Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring Isabelle Corey and Daniel Cauchy.
In a Nutshell: A gambler schemes to rob a casino and runs afoul of his two protégés.

Free of any moralizing climax, Bob le flambeur is a decadent love letter to the skuzzy pits of the streets that hold movie criminals so dear to our hearts. Robert “Bob” Montagné (Roger Duchesne) is a gambler, but one so endearingly lousy that he is friends with nearly many well connected underworld contacts (and even a few authority figures). Duchesne is not wooden or blank in his acting, but Melville has given him very few close ups, reaction shots, and scenes alone. So to the viewer, we only know of Bob through the other character’s dialogue. And they paint a fascinating portrait of a man, hopeless but bound by duty and an unspoken honor towards the street life, while Duchesne’s poker face gives us no further clues (and gives the movie an unspoken cool guy edge).

Before the heist is planned, the movie indulges itself in detailing Bob’s lifestyle and displays a France at the twilight of its romanticism. A young protégé (Daniel Cauchy) nips at his heels and ends up falling for Bob’s new crew member, a corruptible street walker played breathlessly by then-non-actress Isabelle Corey. However, like Bob, her appeal is less character building, more a few well staged looks and other character’s dialogue.

After losing far too much money, Bob stages a robbery that ends up on the lips of every man and woman in town. Disaster is inevitable, but it is charming how Bob escapes the crush of failure by simply playing it as he always does; all-knowing and good humored as though he anticipated it to all go awry. After all, Bob and his most loyal of accomplices live in a self-inflated (and easily shattered) world of delusions of criminal greatness. At the end, it is hard to say if Bob has truly risen above his fantasy world or just lived straight through it. Bob le flambeur is fantastic movie about the criminal world and the incorrigibility of man too wrapped up in his own self-delusions to act with caution. But it’s that recklessness that gives Bob that edge. Great character and great movie.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rififi (1955)

Directed by Jules Dassin.
Starring Jean Servais and Carl Möhner.
In a Nutshell: Thieves pull off one final heist but an old nemesis threatens their success.

One of the things I always find to be interesting when watching old cinema is seeing how the DNA of one particular movie can be ingrained into so many current releases. Rififi has been remembered throughout the years as the first heist film to deal with its thieves’ twisted moral codes. The men who stole were not just common trash, but fully fleshed out human beings with sincerity in their reasons for crime. The film was also notable for its violence and sexual content all of which was groundbreaking at the time (though much is implied).

Rififi stars Jean Servais as Tony le Stéphanois, an aging criminal, recently freed from prison, looking to pull off one last big steal with three other accomplices (one played by Dassin under an alias) before retiring. Though they do not have long to enjoy their swag as a rival criminal tries to bully his way into claiming the bounty for himself. Deceptions are made, people are killed, and even a final act kidnapping is in order. Though never has the scuzziness of underworld politics seemed so elegant. These men are not above jewel thievery, but to betray one of their own, that is criminal.

The film’s centerpiece isn’t even the heist itself, but the heist scene remains the film’s best-shot scene. Roughly a half hour long and containing no dialogue and music, every move by the criminals is done so precisely and so carefully that one could probably rob their own jewelry store after watching this movie. After that, it’s only a matter of time before the gang’s unity collapses under the rival gangster’s power. There are many touches that call attention to the melodramatic approach to the gangster’s downfall (a child’s toy gun, a murder in a theater, the gaudy diamonds presented to a mistress) that try to push the climax into a cheap “crime-does-not-pay” parable. Though the main attraction is still the process and not the outcome, though it is still refreshing that the film can still remain a gripping study on human weakness. Still, Rififi would pave the way for many excellent French noir films. A fine film, and a worthy early addition to the crime genre.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Oldboy (2003)

Directed by Park Chan-wook.
Starring Choi Min-sik and Yoo Ji-tae.
In a Nutshell: A released man seeks revenge and the knowledge behind his imprisonment.

The second movie in a revenge-centered trilogy (all directed by Park Chan-wook), Oldboy is a movie that minus the graphic violence and bizarre sexual plot diversions would play well for an American audience. As to how that violence and sex will be represented in the American remake by Steven Spielberg remains to be seen, but I’m not optimistic. The conclusion can feel increasingly implausible the more I think about it though in the confines of such an ungrounded, stylized film it is hardly absurd. But Choi Min-sik, as the unfairly confined Oh Dae-su, holds it all together with his tired visage. He is a man whose foolishness has undone his happy life and must see his vengeance craving until the end. Choi is wonderful in the early scene of him acting drunkenly in a police station holding cell as he tries to make it home in time for his daughter’s birthday. Choi is pitiable, sympathetic, and funny in a sorrowful way, capturing our attention and drawing us into to his anguish.

There is not much to share about the plot without giving it away, but Park manages to keep us in the dark until the punchline-esque ending. Mostly by filling the screen with horrible sights that plunge us into the misery that surrounds Dae-su’s journey. This includes one artfully choreographed fight scene, filmed in an unbroken 3-minute take so that it resembles a side scrolling arcade game. By the end, both Dae-Su and us are exhausted at such an, inelegant staging of violence. Park lets the toll of his unwavering revenge wear down both the viewer and Choi.

