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Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Rapid Fire Reviews

Okay, so my planned schedule of watching all of the movies I’ve accrued and neglected over the last few years hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. During these strange times, all association with our concept of time itself has gotten… weird. This hasn’t stopped me from watching these movies, but this bunch wasn’t particularly inspiring and I wasn’t all that passionate to write about them if I’m being honest (with one notable exception). There’s a reason these films caught my attention but then sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Below are seven films that include a wide range of genres and tone from monster movies to self serious dramas about life and death. So, this won’t be the most in-depth piece I’ve written on this blog, but I’ll write a bit about each one and whether or not I recommend each film.

Synecdoche, New York

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, “Synecdoche New York” is another reality warping drama that deals in the analysis of death, anxiety, obsession, and depression. Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director who wins an incredibly lucrative grant after successfully pulling off a critically lauded play. He uses the grant’s funds to chase down something truly new and brilliant in the world of theatre, performance, even art itself. The film covers his life and efforts in producing and directing a highly experimental production from about his forties until the end of his life finally approaches in his eighties. Over the course of the film the story dives deeper and deeper into the character and psychology of Caden, his anxieties (there’s a LOT of time spent on this), relationships with women (again, this takes up a sizable portion of the story), and his ever constant health problems that slowly deteriorate his mind and body over time. So, the theatre process is what it’s about on the surface level, but the film, I believe, is mostly about death and our obsession with it. While there are a lot of very clever aspects to the film and, obviously, a lot of thought and skill put into the production, performances, and dialogue- this film just wasn’t for me. At one point, one of the side characters admits, “This is getting to be tedious..” and that’s exactly how I felt by the end of the film. It’s simply too mired in the pain and suffering of life and death for me.

Recommendation: Personally, I would only recommend this one if you’re a glutton for narrative punishment. If you loved “Requiem for a Dream”, this may be the film for you.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Written by Steve Conrad and directed by Ben Stiller, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about a lowly negative assets manager working at Time Magazine who often daydreams about living a far more exciting life. Walter leads an awfully normal life, he silently pines for a coworker, imagines elaborate reconstructions of ordinarily mundane encounters, and he’s generally invisible to most people. Things start to change when TIME Magazine is bought out and starts to transition to an online model. Walter’s usually invisible job suddenly becomes the focus of the entire company as the next issue, will be the last. Walter’s got a professional relationship with Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), one of the star photographers for the Magazine. O’Connell had submitted his “Masterpiece” for the final cover, but the negative copy of the picture cannot be found! Thus Walter embarks on a globe trotting adventure as he chases down O’Connell to find the missing negative. The journey takes him from Greenland, to Iceland, and finally to the Himalayas in Afghanistan. Walter’s life has finally exceeded his daydreams, he survived jumping out of a helicopter into shark infested waters, escaped the ash cloud of a volcanic eruption, and even scaled the Himalayas. There’s some fun to be had with a few scenes spread throughout the film, but overall I found Stiller’s Mitty to be… bland and lacking in memorable characterization. I understand that’s part of Walter Mitty’s arc, but he didn’t really transform all that much by the film’s end and the film itself felt more like Ben Stiller was checking things off of his personal bucket list rather than exploring an engaging story. There’s some fun to be had with this movie, but this was one that I highly doubt I’ll be revisiting anytime soon.

Recommendation: This wasn’t a particularly engaging movie, but it wasn’t incredibly awful either, just kinda bland if I’m being honest. If you want a more interesting “soul searching” adventure flick, I recommend “Hector and The Search for Happiness” starring Simon Pegg.

San Andreas

Written by Jeremy Passmore, Andre Fabrizio, and Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, “San Andreas” is a disaster movie that asks “What if the entire San Andreas fault line experienced the worst case scenario series of earthquakes?” -but with The Rock. Dwayne Johnson stars as Raymond Gaines, a rescue-chopper pilot who saves his ex-wife from the destruction of downtown Los Angeles only to head to San Francisco to save their trapped daughter together. Oh, and there’s also Paul Giamatti as the expert scientist who looks at screens of data and dramatically utters the contractual “My God…” required for every disaster movie. Other than that, there’s not much else I can tell you about this movie. It’s a generic disaster movie with the added charisma of The Rock for good measure, you probably know if this movie is for you or not by now.

Recommendation: Do you like disaster movies? Do you enjoy the movie persona of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? You’ll probably get a kick out of this one, at least it’s a bit better than “Rampage”.

King Arthur: Legend of The Sword

Written by David Dobkin, Lionel Wigram, Joby Harold, and Guy Ritchie, and directed by Ritchie, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is the latest adaption of the Arthurian Legend, but with a stylish twist. If you’ve found yourself thinking, “I love the Legend of King Arthur, but I wish it had more outlandish fantasy action and charming monologues in the style of heist movies.” then Guy Ritchie was reading your mind, because this film is for you! If you can get over the ridiculous and over the top nature of this adaption, you might have some fun with it. Charlie Hunnam stars as the eponymous Arthur, and he does a decent enough job as the reluctant hero for this re-imagining. There’s actually a pretty well rounded cast of supporting actors that include Jude Law as Arthur’s villainous uncle Vortigern, Eric Bana as Arthur’s father, Djimon Hounsou as future knight of the round table Bedivere, two Game of Thrones alums in Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger) and Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton), and this film even has David Beckham in a small role as one of Vortigern’s soldiers witnessing Arthur pull the sword from the stone. If you’re looking to kill part of an afternoon with some fun fantasy action, you could certainly do worse than this version of King Arthur.

Recommendation: This take on King Arthur checks all of the boxes that come with the well worn territory, but in a fun and admittedly bonkers fashion. If you enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes movies, this may be for you!

