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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La Pianiste (AKA: The Piano Teacher) (2001)

La Pianiste (AKA: The Piano Teacher) – 2001

Director – Michael Haneke

Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, and Benoit Magimel

Oh, Michael Haneke.  You and your sparse, harsh morality tales!  I know from the moment that I hear this particular director’s name, that I am going to be witness to an unflinching account of the baser side of human behavior. This prolific filmmakers work often comes on a tide of praise and accolades despite their typically dark subject matter. Of his films, I’ve seen Cache, The White Ribbon, and now The Piano Teacher, all of them difficult stories about fractured people, poorly relating with one another.

As one might gather from the film’s title the main character of this film, Erika, is a teacher of the piano. On her exterior, she is a rather harsh and cold woman, she harbors a deep desire for connection that she doesn’t get from her overly dramatic live-in mother, or from her pristine and rather antiseptic relationship with music.

She spends her time looking down her nose at her students and pre judging them based on their understandably timid nature around her, playing piano, oh, and she may cut herself just for laughs. One of her students, Walter, attempts to get her attention first through music, then through flirting, encountering rejection at each turn.  Next, he takes a somewhat more drastic approach by following her into the ladies room, clumsily embracing her, and forcing a kiss on her. She responds, a mite unexpectedly, by opening up to him about her desire to be dominated, humiliated and abused both verbally and physically.

Initially, Walter seems excited, expressing a desire to learn more, and stepping up his advances.  However this eventually gives way to unease and eventually to disgust as Erika outlines exactly what it is she would like him to do to her.   This time it is he who does the rejecting and she who begins the pursuit.  This trading back and forth of who has the power in this relationship is fueled mainly by his anger (with her and with himself), and her need for attention and affection (confused and misguided as it may be).  It seemed to me that her desire to be dominated mirrored in many ways her tumultuous relationship with her mother, and perhaps there have been other similarly motivated relationships that have informed her view of how men and women are supposed to cohabitate.

The acting in this film is typical of the other Haneke films that I have seen, slow in pace, severe in tone, and more than a little uncomfortable.  Isabelle Huppert pushes the role of Erika to such a point that I basically stopped liking her, and then was able to bring her back to a point where I felt sorry for her, rescuing her from the clutches of my uncaring.  Now whether or not you like the character at the end, that is a pretty remarkable feat for an actor to pull off.  Unfortunately, I don’t think Benoit Magimel had as much success, nor as much to work with.  By the end of the film, I totally didn’t like Walter at all, and it’s not as if I started off liking him a lot.  Walter seemed overly eager to me, and by extension, a little insincere and false.  I always felt like he was trying to put one over on Erika, in order to get something (most likely sex although I was ready for anything, money, a laugh, even some sort of bizarre revenge) from her.

In the end though, I felt this film to be inferior to both of the other Haneke films that I’d seen previously.  The Piano Teacher lacked the raw menace and shock that came with Cache, and it lacked the austere beauty, and hidden danger and anger that came out of The White Ribbon.  Cinematographically speaking, this film didn’t have all that much going for it.  While composed well enough, the shots seemed ordinary and almost placid, succeeding only in simple documentation of the character’s actions.  Though that may have been a conscious choice (I hope it was anyway), it’s not one that really worked for me.  The story wasn’t shocking enough to juxtapose the calm stability of the imagery, and the imagery wasn’t artful enough to keep me entertained while watching it.

Mr. Haneke has at least one other film on this list that I have yet to see, Funny Games, which was ultimately re-made by him (for english speaking audiences), also called funny games.  I’ve heard some real praise for that film, both versions of it , but also some warning of its harrowing nature, and I must say that I’m a more excited to see that film as it seems like it might have a little more to say even if it’s more disturbing.  The Piano Teacher seemed a rather light effort to me, one that certainly wouldn’t have ranked as one of the 1001 best films ever, but also one that covered similar material as did films like Secretary, and Y Tu Mama Tambien, which were in terms of craft, construction and message, leagues better than this one.

