Beau Travail (1999) Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, and Gregoire Colin. A brilliant retelling of Melville’s Billy Budd, only instead of a British frigate the action takes place in the desert on the Gulf of Djibouti near the Horn of Africa. Instead of sailors the men involved are soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. This is a movie about military discipline, routine, and codes of honor. A new recruit is introduced and tension develops with the second in command. There is not much of a plot or narrative arc but this is an extremely visual film and you get all you need to know from the visual story telling. The photography is spectacular.
There is an unmistakable undercurrent of homoeroticism swirling around just below the surface as Denis directs our gaze to the half naked young men going through their ritualist exercises and bonding together as in a slow moving ballet. It is an examination of military culture and the masculine mystique.
The Killers (1946) is a better than average film noir based on the Hemingway story of the same name. Starring Burt Lancaster as the prize fighter Ole ‘Swede’ Andreson, Ava Gardner as the femme fatale Kitty, and Edmond O’ Brien as the insurance investigator Reardon. Directed by Robert Siodmak. The first thirteen minutes are pure Hemingway and, in my opinion, the best part of the movie. The rest of the movie is quite good too, but that first part was very impressive. The rest of the movie is an expansion of the original Hemingway story and told in a series of flashbacks. Excellent performances by all, this was Lancaster’s first film and made him a star.
Rancho Notorious (1952) Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, and Mel Ferrer. A western that is part western, part revenge thriller and part mystery and all Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang. In this cult favorite Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy), a Wyoming ranch hand, seeks to avenge his fiancé’s rape and murder which occurs during the course of a robbery early on in the film. The only clues he has is a mysterious place called Chuck-a-Luck where the killer is supposed to be headed and a name which might be a person, place, or a thing: Altar Keane. The plot only becomes more convoluted from there. Vern helps the outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) escape from jail and Frenchy leads him to Chuck-a-Luck, a sort of robber’s roost run by the infamous Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).
Altar Keane is kind of a dominatrix who holds sway over all the outlaws that hole up at her place and demands 10% of their take in any illegal activities for providing them protection. She dominates all the men harshly except for Frenchy with whom she shares her bed. However, she takes a shine to new comer Vern and that is where the trouble comes in. Vern, for his part has to determine who at Chuck-a-Luck is the killer he seeks. He also falls for Altar Keane. Messy? You bet, but that is what makes it so fun!
Rancho Notorious is full of familiar faces like William Frawley (I Love Lucy), George Reeves (Superman) and stock player Jack Elam. It was originally titled “Chuck-a-Luck,” but studio head Howard Hughes made Lang change it to “Rancho Notorious”, fearing American audience wouldn’t know what Chuck-a-Luck meant. However, it had absolutely nothing to do with the film.
Shot in Technicolor, run time 89 minutes, aspect ratio 1.37:1.
I viewed it on the Criterion Channel. It’s also available on Amazon.
Three Colors: Red (1994) Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski starring Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignat, and Frederique Feder. The Blue, White, and Red in the movie titles stand for the French Tricolors, representing Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. I just watched them back to back and that is the best way to view them, I think. That way you can see the thematic links between them all even though each film stands on its own. I had seen Blue years before but had forgotten it and was pleasantly surprised as I started watching it and the previous viewing returned to me. Some of my friends like Blue the best but my money is on Red. They are all equally well done. What I liked about Red was the depiction of the parallel lives of the characters and the missed connections. Marvelously well done!
La Notte (1961) (The Night) Directed by Michelangelo Antonio, starring Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. I don’t know how I missed this masterpiece of the Italian cinema but I am happy that I did finally get to see it recently on the Criterion Channel. This film is second in the Trilogy of Alienation bookended by L’Aventura (The Adventure) (1960) and L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962). La Notte is about the dissolution of a marriage through indifference and boredom and the alienation of society in both the bourgeoisie and the upper classes. The film takes place in a 24-hour period culminating at a party at a rich industrialist’s house in Milan. Crisp black and white photography and excellent framing visually projects the loneliness and the alienation of the characters and the boredom of their respective lives.
Jeanne Moreau’s inner feeling of sadness are well on display as she comes to realize she no longer loves her husband and that he no longer loves her. Marcello Mastroianni is perfectly cast as the husband who walks through life in a daze of bored indifference.
This movie is cold as ice, but it speaks the truth. Highly recommended!