Gamera: Guardian of The Universe

Written by Kazunori Ito and directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Gamera: Guardian of The Universe” is the mid-1990s reboot of the Gamera Kaiju movie series. If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed by now that I have a great love for giant monster movies. There’s the big names that everyone knows, Godzilla and King Kong, the more recent titles like Pacific Rim, and Godzilla’s oft neglected brethren, the giant flying turtle kaiju, Gamera. This is a great reboot story about the big turtle and the clash with his frequent nemesis, Gyaos, the giant flying pterodactyl-like monsters that can emit yellow beams of destruction. Usually in movies of this genre, the human side of the story is the least engaging part and almost unnecessary at times, but the major players of this movie play into the genre fun and are seemingly more self aware than, say, the majority of Godzilla’s human casts. There’s also a teenage girl who has a telepathic link to Gamera, so that’s fun!

Recommendation:What makes a kaiju movie work, in my opinion, is a healthy adherence to genre tropes and a clear passion for all of the things that make a great monster movie work! This reboot of Gamera has all of the essentials; there’s well executed danger, percipient humor, solid pacing, and elaborate practical effects paired with smart CGI. If you’re into cheesy giant monster movies, you’ll probably enjoy this one!

Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion

Written by Kazunori Ito and directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion” is the direct sequel to Guardian of The Universe and it’s quickly become a new favorite of mine within the kaiju genre! The first Gamera was a solid reboot that established Gamera’s origins and mythology while providing some good monster fights with his old nemesis the Gyaos. However, this time around he faces a new threat in Legion. After a meteor hits northern Japan, some strange occurrences begin to take place. Underground, a swarm of large (Large for us anyways, about eight to ten feet long with many claws and sharp mandibles!) mutant insect aliens have been carving out the nation’s power lines and inhabited their subway lines! This provides the movie with the opportunity to do some small scale horror sequences and they were exquisite and a good deal of fun! After the threat’s been established, the military arrives as the swarm guts a gigantic warehouse and builds a flowering hive that emits a gaseous pollen! Obviously, as the guardian of Earth (and the Universe?) this attracts Gamera and he destroys the hive with ease. However, the swarm pours out in the hundreds and they completely cover Gamera! They bite, sting, and generally annoy Gamera until he flies away flinging green blood all over the nearby buildings. I haven’t seen such a creative enemy for a kaiju movie in a long time, because while the swarm continues to burrow and dig their way towards Tokyo, more flowering hives are built and eventually a queen-like insect alien erupts from the earth to fight Gamera. I have to say the movie may have more scenes involving crazily intricate city model work being destroyed with aplomb and awe than any other kaiju movie I’ve seen! I will always respect the model work being done for a good monster movie, and this one had so many super inventive and creative shots for the destruction and carnage, I was in monster movie heaven. The giant monster battles with the final form of Legion, as seen in the above poster, were a thing of beauty! The fights were constantly evolving and the practical effects… well, I can really only praise a movie’s effects work so much, but it was astounding. Characters from the first film return in significant ways and the whole movie from beginning to end was thoroughly entertaining! This sequel had everything I want from a giant monster movie, and I couldn’t ask for anything more!

Recommendation: This is the movie I recommend most out of this list. Granted, it’s a highly subjective recommendation, but if you’re looking to burn through some time during this quarantine and you’ve never watched a kaiju movie, I most definitely recommend this very silly, and very cheesy, monster movie.

Wolf Warrior

Written by Qun Dong, Yan Gao, Yi Liu, and Jing Wu, and directed by Wu, “Wolf Warrior” is a very, very, ridiculous action movie following the recruitment of an elite sniper, Leng Feng (Also Jing Wu), into the notoriously Macho special forces squad called, The Wolf Warriors. Okay, so, the plot doesn’t really matter with this one if we’re being honest. “Wolf Warrior” is an incredibly patriotic, nationalistic, and proud action war movie. Which, to be fair, is totally fine if that’s your thing. I mean, hell I loved the “Rambo” movies when I was a teenager, in fact sometimes all you need is some fun, flag waving, stupid, action. Scott Adkins leads the team of former American and Australian Military forces turned mercenaries. They’re the muscle behind a huge drug ring operation, and it’s the Wolf Warriors job to take them out and bring civility and sanity back to their land and people. The best parts are in the third act when Adkins gets to show off his kickflip skills with Leng Feng eventually getting the better of him in combat (obviously). If you’ve already run through all of the American action flicks and you’re okay with reading subtitles while consuming some brain melting action, then you’ll probably have fun with this one, but admittedly, there’s a reason “Wolf Warrior 2” isn’t on this list: sometimes you have to space out the mind numbing action flicks.

Recommendation: If you enjoy movies like “Rambo”, “Commando”, or the “XXX” (Vin Diesel) series, you might have just found a new favorite- Otherwise, it’s just another action movie.

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Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Movie Reviews: Doctor Sleep

Well, my last review “Until the End of the World” couldn’t have been more aptly timed it seems. Personally, I’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. No, I don’t have Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus), however my place of work has been heavily impacted by this phenomenon as, I’m sure, many of you reading this probably have experienced some level of disruption in your life as well. So, in these times of uncertainty, I’ve decided to dive into my watch-pile of movies that I’ve accumulated over the years and forgotten about, or more plainly- haven’t gotten around to watching for one reason or another. I figured I’d start with a more recent release, and Mike Flanagan’s adaption of “Doctor Sleep” is an excellent place to begin!

