Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom – 1992

Director – Baz Luhrmann

Starring – Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, and Bill Hunter

I hadn’t realized before sitting down and watching it, but seeing Strictly Ballroom pointed out just how I’d been missing Australia, not to mention Australian film.  There is a certain quality of the acting, the tone and the intonation.  The characters are at once relate-able and larger than life, and the initial cartoonish impression I had of Australian cinema turned out, I realized, to simply be a vehicle for a more universal set of truths.  In an effort to be funny, and make for a more compelling read, I have had the tendency to make jokes at the expense of, and be rather hard on some of the films that I’ve seen.  The caricatures of the people in those films seemed unrealistic or even laughable on a first viewing, but ultimately, once the stories were done and the reviews written, I continued to think about films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Muriel’s Wedding.   Each stayed with me longer than I would have thought.  I have come to rather like Muriel’s Wedding, despite feeling a little indifferent to it when I wrote the initial review. Like each of those other films, Strictly Ballroom, is completely an Australian film, and just as before, it’s got me thinking.  Thinking about the film itself, and about going back to Australia.  Hopefully soon!

My wife in particular was excited about this film, thanks in no small part to the fact that it centers around dance.  Though, the film isn’t really what I would call a dance film in the same way that something like Singing In The Rain is a dance film, it is instead to dance as Rocky was to boxing, an important plot point, but not necessarily the focus.

The story centers around Scott, the promising dancer who yearns to break out of the rigid formula required by the Pan-Pacific Ballroom Dance competition, and dance his own movies, from the heart.  Everyone from his partner, to the judges, to his family all try to warn him that he is being reckless with his chances of winning the competition and making something of himself.  It’s only, Fran, the mousy, seemingly inexperienced dancer in his class that sees otherwise, and encourages him to break free from the rules, and from everyone else’s expectations.

Scott and Fran both are both good enough characters, played well by actors Paul Mercurio, and Tara Morice respectively, filling out the roles nicely with likable, engaging characters that the audience wants to root for, but it’s really the supporting characters that populate the world around them that make this movie such a joy.  Take Fran’s parents for example…at first her father seems like an angry, possibly abusive guy trying to commandeer his daughter’s future, but it turns out that he is a passionate dancer who truly doesn’t want to see his little girl waste her time with someone who doesn’t treat her as she deserves.  Her mother, likewise, is a rich breathing person who deeply loves her family.  You can tell at once that each of them, outside of the reality that this film covers, has lived a full life, each with their own experiences and trials.  This is a testament not only to the filmmakers, but to the actors as well.

Likewise, Scott’s parents harbor their own desires and regrets, as they strive and scrabble trying desperately to reach for past glories.  Scott’s dance coach, Les, as well as his rival Doug, are both great fun to watch as they blunder through the narrative, successfully wresting my attention away from our two leads.  Good as each of these secondary and tertiary characters might be, certainly the most watchable performance was turned in by Bill Hunter, as the detestable, corrupt, Ballroom Federation president, Barry Fife.  Chewing each bit of scenery that he’s given, Fife is sooooooooooo much fun to watch, that I almost wish the film were about him.

At first watch, this film, as well as a lot of other films that come out from down under, seem a little simple, a little cartoonish, or even more than a little over the top, but each film that I have had the good fortune of seeing, is saying more than what is on the surface.  Priscilla, as well as Muriel’s Wedding, have strong messages of acceptance, and Muriel in particular has more than a little to say about forgiveness (of yourself just as much as of anyone else.).

Similarly, Strictly Ballroom is more than what is evident on the surface.  It preaches passion for what you love, and acceptance of others, not despite, but because of what they are.  I really enjoyed this film, more even than watching it, I enjoyed thinking about it afterwards, which is really a sort of first for me.  I am looking forward to giving this film another viewing to see if I can glean anything further from it.  More than anything, though, this film makes me miss Australia.  It brought back memories of traveling along the coast of New South Wales, from Kiama back to Sydney (although I’m not sure I could tell you why it made me think of that…), and for that I loved it!

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The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, TheThief, HisWife & HerLover

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – 1989

Director – Peter Greenaway

Starring – Helen Mirren, Richard Bohringer, and Michael Gambon

By far, the most dramatic visual statement a film can make is the use of color.  The use of color in a film, any film, immediately sets for the audience and then maintains the tone of the story throughout the rest of the film.  Amongst all of the important elements of filmmaking, plot, acting, directing, art direction, editing, etc., the choice of how to present your film’s color scheme is arguably the most immediate and subjective choice you can make.  A very washed out color palette says something completely different from say a very saturated one, or even a monochromatic one.  From the first frame the audience is instantly on board and facing the direction you’ve pointed them.

