The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Sho tLiberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962

Director – John Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

(***Warning Spoilers***)

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

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

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

(***End Spoilers***)

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

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

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Super Fly (1972)

Super Fly – 1972

Director – Gordon Parks Jr.

Starring – Ron O’Neal, Carl Lee, Sheila Frazier and Julius Harris

Films the world over are often products of their environments.  The daily input of the culture from which they are borne infuse them with settings, history, and ideals that in equal measure define, inform, and limit them.  The Blaxsploitation movement of the 1970’s is a prime example of this juxtaposition.  These films often held a mirror up to the audience, mixing entertainment, and catharsis with a frank look at the ills and issues of the African-American communities of the day.  Super Fly in particular was a smashing success at the box office, proving that audiences were interested in seeing a confident, self-assured, and strong black presence win in the end, even at the cost of having that presence draped in the somewhat shady trappings of a drug dealer, pimp and murderer.

Priest (Ron O’Neal) is smooth, he’s well dressed, he’s good with the ladies, and he is also a dealer of cocaine, and a bit of a gangster.  Constantly confronted with the notion that today might be the day he ends up dead or in jail, Priest finally gives voice to a long brewing need to escape the drug dealing life that he’s built for himself, and move on to something else.  Something more positive, and something without the scrutiny and control of “The Man”.  To achieve this, he makes the inevitable decision to make one final score (in this case it is a big, one-time buy that will be quickly sold off through many, quick, smaller scores).

Much is made about Priest’s desire to leave the life of dealing drugs, but when it comes down to it, the cocaine affords him a certain comfort and power that is too difficult to escape fully.  Even if he decides to give up the dealing aspect, Priest can never really free himself of his relationship with cocaine entirely, because he snorts it far too regularly.  It’s dependence at a different, but no less fundamental level for the character.

The system is set up so that it draws him back in.  To escape the dealing, he needs more money.  To make more money, he needs to sell more drugs.  To sell more drugs, he needs to enter into deeper relationships with the corrupt, and greedy cops who want him to deal more drugs, increasing their-own profit and status.  He is operating from within a system that wants him to fail.  Even his partners and so-called friends question his desire to get out of the life.  They tell him that this is the best he can hope for, and that he is a fool to throw all that money and potential away.  The quest for freedom, and desire to grow are matched equally by the quest for wealth, and the desire for respect and acceptance.  Each side is working at cross purposes to the other, while at the same time fueling the progress of the other as well.

That same conflict echoes itself back and forth throughout the entirety of the film.  The cocaine that Priest sells, which gains him the power, money and purpose that he enjoys, wouldn’t be nearly as much of a success if it wasn’t illegal   The “man” or “men” that he rages against are the very same people who keep the drug demand high, and essentially keep him employed.  Just by virtue of being the hero who’s gonna stick it to the man, he disrupts the system, and is hurting his ability to continue selling drugs, simultaneously freeing himself from the bonds that trap him, and ostensibly putting himself in a situation where they have the ability to exert more power over him.  It is a never-ending cycle, and it’s more than Priest can take.

The one bright light in his life, is Georgia (Frazier), the woman who stands by him and actually believes in him.  Aside from being someone he goes to for comfort and the occasional night of passion, with Georgia, Priest can finally let his guard down and be something other than the tough, un-caring gangster he is to everyone else.   Unfortunately, instead of realizing this and treasuring his relationship with her, he instead continues sleeping around with other women and disregarding her at almost every turn.  He turns to her to assume a good deal of risk when he makes his move to escape the clutches of his oppressors, but offers her little in return.  It does seem more than a little ironic to me that the simple considerations of freedom from oppression and need for respect that Priest is fighting for in his own life are dismissed by him when it comes to Georgia.

For a movie that seems so concerned with empowering it’s primarily young, primarily black audience, it works very hard to simultaneously hold them back in relation to how they view themselves.  For every assertive step forward, Super Fly, takes just as an assertive step backwards as well.  While it seems a little disappointing, I guess, I sort of understand it at the same time.  I mean I root for Breaking Bad’s Walter White to escape his police pursuers and keep cooking meth, and really is that so different as Priest?  Not by much.

In terms of the cinematography, Super Fly is such a 70’s movie!  Long tracking shots, zooming in and out of the action.  Washed out film stock that bleeds with life despite it’s rather dated look.  While not technically great composition, lighting, or editing, I loved watching it nonetheless.  Costuming, hairstyles, the music (fun fact: Super Fly is one of the few movies with sales out performed by its soundtrack, thanks in no small part to Curtis Mayfield’s instantly recognizable songs), and the sparse acting, all add up to a period piece that had no idea that it was one.  The look and feel of this film, speak to a time that was and never will be quite like this again.  This film had quite an impact in terms of style and substance of not only films, but of pop culture as well.  This if the film that started the popularity of the “Pimpmobile” after all.