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Doctor Sleep” is both an adaption of Stephen King’s Novel and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s film. This film also puts a heavy emphasis on nods back to Stephen King’s original book that really cements the world building attempted here. Admittedly, I missed the theatrical run when it was in theaters, so when I picked up the blu-ray, I chose the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film. I’m not sure how much of the story is altered for this cut, but as I see it, this should be the definitive version of the film. Though, this does add about a half hour to the run time making it a three-hour commitment, you have been warned. The story is divided into six chapters and each one effectively peels back layers of the return to this world, and the dangers that come with it. We get some quick flashbacks early on with a young Danny Torrance and his Shining mentor Dick Hallorann, or at least, a communication with Hallorann from beyond the grave. He warns Danny that “it’s a hungry world out there” and that there are those who would feed on Danny’s power in a most violent way. It’s really the perfect introduction to the threat that Danny must eventually face in “the true knot”.

When we catch up with Danny (Ewan McGregor) as an adult, it’s 2011 and he’s in a bad place. He’s become an alcoholic to quiet the effects of his shining abilities. Dan (as he’s called now) steals from the single mother he’d just had a one night stand with and gets on a bus and heads out of town. After some ignored shame from the ghostly Hallorann, Danny finally succumbs to do the right thing after being haunted by the dead Mother and Son he neglected. He finally settles in a small town in New Hampshire and befriends Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who helps Dan get a small apartment, a job as an orderly at the local Hospice, and becomes his AA sponsor. Fast forward seven years to 2019 where Dan’s gotten over his alcoholism, and he gets a new ‘friend’ of sorts when another person, who also shines, leaves him chalk messages on the blackboard wall. That ‘friend’ is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a teenage black girl living in an affluent suburb whose Shining power is strong, even more so than Dan’s. Meanwhile, ‘the true knot’ is running amok in the world, feeding on the life-source of those who shine. ‘The true knot’, as they call themselves, are a roaming band of psychic vampires that hunt and devour those who shine, and those who shine strongest give the most potent steam when they die. Initially, I wasn’t impressed with these villains, but they grew on me over the course of the film. Once they capture and brutally slaughter a young baseball loving boy, their threat and menace was secured. The group consists of about ten to twelve members for most of the story, each a different immortal age and prowess. The group is run by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) a particularly charismatic and analytical vampire of the mind. Rose is incredibly gifted in the dark arts and hears Abra’s mental projections pleading with Rose to stop the young baseball player’s slaughter- even halfway across America. Thus she sets her sights on the young Abra, and when Abra seeks out Dan for help in her investigation of that young boy’s murder, things start to accelerate.

At this point you may have an idea or two where the story is going, but I’ll leave any plot summation for your own discoveries. In truth, I was incredibly, joyously, wrong in my original assumption that a sequel to “The Shining” would be ill-advised. I’m still in shock that “Doctor Sleep” isn’t just a passable sequel, but one that ties both books and Kubrick’s film adaption together in consistently smart and horrific (i.e. Good) ways. While the last half hour or so does indulge in returning to the Overlook Hotel, it earns that return. It doesn’t feel like the script takes us there for shallow nostalgia, but for a deeper character exploration for Dan Torrance besides the solution for Rose the Hat. Which really runs into the theme of the film, using your own fears against your problems. Facing your fears with the acknowledgement and confidence required to stop them. Speaking of the return to the Overlook, one of my favorite aspects of this film was the reliance on actors that look extremely close to the actors who portrayed major characters in the first film. There’s no attempts to dig up Jack Nicholson and reanimate his face for a cameo scene here, no, just strikingly similar actors. Particularly impressive was the actress they got to portray Wendy Torrance in Dan’s flashbacks, Alex Essoe, she was eerily close to Shelley Duvall‎’s appearance and her acting choices were so close that, at times, it was mind-boggling.

“Doctor Sleep” was a welcome surprise, and well worth the wait! The new characters and dynamics that arose were engaging and well executed, but the return to the characters and places that we know and loved from both the book and film adaption of “The Shining” were outright spectacular! I haven’t enjoyed a long-gestating sequel as much as this since “Blade Runner 2049”. If you enjoy a good horror movie every now and then, and especially if you like or love “The Shining”, I highly encourage you to check out the Director’s Cut of this movie!

Final Score: 41 Psychic Vampires

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Old School Review: “Until The End of The World” Director’s Cut (1991)

For my 250th blogpost here, I wanted to review and write about something that felt as monumental as reaching this number of articles. Wim Wender’s 1991 globe-spanning road-trip, mystery, romance etc.. felt like the appropriate choice. At nearly five hours long, I’ll be reviewing the Director’s Cut version of the film, and it was a feat simply to find the time to sit through the road trip epic. I’ve only seen one other film from Wenders, “Wings of Desire”, which many call his Masterpiece, and you can read my thoughts on that film here on the blog as well; (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/08/24/old-school-review-wings-of-desire-1987/). If I were to try to describe all of the story beats, all of the character moments, or even the bulk of the visual/audial hallucinatory imagery that takes up a considerable volume of the last hour of the film- then this review would be nearing the 8,000-10,000 word mark with ease. Instead, I’ll try to give an authentic sense of the film’s perceived meaning and chatter along about the aspects I thought were especially poignant or prescient.

Sam Neill, Chick Ortega, and Rüdiger Vogler together in the Australian Outback.