White Heat (1949)

White Heat – 1949

Director – Raoul Walsh

Starring – James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, and Edmond O’Brien

The title of this film, White Heat, clearly comes from the boxed up frustration and rage capable of the late great James Cagney.  The character, Cody Jarrett, is a hot-headed gangster with some not so subtle mother issues.  Rounding out the cast of a 1000 dysfunctions is his wife, Verna, ready to cross him the moment he goes away, his right hand man, Big Ed, itching to step in and take his place, and his mother, Ma Jarrett, more than willing to accept and encourage his dependence on her.  Together, these characters set up the conditions for a dramatic explosion of volatility and emotion, and explode they do.

Feeling the heat for the robbery we see him commit at the start of the film, Jarrett confesses to a lesser crime alibi that he had set up beforehand.  Sent up to prison in Illinois, the federales plant a man on the inside in an effort to gain Jarrett’s trust.  While on the inside, Cody’s gang is strong-armed, and his wife is swept off her feet by, who else, Big Ed.  Without giving away too much of the story, things continue to fall apart from there.

Cagney’s performance matches perfectly with my pre-conceived image of him from the few film clips that I’ve seen, and through his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces.  Since White Heat and Angels are among some of his most popular and well-known films, unfortunately, that means that his characters don’t seem like carefully crafted creations so much as they seem like him just playing himself.  Whether or not Cagney possessed any similarity to the Cody Jarrett character, I’m not sure, but I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t really acting so much as talking.  Now I may be completely wrong on that point, lord knows I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Humphrey Bogart, but that is yet to be discovered.

Each other character is overshadowed by Cagney’s performance, and while each probably fulfilled their roles quite adequately, none were stand outs.  Despite this fact, the story was still a very quick paced, enjoyable yarn about a self-destructing gangster.  The inevitability of Jarrett’s disintegration was never in question, the drama lay in watching how he would flame out (if you have seen this film already…pun intended.  If you haven’t seen the film…you’ll get it when you do).  Just remember when life is snapping at your heels, and it seems like everyone is after you, it never hurts to yell out “Top of the world, Ma!”

This Just In…

1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die!

I thought of how much fun the idea of seeing all of these movies was to me, and equally of how much fun it would be to write about them all too.  It was at this point that a few things dawned on me.  I realized just how large this undertaking was, and how equally large the time commitment will be too.

I was daunted by the sheer volume of my endeavor.  I immediately started to formulate a way to lighten the load.  I’ve already seen a lot of movies, I thought, why shouldn’t I just write about the ones that I’ve already seen?  Yes!  That’s it!  I’d write about the movies in this book that I had already seen.  That way, I’d save a lot of time, and I wouldn’t be tempted to dwell on my own in-activity, and unsocial behavior.

This got me thinking yet again.  As I said before, I was looking forward to seeing all those movies…That’s IT!  I would go ahead with my initial plan of watching each of the movies that I haven’t seen and writing about each one individually, AND I would write about the ones I have seen (although these will be done in groupings so as not to accelerate my already rather sedentary behavior tendancies too much.)

Here is the first installment of the movies that I have seen.  They are not quite as in depth as the reviews that I have done and plan to continue doing for the new material, but they provide a good summary of what I liked and/or what I didn’t like.

I hope you enjoy this bunch.  It covers the first movie in the book that I had seen, up through the end of WWII.  So…get reading already

Metropolis (1927)

I was lucky enough to catch this projected from a remastered 70mm print with lost footage re-integrated into the story.  It featured a live piano accompaniment, and featured written descriptions of scenes that were still “lost”.  At the same time, I was unlucky enough to see it while I was super, super tired.  There are some slow moments, and I was drooping at times.  Still, it was probably the best possible way to see Metropolis for the first time.

“Fuckin’ love it!” – Ashley

M (1931)

The Criterion Collection has introduced me to a wide variety of movies, including quite a few of the selections on this list.  M introduced me to foreign film in general, not to mention the fantastic Peter Lorre.

Scarface : The Shame of a Nation (1932)

I saw this with a couple of other fantastic American noir and crime films in a little theater on the left bank in Paris, the Action Christine for those who are in the know.  It was part of a week long mini-film-festival concerned with classic and overlooked American noir films.  I was able to catch a number of other great flicks including, Kiss Me Deadly, Key Largo, the version of The Killers from the sixties (with Ronald Regan, Lee Marvin, and John Cassavetes), and the topper, Charade.  I was surprised how much of this story of Scarface is recognizable later on in the Brian De Palma version.

