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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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!

Le Boucher (AKA: The Butcher)(1969)

 

Le Boucher (AKA: The Butcher) – 1969

Director – Claude Chabrol

Starring – Stephane Audran, Jean Yanne, and Anthony Pass

The thriller, or mystery as it is sometimes called, is a fantastic genre allowing director, actors, and audiences to give themselves over to the story and let it pilot them where it pleases.  Layers of the story pile up, confusing the regular flow of logic, and often need to be reverse engineered to discover the truth.  The crime or crimes, central to the story can be simple or horrific, but almost always reveal the uncomfortable, jealous, angry, or violent side of humanity that everyone is capable of, even if only a little.  Often times, the genre is so captivating, that the story outshines it’s director or stars…unless of course you make a shitty mystery, like this one.

Le Boucher or The Butcher is the story of an idyllic little town in France where bodies start turning up, staining the picturesque countryside with fear, accusations, and paranoia.  As we watch, we begin to suspect the town’s local butcher of being the killer (more than a little because of this film’s clever title). 

***SPOILERS***

If mysteries have taught me anything, it’s that the killer is never who you most suspect, and always who you least suspect, right?  Apparently, Mr. Chabrol never got that memo.  Just as it seems more and more like the butcher is the killer, he turns out to be…the fucking killer.  It’s not even a dramatic reveal.  It’s just sort of said.

***END SPOILERS***

We never really learn anything about any of the characters, nothing of real value anyhow.  It hasn’t even been that long since I finished the movie, but I can’t recall either of the main character’s names, and I’m not willing to waste the time to look them up.

Cinema of the late 60’s and on throughout the whole of the 70’s, was a revolutionary time in terms of craftsmanship, storytelling, and editing, but it did give birth to some rather annoying elements of film as well.  The heavy reliance on zooming while filming is one of the worst.  Camera’s got lighter, and improvements in single lens reflex systems provided opportunities to create lenses capable of achieving great variances in focal length.  Unfortunately this meant that long zooms were readily accepted into the visual storytelling language, and this movie uses the technique to death.  It is distracting and provides no guidance for what the audience is supposed to be looking at.

The acting is fine by the standards of the French New Wave, that is, non-actors employed to give the story a more realistic quality.  This film lacks the immediacy, and growth, and emotional heft of the New Wave movement, however, and manages only to drag on and disappoint.

My impression of this film probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the first disk I got from Netflix skipped so badly that it was unwatchable, as a result, I had to request a second disk and watched the other half a good week after I saw the first.  None the less, I don’t think this film could have been saved.  Chalk this one up in the “avoid” column, do yourself a favor, and watch something like Seven, The Third Man, Memento, or L.A. Confidential.  You’ll be happy you did.

Le Million (AKA: The Million) (1931)

Le Million (AKA: The Million) – 1931

Director – Rene Clair

Starring – Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy and Rene Lefevre

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the musical genre.  Films like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and most recently Nine have been reminding people that, at one point in filmic history, the musical was king.  Ever since the advent of the “talkie” the desire to see something more, a brilliant new spectacle has inspired audiences to come back to the theaters again and again.  Eventually, thanks to many different factors, the dissolution of the studio system, wars both hot and cold, and the drive for realism in film, the musical receded into the background eventually getting lost altogether.  But people forget how revolutionary this genre actually was, which is a perfect example of why films like Le Million should be seen…to remind us.

The story is a rather simple one, Michel a poor, yet overly amorous artist, is swamped by his debts and hounded by his creditors.  Good news comes when he learns that he’s won the lottery, but the bad news is that his girlfriend, jealous of his flirting, has given away the coat containing the winning ticket to a passing stranger running from the cops.  From this point the mad dash to recover the coat, and claim the money starts at a fevered pitch.

The story itself does little to imbue the feeling of joy one gets while watching this movie, instead it is in the performances, the sight gags, and the musical numbers.  At times, the routines come from out of nowhere, springing to life at the tail end of a sentence, while others are a little more elaborate and choreographed.  Either way, each song, and accompanying dance, spread the fun further and further along to such a degree, that I wish it had been longer (and it is a real rarity for me to say that about a musical)!