Written by Peter Carey and Wim Wenders, “Until The End of The World” was based off of an idea conjured up by Wenders and Solveig Dommartin, who stars as Claire Tourneur, the lead of the film. “Until The End of The World” is a hard film to narrow down to any one genre other than that of journey and discovery. The film mainly follows Claire on a journey that spans the world, however she herself is chasing another individual, Trevor McPhee (William Hurt), an Australian with an American accent that she bumps into in France. However, there are a few key details to digest first before getting into that. While the film was released in 1991, it is set in 1999, aka “The Future“. In this version of the twentieth century’s final year an Indian Satellite outfitted with Nuclear weapons has spiraled out of control and the unknown impact of this slowly falling doomsday device has the world on edge. Millions of people are constantly migrating away from the next best guess on wherever it may land, but Claire could care less. We begin the film with her in an eclectic Venetian Party as she tries to forget about Gene (Sam Neill) her former boyfriend, an English Author living with her in Paris. Gene’s infidelity drove Claire away, and even though he loves her, she quickly falls for Trevor after a few encounters in Europe. On her way back north to Paris Claire gets in a car wreck with a couple of amicable French Bank Robbers, namely Chico Rémy (Chick Ortega) who becomes fast friends with Claire as she allows them a ride for awhile. There’s a huge bag of cash involved but getting bogged down in the details won’t help in analyzing a movie that’s almost five hours long. Anyways, on the road to Paris she meets Trevor, who’s in dire need of transport as he’s also being pursued by another Australian in a trenchcoat, but he’s armed. When she finally gets back to Paris, Trevor departs, and she returns to Gene’s apartment. After Claire showcases the huge bag of stolen money to Gene, she realizes that Trevor has stolen some of the money. She vows to track down Trevor, she says it’s to retrieve what’s been taken from her- but as we hear in the plentiful narration, Claire couldn’t really even articulate her reasoning for herself other than a sensation of purpose in doing so. Meanwhile, Gene’s been writing a new Novel with Claire as the protagonist, and as such, he too follows her across the world. In fact, the narration within the film is all from Sam Neill’s Gene, by the end we realize that the narration we’ve been hearing for roughly four hours, is from Gene’s second book he starts on this journey when he has a profound realization about Claire, humanity, and life in general. There’s a lot of chasing, following, love loss, forlorn nostalgia, and newfound friendships in this film. In truth the first half of the film is Claire following Trevor around the world from Paris to Berlin, where we meet a German Detective (Rüdiger Vogler) that Claire hires to track down Trevor, to Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, San Francisco, and then to central Australia. There’s A LOT that happens in that time. Relationships between those involved in the Love Triangle evolve, we learn more about Trevor, why he’s being pursued, what his personal mission is, and that his real name is Sam Farber and that he’s the son of brilliant scientist Henry Farber (Max von Sydow). *I must stop for a moment to acknowledge the nod of cinematic respect for Yasujiro Ozu’s work with the short but notable inclusion of the legendary actor and longtime collaborator of Ozu’s, Chishû Ryû- seeing him appear in this film even for only but a moment was like seeing an old friend again, and I personally adored that moment.*

Solveig Dommartin, William Hurt, and Lois Chiles in San Francisco as Hurt’s Character, Sam, attempts to record a video clip of his sister, Elsa, for their Blind Mother to see with their father’s latest invention.

However, it is the second half of this film that captured my attention more. The whole of the second half of the film is set in Australia. The characters discover that the U.S. Government actually did nuke the Indian Satellite, resulting in an planet-wide N.E.M.P. (or nuclear electromagnetic pulse) that shuddered all non-shielded electronics. People everywhere are unsure of the devastation, without a connection to the world, they fear for their fellow humans all over the planet, not knowing if the atomic winds will turn in their direction. The whole gang of characters, Claire, Gene, Sam, Detective Winter, and even Chico, gather at the home and laboratory of Dr. Henry Farber. They all engage in pleasantries and we meet Sam’s mother Edith Farber (Jeanne Moreau) as well, the person he’s traveled the world over for, just to help her see once more. They spend what seems like weeks or months there trying to get the science of the project down as they ignore the greater significance of world events and look inward on their little project, which brilliantly foreshadows the next stage of events. On December 31st 1999, the group reestablishes radio contact and realizes that the world has been spared, the nuclear explosion and fallout was entirely contained to space. They also had some successes in transmitting images and video into Edith’s brain and visual cortex with the help of Claire, a natural at transmitting brainwaves apparently. However, all of this exhaustive testing has wrought too much from Edith and she passes with the twentieth century. After the news that the Earth is indeed intact, each character except for Gene, Claire, Henry, and Sam leave for home which sets the tone down to a more personal one. Sam’s father Henry may be a genius- but he’s as obsessive as his son in his pursuits and after Edith’s death he moved towards a new goal; transmitting people’s dreams into digital images and video. Henry thinks it will win him a Nobel Prize, but the truth is he needed to make the device, for his dreams where the only place that Edith lived for him, or at least, his memory of her. After some trial and error the headset and accompanying monitor reveal their dreams to both Sam and Claire and it immediately consumes their interests to an unhealthy level. Neither or them can take their eyes off of their monitors as they stumble through the world and ignore everything around them. Sound familiar? Obsession with screens and the nostalgia of the mind aren’t the only things Wim Wenders correctly predicted with this film. The only reason Detective Winter could track down Sam earlier in the film was with a rudimentary search engine that combs the digital world for traces of the footprint you’ve left through credit card uses among other variables. The film also had video-messaging, VR-like headsets, and devices comparable to large Ipads. I’d also like to take some time to mention that the audio in the film was something that was clearly, heavily, considered. Throughout the film there are a litany of songs used that not only reiterate themes resonant with the story, there’s also a huge amount of atmospheric tracks in the soundtrack that are big players in the overall texture of the film.

Max von Sydow as Henry Farber, a brilliant Scientist living off the grid in Australia to continue his experiments into extracting imagery from brainwaves.

“Until The End of The World” is a fascinating experiment in cinema’s history. There are parts of the film that I found quite charming, other sequences felt a bit too elongated for my taste however. There are stretches of the runtime that I found to be too meandering for me personally, but there’s enough unique choices to keep my own attention. The cast itself is certainly a major factor in choosing to check this one out, the performances were compelling, though I had a tough time understanding or relating to Claire and her decision making for most of the film. It was, however, quite nice to watch a movie with Max von Sydow in it the day after his passing, obviously he was a gigantic player in cinema’s history and he changed it for the better. This one was a very mixed-bag in my opinion, it was worth a watch to sate my own curiosity, but not everyone will appreciate this one though I’m afraid. “Until The End of The World” is just too long, too vague, and without a coherent sense of direction. Watch at your own risk.

