Artists and Models (1955)

Artists and Models -1955

Director – Frank Tashlin

Starring – Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Dorothy Malone, and Shirley MacLaine

So I’m gonna try (and more than likely fail) to review this movie without writing it off as simply a farcical exercise in showcasing Jerry Lewis’ one character that he does lumped together with a few opportunities for Dean Martin to sing. Frankly it was more of a talent show than it was a movie, but the question remains…is it worth it? No. No, is the answer.

The real difficulty with trying to keep this review about the higher brow aspects of a film like this, is that it’s really only about the momentary gag. Each bit in the film doesn’t build it self upon a story or even upon a theme, but simply builds itself on the last joke. Once the scene ends, it basically starts from scratch with only the loose frame-work of the Martin and Lewis characters being roommates.  This creates a rather herky-jerky, start-stop style for the story, and makes if very difficult to treat it otherwise.

Oh sure there is a tiny progression in story concerning the love interests, but it’s really more so Dino can sing silky love songs and Jerry Lewis can play embarrassed, and awkward with his famous, functionally retarded character. Each scene of this talent show technically contains the same characters, but none of them are bound by the rules of reality. Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself here…the story.

The story is simple, two guys live together in an apartment. One is an artist that sings and the other is…a sidekick? I’m not sure what the other one is really. It doesn’t matter, because the artist is no good as an artist, he would rather sing and try to woo his neighbor from a few flights down, and the side kick is simply there to eat paint chips and ham it up at every opportunity.  Half of the film is taken up by the kooky (I say kooky in a condescending way, not in a raucous and fun sort of way.) sight gags and slap stickery, which leaves the other half to develop the love story with the neighbor.

That neighbor coincidentally has a roommate as well, so it’s a perfect double date situation, except for the fact that the fantastic Shirley MacLaine is stuck with Jerry Lewis as a romantic counterpart.  The rest of the story involves something with getting a job at a comic book publisher, a singing and dancing number, brainwashing, and secret agents looking to get the code to some missiles out of the head of Jerry Lewis. So…not too much.

For all the grousing that I’ve done up to this point, the movie wasn’t truly terrible.  I was able to watch it in one sitting without turning it off, I paid attention the whole time, and most importantly (I guess) I remember what happened despite seeing it about a month ago.  That being said, it wasn’t worth my time in doing all of those things either, rather the movie just sort of stuck in my brain, unwanted and unbidden.  The acting, story and comedy was all rather second, if not third-rate.  Save for one scene, the bathtub/phone call scene, the film was never able to get a laugh out of me, and I only laughed during the aforementioned scene because it seemed so ludicrous that Jerry Lewis would not only just walk in on Dean Martin taking a bath, but that it didn’t seem to bother Dino in the least.  Who knows, perhaps it was commonplace in the 50’s to bathe openly under the scrutiny of your bizarre man-child of a roommate.

As far as cinematography and presentation goes, don’t expect anything dazzling or innovative and you won’t be disappointed.  Everything was par for the course for movies of this timeframe, with the possible exception of there being a crossover of the music and movie worlds, but that’s only really speculation, and now that I think about it, it’s most definitely not true.

Either way, all of this amounts to another film on this list that by all rights doesn’t really deserve to be here.  It’s almost like someone chose by throwing darts at a list of movies that were made, that’s it.  Not movies that were contenders, just movies that survived the act of being created.  If it’s a musical, or comedy that you’re looking for, you might do better to look elsewhere.

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The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler – 1961

Director – Robert Rossen

Starring – Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott

Heading into this movie, I realize now, I had a lot of pre-conceptions.  Not so much about the quality of the film, whether it would be good or bad, but more about the content of the film.  Thanks to countless posters in the various seedy billiards rooms that I frequent, I just assumed that there would be more pool than there was.  Also, I apparently wrongly assumed just who the hustler mentioned in the title of the film was.

For those, like me apparently, who aren’t too familiar with the story, The Hustler follows the driven ambition of “Fast” Eddie Felson.  Felson, played famously by Paul Newman is a small time hustler looking to beat the best in the billiards game, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and claim the crown of the best pool player around.  Fats along with his shifty gambling buddy played by George C. Scott, seeing Felson’s reckless ambition for what it is, work to exploit, and take advantage of him.

