Saturday, August 29, 2009

Le Samouraï (1967)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring Alain Delon and François Périer.
In a Nutshell: Following a recent killing, an assassin for hire must dodge the police.

Or in John Woo’s words, the perfect movie. I admit, that statement leans on hyperbolic, but Le Samouraï is still worthy of classic status. It commands the audience’s attention with its thinly dressed settings and concise bits of dialogue, complementing a story that only gets more complex as it progresses. The plot involves an impossibly gorgeous and solitary assassin Jef Costello (Alain Delon) whose code of honor is equivalent to that of a samurai’s (as the fictional opening text explains). After he successfully kills a nightclub owner, he is seen by several patrons, including a musician, who refuses to name him to the police. Despite the backup of an alibi from his girlfriend, the police superintendent (François Périer) doggedly peruses proof that Costello was the killer. Costello much also avoid retribution from his employer, who he believes persuaded the musician not to identify him.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmmaking style is akin to Sergio Leone’s. Both director’s works are films about films; collages of cinema sprung from their fondest of American movie memories. Le Samouraï is a love letter to American noir films of the 1930’s and 40’s, with a fresh treatment that strips away contrived plot devices and cheap suspense tactics. His world is almost graceful, demonstrated in the code of honor Costello has to his assassination methods. Costello’s delicate features and near silence shifts focus to his ruthlessness, making him a true portrait of a samurai warrior.

Le Samouraï is a precise and patient film, enabling itself to achieve level of suspense with as much minimalism as possible. Every character action becomes augmented against the bare mise-en-scène with the most mundane of actions moving with an otherworldly beauty. If there’s one reason why I disagree with Woo’s praise is that I just found it a cold movie. That’s not a just criticism, it was meant that way. That just is not my idea of movie perfection, especially since Delon’s robotic iciness began to ware itself out, giving Costello few dimensions outside of “honorable loner”. The film’s visual style of metallic gray and muted dull colors sets drains the film of passion and spontaneity (much like Costello himself). Le Samouraï is an exercise in meticulousness, both in Melville’s directing and Costello’s line of work. It may present emptiness a bit too well for its own good, but remains a beautifully dream-like noir.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Naked (1993)

Directed by Mike Leigh.
Starring David Thewlis and Lesley Sharp.
In a Nutshell: An aimless young man wonders the streets of London, seeking interaction.

Naked is a bleak and haunting comedy about a lonesome, though intelligent man named Johnny (David Thewlis) who returns to his old girlfriend’s house after committing a sexual assault. After an incredibly brief relationship with his ex’s clingy roommate, he walks off into the night, projecting his thoughts to anyone who will listen. Immediately, I knew this was going to be of those rip-your-guts-out types of movies. Johnny, his ex, her roommate and the people he encounters in London’s underbelly are those that have been swallowed up by their own hopelessness. Sure, they are well-read, capable people who could have led decent lives with a steady job, loving family and functioning friends. But be it lack of ambition or self-destruction, they have found their lives an empty void with no fulfillment or hope for something better. I have yet to experience the “real world” and hope that I will not have to for a few years. But Naked is a poignant look at what could be should fate or my own actions run sour.

Though for all its bleakness, Naked is an invigoratingly unconventional movie with a strong, caring attachment for the lost lives it explores. Mike Leigh is always a director about observations, without any tight plotting or scripting. Once Johnny leaves the apartment to lurk the streets, the film consists of his encounters with the denizens of the night. As he ambles about, the characters that Johnny meets take on varying degrees of importance while he pours out musings about everything from evolution to God to the apocalypse. This is where a film could have dragged but Thewlis is spry, witty and manically mesmerizing. Johnny may be a wreck, but his ramblings take on an engaging electricity as he pushes through the torment to connect with others. One of the best vignettes is Johnny’s conversation with a security guard who uses his dull job as a way to spend time planning for a secure future.

While it is talky, I was never bored by Johnny’s adventures until an unsatisfying last act conflict involving a scornful landlord. It only seems to exist as a clumsy parallel between what Johnny has refused to become by failing to direct his life. But for much of the film’s duration, Naked gives an honest look at the going-nowhere lives of city dwellers. The numbness, lack of decisiveness, and ugly truth are uncovered like raw nerve endings but Leigh never loses any humanity within the picture. He lets Johnny’s odyssey reveal his inner muse while peering into the meaningless lives of strangers, without contempt or disgust. Naked is one of those movies that will linger in your mind long after it’s over; its dank scenery, Thewlis’ frenzied pathos, and the exposed sincerity of the whole affair.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pickpocket (1959)

Directed by Robert Bresson.
Starring Martin LaSalle and Marika Green.
In a Nutshell: A man becomes addicted to thievery at the behest of his loved ones.