Final Score: 11 Countries

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Old School Review: “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Le Cercle Rouge” is a return to the criminal underworld he momentarily left behind to film “Army of Shadows”. This may be my favorite Melville film (of the assortment of his films that I have seen), it’s got the most tightly packed story with a superb cast of characters, all of which are dynamic, engaging, and memorable. The film opens similarly to “Le Samouraï” with another invented epigraph by Melville, “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.” While the whole cast is excellent overall, there are three characters that brought a bit of cinematic magic to the whole affair. First there’s Corey (Alain Delon, of “Le Samouraï” fame) an expert thief who begins the film by being released from prison early for good behavior. Just before his release, a prison guard tips him off about a major jewelry store that’s rumored to be ripe for the picking. The other two are Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) a notorious criminal who got caught in Marseille and was being personally transported by train with Le Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil), a tough as nails comissioner who stops at nothing to get the job done. Naturally, after Vogel unexpectedly crashes out of the train’s window and starts an impromptu manhunt through the French countryside, Commissaire Mattei uses every asset in his power to track down the criminal.

While Vogel was running through the woods from the cops, Corey made his way to Rico’s (André Ekyan) apartment, a former colleague of his. Rico’s been making power moves since Corey’s jailhouse detour, one of which involved dating Corey’s former girlfriend. So, Corey makes a power move of his own by robbing Rico of his guns and money right there in his home. After this, Corey buys a car with Rico’s money, and heads out to a diner for lunch. While eating there, Vogel crawls out of the woods nearby and sneaks into Corey’s trunk. Corey drives out to the middle of an empty field, gets out of the car, and sits nearby on some farming equipment before telling Vogel that he knows he’s in the trunk and to come out as he has nothing to fear (Corey had stashed his two guns in the trunk anyways, so he knew Vogel would have them). What follows is a crucial scene, two like-minded criminals with an attitude of stoic nonchalance that suggests that beyond their sparse dialogue, the potential of a lucrative partnership, goes without saying. What begins as a confrontational beat turns towards cooperation with relative ease once each man sizes up the other. Shortly after this newfound agreement, Vogel hides back in the trunk to avoid any prying eyes of the law, and they’re off to Paris. Further down the road, two of Rico’s henchmen force Corey off the road and walk him off the side of the road. Just before they kill Corey for stealing from and humiliating their boss, Vogel climbs out of the trunk, takes their guns, and shoots each man with the other’s gun while holding the pistols with a hankerchief. No fingerprints here, only a newly cemented friendship in crime.

The rest of the film is devoted to the preparation, and execution, of that jewelry heist mentioned earlier. Corey and Vogel make it back to Paris to prepare for the logistics of the heist, but Commissaire Mattei is tracking any and all movements that could be attributed to Vogel. The Comissioner turns up at the scene of Rico’s murdered men and turns over every rock, clue, and hint of Vogel’s involvement. Meanwhile, Corey and Vogel agree that they will need at least two more people to adequately complete the job. First they need an expert marksman, one that knows everything there is to know about guns and ballistics for a very precise shot. Corey has a contact he used to know, though he doesn’t know if the old man is still up for the task, but phones him anyways. That just so happens to be Jansen (Yves Montand), a down-on-his-luck ex-cop with a heavy drinking problem. He answers the call despite a horrifying hangover, but agrees to help. The last piece of the puzzle is a fence to sell the jewelry to afterwards. They go to a farm outside of Paris and convince the fence (Paul Crauchet) that their product will be worth the risk, he agrees. While the three criminals are out haggling with their newfound fence, Commissaire Mattei is back in Paris hounding Santi (François Périer), the owner of a well established nightclub, known for its connections to the Parisian underworld. After everything is in order, they attempt the heist in a scene that’s both wordless and yet excruxiatingly full of a taught anxiety knowing that they could be discovered or caught at any moment. It’s a highly memorable heist sequence that both calls back to cinema’s criminal capers of the past, and yet foreshadows how some heist films are oriented in the decades that followed.

In the end, the fence denies their haul citing that it’s far more risky than he had anticipated with Vogel’s escape raising the awareness of local law enforcement. Though in reality, he had been given orders from Rico not to pursue the product, and to direct Corey towards Santi, suggesting that he may know of a fence willing to take the jewels. Of course, the fence that Santi knows is Commissaire Mattei in disguise. Corey sets up a time and place to make the tradeoff and, as with all of Melville’s Tough Guy crime films, it doesn’t go well for our anti-heroes. This was an excellent neo-noir from Jean-Pierre Melville, and it completes my short dive into his filmography. If I come across some of his other films from earlier in his career, or find a copy of “Un Flic”, I’ll probably give it a watch and let you know what I thought. Check out Jean-Pierre Melville’s work sometime, his films influenced leagues of filmmakers, genres of filmmaking, and are generally a good time.

Final Score: Four Fat Cats

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Old School Review: “Army of Shadows” (1969)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Army of Shadows” is adapted from a book with the same title by Joseph Kessel which details some of Kessel’s involvement in the French Resistance during World War Two. Though some characters in both the book and this film adaption are fictionalized versions of real life resistance fighters, the film is meant to be be less of a realized adaption of real life events and more of an expression of the mindset of those living a life of resistance under Nazi controlled France. Which, I feel, is crucial information for any analysis of this film. Interestingly, the film wasn’t well received in France during it’s release as the public view of Charles de Gaulle had shifted dramatically since the second World War. It was also denied an American distribution due to the rather grisly content of the film (for the time anyway), and wasn’t released in the United States in any form for thirty-seven years until 2006.