Along the way, Fast Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a woman so defeated by life, that she takes his interest as a sort of cruel taunt.  In reality, he feels as though he can fully be himself around her, without apology for his shortcomings.  The attention re-awakens her hope for a normal life.  Life for the couple starts to feel more and more normal, until that is, the real hustler, George C. Scott’s Bert, convinces Fast Eddie to go out on the road, running hustles and making money for him.  This drives a wedge in their relationship and threatens to ruin everything they’ve built.

As far as the movies that feature the character Fast Eddie Felson, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s take with The Color of Money, although the Hustler is certainly a good, if not great movie.  It may be due to my mood going into watching it, but I was really hoping for more action than drama, more suspense than revelation.

I wanted the cocky Felson to be a bit tougher, a little less pathetic throughout the film.  He is far more of a victim than he is a hustler.  It is certainly viable to create a story that ends unhappily, this film just made me sad.  For a guy who is clearly looking for acceptance, he sure gives away the acceptance he gets from Sarah without a thought about her or even himself.  The only thing that seems to matter to him is being the best in the eyes of those who are laughing at him and using him for their own gain.  As a result I was left more than a little wanting, and felt rather downcast after finishing it.  Despite their best efforts to craft a noir-ish character and setting, the movie seemed to be missing something.  Even the cinematography and music seemed somewhat forgettable to me.

I don’t mean to treat this movie harshly, clearly it had an impact on me, just not the one I was looking for going into it.  The image I have of the character is what I was left with from The Color of Money, a man who despite defeat, doesn’t give up.  Despite, humiliation, has a certain self-awareness, and despite conventional relationships, has carved out a little place for himself in the world.

Truth be told, I’ve had a certain blossoming of respect for this film just in writing down my feelings about it, although I think it says more for Martin Scorsese re-visit of the characters than it does for anything else.

I would say that despite the fact that I liked it, I definitely didn’t like it enough to include it on the list of 1001 movies.  There was an element missing either in the movie or what I wanted from it i’m not sure, but it’s missing just the same.  Either way, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t quite work for me.

“They play pool and stuff” – Ashley

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

The Great Train Robbery – 1903

Director – Edwin S. Porter

Despite it’s brevity and it’s relatively simple nature, the Great Train Robbery is essentially the prototype for the whole of the action movie genre. Directors as prestigious as Michael Mann, and Paul Greengrass owe quite a bit to the raw experience afforded to early film-goers by Edwin Porter, the films director. The “greatest living filmmaker”, Martin Scorsese even paid direct homage to this film, and the influence it has had on film, in his own film Goodfellas. With all this hype behind such a short work, does it stand on its own, or does it suffer from being more than a hundred years old?

With such high expectations going in, and with such a wealth of films that have come since, The Great Train holds up remarkably well considering. While it does seem a little slow when compared to the fast pace of action films of today, the story gets right to the point and doesn’t let up for any of its 12 whole minutes. I can picture in my head the reaction of the film’s first audience. By this point audiences had seen nothing like it. On screen violence, death, deception, and retribution all feature prominently in the film, and are more impactful than a lot of movies 8 times longer than it.

As far as cinematography goes, it falls into the same category that a lot of older silent movies do.  A little boring.  Due to limitations in camera technology, and mobility, there is no movement at all in the shots.  The camera is put into place, and the action simply happens in front of it.  Not super exciting, but again, considering when it was made, this isn’t all that surprising, or bad.

Without it, modern action, and crime movies wouldn’t be the same, but it still feels more than a little slow.   Either way, it definitely deserves its place on this list, and now that I’ve seen it, I’ll probably never watch it again.

“The opening sequence from Tombstone” – Ashley

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943

Director – Michael Powell

Starring – Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook

Throughout the history of cinema, pairings of filmmakers emerge who, together, can magnify and build upon each others abilities to create something that neither could have done alone. Often times these partnerships are comprised of a director and an actor, but its not limited to those two positions. For every Scorsese and DeNiro, there is a Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, or a Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman. Despite the job titles involved these partnerships can be very fruitful, but there is no more celebrated combination of talents than those of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seems to be the culmination of that particular pairing, though I can hardly profess to know for sure.  I decided to watch the movie in an attempt to follow along with the Powell/Pressburger movie marathon put on by the boys at the Filmspotting podcast.  Till that point I had, of course, heard the names of the famous duo, but I had no idea of their impact on the film industry.  So despite my having seen The Red Shoes before this film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp counts as my awakening to their particular brand of humor, whimsy, and romance.