It Happened One Night (1934)

I was introduced to this movie through a friend who was absolutely in love with it.  I was, at first a little skeptical, but came to appreciate it quite a bit.  I’m not sure why everyone makes a big deal about Clarke Gable in Gone With the Wind, but not in this one (I suppose I’ll find out later, when I watch it).

(**Warning Spoilers**)

“If a man nicks names you brat, it’s because he loves you.”  –  Ashley

The Thin Man (1934)

As this was a recommendation from numerous trusted sources, I may have gone into this one with elevated expectations, which as you may or may not know can be death on first impressions.  While I didn’t love it as unilaterally as I was led to believe that I would, I didn’t dislike it at all.  It was solid, but not discernible from a lot of other movies that I have seen from this period.

“Alcoholism is hilarious!” – Ashley

The 39 Steps (1935)

One of two of Hitchcock’s British movies that I’d seen after I’d tooled through almost all of his American stuff, (The Lady Vanishes being the other…), and while I liked The Lady Vanishes better, this was not without it’s charms.  By and large this seems like a stepping stone through which you can get to Hitchcock’s great works, although it is not great in and of itself.

“Genius begins…” – Ashley

La Grande Illusion  AKA  Grand Illusion (1937)

This is another of these movies that I was introduced to through the Criterion Collection.  When I saw this movie, it was the first time that I had either heard of or seen Eric von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, or Jean Renoir.  Von Stroheim in particular interested me, and I have since been looking for his epic, studio bankrupting movie, Greed.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

Snow White was the second movie that I ever saw in a movie theater (E.T. being the first), and since then, thanks in part to having a good number of girl cousins, friends, and going to a daycare where a good amount of the kids were girls, I was quickly overdosed on this movie (along with The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins).  That being said, upon my first viewing, I was enraptured.  I wanted to be the 8th dwarf, and I was terrified of the old witch with the apple.  Fucking scary!  This is how childrens stories can be.  They don’t have to be these antiseptic, polished, glittering trash-heaps that they came to be, straight to video sequels with crappy 3D animation.  Snow White set the standard, even IF I don’t really wanna watch it anymore.

“Teaching all pale, black-haired girls around the world that they are the most beautiful.” – Ashley

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I partially wrote this longer post of movies that I had already seen because of this movie.  I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I had seen it, to think that this might mean that I liked it.  I saw this in film school, as an example of the studio system of the 30’s and 40’s, and more specifically because it was THE classic screwball comedy.  I liked movies from this period, and more importantly I was a pretty big fan of Cary Grant, so it seemed like a natural fit.  Then along came Katherine Hepburn and ruined everything.  She plays the most annoying, murder-inducing, terrible fucking annoyance EVER!  I could not wait until it was over.  From 5 minutes in or so I was checking my watch, sending text messages to friends, trying vein to sleep, anything to avoid that shrill voice, and that irksome demeanor.  What made it worse was, that Cary Grant, put up with it to the point where his character started to exhibit affection for Hepburn’s.  This bastion of charm, class, and smooth masculinity was was so utterly ineffectual, that not only could he not save me from hearing this woman speak, but he stole two hours from me in the process.

“Holy shit, there’s a leopard in it!” – Ashley

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz?  It’s a little heavy on the songs, and musical routines which I don’t really go in for (making a lot of movies musicals in this book a little daunting), but the story and the fabulous imagery were far more than enough to outweigh them.

“Technicolor orgasm!” – Ashley

Rebecca (1940)

I liked Rebecca (come to think of it, I’m not sure that I didn’t like any Hitchcock movies), but I liked Notorious better.

Fantasia (1940)

This, like with a lot of different musicals, was pretty lost on me.  I’ve fallen asleep or gotten board and wandered off each time I’ve tried to watch this (3 separate times now).  The animation was great, but not quite enough I guess.

“Elephants in tutus.” – Ashley

Pinocchio (1940)

I enjoyed Pinocchio back when I saw it initially, but it was never quite as good, in my opinion, as The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, or Robin Hood.  Maybe it was just the time period that I grew up in, maybe it was the animation style.