“Army of Shadows” deals in the suspense of terror in every day encounters. The film follows a small group of resistance members as they attempt to send and receive pertinent information, supplies, and logistics between themselves and a few trusted individuals in the allied forces. However, while the stakes for the characters is always high, the film does not encourage larger than life displays of defiance, but rather playing out small moments in which decisions are made or abandoned that carry the weight of survival or death. A perfect example of this is when Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier (a major contributor to the cause during the resistance) escapes a Gestapo prison in France in the first half of the film, Gerbier convinces another captive to rush a German guard, and they both make a break for it, parting ways once hitting the street. Gerbier darts into a barbershop late at night and asks to have his moustache shaved off- the barber mutely acknowledges Gerbier’s suspect request and after he’s done, he denies Gerbier’s money and instead offers him a remarketedly different overcoat instead. It’s a tense, terse, and quiet scene, one that effectively captures the mood of the film as a whole. The minimalism that was so effective in “Le Samouraï” is expanded upon in this film, and used to emphasize the airy, spacious, nightmare that occupies the locations and sets used in the film, but its also, ironically, the claustrophobic inverse for the headspace of the characters that we’re following.

Speaking of the cast, it’s an excellent mixture of returning Melville favorites like Lino Ventura as the lead, Philippe Gerbier, or Paul Meurisse as Luc Jardie, secretly the true leader of the French resistance. Which is a fun turn of events as the actors were enemies last time around in “Le Deuxième Souffle” with Meurisse portraying ‘Inspector Blot’. The other notable standout is Simone Signoret as Mathilde, a wife and mother whose family knows nothing of her involvement in the resistance. Mathilde not only specializes in elaborate costumes, but helped to design intricate operations for the resistance. Memorably, she organized an effort to rescue fellow resistance member Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) from a maximum security prison in Lyon. Mathilde, along with ‘Le Masque’ (Claude Mann) and ‘Le Bison’ (Christian Barbier), dressed as a German nurse and her two bodyguards accompanying her to attempt to transport Lepercq to a different facility due to his extremely poor condition. Though when a German doctor denies him passage and labels him ‘unfit for transport’, Mathilde must stay in character in that moment and accept the decision, comitting to ‘file a report about that’ and then leaving on the spot. To push the subject or to let her face betray her mission at this news would threaten not just her life, but those of ‘Le Masque’ and ‘Le Bison’ as well. What shocked me in the film was the level of commitment that the resistance members swore to- its definitely a situation where hard decisions had to be made, but the atmosphere and casual tone among resistance members who agreed to kill any informers from the inside out was… in truth, very in line with Melville’s cold and analytical nature in previous films. I suppose it was the more intimate nature of the way they had to kill their informer that got me, they had secured an abandoned house to do the deed in- but neighbors had noisily moved in the night before, so no guns. They decide to use a knife, but no one has a knife. What to do? Strangulation it is! The camera does not cut away from the informer, in fact, the frame focuses on the young man as we watch the life leave his eyes. It cements the fact that this is not an easy life, it’s a hard, depressing, and violent one.

While this isn’t my favorite Melville film so far, it’s a unique one that should be seen if you’re a student of film or history, or both. Melville’s ‘tough guy’ noirs will always capture my imagination more than this film did- but the imagery and atmosphere is one I will remember for a long time. If you’ve run out of conventional World War Two films, I highly suggest checking this one out, because while it focuses on people and events that took place during the war, it’s not really a war film. Expand your horizons, and give this one a watch!

Final Score: 1 Submarine

*Below is Roger Ebert’s review of the film and a deeper dive into Melville’s work as a whole, I encourage you to check it out!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-army-of-shadows-1969

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Old School Review: “Le Samouraï” (1967)

Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.

After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.

Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.

Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).

So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!

Final Score: 1 Bird

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Old School Review: “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review*

Title translation: “Second Wind”

Written by José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Deuxième Souffle” is a crime thriller adapted from a novel also written by Giovanni. Of the three films I’ve seen from Melville at this point, this is my new favorite from him. While the cinematography isn’t as showy as previous films, the story and characters are far more engaging and rapturous. The story is mainly focused on recently escaped and infamous Parisian criminal Gustave Minda (Lino Ventura), or “Gu” for short, and the expert Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) who relentlessly pursues him. Now, the plot and story at hand may seem familiar, but it is Melville’s stage direction, camera framing, and restrained performances that he pulls from his actors that make this noir film stand out from the crowd. So, after “Gu” breaks out of prison with two others (one unfortunate prisoner missed his jump, the second was eventually chased off a cliff by the police), he heads to Paris to see his loyal sister Simone (Christine Fabréga), who goes by her nickname ‘Manouche’ throughout the film. She and her bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin), work various aspects of a bar called “Ricci’s”. Manouche and Alban get caught in the crossfire of an orchaestrated attack on the bar before “Gu” arrives in Paris, but Alban fends them off from behind the bar while Jacques (Raymond Loyer), Manouche’s admirer, is found to be the only casualty. When “Gu” does arrive back in town he takes his sister’s blackmail problems into his own hands. “Gu” catches two more men sent to Manouche’s house after the attack and kills them with his trademark technique. With the blackmail settled, the three of them, Manouche, Alban, and “Gu” plan to smuggle the infamous criminal to Italy by way of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Inspector Blot is all over every possible trace of evidence connected to the infamous Gustave Minda’s recent escape from prison, and in fact, he’s the first person on the scene of the attack at Ricci’s. Though no one there will give Blot any verifiable accounts of the attack, he knows their game all too well and makes his presence well known, for while the attack didn’t resemble “Gu”s handiwork- Blot knew the old gangster would be heavily invested in the safety of his sister. Blot, for his part, is a damn crafty Inspector and knows all the ins and outs of the criminal underworld- he calculates his risks seriously, and his deductive reasoning is unparalled in the world of this film. To fund the escape to Italy, “Gu” decides to join up with a crew for a heist with a gigantic payout, much to Manouche’s objection. “Gu” finds this opportunity through another old friend of his, Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), who was originally asked to be a part of the heist, but declined due to the risk associated. “Gu” finds himself in familiar company with the crew assembled as Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin), brother of Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) who owns the bar Ricci’s, is the lead organizer of the operation. Gustave doesn’t find out until later that it was Jo Ricci who blackmailed Manouche at the beginning of the film, though when he does, he lets Paul know that his brother ‘isn’t on the up and up‘ and decides to let it go due to their friendship. The heist is pretty simple as far as heists go, an armored truck carrying one million francs worth of platinum in its cargo has a long route out through the country with two armed police motorcyles escorting it. Once the armored truck and police motorcade enter the mountainous terrain where the gangsters lay in wait, the heist goes surprisingly well. The motorcade is dispatched effectively as planned and the truck drivers are stowed in a nearby shed. The only diversion is a passerby who stopped because he thought he heard shots- but “Gu” solves the issue and tosses the onlooker into the shed with the others. The crew returns and hides the platinum until they can find an approrpriate seller.