Despite all the nastiness, pain and anger this film has on display, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is such a lush and visually sumptuous exercise in color use, that a critique or review could be written solely on its use and impact alone (although I’ll try to touch on other stuff too).  Peter Greenaway, angry with the political climate in Britain loaded this film with vitriol aimed at the Thatcher government that was in power during the making of this film in the 80s.  Thanks to my limited knowledge of 1980’s England, the not so subtle symbolism and rather heavy-handed commentary on the state of his home nation was all but completely over my head.  Thankfully, however, that didn’t take away from the overall message of the film, nor on the long-lasting aftertaste it left in my brain.

To start with, I should mention that the entire film is shot in the confines of or immediately outside of a fancy french restaurant, each area of which is dressed in its own specific color.  The exterior of the restaurant is blue, the kitchen green, the dining room red, and the ladies room is white.  Not only that, but each of the character’s clothes change to match the setting when they go from one to the next. (ie: as a character moves from the kitchen to the dining room, their clothes change from green to red, etc…) Not only does this stay constant, but each color is indicative of the character who dominates that setting.  The blazing, angry gangster holds court in the dining room.  The ladies room represents a sanctuary for the adulterous couple.  The kitchen is the realm of the cook, and the outside represents the real world.  There is one exception, however.  Michael, the rather nebbish man who captures the eye of the gangster’s wife, is always clad in a rather drab brown color.  He is the exception to the color rule, he is his own constant.

The thief of the title refers to Albert Spica, mercilessly and ravenously played to the hilt by Michael Gambon.  Spica is a gangster of the most reprehensible variety, used to getting his way through intimidation, anger, and violence.  Spica dominates and controls (or tries to) everyone around him.  While I doubt very much that Thatcher and her cronies went so far as to actually spread shit on her enemies, taking what was theirs, and leaving them bloodied and broken, he apparently represents her, and her government.

His much abused, much put-upon wife Georgina, played somehow still gracefully by Helen Mirren, stands for the trampled citizenry of Britannia.  Her dutiful acceptance and depressing outlook on this relationship is indicative of most abusive relationships whether they’re between two people or on a much larger, country-sized scale.  This subservient behavior that typifies Georgina from the beginning of the film, is immediately thrown off track when she connects with a quiet, lonely soul who represents everything that her gangster is not.  To Georgina, Michael represents safety, happiness (or at the very least less sadness), and something more than simple survival.  The first half of this romance is purely visual, as it transcends the boundaries represented by the different rooms and their colors.  It is fully halfway into the film before we even hear Michael utter his first word.  As I mentioned before, his is the only characters’ color scheme that never changes.  He wears a consistently brown colored suit throughout the film, which helps exemplify the inherent stability, and staid nature of his character.

The cook, of the film’s title, acts as an overseer.  Not so much an omnipotent god as an observer.  He is privy to more information than everyone else in the film, but unlike a simple observer, he does tend to meddle a bit.  Since he has a rather strong dislike, with good reason, for the brash, un-refined gangster that has hijacked his restaurant, he helps to facilitate, and even protect the blossoming love between Georgina and Michael.  Where as Michael has limited to no ability to stand up to Spica, the Cook is at times outright defiant.  He is more than willing to poke this dangerous man’s ego with a stick, because the thing he loves most (his restaurant) has already been taken from him, and he has little left to lose, save his dignity.

The film is certainly bit heavy handed, however, I don’t think it would have had the same impact or effect if it had been treated otherwise.  Large bold strokes are required here to convey the hurt, the anger, and the sadness of this film.  It was said by another essayist that the nudity of the film isn’t so much revealing as it is exposing.  This couldn’t be more true.  The numerous sexual encounters between Georgina and Michael are equally about opening up, showing off flaws, and fear of trust, as they are about intimacy, arousal, and lust.  The glamour and sensuality of it isn’t gone really, but juxtaposed with the violence and inhumanity demonstrated by Gambon’s Spica, it has a much more comforting effect.  It makes them, and us, feel safe and connected, and what a wonderful way to use sex in a film.