Blimp  follows the unlikely friendship of Clive Candy, a young British officer, and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German officer with whom Candy is assigned to fight a duel after a misunderstanding between their respective countries.  Each man is seriously wounded in the duel and they grow close to one another in the hospital.  Theo eventually falls in love with his friend’s companion Edith Hunter, and risks another duel to ask for her hand in marriage. 

The film opens a few years from the beginning of  World War 1, and goes all the way through the Nazi build-up of the second World War.  Though they don’t see each other often, when the pair does have occasion to meet, it is clear that each man treasures his friendship with the other more than anything.  Even Candy’s fascination with Theo’s new bride, seemed to me to be simply an extension of his desire to connect with his friend more often.  Though he obviously has deep feelings for Mrs. Hunter as well. 

Each man grows from the idealism of youth, to the comfort of middle age, and into the winter years of their lives all the while enduring wars, the deaths of loved ones, and the political and social challenges that go along with being on opposite sides of massive turmoil and conflict.

Roger Livesey plays the stout, indomitable Clive Candy, in all his bombastic glory.  Ever the positive go getter, Livesey imbues Candy with a certain innocence that runs contrary to all the conflict and horror the character has seen in his lifetime.  Theo, played by Anton Walbrook, is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, and in his earlier years a bit more pessimistic thanks to Germany’s loss of the first World War.  Ultimately he provides a fine counterpoint to Candy, however, as both men vie for the attention and affection of the different incarnations of Mrs. Hunter, played memorably by Deborah Kerr.  Kerr plays Hunter, but also plays the woman who Candy ultimately marries, Barbara Wynne, and eventually the driver hired by Candy, Johnny Cannon.  The fact that each of these three characters looks similar is simply for the benefit of Candy and Theo.  Beyond the exterior, these three women are different characters in their own rights.

Pressburger’s script is able to maintain the dry, sometimes zany, British humor without losing any of the real emotional heft, and Powell’s direction gives the actors room to make these characters their own.  In the hands of another writer/director team, that fine line of humor and heart could easily have been lost.

Cinematographically speaking, Blimp is positively glowing in rich Technicolor tones, and dreamy 1940’s set pieces.  George Perinal, the film’s cinematographer, was also responsible for the look of another of my favorite films from this list so far, Le Million.  Perinal manages to keep that certain dreamy quality that I loved so much from Le Million, and use it in a completely different way in Blimp.

The one rather confusing, although ultimately unimportant, problem I had with this movie, was the fact that I waited quite a while for the character Colonel Blimp to show himself.  Well, actually that’s not entirely true.  Once I was caught up in the story, I stopped caring about the title so much, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until I looked up the reference to the stodgy British militarism on Wikipedia afterwards.  Check that out here if you are so inclined.  That one quibble shouldn’t prevent you from seeing this film, it didn’t stop me!

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.

Pickpocket (1959)

Pickpocket

Pickpocket – 1959

Director – Robert Bresson

Starring – Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, and Jean Pelegri

Ultimately, the end goal of any movie, or even any story for that matter, is to properly set up the climax for maximum impact with the audience.  For Pickpocket, Robert Bresson, bent the common movie conventions and purposefully crafted a flawed movie with sole intention of getting the most out of the climax of the story.

The story is a fairly simple one.  Driven by need as well as the obligation to provide for his sick mother, a young man becomes fascinated with the art of stealing.  Clumsy at first, he learns the art of sleight of hand pickpocketing until it becomes a compulsion for him.  Soon, he discovers that the police are on his tail, and he’s left with the option of going straight or being caught.

As far as it’s construction, the nuts and bolts that make it up, Pickpocket is flawed.  It’s flawed, but on purpose.  The missteps in the earlier portions of the movie all serve the scene at the very end.  The strange pacing, the missed musical cues, the fact that we never actually see anything concrete happen in the film, the flat un-affected acting.  All of these things, are suddenly jarred into working, and emotional heft of the plot comes into focus.  In all actuality, the plot of Pickpocket, is almost inconsequential.  The important part is the change that takes place in our main character.  The story is a means of getting him to that point where the change can occur, and the disjointed filmmaking is a means of conditioning the audience so that when the change finally does take place (and the music hits, and the acting seems natural, etc…) we feel it that much more.

