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À bout de souffle (1960)
An intriguing and influential crime/romance drama.
The part that Jean Luc-Godard played in The French New Wave was tremendous. This film, with its innovative jump-cuts, catapulted Godard into international fame. His film, Breathless, as well as collaborator Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, put the New Wave on the map for good. Breathless, like Truffaut's masterpiece, is a mysteriously beautiful film. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard, alias Laszlo Kovacs, a french criminal running from the police. He meets with his lover, Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg, in Paris, where she works for a newspaper. The film focuses on the dynamics of their relationship, or rather, their lack of a relationship. One of the most famous lines in the film explains it best: "When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other." Considering that this is Michel saying this to Patricia adds so much more to the revelation. Michel is a small, somewhat odd-looking fellow who despises fear and loves sex and movies. In one scene, Michel stands in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart, from The Harder They Fall. This is just one example of the methods Godard uses of foreshadowing Michel's fate. Patricia is an intellectual, interested in art, music, and literature. She is the more mature one of the two, contemplating the deeper meanings of life and love, while Michel is only concerned about sex and money. Belmondo and Seberg have an interesting chemistry together, very much like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The dialog is brilliantly witty and Martial Solal's moody, jazzy theme is somewhat reminiscent of a Thelonious Monk recording. The jump-cuts brought a new technique to the screen, but I can't say that they are done particularly well here. Granted, Godard, practically hacked away at his film with a pair of scissors to shorten the length of the film, thus happening upon what would become a new technique. Overall, Breathless is an enjoyable romantic crime drama, with the style of a film noir, and a twist at the end that leaves its audience Breathless!
A mystery inside a mystery!
Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up is a rather complex murder mystery, of sorts. What appears to be a film about a shallow, self-centered fashion photographer turns out to be only the tip of the ice-berg, as the story shifts into more of a social commentary/character study. Set in the "swinging" 1960's England, Blow-Up follows the story of Thomas, a fashion photographer who, between photo shoots, stumbles upon what may or may not be a murder in a public park. After closing observing his photographs, he realizes the possibility that he may have accidentally captured a killing on film. Sound interesting? Well, here's where the real twist comes in. Antonioni chooses to focus not on the possible murder, but on the character who observes it. As we watch Thomas' personal life, we see that he is alone in his own little distant fantasy world, where only he and his needs are of any concern. Thomas, played by David Hemmings, is so pompous and unlikable that it is very difficult to have any real feelings for his character, other than disgust. He treats women as props in his compositions, play things in his lust life, and may very well be almost completely devoid of emotion. Hemmings' performance is so flat that I can only imagine that that was the point, to show his distance from the world around him. In fact, all of the characters in this movie are played without emotion. We see meaningless sex (exhibited in awkward, childishly playful sex scenes), a complacent audience at a Yardbirds concert, pointless conversations, and an overall sense that in the director's eyes, all of his characters are dead. I don't mean dead in the literal sense, but dead to themselves, their emotions, senses, and to the world around them. Interesting photography comes into play here as well, as interesting compositions are used to create an odd, other-worldly atmosphere that makes you feel like you're in an entirely unfamiliar place. The best moment in the film, and probably, the most famous is the seen in which Thomas begins to realize what his pictures may actually contain. As the camera is used to reveal what Thomas sees, using montage and zooming affects, we share in Thomas' frightful discovery. A masterful scene, it is almost worth watching Blow-Up just for this moment. There is much here left open to interpretation. Blow-Up is an "art film" (as much as I hate that term), and should be viewed with that being understood. If you are looking for a murder mystery, look else where. If you are interested in something more, particularly something to contemplate, something to read into, Blow-Up is as good a choice as any. An interesting movie, but certainly not for everyone.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Universal had no clue of how great Orson Welles' direction was!