On the short, Oldboy is a terrifically stylized film that does not lose its punch even after the reveal. Choi is a great protagonist and Park never tries to lionize him just because he was greatly wronged. His post-captivity world is one full of fresh horrors after another, both tangible and metaphysical and Dae-Su greets each with the steely reserve of a man fighting for his existence, not an action star. He’s not a tougher man for beating the odds, merely a survivor, but not one to pity. The ending does not collapse the rest of the film, and there are many more oddities that will stick in the viewer’s mind. It doesn’t beg for our empathy, and finds ways to keep us riveted to the plot. Just be sure you have a strong stomach.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rear Window (1954)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
In a Nutshell: A wheelchair-confined photographer suspects his neighbor of murder.

You may have to excuse the sheer joy in this review; it’s been a very long time since I’ve been so taken with a movie like this. Without getting into comparisons to other Hitchcock works (or Disturbia, which I have yet to see and will probably never see), the true beauty of this movie lies in its simplicity. There are no plot detours beyond the initial setup, a feat given its modest running time. Hitchcock cleverly limits himself, shooting only from within the apartment of injured photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart). There is a small scene at the end that departs from this, but throughout Rear Window, we only see, hear and interact with whatever and whoever can be seen from his apartment window. It’s very claustrophobic and incredibly effective in drawing us into Jefferies’ mind. Hitchcock never glorifies Jefferies’ voyeurism and accusations, keeping any notion of his activities as “noble” at arm’s length. However Stewart’s character is so honest in his pursuit that it becomes our obsession as well.

But the whole film could not have been about Stewart spying on his neighbors, so Hitchcock is able to add interest with Grace Kelly as Stewart’s fiancée, Lisa Fremont. Like most of Hitchcock’s Blondes, she is not merely eye candy or plot diversion. Jefferies craves the dangerous and unknown and while finds Lisa to be a nice girl, he is worried he will bore of her. Lisa is written as the perfect fiancé; a woman who dresses wonderfully and spoils her man with food and drink. We (and Hitchcock) know he’s a fool for trying to turn her away, and Lisa is justly hurt. But having been drawn into the lifestyle that ignites Jefferies’ passion, we can only look on and feel sympathy at her regrettable troubles (the murder plot does end up creating an excitement that strengths their relationship).

To sum up, Rear Window is a first class thriller. Hitchcock firmly establishes its tight atmosphere and never lets up or settles for cheap surprises. The characters that enter into Jefferies’ apartment are vividly drawn and add clarity to Jefferies’ actions (these include his caustic nurse, and skeptical detective friend who treat Jefferies’ seemingly implausible claims like real people, never dismissing him to create plot contrivances). Towards the end, Jefferies sends Lisa and his nurse to investigate the neighbor’s house. But we, like Jefferies, are only able to watch, unable to warn of the coming danger and feeling the paralyzing weight. Both Jefferies and the audience keep on waiting for it all to happen, making Rear Window a tense, perfect plotted thriller without a wasted scene or line of dialogue. Movie perfection.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Conversation (1974)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring Gene Hackman and John Cazale.
In a Nutshell: An introvert surveillance expert becomes involved in a murder conspiracy.

Made between Godfathers, The Conversation is an incredibly tense and quiet thriller from a man whose later career would include grand exercises in cinema bombast (with quality ranging from Apocalypse Now greatness to One from the Heart garishness). Gene Hackman gives the most tightly wound performance of his career as Harry Caul, a man haunted by the responsibility placed upon him by his job as a wiretapper. He lives in solitude, valuing his privacy, and finding his only interaction through the people he spies on. Information he bugged led to the death of three people, and Caul lives in agony of trying to remove himself from the guilt. He should be a professional, detached from whatever his work brings to others (his colleagues are proficient as well, but carry on normal social lives and carry a derisive air about their jobs). Hackman is brilliantly restrained and shines in the scenes where Caul’s bubble of security it broken; which it often is. Caul may value privacy to the point where he complains to his landlord for delivering a birthday present in his apartment, but too often he lets his guard down or deceived. Hackman brings us Caul’s tormented embarrassment excellently and helps makes the movie as compelling a character study as the thriller portion.

The Conversation has been compared to Blowup often enough that its tough not to bring up similarities. Both films involve characters involving themselves in murder plots (in the case of The Conversation, Caul does so intentionally, in Blowup the involvement comes about much more by accident) and holding what may be the evidence to blow the cases wide open. But a perception over the (seemingly) concrete evidence doesn’t always lead to the right conclusion, particularly from observers who have no business of being involved. Coppola starts off the film with a snipers-eye view of a plaza, giving us a shot where we see all, but never clearly. After all, it is Caul who can hear the taped conversations from his buggings but can never deduce what it really means. And the wrong interpretation could mean death.


It would appear that I have finally caved in and gotten one of these fancy new online journals all the kids have been raving about. Though my social life is dreadfully uninteresting, I do watch a borderline unhealthy number of movies. So I figured what not keep a log of what I watch every week, use it as a way to practice writing skills and the like. Though I'll try to be professional and not go off on profane tangents like I normally do. That will be tough. So if I don't post something new every week, I'm dead. Alright, let's get started.