Unfortunately for “Gu”, he’s kidnapped in broad daylight and tricked into revealing that Paul Ricci was involved in the heist as Blot’s team impersonated local gangsters from Marseille with insider information. Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) of the Marseille Police department receives the two gangsters, they’re heavily tortured as they attempt to break both “Gu” and Paul, though eventually “Gu” escapes. Jo Ricci wants revenge for his jailed brother, and to get “Gu”s portion of the platinum’s revenue. Jo Ricci works the other two members of the crew in the heist and convinces them to side with him, fearing that “Gu” could give up their names to the cops as well. After escaping the Marseille Police Department, “Gu” tracks down Inspector Fardiano and kills him after obtaining a written confession that Gustave Minda did not inform on anyone, and the details of the torture techniques they used in their “information gathering”. The film comes down to a shootout between “Gu”, the two remaining heist members, and Jo Ricci as he takes Orloff’s place in a meeting and shows up with two pistols and a whole lot of righteous criminal honor to uphold. All are killed in the commotion, with Blot arriving just as “Gu” dies on the staircase. Blot heads out of the crime scene and into the crowd, as he does, he purposefully leaves Fardiano’s confession at the feet of a journalist- Blot played by the rules, and Fardiano was just another bad cop to be swept under the rug.

This was another really solid noir film from Melville and it only encourages me to seek out more from the Godfather of the French New Wave film movement. Classic genre tropes with tough guy gangsters, prison escapes, heists, shootouts, this film cleverly includes all the usual ingredients of a typical noir film, but the genius here is in the execution. Yes, the film is two-and-a-half hours, but for me at least, the pacing was very manageable and I was engaged for the whole film’s runtime. If you’re looking for a great rivalry between an unflappable Detective and an infamous Gangster then look no further, you’ve found it! Enjoy!

Final Score: 200 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “Le Doulos” (1962)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.

So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.

This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.

Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity

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Old School Review: “Bob le Flambeur” (1955)

Written by Auguste Le Breton, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed by Melville, “Bob le Flambeur” is a French noir film from the oft described Godfather of the infamous New Wave filmmakers who would burst onto the scene with radical new filmmaking techniques in just a few short years. Most of the French films I have seen at this point haven’t quite connected with me as much as I had expected, or even hoped for. That changes with this film however. Recently I noticed that a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville movies were set to leave the Criterion Collection’s streaming service at the end of February, and I had been meaning to check them out. There’s nothing like a fast approaching deadline to give you a sense of focus. I must say that I loved this film, and I cannot wait to run through more of Melville’s filmography. “Bob le Flambeur” follows Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a former Parisian gangster before the war, and now a well known gambler among the many nightclubs and bars of the night life in Paris. Even the cops know Bob, a man of honor and luck, he once saved the life of the local inspector (Guy Decomble) and they forged a long friendship. The owner of the corner bar, Yvonne (Simone Paris), bought the place with a loan from Bob, and with it her loyalty to him. And then there’s Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eager young man who hangs around, as his father was a great friend of Bob’s. We get most of our information about Bob by the way people greet and react to his presence and how they speak about Bob when he’s around and when he’s not.

We follow Bob as he moves from room to room throughout the latest hours of the night and the earliest of the morning, as the narration by Melville informs us “in those moments, between night and day … between heaven and hell.” He ends up losing most of his remaining funds, in fact throughout the whole first act Bob never seems to win at all. It isn’t until he hears about a potential heist with a score big enough to offset the risks that he begins to win at games of chance. It is here that a refresher on French vocabularly might be worthwhile; The word being “Flamber” (verb): To wager not only the money you have, but the money you don’t have. This is the epitome of who Bob is at his core. He is a gambler through and through, always rolling dice, flipping coins, and pulling the levers on a slot machine. Risk and chance are the fuel of his existence. Which is why the old gangster perks up when a friend mentions that the safe in the Casino in Deauville occasionally holds extraordinary amounts of money. They quickly begin to assess the situation and start gathering a crew of people with the essential skills and connections that could allow them to pull off this feat. It’s here that movies involving heists over the next fifty plus years have looked back upon for inspiration in the examination of a heist’s plan. Melville was aware enough of the conventions of the genre and chose to have his criminals forgo the usual charts and blueprints used to elaborate on the specifics of the plan. Instead, Melville had his crew go to detailed lengths to plan out their heist by spraying the outlines of the casino’s floorplans on an empty field and having his men walk through the steps. They also get some reconnaissance by driving around the Casino’s walls and having one of the crew accurately sketch the outlines and specific features of the building. They hire an expert safe cracker and acquire an exact replica of the safe they have to crack for practice. Which is all well and good, but I must direct your attention to the side characters who are all given adequate background information and motivations for their choices within the film. First, there’s Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman on the verge of falling into the clutches of the many pimps on the streets of Paris. Bob hates pimps, and he goes out of his way to make it known to Marc (Gérard Buhr), a down on his luck former gangster-turned-pimp early in the film. Unfortunately for Bob, Marc’s also dogged by the cops who will let him slide on smaller infractions if he gets them some good insider information from the criminal underworld of Paris. Anne floats around from Bob’s place (he allows her to stay if she has nowhere else to go), to several career paths, into and out of the lovesick arms of poor Paulo, and eventually back to Marc- who is denied her business as a prostitute, but given all too valuable information by accident.