From the famous opening shot panning from a doomed car carrying a ticking bomb, Orson Welles begins building the suspense. Welles also uses this opening seen to introduce practically every character in the film so you immediately have a feel for the shady world you're about to enter. Aside from lending his directorial genius to Touch of Evil, Mr. Welles also contributes his performance as the grotesquely obese, crooked Police Captain Hank Quinlan, one of the great screen villains of all time! His prejudice is as complete as his corruption as he abuses his power as a police officer to enforce justice as he sees fit. Quinlan's method of operations comes into question when the honey-mooning Mike and Susan Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, respectively) find themselves at the scene of an explosion. Vargas, an up-and-coming Mexican narcotics officer (yes, Heston plays a Mexican, but the film is very good despite this question of casting) is waiting to testify in a case against a Mexican narcotics ring. Vargas, begins to uncover the truth about Quinlan's investigations, and the two battle for position in this brilliant film noir. Vargas is played with Charlton Heston's signature pride and dignity, as he attempts to bring Quinlan's reign of terror to an end. Susan Vargas is trapped in the middle of the conflict between the two detectives. Susan Vargas is portrayed by the lovely Janet Leigh, who is every bit as beautiful as ever in this film. She isn't given many lines, but she delivers what lines she does have with passion and energy. Akim Tamiroff plays Joe Grandi, this film's representation of Mexico's underworld. There are also some interesting cameos in this film, including Marlene Dietrich as "Tana," Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip club owner, Mercedes McCambridge as a member of a gang, and Welles' long-time collaborator, Joseph Cotten as the coroner. This film contains enough gritty atmosphere, suspense, plot twists, and brilliant cinematography to keep you coming back over and over again for any number of reasons. It is a stunning example of everything a film noir should be; dark and mysterious, every shot tainted with a Touch of Evil!
One of the greatest westerns of all time!
Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly elevates the "western" to a level of art that I don't think John Ford could have even predicted. Not to take anything away from John Ford, but Leone brought a style to audiences in his "spaghetti westerns" that no one else could have thought possible. He stays true to the rugged, gritty feel of American westerns, but his obvious inspiration from Kurosawa's samurai films, and Leone's own personal style come together in a fascinating way that I feel is too individualistic for anyone else to have created. The characters in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly seem so alive, so rich and developed. It all seems so real that watching this can make you feel like you have stumbled upon another world, and certainly, another way of life, that has been going on forever, and will continue on long after you have left. Clint Eastwood's iconic performance as Blondie is brilliant. His unflinching confidence in every move he makes tells you right away that this is not a man to be trifled with. He never cracks under pressure, and he seems to have such a tight grasp of every situation that one would be a fool NOT to side with him. Blondie is every bit as cool, calm, and collected as Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, and also every bit as rewarding to watch! Lee Van Cleef is menacing as Angel Eyes, a bounty hunter who gives the impression that he never met a man who could come close to making him feel threatened. Then, there is Tuco, played by Eli Wallach. Tuco, as dastardly as he is, serves as the comic relief, which is important in a film like this that is filled with tension (the montage in the cemetery is classic!). This movie has action, suspense, drama, and humor, all of which are flavored with Ennio Morricone's famous score and the brilliant cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli. I have not seen enough of Leone's films to say that this is his best, but I can say that this is an excellent film, worthy of all of the praise it has received since its release!
A biting political satire, and a nightmarishly dark comedy!
Some times, the only way that we can cope with the horrors of the world we live in is to laugh in defiance of them. Stanley Kubrick looks directly into the eye of the Cold War; the paranoia, the fear, the tension, the politics of major world powers gone mad, with the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance, and he snickers! Kubrick accomplished the impossible in 1963...He made the world laugh at the nuclear bomb. He didn't do it by sugar-coating anything, in fact, he did the exact opposite, painting a pointedly dark and satirical portrait of the powers that be. This portrait, too accurate not to fear, yet too accurate not to laugh at hysterically, resembles a group of little boys comparing the quality of their toys. The insanity of The Cold War is exposed, almost to the point of violation. There are clowns deciding the fate of the world, and human lives are nothing more than statistics, yet through Kubrick's lens, we find humor in the tragedy! We see how ridiculous it all is. An army general manipulates a complex Cold War strategy in order to start a nuclear war with the Russians because he blames fluoridation for his impotence. It sounds preposterous, and it is, but anyone who follows politics knows that the crazier things appear, the more realistic they usually are. The manic performances of Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, and even Sterling Haden's twisted Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper provide the life to this story, which speaks so often of an ultimate doom. Peter Sellers plays three parts - Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the mad genius, Dr. Strangelove. The President is Sellers playing it straight, while Mandrake shows a little more of Sellers' eccentricity, but it is in Strangelove that he goes completely over the top. Speaking of over the top, George C. Scott gives an incredible energy to his roll as General "Buck" Turgidson. Scott later admitted that this was his own personal favorite performance. Slim Pickens basically plays himself as the gung-ho Major T.J. "King" Kong, who caps off the film in one of the most famous scenes in modern movie history. The satire is powerful, the humor dark, and the end result - remarkable. The detail that went into the War Room and the interior of the aircraft is amazing. The fact that Kubrick could produce a comedy as hysterical as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is testimony to his far-reaching genius, and another example of the classics that have come together to form his legacy! A must-see!
