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.

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The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line – 1998

Director – Terrence Malick

Starring – Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson

Terrence Malick’s floating, lyrical film about the battle of Guadalcanal in World War 2, avoids the clichés of most other big war epics.  Where other films seek to wow the audience with man’s inhumanity to other men, The Thin Red Line, instead seeks to show man’s absolute humanity.  For good or for ill soldiers are people, they get scared, their motivations are often impure, and they can be tremendously courageous.  Where a lot of other war films might dwell on the violence and carnage, Malick aims his camera towards the calm, and the natural stillness of the battlefield.  That is not to say their isn’t a fair share of action or death, it is after all a war film, about World War 2 in the Pacific, but it isn’t this action and cruelty that makes the soldiers great, it is their compassion, their courage, and their honor.

There is no hard and fast story in this film.  Instead we have a  general idea of the goals of the soldiers as we lilt back and forth between the men in this company learning about how each man deals with his circumstances.  We learn about each man not so much through back story, but through occasional inner monologue, and how they interact with the other men.  There really isn’t a main character, although the closest thing to it would be Jim Caviezel’s character, Private Witt.  The film opens with Private Witt living on an island in the South Pacific, after having gone AWOL, and follows his subsequent recapture, punishment, and re-stationing as a medic during the battle.  While he is not necessarily the main character at all times, he does touch the lives of each of the soldiers featured in the film, most heavily on Sgt. Welsh, played with surprising restraint by Sean Penn.

Nature plays a big role in this film, so much so that it shows just how much the soldiers and their war, are out-of-place here.  This concentration on nature provides some similarities to the films of Werner Herzog, in which nature is heavily featured and often plays a very central role in the story.  While not as overt as a Herzog film, the surroundings in The Thin Red Line do provide a visual and a metaphorical juxtaposition to the action.  Soldiers die in unspeakably beautiful surroundings and explosions and gun fire are the only things that drown out the roar of the river and a the call of the wildlife.

When the two sides finally see each other face to face it becomes obvious how similar they are, despite their opposing view points.  Both are made up of people who are scared, opportunistic, and brave.  The war makers are sitting in their respective countries, comfortable, and safe, while the war is being waged by common people with the least to gain and the most to lose.

By and large I really liked this film, aside from the compelling visuals, the acting and story telling managed to compliment the cinematography and avoid being too heavy-handed or preachy.  The only weak elements in this film, in my opinion are the music, and the poetic inner monologue.  The film, which runs at just under 3 hours, has the tendency to feel sluggish and repetitive, not because of the situations, not because of the lack of action, but because of the score, and the narration.  This semi-dramatic undercurrent of music swells at just the right time when the emotionally confused soldier has just seen the beauty of this land destroyed by war. 

Once the music swells, we get yet another semi vague, flowing, pondering on the nature of perception.  These elements work just fine to a certain degree, but ultimately are used far too often to inspire emotion, or to describe the absurdity of the conflict.  A huge teaching in film is, show, don’t tell.  What could be inferred into this statement also, is “Don’t do both.”  There are more than enough times where we understand exactly what we are supposed to, but the music swells and the narration comes in any way.  These are our cues that we are supposed to be walking away with some larger message, and frankly I didn’t need them.

This film was a quite refreshing despite its slight flaws.  It is rare that you come away from a war film that isn’t an actioneer type film with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, feeling uplifted and generally positive.  War films can be horrific, and disquieting, and contemplative, but The Thin Red Line shows that they can also be a cathartic, teaching experience, with more to offer than they take away.  Well done Mr. Malick.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

MasqueoftheRedDeath

The Masque of the Red Death – 1964

Director – Roger Corman

Starring – Vincent Price

Despite it’s lofty source material, and it’s pedigree of themes, this Roger Corman directed version of  The Masque of the Red Death seems more interested in cheap spectacle than it is in characterization and story-telling.  This isn’t necessarily bad, as sometimes cheap spectacle, gratuitous cleavage, and gaudy thrills is just what the doctor ordered.

The Masque of the Red Death stars Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, a sadistic and cruel ruler of a castle overlooking a small town.  As the story begins, he is verbally attacked by one of the towns people who are sick of the mis-treatment, and abuse they receive from him.  Prospero sentences the man and one of his compatriots to death, but before this can be carried out, the wife and daughter respectively of the two men, pleads for their lives.  Seeing a game, and some amusement in all of this, Prospero brings them all to his castle.  On their way out of the small town he discovers a kind of plague called the Red Death in the village, and orders the town burned to the ground.  From here, the story takes place completely at Prince Prospero’s opulent castle. 

Not having seen a Roger Corman film before, I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The sets were bargain basement.  They consisted of a couple of shoddy props dressed up with strong lighting and color, and this ended up being the true star of the show.  The craft of the film was, at best, shoestring, and at worst, threadbare.  The acting was hammy and overwrought, and the motivation of the characters seemed cartoonish and exaggerated. 

That being said, I can understand the motivation for making something like this.  I have to imagine the goal was to spend as little time and money on a feature film, quickly edit it and get it out there, and try to make as much money with it as humanly possible.  I can understand the attraction of audiences wanting to see a movie like this.  I enjoyed myself, after all.  It was full of campy hilarity, and it kept me busy for an hour and a half.  And I understand the historical significance that Roger Corman and Russ Meyer played in the movie industry.  Each man brought film-making a step closer to the people, and a step further from the studio’s control.  They gave the first chances at directing to some of those who would be considered the best of the best from the 70’s through the present (Scorsese, Cameron, Bogdonovich, etc..), and allowed them the creative freedom to get their feet in the door.  What I don’t understand is why this film deserves to be on the list of 1001 movies that someone should see before they die.  Again, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it seemed like they wanted to represent a specific genre of film, but didn’t feel that any one in particular could be singled out, so they just picked it out of a hat.

These movies are fun.  I really like Vincent Price, and he lives up to his reputation as a ridiculous, over-the-top personality in this film, but it is easily replaced by any number of campy horror themed classics, from this era.  Too bad,  I thought it was gonna be awesome.

…there’s more…

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

The Stranger (1946)

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

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

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

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

The Big Sleep (1946)

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

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

The Killers (1946)

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

“Ava Gardner, you so pretty!” – Ashley

Great Expectations (1946)

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

Notorious (1946)

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

“B.I.G!” – Ashley

Out of the Past (1947)

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

Ladri Di Biciclette AKA The Bicycle Thief (1948)

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

“Italian Neo-Realism…boooooring!” – Ashley

Rope (1948)

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

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

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

The Red Shoes (1948)

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

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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

The Third Man (1949)

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

Orphee AKA Orpheus (1949)

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

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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

Rashomon (1950)

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

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

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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

“Don’t move to Hollywood.” – Ashley

Strangers on a Train (1951)

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

“Murder-swap!” – Ashley

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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

Ikiru AKA To Live (1952)

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

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

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

On the Waterfront (1954)

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

“Method = No enunciation. ” – Ashley

Rear Window (1954)

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

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

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