Though it has flaws, some of which were glaring, Super Fly remains an important piece of film history, and as such is deserving of its place on the list.  While it certainly isn’t my favorite film on this list, it was pretty fun to watch, and afterwards to think about.  I look forward to seeing Shaft, another blaxsploitation film on this list, and a sort of companion piece to this film.  The only question is, which soundtrack is more iconic, Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly or Isaac Hayes’ Shaft?  More on that once I’ve seen both.

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!

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men – 1957

Director – Sidney Lumet

Starring – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, and Lee J. Cobb

The legal system is a funny thing. By and large it works on the notion of truth, the differentiation between lies and provable fact. The problem is, that since all of these definitions and judgements are filtered through, and interpreted by other human beings, it’s nearly impossible to keep prejudice, opinion and point of view from clouding the “truth”, and making an unbiased result a near impossibility.

12 Angry Men seeks to scrutinize the process of determining a mans guilt or innocence by watching that process unfold. Henry Fonda plays juror number 8, the one man on the jury of a murder trial who hasn’t pre-decided the fate of a young man who is accused of stabbing his father to death. Each of the other jurors has their own individual reasons for thinking he is guilty, although none of them have anything to do with the facts in the case and have more to do with their own biases.  The entire duration of the film is tied up in the task of separating perception and fact, and as a result the internal, and is some cases subconscious motivations of each of the jurors is laid bare.

One major theme in this film is prejudice. Whether its prejudice against the young man because of where he comes from (a poor, immigrant neighborhood), or prejudice in favor of ones own interests (the man who wants the trial over with so he can get to his baseball game), the film is really asking what form of prejudice do you, the viewer, subscribe to, and are you able to understand it and take responsibility for it?  To a certain degree we are all guilty of this manner of behavior at one level or another, but like juror 8 we are also capable of standing up for what is right, understanding when we’ve made a mistake, and changing course when we are wrong. The biggest takeaway from this film is the idea of personal redemption. Yes, the personal redemption that is on display in the film, but moreover the potential for our own personal redemption.  Despite the dramatic story acting as a vehicle for the message, it is the audience that is under scrutiny the entire time.

The jurors are a vehicle through which we can see ourselves.  The young man accused of murder is not even a character that we get to know.  All we know of him is based on the impressions that we get from the completely normal,  yet flawed human beings that are charged with judging him, and we in turn make our own judgements based on what we think of them.  It quickly becomes apparent how fragile and important the system is that decides a man’s fate can be.  Not based on the color of his skin, his occupation, the neighborhood he grew up in, or much more scary, what else you have going on in YOUR life, but by the definable and provable facts of what he (or she) did or didn’t do.

As usual, Henry Fonda plays the role of our system’s super-ego to a tee (a role he has worked on and perfected in another film I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing, “The Ox-bow Incident”).  With his furrowed brow, stoic features, and piercing eyes, he was born to take on the good guy role (precisely why he is so good as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West”).  Similarly, the gravely voice, gruff “angry-father” demeanor, and intense stare, make Lee J. Cobb a perfect choice as the stubborn, petulant, juror 3.  Finally, despite the fact that it took me out of the story a little, it was fun to see The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) take a turn as a raving, racist, who doesn’t quite understand how uncomfortable he makes everyone else.

As far as cinematography goes, this film is beautiful to look at.  The fact that it takes place (almost) entirely in the same room throughout the entire film is a testament to how engaging the film’s subject matter, and how talented cinematographer Boris Kaufman actually is.  One scene in particular, just after the aforementioned racist rant, where each Juror is forced to listen to what they sound like and each responds with shame and disgust, is so well orchestrated that I kept thinking about it for days after seeing it.

When it comes to the films on this list, the ones you should see, some are good, some are not so good, and there are others, like 12 Angry Men, that transcend the boundaries between importance of message, and quality of work.  It’s a wonder that this film came out of the 1950’s, before the bulk of the civil rights movement that would come after it.  It has definitely earned it’s place on this list, and is well worth a watch.  Incidentally, if you haven’t already seen it (or read the review), go watch The Ox-bow Incident too!  It might actually be my favorite of the two films, but both are fantastic.

“Acting!” (said in a whisper) – Ashley

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.