Annie Hall (1977)
A classically intellectual, yet heart-felt, approach to romantic comedy.
Intellectuals tend to over-think things sometimes, well, probably more like most of the time. This obsessive compulsion to analyze often brings nothing but disappointment, frustration, and cynicism. This, is Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), famous comedian "looking for love in all the wrong places." Or are they the right places, but Alvy won't let them be right? Is he afraid of a real relationship? Is the commitment too much for him? Does he fear the rejection and the disappointment? Who knows? Chances are, it's all of these things, and more. Allen's Alvy Singer is neurotic, so lost in his own fears and apprehensions that he cannot live his life. When he meets the beautiful, but awkwardly giddy Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), he decides to give romance another try. Annie, though, has some issues of her own. The two find solace in their similarities, yet the couple's neurotic nature tends to take a toll on them both, as the relationship continues through its ups and downs throughout the film. Told in retrospect, the film is a series of flashbacks and hilarious personal notes, chronicling the relationship of Annie and Alvy. There are plenty of great jokes and uncomfortable moments throughout the movie, as the intimacies of an unstable, but loving, relationship between two complicated people unravel. Allen, in what is often considered his breakthrough film, provides a witty and intelligent look into the irrationality of relationships, while offering humor as medicine to fight the bitterness that can sometimes accompany them. His intellectualization of the couple's time together does not divert attention from the emotions that are felt; the love, the anxiety, the frustration, the excitement, the laughter, and the tears. Diane Keaton's Oscar-winning performance as Annie Hall is truly remarkable. She is so sincere, revealing the insecurities and timidity that comes with trying to find love and acceptance without compromising who you are. Truly, Keaton is spectacular! All in all, I have to say that Annie Hall is every bit as touching and insightful as it is hilarious! Highly recommended!
Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 is one of my all-time favorite movies. I honestly believe it to be one of the most creative films I have ever seen. Told through a brilliant collage of memories, fantasies, and experiences, 8 1/2 presents its protagonist, a famous director named Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), with a psychological intimacy so deep that it could never be told in a conventional way. Fellini believed in telling a story as he understood it, even if he, himself, did not understand it. This honesty is what brings the confusion of Guido to life. No one, not even Guido, is completely sure of what is going on. Guido is lost on many levels, searching for something, but he does not know what. While he probes through his mind, seeking answers, there is an unrelenting paparazzi buzzing around the famous director, asking infinite questions about his upcoming picture. Guido would most-likely provide answers to the people around him, if he knew any of the answers they seek. His world and his mind are filled with questions and devoid of answers. Mastroianni does a remarkable job of showing the stress and strain Guido is under. His face is so worn at certain points in the movie. He appears to be exhausted himself. Watching this, it's hard not to see that Guido is on the edge, clinging to the idea that the next moment will provide his long-awaited answers. His problems only gain momentum, however, until a press conference that changes his personal and artistic lives forever. Fellini does a magnificent job at balancing Guido's Freudian fantasies and tension-filled life so that the downward spiral of one man's breakdown is elevated, through surrealism, to an almost dreamlike state. The supporting cast is quite effective with a wide array of eccentricities. Nino Rota's music is playful and whimsical, catering to the insanity that is Guido's high-profile world. Gianni Di Venanzo's cinematography is equally extraordinary. Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 is as spectacular as his alter-ego, Guido, would have wished his film could have been. Out of a crippling creative block came a brilliantly conceived work of creative genius! An outstanding film!
Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Some films try to explain multiple aspects of a story or a character by showing several episodes from the character's life. Vittorio De Sica's masterful The Bicycle Thief relies on the power of simplicity to drive home its point. It is a very simple film, relying on film making at its basics. There are no professional actors for us to identify with, but there are plot lines, emotions, and thoughts that no one can help but relate to. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) has been waiting for a job, but when one finally arrives, he must obtain a bicycle in order to be able to accept the position. His loving and caring wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), hocks the bed sheets in order to be able to afford a bicycle for Antonio. He reports to work as a poster hanger, but while on the job for only a short time, the bike is stolen by a young thief (Vittorio Antonucci). Desperate to get the vehicle back, Antonio seeks the aid of his friend, Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), and also receives the help of his devoted son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Bruno stays by Antonio's side, no matter what, determined to help his father get back the stolen property. It is a frustrating journey for the father and son, as they receive no help, except that of Baiocco. It seems that no matter what they do, Antonio is left with a fateful decision (shown in one of the most brutally honest scenes in any movie I've ever seen). He must ask himself just how far would he go to put food on the table for his family that he loves so much? There has been controversy over the ending of the film, which I am not going to go into, because it would be cheating you out of a brilliant ending to an extraordinary picture. However, I will say this much - When viewing The Bicycle Thief, ask yourself what you would do in Antonio's situation. What choices would you make? Some of the questions that rise from this film are some of the questions that help us to define ourselves as people, and the fact that this film provides such a clear and honest representation of so many facts of life is what makes it an undeniable masterpiece! This is a film to be cherished!
The Great Dictator (1940)
Chaplin's most powerful political statement!
Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator is a political statement wrapped in a comedy with a little bit of drama here and there. It is not his best work, but I would definitely recommend it to Chaplin fans. I feel that Charlie Chaplin was at his most powerful in his silent films. Here, he seems a little unsure of himself, in terms of balancing acts that he could pantomime with verbal jokes. Don't get me wrong, there is some hilarious dialog in this movie. It is not short on laughs by any means, but Chaplin's best films had a brilliant sense of balance to them, a balance between drama and comedy that few have ever been able to match. It is a very good movie, but, unfortunately I don't feel it matches up against Chaplin's best, although, I can't think of many films that do! What this film does have going for it, and it has quite a bit going for it, is another brilliant performance from Charles Chaplin. Only this time, aside from his spectacular physical comedy, Chaplin proves he also knows how to deliver his lines with a comedic timing that is every-bit as precise as his pantomime. The highlights are the brilliant dance with the globe and the powerful, moving speech that Chaplin gives at the end of the film. His performance as Adenoid Hynkel, a biting satire of Adolf Hitler, is so off-the-wall, so silly that it accomplishes exactly what Chaplin sought out to do - to make the world laugh at Hitler, to rob him of his power. Mel Brooks would do a fine job of defaming Hitler twenty-eight years later in his hilarious debut film, The Producers. If there is one lesson to be learned from this movie (that isn't expressed in the speech at the end), it's that laughter can sometimes be the best medicine. While no one can ever undo the atrocities that Hitler exposed the world to, we can survive, as long as we have our ideals and our sense of humor.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A magical film that will capture your imagination!
Since the story of The Wizard of Oz has fallen into the realm of common knowledge and pop culture, I won't get into it here. If you don't know the story, you absolutely must see this film. Don't even read the rest of the review, just go see it! This movie "captured my imagination" when I was a kid, and to see it now, after over twenty years was to rediscover it. Honestly, it was like seeing an old friend. However, I got even more out of seeing it now than I did as a child. Aside from the awe-inspiring land of Oz, the brilliant use of Technicolor to suggest another "world," and the tender performance of Judy Garland, this film contains little bits of Wiz-dom that make it that much more enjoyable years later. Warm performances from Frank Morgan, as Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz (among other roles in the picture), Ray Bolger, as Hunk/The Scarecrow, Bert Lahr, as Zeke/The Cowardly Lion, and Jack Haley, as Hickory/The Tin Man, all add to the sincerity of the film. Margaret Hamilton is great as the heartless Ms. Gulch and the sinister Wicked Witch of the West. I would recommend this movie to anyone, especially anyone with children. This is a wonderful fantasy/musical! Truly delightful!