Pickpocket, a study on the criminal mind, is the film that is claimed to have heavily inspired Taxi Driver. Like Taxi Driver, Pickpocket relies heavily on voiceover (at this time, a new progression for film), allowing Robert Bresson to have his actors underplay every scene and let the narration control the mood. Both films also chronicle the lives of a men who likens themselves above society, and uses that superiority complex as a justification for crime. Although instead of becoming an unhinged vigilante, Michel takes to the high of thievery. His love of thievery and desire to be punished (casting aside the pleas of his moral-bound girlfriend to redeem himself) leads us down to Michel’s inevitable imprisonment. But at barely an hour and a half, Pickpocket is a very lean, gripping movie that wastes no time in chronicling Michel’s spiral.

Pickpocket, with its controlled, detached acting and uncluttered framing never seems to be passing judgment on Michel’s lifestyle. It is incredibly minimalist, straight and despite Michel’s narration to guide us through his moral journey, his actions and consequences do not dramatize themselves. The movie took its inspiration from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but avoids any moralizing despite the similarities between Michel and Raskolnikov’s views. But in both forms, the emotional hollowness that leads men to defy society is well represented. Michel’s addiction to crime is the only thing that keeps him feeling fulfilled, even though he knows of how it may end. Pickpocket may be a sparse film, but its terseness allows for Bresson to cut right to the film’s core of portraying the void criminals desperately hope to fill with their sins.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Taxi Driver (1976)

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster.
In a Nutshell: A lonely and disturbed cabbie lashes out violently on New York.

Few films have explored into the decaying mind of the loner as effectively as Taxi Driver. And few films have portrayed New York as the simmering cauldron of despair, hostility and hatred that Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rages against. In a word, Travis Bickle, who may or may not be a veteran of Vietnam, is a sick man and the sort of social alien whose attempts a human contact only isolate him further. Travis spends his waking hours driving cabs on the night shift in New York’s seediest of neighborhoods. The unbearable isolation and his disgust for the city have warped him into a man of twisted conscience and soul. But when he rants about the city and the hostility of others, it is not as though he’s exaggerating. Which is the true core of Taxi Driver; a man whose insanity and loneliness has been birthed from his accepted and yet morally corrupt surroundings.

Travis nearly finds redemption through two women, a campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). His brief relationship with Betsy collapses in his ill-advised attempts to form a more intimate connection. In this case, he takes her to a porno movie, proving that Travis’ thinking may be indistinguishable from the depraved society he despises. His unsuccessful attempts to save an indifferent Iris from a life on the streets unveil a more compassionate Travis, before the constant pain of rejection drives him to attempt to assassinate a political candidate. But all the while, Travis is very much the awkward everyman, not a standoffish psycho with one hand on the trigger and Scorsese keeps him familiar with our sympathies.

Taxi Driver is powerful film, and important in its depiction of society versus the lonely soldier. With the American life in degeneration, it is only understandable that any sane man would have trouble accepting the conditions around him. Yet it is Travis’ delirium that prevents him from being seen as anything more than an insane shooter. It is Iris who projects society’s mindset; she has fallen into prostitution but is either apathetic or unaware to her plight that she remains content. When Travis finally makes his stand against the candidate, he ends up being chased straight to Iris and his actions save her from a bleak future. He may have been transformed into a media hero by saving a little girl, but his anger is all too conveniently swept under the rug. That way the world can continue operating in its usual, unprincipled way. It is the close proximity of Travis’ hero status from political assassin that defines this man, someone whose frustration at the world treads a fine line between valor and madness.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Repulsion (1965)

Directed by Roman Polanski.
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Ian Hendry.
In a Nutshell: A sexually confused woman suffers a breakdown while in solitude.

Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s first English language movie, plays as great warm-up to the much more famed Rosemary’s Baby. Both involve women on the edge of insanity and the apartments that serve as their asylums. With Replusion, we enter the mind of Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a painfully introverted hairstylist who, despite her beauty is uncomfortable about her sexuality. She flees from even the most honest of suitors and is disgusted with her sister’s relationship with a married man. When the couple goes away on vacation, Carole is left alone to her thoughts, leading to a psychological breakdown with nightmarish hallucinations that jostle between perverse pleasure and madness. As reality begins to slip away, Carole begins to lash out violently at the world around her.

Deneuve, who was in her early 20’s during shooting, gives an incredibly mature performance though much of the effectiveness lies in cheating the audience out of Deneuve’s objectification. Instead through a lack of character study, the audience never sees the motives behind Carole’s madness, only an onslaught of the surreal. Polanski’s later work is distinguished by far too much excess, but Repulsion chills with the smallest details. The constant dripping of water of the buzzing of a fly. The sight of a dead rabbit in Carole’s purse. Or most effectively, Carole listening to her sister and boyfriend noisily making love, which outlines Carole’s sexual terror without having to be gratuitous. The film’s shortcomings lie in any explanation towards Carole’s sexual confusion (save maybe the last shot). Polanski is far too concerned with filling Carole’s mind with decay than bog itself down with exposition. If Deneuve’s performance never begged empathy, perhaps it is because the movie would not have allowed it anyway. But with the viewer looking for any meaning behind it all will only discover the continuing fascination of Carole’s fear and desire becoming one.