With everything it has to say, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover really needs to be watched more than once to glean all you can from it.  Despite the difference in tone and message, and despite the rather disparate nature of the films I’m about to compare it to, there is a definite connection between this film and something like the Three Color Trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge), by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the films of Jean Pierre Jeunet (especially Amelie), and to a much different yet no less important extent, some of the films of Paul Schrader, especially Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters for it’s use of color, Affliction for it’s use of tone and message, and Auto Focus for it’s mixing of both of these things.  This film is defintely worthy of your attention.  I was certainly glad I gave it mine.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel’s Wedding – 1994

Director – P.J. Hogan

Starring – Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, and Bill Hunter

When facing down a list as formidable as this one is, I find myself assuming that each film on it means something.  Whether it’s historically important, the swan song of a particular star or director, or maybe it simply broke all the records at the box office.  Apparently that isn’t always the case.  Muriel’s Wedding, while rather fun, and charming enough, manages to be none of these things and still it’s here.

The film tells the story of the wedding obsessed Muriel (a young Toni Collette, in her pre-Hollywood days), and her exodus from the family, friends, and town that seem to be working over time in order to keep her down.  Muriel lives in Porpoise Spit, a diaper-rash of a little town filled with the shallow, ignorant, and self obsessed people who exist (in one form or another) in all small towns.  Leading the charge of the obnoxious brigade is Muriel’s family, including her shiftless, unemployed siblings, the empty and ineffectual mother who barely exists, and the overbearing, loud-mouth of a father who worked so hard to drive and inspire these character flaws in his own family.

The most important thing in Muriel’s life is the bright, shining, future she imagines for herself (specifically the wedding part), never-mind the lack of any real interpersonal connection or the absence of any semblance of self-appreciation she may have for herself.  She simply wants this ideal so badly that she doesn’t care just how she gets there, by hook or by crook.

The story is fun, the acting is pretty good, and I really did want the best for Muriel (not to mention, her loud mouthed friend Rhonda, AKA: Brenda on Six Feet Under, AKA: Rachel Griffiths), but even given all that, it still wasn’t worthy of its placement on this list.  When you have a rather simple romantic comedy with a slight empowering wink at the end, that doesn’t mean it deserves to stand alongside films with the emotional weight and importance of films like Z, or the historical significance of a film like, Children of Paradise, or even the cleverness, and humor managed by the still rather thin, Meet the Parents

Perhaps it’s just one of those movies that doesn’t speak to me, or the place from which I came, or the time in which that place might have existed.  At the very least, I remember the film coming out in theaters, however I don’t really recall it making all that much of a splash even then.  The Australian revolution of film had a brief rekindling with the advent of the Crocodile Dundee franchise, but I’m afraid by the time Young Einstein came out in 1988, Mel Gibson had moved to the United States full-time, and everyone in the states stopped paying attention to what was happening down under.

There was the occasional gem that came out of Australia from those backwards years also known as the 90’s, but for every Peter Weir, Guy Pierce film, there were two Paul Hogan films (Yes I liked Crocodile Dundee when I was a kid, but give me a break, I was a kid, I thought Battleship was a fun board game too). I realize that 1000 movies is a lot to come up with, but I could rattle off a dozen or so just off the top of my head that didn’t make the cut, but were world’s better. Next thing you know, they’ll be letting a Transformers movie onto this list…Nice try, but better luck next time.  Instead how about trying Les Cage Aux Folles (a film I accidentally watched thinking that it was on this list), what would later be remade into The Birdcage.  Both that film and it’s remake are more deserving of recognition to be sure.

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 Sting (1973)

The Sting – 1973

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw

Some movies are just the right combination of pluck and chemistry.  They don’t have the strongest story, nor do they have the most gripping action, or the most beautiful girl, but they leave you with a pleasant feeling once the film is over.  Thanks to the long lasting effects of this pervasive pleasantness, films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hot Shots, and The Neverending Story still resonate with me, while still other films (much like the Wonka re-make) fail.  They possess some element that isn’t quantifiable or necessarily repeatable.  The stars aligned and the seas parted and low and behold the film is good.  The Sting sits firmly in this demographic, not at all bad, but somehow better than the sum of its parts.