In the end, Bob gets comepletely sidetracked by gambling at the casino. He almost forgets his schedule entirely, but runs out of the tables and into a gunfight. While he earned himself extraordinary wealth, he also missed the worst of the violence and gets there just in time to catch Paulo as he dies in his arms. Tragedy, sparked by an optimistic and oddly cynical note that by becoming so wealthy that he may avoid all jail time with the right lawyer for the right price. It’s one of those eternal ironies that comes through in the third act that adds just the right mix of cinematic magic to the whole affair, you see, Bob had promised his first partner in the scheme that he wouldn’t gamble until after the job had been done, but the allure of the casino was just too much for him. It’s just his nature, as the film likes to remind us. Beyond the plot, the cinematography caught me as something almost mythic in certain shots. That may seem strong, but the farther we get from the black and white films of the twentieth century, the closer that time feels to becoming as large and impenetrable in the cultural zeitgeist as say, the American West in the 1800’s. Maybe it’s just me, but I also love it when a film’s lead character travels through an environment and becomes dwarfed by the landscape, be it man-made skyscrapers or small towns, or natural like trees or mountains. Putting man on the scale of the world in your framing makes humanity seem small in comparison to the world around it- but it makes our acomplishments that much more powerful too.

If you’re looking for some good old school noir and are willing to read subtitles, I highly suggest checking this one out. For fun, try to spot all the people who aren’t smoking onscreen- once you notice it, it’s hard to miss the massive amount of people and time that smoking takes up onscreen. Otherwise, look forward to some more reviews on the films from Jean-Pierre Melville. ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: 800 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” is an adventure comedy that notably inspired George Lucas in his crafting of the original “Star Wars”. The film follows two peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) trying to return home after being conscripted into a regional war. They provide the levity in the film, which is more frequently in use here than the majority of Kurosawa’s work (of the films of his that I’ve seen at least). We begin the film with these two bemoaning their predicament after having gotten to the war two days late and forced to bury the dead. They wander across a desolate landscape towards home but find the border now controlled by the recently victorious kingdom, thus forcing them to find an alternate route home through separate kingdoms adjoining one another.

A few scenes later the two stumble across a gold bar lodged inside a wooden stick while making a fire for the night. Bewildered at their luck, Matashichi and Tahei make a mad dash in the morning to find more of the hidden gold. In their frantic efforts, which mostly consist of them bickering over how to divide the gold, they stumble into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a well known general of the defeated kingdom- though they do not recognize him. After telling him their plan to travel through a neighboring region to avoid the newly established checkpoints, Rokurota recruits them to his cause through clever manipulation as he leads them to the eponymous Hidden Fortress. He keeps them busy for awhile by suggesting that the rest of the gold may be buried near the fortress. During that time he retreats to the waterfall hideout of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the nobility left in power after his kingdom’s destruction. There they craft a plan alongside Izumi Nagakura (Takashi Shimura), the elder general, to use the peasants’ idea for their route and to enlist them to help carry the royal family’s remaining gold back home. They also decide to have the Princess pretend to be mute as to avoid detection as she could accidentally reveal herself through speech usually characteristic of nobility. The troupe, consisting of Rokurota, Princess Yuki, Matashichi and Tahei then depart hauling the hidden gold on their backs and in a large cart.

The rest of the adventure is full of high energy moments like the lance (spear?) duel between Rokurota and Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), a general of equivalent rank and status. There’s also quieter beats of tension like the numerous times Matashichi and Tahei create new problems for Rokurota and Yuki by either plotting to steal the gold for themselves or their general fear of getting caught with all this gold. Eventually they sneak into a procession of people marching with hordes of wood towards a fire festival nearby- thus blending into the crowd to avoid being stopped by any watchmen. There’s a lot to like in “The Hidden Fortress” so I’ll spare you all the details for your own discovery, though it is most certainly worth a watch! This film feels like a tonal standout from Kurosawa’s other works. There’s no self serious moral message or compelling heroics, or even universally relatable characters as in other films of his. This film feels most at ease with it’s premise, a high stakes energetic comedy with a sensation similar to those punchy adventure serials from American cinema from the previous two decades before this film’s release. It’s clearly crafted by a master director if you’re paying attention though. Kurosawa’s deft hand at directing and filming is on display for those analyzing shot structure and the handling of movement and blocking. In fact, there’s a scene early in the film before Matashichi and Tahei encounter Rokurota, that’s reminiscent of the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene from “Battleship Potemkin” (also reviewed on the blog @ https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/11007) in which dozens upon dozens of people descend down a huge staircase against a horde of guards with guns shooting into the crowd. There’s some question as to whether or not Kurosawa was directly homaging Potemkin, but I imagine he was aware of that uniquely important film at the very least.

If you have any interest in getting into Japanese cinema, this is an easy entry point and I highly recommend it. Especially because it will likely lead you to other excellent films by Kurosawa, or dare I say it, the work of Mizoguchi or Ozu. It’s like recent Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho infamously said “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The man couldn’t be more right. So if you’re new to foreign cinema, welcome, and if you’re a well worn visitor to the land of subtitles and a difference in perspective, welcome back! ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: Two Peasants, One Princess