“So many sexual euphemisms, so little time…” – Ashley

The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is a smarter, more adult, and more aware version of The Three Stooges.  He pokes fun at himself rather than poking fun at others or having them poke fun at him.  Don’t get me wrong, I love The Three Stooges, but every now and again it’s nice to see you don’t have to hit something with a hammer in order for it to be funny.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The enigma that is Citizen Kane…it is both vastly over and under-rated.  The idea that you can pick one movie in the scope of all that has come out to date and claim that it is the greatest movie ever made is a ridiculous one.  Equally ridiculous is the idea that that same movie is of no or little value simply because every other movie since then has co-opted the same bag of tricks.  Citizen Kane and Orson Welles set the standard, and now people get mad that in a sea of copy-cats, it no longer stands out to them.

“Oh, yeah.  It is real good.” – Ashley

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Fantastic, fantastic movie.  For one reason or another, before I had ever seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, I was under the impression that I didn’t like him as an actor.  This movie, The Big Sleep and Casablanca proved me wrong three times in a row.  Each was fantastic in it’s own way, but the addition of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre make this a contender for my favorite of the bunch.

Dumbo (1941)

This is my least favorite of the early Disney movies.  I didn’t quite know what to make of the bizarre pink elephant sequence, and I took the shame and teasing that were inflicted upon the titular character to heart.  I haven’t seen this one for a long time, but I’m not sure that I want to.

“Go hug your mom.” – Ashley

Casablanca (1942)

Check out my review of  The Maltese Falcon two entries above this one, and you’ll know how I feel about this one.  With a rousing story, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains you can’t help but love this movie.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Don’t get on the fucking plane!” – Ashley

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I like Shadow of a Doubt, but just before seeing it, I had seen The Third Man, and I was completely prepared to fall in love with it.  Joseph Cotton was the key.  He and the movie didn’t really stand out to me…correction, they weren’t able to blow me away the same way The Third Man had.  Despite this, I still enjoy watching it when I want to throw something on while I doing something else.

Gaslight (1944)

It was on my Grandpa’s insistence that I sat down and watched this one with him.  A well made movie, with the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, but I have to say, this spot could have easily gone to at least 2 dozen other movies (Charade, Miller’s Crossing, American History X, Leon The Professional, Bottle Rocket, El Mariachi, True Romance, Shallow Grave, Hard Boiled, Hearts and Minds, Le Cercle Rouge, and Ghost Dog to name just a few.)

Double Indemnity (1944)

I fell in love with Double Indemnity when I first laid eyes on it.  I seemed to ooze a certain coldness, and efficiency that I had never seen up until that point in movies.  I’ve heard other reviews of this movie citing Fred MacMurray as being the weak link in the chain, to not committing to the role enough (the reviewer was saying that he did this in most all of his roles), I disagree whole heartedly!  He may not have achieved the short lived notoriety of someone like James Dean or Clarke Gable (note: my definition of short lived may not match yours), but he was the right man for the job in each of the movies that I’ve seen him in.

“How not to commit a murder.” – Ashley

Murder, My Sweet  AKA  Farewell My Lovely (1944)

Murder, My Sweet was a good movie, but this is another slot given to a lesser contender.

Spellbound (1945)

When traveling in London I visited the Salvador Dali museum, expecting to see a host of what I thought were the artists more well known works.  Instead, I saw a bunch of his work that I had never seen before, including a number of artifacts from the movie Spellbound!  Ultimately, I think fairly well of my visit to the Dali museum, but that is mostly because of the items from the movie.  Spellbound, like the museum, has left a generally favorable impression on my mind, but it doesn’t go much farther than that.

“I wish I dreamed in Dali” – Ashley

Les Enfants Du Paradis  AKA  The Children of Paradise (1945)

This is a fabulous movie that you should go see.  Now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait….Wasn’t that awesome.  Well dig this…This whole movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France.  Film stock, supplies and artisans were in short supply, cast and crew were being routinely investigated by the puppet Vichy (read Nazi) government, and still they managed to pull off a staggeringly beautiful movie with beautifully thought out and constructed sets, top notch acting, and a story packed with anti-fascist allegory.  On top of this, the majority of the actors and crew were utilizing the “cover” of the movie in order to stay hidden, as many were French Resistance underground fighters.  Now go watch it again!

That is all for this first chapter…go watch all of these movies and write back to tell me what you think.