Set up and executed in much the same way as a stage play, each of the main sets (the artist’s studio, the opera house, the resale shop, etc.) consisted of painted backdrops and was decorated with props.  The actors played out their scenes, transforming the open space to fit the needs of the story, rather than finding specific locations for each set.  The most memorable scene may very well have been the opening shot, panning across the rooftops of Paris, combining matte painting and live action rather seamlessly given the timeframe in which it was filmed.   Despite the fact that one of the most striking shots in the film was also the first one, the excitement builds continuously throughout, culminating in the beautifully conceived and realized Opera scene, where the two main characters are stranded with each other, hiding onstage during the performance.  Everyone sits on the edge of their seat, waiting for the curtain to drop so the chase can resume.

Released just 4 years after the debut of sound in motion pictures with The Jazz Singer, Le Million utilizes music, sound effects, orchestration, and silence better than a lot of films released today.  A lot of the films prat-falls and sight gags are garnished with cymbal crashes, and blasts from the brass section.  Missing dialogue is filled in with music cues, and chase sequences and crowd scenes are juxtaposed through the addition of traffic sounds and other sound effects.

The bottom line is that this film is great fun, even if, like me, you are not a big fan of musicals or gratuitous singing.  Don’t get me wrong, I like music, but singing and dancing for singing and dancing’s sake doesn’t take the place of plot and naturalistic acting in my book.  That being said, Le Million pulls it off anyway.  Definitely worth my, and your, time!

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (AKA: A Trip to the Moon) (1902)

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_poster

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (AKA: A Trip to the Moon) – 1902

Director – Georges Melies

They called director George Melies, the magician, due to level of special effects and fantasy storytelling in his work (well…that and the fact that before working in film he was a magician by trade).  His most famous creation, Le Voyage Dans La Lune, or A Trip to the Moon, was a real watershed moment in the history of film.  Simple in camera tricks, fades, dissolves, not to mention his love of special effects, were monumental stepping stones for the modern structure and the overall language of film today.  His techniques were utilized and added upon by later masters such as D.W. Griffith (who despite his controversy, is widely considered the father of film editing), and were subsequently adopted as staples of the language of film.

At just over 12 minutes, story of A Trip to the Moon is a relatively simple one.  A group of astronomers and learned men pile into a rocket, and are fired in a large cannon all the way to the moon.  Once there, the men discover a strange and alien world filled with mirthsome stars, and angry constellations.  Due to a snow storm created by Jupiter (the god?) they are driven underground into a subterranian cavern.

It is in this underground castle that the story really picks up steam.  They encounter a humanoid creature that jumps around frantically and suprises the men.  Typically of humans, they react violently, hitting him with an umbrella which causes him to explode into dust and smoke.  The moon man’s enraged kinsman launch an assault on the earthlings, eventually capturing them although not before they kill a bunch more of the moon people.  The men are brought before the king of the moon, who chastises them for their cruelty.  What happens next?  They break free and kill the king of course.   The earthlings escape their captors and get back to their ship, manageing to fall back to earth to land in the ocean and be rescued.

The story is brief, but imagination it took to realize it visually was astounding.  At the time, the Lumiere brothers and Edison and his Black Maria company were putting out slice of life type films, that showed people leaving the factory, or a train coming into the station.  Melies not only constructed a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, but he also filled in the blanks on the visual side of things.  Stars and constellations came to life, and monsters sprang from the ground and were dispatched in a shocking and exciting manner.  The most famous image from this masterwork shows the face of the moon with the scientists rocket lodged in it’s eye.  The experiences and imagery that Melies gave to his audiences were things they had never seen before.  Things that defied logic, yet they were there on the screen.  They are some of the most enduring images ever produced.  Truely Melies was a magician.

So this film, the first film on the long list, is my 20th full review.  That means, when you combine the 300 movies that I’ve already seen from the list with these 20 that I’ve watched specifically for it, I’ve seen 32 percent of the entire thing.  This puts the total that I’ve reviewed at 70 even, thats counting the bulk reviews that I’ve done so far of course.  Not too shabby.  I’m still having fun, and I’m still excited to watch more and continue on to the end!

“I think it might have been staged.” – 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.