Redford and Newman re-team in this buddy film set in the lawless Chicago of the 30’s.  Newman oozes confidence and cool as the con-man Henry Gondorf, who takes novice Johnny Hooker, Redford, under his wing in order to pull off the fleece of the lifetime against serious as cancer mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).  There are a number of twists and turns, red-herrings and surprises on the con-men’s road to revenge, yet the whole tone of the film stays light and fun.  Despite some marvelously dower moments by Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan, the stake never really seem that high, although it is still a pleasure to watch all of the three main actors do their thing.

Cinematographically, the film rides a thin line between stylized and cartoon, (a line that fellow 70’s heart-throb Warren Beatty went way, WAY past in Dick Tracy) and at times seems a little campy.  Still the look of the film sets a certain tone that works for the camaraderie of Hooker and Gondorf.  It looks exactly like the Disney resort “The Boardwalk” made me feel, nostalgic about a time I never thought I cared about.

Of all the creative elements, the least effective in terms of me continuing to enjoy the movie, was the musical score.  Despite the fact that it compliments the set design and look of the film, every time strains of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” began, I was immediately drawn out of the story.  Luckily, even though the music is a little goofy, it isn’t used to a degree where I couldn’t pay attention, I just gritted my teeth and eventually it would end.

By and large, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.  I saw the twists and turns for what they were long before they were revealed, but I blame my knowledge of modern movie conventions for that.  While it might not be the best con-man movie I’ve ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the super fantastic Paper Moon), I think it’s earned it’s spot on this list, even if that spot is towards the end.

“Learn to run your own con-game.” – Ashley

Reds (1981)

Reds – 1981

Director – Warren Beatty

Starring – Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Paul Sorvino

In terms of scale and message, the films generally found on the list of 1001 movies you need to see before you die tend towards epic.  If not in actual length, then in the scope of the story, the message, or even the acting.  Reds is no exception, delivering in each of these areas, but does it live up to the critical praise that I’ve heard going into watching it?  The answer…sort of.

Reds tells the sweeping story of journalist, John Reed, and his on again-off again-on again love interest Louise Bryant, feminist and fellow journalist.  The story of their relationship plays out against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution in what used to be Russian, then was the U.S.S.R., and is now Russia again.  The young idealists, find first attraction, then lust, and finally passion in both their marriage, and in the people’s movement taking place across the ocean from their home in New York.  Warren Beatty, acting as director as well as the star, and lead character of the film, plays Reed, an affable yet driven man passionate about the voice of the working man.  Louise, played by Diane Keaton, is determined to be a writer yet has trouble gaining recognition for anything other than being Reed’s girl.

The smoldering relationship between Bryant and Reed is central to the success of the story, whereas the political message was muddied a decent amount for me because of the fact that the film pre-supposes a certain amount of knowledge about world history.  Since I came to the film not knowing as much as I would have liked, I feel that I missed out on a good portion of what I was supposed to be appreciating.  As such I wasn’t as enamored with the film as I feel I would have been otherwise.

In terms of production value, set-pieces, costuming, and feel, the film leaves nothing to the imagination.  We are treated to a rich tapestry of the lives of those living in the early 1900’s.  Some of this production value is seen, while more is added through the inclusion of testimony of those who had lived through these events.  This testimony often served as chapter breaks for the film, and took the form of on-camera interviews discussing the real-life people (Reed and Bryant) being played by Keaton and Beatty.  This tended to give the dramatized portion of the film more weight, more than it would have had on its own at any rate.

With the exception of Diane Keaton (of whom I am just not a fan), the casting of the film was fantastic.  I particularly liked, Beatty, Jack Nicholson as boozy writer Eugene O’Neil, and Maureen Stapleton as the impassioned and deported Emma Goldman.  With the exception of Beatty, each other character was played by someone who was perfectly matched for the role they were playing.  Again with the exception of Mr. Beatty, no one actor was able to steal the limelight and outshine the next one.  That is, of course, not to say that Beatty was bad in the role, or that he did a disservice to the film by acting in it, on the contrary, I would be willing to bet that without his star power the film would never have been made at the scale that it was.  He does, however, turn in the least compelling performance, and is most likely of every other actor and actress in the film to rest on the laurels of good looks.

All in all, Reds was a compelling work that I still don’t feel that I fully appreciate, but I do appreciate it’s and Beatty’s commitment to turning out a quality product.  Not only do I recognize that fact, but I applaud it.  Not as fun or accomplished as Bonnie and Clyde, but well deserving of its place on the list.

“Man, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton fuck a lot in this movie, every other scene they’re humping each other.” – Ashley

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.