated film, Welles as a director, and both Welles and Robinson as actors are top of their game!

“The Stranger asks the age old question: What’s worse,  accidentally marrying a Nazi, or purposely grooming your eyebrows to look like semi-circles?” – Ashley

La Belle Et La Bete AKA Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Of the two versions of this film and one version in Television format (that I’ve seen anyway), I much prefer this black and white, french one from the mid 40s.  The magical whimsy that Cocteau naturally imbues this film with, through the special effects costumes, and the poetic nature of the story, far surpasses the Disneyfied and televised versions.  Jean Marais seems natural, alien, and feral all at the same time, as the beast.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Fantastic for so many reasons, not the least of which that this story serves as the inspiration for as well as the loose structure of The Big Lebowski, one of my favorite movies of all time.  Bogart and Bacall are never better together than they were in this, each at the top of their games, and each with their roles fitting like gloves.

“Wait…now who’s that guy again?” – Ashley

The Killers (1946)

I have to admit, I like the second version of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, better than this 1946 version by Robert Siodmak.  Despite liking source material, Siodmak, the actors Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, there is just something about seeing Ronald Reagan and John Cassavettes playing opposite each other (Reagan in the villan role) that captured my attention and cheered me up.

“Ava Gardner, you so pretty!” – Ashley

Great Expectations (1946)

The rare, short David Lean film, Great Expectations was suprisingly to me, not as daunting as it could have been.  Great performances by Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham.

Notorious (1946)

I like this movie, although I do not necessarily love it as I feel I’m supposed to.  Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are great actors, but I feel that too much is made of this film.  Worth the watch, but ultimately films like Casablanca, Charade, and Rear Window are much much better.

“B.I.G!” – Ashley

Out of the Past (1947)

This is a fantastic film noir starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, about the owner of a small town gas station, whose mysterious past catches up with him when a big time criminal boss lures him into a world of crime.  Awesome cast!  Kirk Douglas makes a great villain.

Ladri Di Biciclette AKA The Bicycle Thief (1948)

It has been such a long time since I’ve seen this movie, and since that time I’ve seen so much more in the way of foreign and art films.  And while I thought some of those films were strictly better, The Bicycle Theif still remains a benchmark against which I weigh other movies.  This film more than any other introduced me to and maintained my interest in Italian Neo Realist film.  From here I moved through the years to Fellini, Pontecorvo, Germi, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and of course Antonioni.  Still, The Bicycle Theif remains in my head, as clear as when I first saw it.

“Italian Neo-Realism…boooooring!” – Ashley

Rope (1948)

Not one of his best films, but certainly, Rope stands as an interesting experiment.  Comprised of 5 or 6 different long camera takes, Rope is effectively a filmed stage play.  The transitions inbetween scenes are fairly clever as they are meant to be invisible, making it seem as if it were filmed entirely in one take.  The action, suspense, and plot twists depend entirely upon the acting, as the camera cannot do any elaborate or special movements.  The plot centers around some young men who, as an experiment to see if they can get away with it, have murdered their fellow classmate.  As a means of proving how perfectly constructed this crime is, they host a dinner party while the body of the victim is still in the room.  It is up to Jimmy Stewart, a guest at the party, to reconstruct how it happened and expose the two murderers.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Orson Welles.  Murder.  A beguiling lady.  With those ingredients you have  the recipe for an awesome movie.  To tell you facts about the plot, would almost give away too much.  Needless to say, check it out, it’s awesome.

The Red Shoes (1948)

This tragic fairytale utilizes saturated comicbook-esque color to highlight the passions in the life of the young ballerina, Victoria Page.  The color red, specifically, stands out as a sort of totem color standing for passion, drive, and even obsession.  While beautiful to look at, the story is not as engaging as some others of this era, the film’s main plot is mostly love story and for a self professed action buff, I felt it was lacking something.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

All you need to know about this movie:  AWESOME FUCKING MOVIE!  SEE THE SHIT OUT OF IT!!!!

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness is a master of disguise in this dark comedy about inheritance, and family relations.  It is a good film, a real good film actually, but I didn’t think it needed any further hype than that.  It certainly gave was the grandfather to a lot of grade B or lower films that have come out of Hollywood, Eddie Murphy pretty much has copied the premise of Kind Hearts and Coronets in all of his more recent flicks from the Nutty Professor to the present (and by this I don’t mean the failed humor, I mean the fact that Alec Guinness plays so many different characters.)

The Third Man (1949)

An absolute classic!  Orson Welles plays Harry Lime to the nines, pairling each of his moments onscreen with his dialogue, utilizing each to the fullest.  Joseph Cotten plays Lime’s jilted best friend, hunting for the elusive truth about his pal.  He is torn between his attraction to Lime’s girl, and the loyalty he feels toward his friend.  Pitch perfect in every way, right down to the bombed out rubble of the post-war Vienna setting (The film was actually in and around post-war Vienna).