Death in Venice, directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde, is based on the Thomas Mann novella of the same name. A Gustave Mahler like character, named Gustave, goes to Venice for a rest. There he becomes infatuated with a teenaged boy who for him personifies his very idea of purity and beauty. The movie deals with the themes of death, beauty, decay, youth, old age, art, and oddly enough the plague.
Slow moving but exquisitely beautiful to watch. Some say Venice has never been so beautifully photographed. The score by Gustave Mahler is divine and is in perfect combination with the majestic beauty unfolding on the screen. There are long stretches with no dialogue, only visuals and music. A true classic of the cinema.
Available on the Criterion Channel or Amazon Prime.
Directed by Spike Lee, starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and Clarke Peters.
I am a Spike Lee fan, but you got to admit the brother is a little hit or miss. Coming off the success of BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods is a miss. And it’s mess. Which is very disappointing considering the material he was working with and the timeliness of his subject. Other directors have taken on the Vietnam experience and other directors have done a better job. The one saving grace is Delroy Lindo who is a terrific character actor and lights up the screen in every scene he is in. Even when he is chewing the scenery.
The movie suffers from poor writing and mediocre directing. Spike throws everything he has into this movie including the kitchen sink. Part Treasure of the Sierra Madre and part Apocalypse Now, it never does find its own footing. Except for when one of the Bloods makes a fatal misstep. That was quite a heartstopper and a show stopper as well. The shootout at the end was well staged I thought and executed very well. The photography was well done but you got to ask yourself, why did he need four different aspect ratios? Oh, I get it. He wanted to demark different times and places. An artistic decision as it were. Well, it didn’t work for me, just made the whole thing more confusing. And in the flash backs it was impossible to distinguish the younger version of Da Bloods from the present-day version of themselves.
If you are going to steal, steal from the best, just use a little finesse when you do it and don’t make it so obvious. When the leader of a group of Vietnamese marauders are asked by a member of Da Bloods, “Where are your official badges?” The answer comes back from the leader, “Badges? We don’t’ need no stinking badges!” In another scene, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries accompanies the action.
This might sound like a pan but not totally. I’m going to give the brother a 6 on a 10. Better luck next time Spike.
Il Bidone (The Swindle) Directed by Fredrico Fellini, starring Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart, Giuletta Masina. This is a movie about a group of con men swindling poor people out of their money which they in turn spend on flashy cars, booze, and prostitutes. You know, the usual. Shot in the neo-realism style in post war Italy it is indicative of Fellini’s early work. It is book-ended by two other films of a similar vein: La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabria (1957). These films comprise what has become known as the “Trilogy of Loneliness.” I always get a kick out of seeing American actors in some of these early European films. Broderick Crawford gives the performance of his career in Il Bidone. Not as good as the other two, but worth a look!
Written and directed by David Mamet, starring Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna. This movie was pretty much universally praised when it came out in 1987. It is currently rated 7.3 on IMBD. Roger Ebert, no less, rated it four stars out of four and gave it a glowing review. I’m going to give it a six out of ten.
While I liked the film, and had a favorable impression of it when I first saw it in 1987, I don’t feel like it stands the test of time. It is well crafted, but so is a finely made piece of furniture. I can see the seams and joints and that seems to take away from my overall impression. I want to get lost in the action of the picture and not see the woof and worf.
House of Games is about a den of con artists. And while it is fascinating to see the cons work their magic, I couldn’t help but notice seeing them coming. And it is hard to imagine the central character being so gullible, after having participating in a con herself, not seeing the con being played on her. But I guess that is the beauty of the con, it’s human nature to want to believe it.
I loved how the film looked. Very noirish. Seattle at night with neon lights reflected in puddles of water and steam rising from man hole covers. Nice atmosphere!
Lots of Mamet’s patented rapid-fire dialogue, which can sound a little stilted and stagy at times. If only Mamet had succeeded in conning me into believing what he was selling. He already conned me out of my money for the price of a ticket.
House of Games is part of the Criterion Collection and is available on Amazon.
The Juniper Tree (1990), directed by Nietzchka Keene, starring Bjork, Bryndis Petra Bragadottir, and Valdimar Orn Flygenring.
This extraordinary film, based on a Grimm’s Fairy tale, is shot in Iceland, and takes place in medieval Iceland. The stark landscapes stand out brilliantly as photographed in delicious black and white. I see echoes of Bergman here but this is a truly unique film of women with supernatural powers. Bjork is radiant in this her film debut as one of the sisters who has visions. Highly recommend!