Robert Bresson, a student of the school of French New Wave cinema, is interested in creating a soul for his character.  He wants the flat, mundane character that we are presented with to come to life in front of us.  His method of maintaining  aspects of the filmmaking process so that he can change them later when the story calls for it,  is not a new one.  Directors as far-ranging as Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch have used these techniques to craft some of the most memorable performances in cinema.  What would Jack Nicholson’s horrific rampage in The Shining have been if Kubrick hadn’t maintained the still camera, and methodic line delivery?  Or how about the unsettling death tableau from Blue Velvet?  How shocking and bizarre would that have been if the set up of the main characters hadn’t been so white washed and comfortable small town?

The problem with Pickpocket is not in what it achieves, but in what it doesn’t.  Due to the fact that the whole film is a set up for the last scene, we are left with that one redeeming quality.  If in that first hour, the audience is bored and leaves, then it wasn’t worth all that effort.  The story was a bit thin, and the characters were only just deep enough to carry the plot, so there were no stakes to them failing, or to our pickpocket being caught.  Pickpocket serves as an interesting exercise in the ability of film to tell stories and convey emotion, however, it’s good that other filmmakers were able to take what was successful here and improve upon it.

Badlands (1973)

badlands

Badlands – 1973

Director – Terence Malick

Starring – Martin Sheen, and Sissy Spacek

I first had heard about the film Badlands through my regular subscription to the film review podcast Filmspotting. The two hosts periodically have marathons on a certain theme. This theme just happened to be “The New Hollywood”, films during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s. Badlands, along with others such as Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, Mean Streets, In the Heat of the Night as well as a few others filled out the bill. The Filmspotting hosts spoke so highly of Badlands, and Terrence Malick, that I was instantly compelled to move this film up on my Netflix queue, and see what all the hullabaloo was about.

As far as directorial debuts go, Terence Malick’s Badlands is right up there with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, American Beauty, by Sam Mendes, and Rian Johnson’s Brick. Badlands, like each of those other first films, is a breath of fresh air. Despite the fact that it was released in 1973, it’s age doesn’t show in the least. The young stars, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek look younger than I’ve ever seen them, so much so, that it is almost hard to recognize them. This works to their advantage, making each pitch perfect in their roles of the rebellious, angsty young man, and the doting admirer who at the same time grounds him and is his inspiration for acting out. Everything they do, up until the end of the film, is done for the benefit of each other (this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the just thing, or the lawful thing, but it is done entirely for the other person.)

There are times in this relationship where the love between the two main characters is at times stretched thin (especially when he kills), and at times exceedingly tender, but ultimately the two are on completely different paths, and eventually have to part ways.

***Spoilers***

One plot point that doesn’t really work is the reaction of Sissy Spacek’s character when Sheen kills her father. It is established early on that the father and daughter are not particularly close, but her reaction, or rather her lack of a reaction, doesn’t seem fitting. It holds with his characterization that he would be rather dismissive, and aloof about what he’d done, but just by virtue of the fact that the closest member of her family was murdered, by her boyfriend, seems like it deserves at least some outrage or anger.   Spacek’s character treats the killing the same way she might a burned dinner, or a ruined dress, bummed but not distressed.  Even though she is ultimately trading father figures, her real father for Kit (Sheen), I would imagine some sort of emotional blow up there, even if it’s anger directed towards the dying man.

I guess Spacek’s character is at least consistant throughout the film.  She continues to be the impartial observer throughout the entire sequence of events, from the murder, and robbery of each of their victims, down to the eventual fate of her doomed beau.

*** End Spoilers ***

Another thing that struck me about this film, is the fact that I’d seen a lot of it borrowed and co-opted by other films. Films such as Natural Born Killers borrow heavily from the plot of the film, while True Romance borrows heavily from the narration and musical elements ( I suppose this makes sense, as Quentin Tarantino, the writer of both Natural Born Killers and True Romance, is a master of borrowing good bits from other films, revitalizing them, and making them his own.)

While it was certainly worthy of mention as an important landmark film, I can’t say that Badlands affected me quite as much as other films in the Filmspotting new Hollywood marathon did when I first saw them. While I’d like to watch Badlands again to get more from it, I’ll take Bonnie and Clyde, or Midnight Cowboy any day of the week!