Orphee AKA Orpheus (1949)

Just like “La Belle et la Bete”, another film by Jean Cocteau, Orpheus is a beautiful piece of lyrical, visual poetry.  It is filled with similar themes of death, life, love, mirror images, and redemption.  Highly visual, and despite being fairly sussinct for all of it’s ambition, it accomplishes it’s goal.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A film noir through and through, from the “one last heist” type plot down through the starkly bleak urban setting.

Rashomon (1950)

The film that introduced the rest of the world to Akira Kurosawa, and Toshiro Mifune (Through the Venice film festival).  That alone warrants it’s inclusion on this or any other list of influential films, but Rashomon has so much else going for it.  It is the story of an assault, and murder, told after the fact from each of the points of view of the parties involved, the witness, the bandit, the wife, and even the victim.  Completely blew me away when I first saw it!

“If you don’t like this movie, I’ll punch you in the face.” – Ashley

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Quite possibly the best film noir movie out there.  An ingenious story toying utilizing elements of Hollywood’s past (Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, and Cecil B. DeMille, all play integral parts in the story, some, like DeMille and Keaton, play themselves), and it’s future combining them together artfully and cohesively.  Billy Wilder’s fascination with cynicism finds a comfortable home in this tale of stars who are not ready to be forgotten.

“Don’t move to Hollywood.” – Ashley

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Hitchcock’s story about a chance meeting on a train that ends in murder.  One of his more atmospheric films, Strangers on a Train is a potboiler right down until the end, despite the stakes being revealed from the onset.

“Murder-swap!” – Ashley

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Yet another Alec Guinness film that serves to highlight his subtle yet potent presence.  Here, as a seemingly mild mannered bank clerk, he masterminds a heist to smuggle a shipment of gold out of the country.  Filled with spot-on comedic moments and timing, this movie along with the original version of the Ladykillers is tied as my favorite Alec Guinness film (not including the original Star Wars Trilogy).

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

A hallmark of science fiction, The Day the Earth Stood Still, seems a little dated and the premise is a little thin.  I enjoyed watching it, but I have to say for a genre of movies that depends highly on the visuals and special effects, it didn’t have the affect on me that it would have if I’d grown up with it.  That being said, it is still a fun story, and is certainly responsible for inspiring a huge number of films and directors that are inspiring me today.  Klaatu…barada…nikto.

Ikiru AKA To Live (1952)

This film asks the question, “Can one person make a difference?”, and answers with a resounding yes!  After years upon years as his bureaucratic, mundane job accomplishing nothing, Kanji Watanabe learns he has cancer and strives to do something worthwhile with the rest of his life.  Something that will make a difference to someone.  This is one of Kurosawa’s best films, illustrating the perils and dilemmas of the everyday person and demonstrating each person’s responsibility for their legacy.  Warm, humanistic, and bold, this film should be required viewing for everyone.

Le Salaire De La Peur AKA Wages of Fear (1953)

An excellent adventure film, the Wages of Fear strives to break out and be more than the definition of it’s genre.  The good news is that it succeeds.  Utilizing tension and pacing, Henri George Clouzot, keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as our (anti)heros accend the trecherous mountain pass in trucks carrying nitroglycerine, in order to stop a fire at an oilwell.  The people sent on this mission are completely disposible, each doing it for the high pay that comes with the completion of this dangerous job.  Re-made as Wizards, a film by William Friedkin, and starring Roy Schieder, The Wages of Fear stands out as one of the best action movies that I’ve ever seen.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Mired in controversy due to Director, Elia Kazan’s anti-communist and anti-union sentiments, (Kazan named names during the blacklisting period of the fifties in Hollywood) the good qualities of the film can sometimes be overshadowed.   Marlon Brando, and Rod Stiger turn in Oscar worthy performances, deserving recognition outside of this argument.  The film itself still stands as an alegory to the cancerous nature of communism and the power of the individual worker against the greedy union and mob influences.  Not as powerful a film as it is often hyped up to be, but certainly important to the history of Hollywood, and definitely worth a watch.

“Method = No enunciation. ” – Ashley

Rear Window (1954)

One of the best films ever made, and certainly Hitchcock’s best film, Rear Window does so much with so little.  It serves as a meditation on the voyeuristic nature of movies, and in society, all the while telling a cracking good yarn.  Hitchcock combines visual and storytelling elements of Jacques Tati, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder, while adding in his own gift for mystery and suspense.  This is the best of all worlds, a nearly perfect film.  Not to mention it has the beautiful Grace Kelly in it too!

“Your creepy neighbor may save your life.” – Ashley

Well, that’s it for now.  Hopefully you’ve enjoyed another installment of the short but sweet reviews of these films that I’ve already seen.