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Month: January 2010

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)

“Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

Synopsis:
An alienated veteran (Robert De Niro) working as a nighttime cabbie in New York plots to assassinate a political candidate (Leonard Harris) while becoming increasingly obsessed with “rescuing” a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cybill Shepherd Films
  • Harvey Keitel Films
  • Jodie Foster Films
  • Martin Scorsese Films
  • Misfits
  • New York City
  • Paul Schrader Films
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • Robert De Niro Films
  • Veterans
  • Vigilantes

Response to Peary’s Review:
Martin Scorsese has made so many highly regarded movies over the past few decades that it’s difficult to call out which ones are most enduring, but I cast my vote for placing this “controversial, disturbing character study” — a true neo-noir classic — at the top of the list. A rare marriage of polished directorial style, stunning cinematography (by Michael Chapman), sharp script (by Paul Schrader), haunting score (by Bernard Herrmann — his last), and a chilling central performance, Taxi Driver is one of the most memorable character studies in cinematic history. Yet while Peary notes that the “film remains an enormous favorite among critics and fans who are impressed by its gritty realism, orgiastic violence, standout performances, and overwhelming cynicism”, he argues that “an equal number resent it because of its bleak resolution.” It’s difficult to tell exactly where Peary himself falls along this spectrum of opinions: while he notes that “De Niro has never been better”, he simultaneously argues that “too often Scorsese lets his favorite actor do a standard ‘De Niro bit'”, and he questions what he sees as the film’s ultimate claim that “a maniac can rid himself of inner demons… and become all civilized by committing cold-blooded murder.”

Regardless of one’s view on the film’s unexpected ending — which I see as an appropriately bizarre capstone to the dizzying parable that’s come before, akin to the controversial ending in Scorsese’s later King of Comedy (1982) — there is much to admire in Taxi Driver, including uniformly excellent performances by all involved — including Foster as a remarkably self-assured preteen hooker:

… Harvey Keitel as her creepy pimp:

Cybill Shepherd as a WASP-y electioneer (De Niro’s love interest):

… and (despite Peary’s guarded protestations) De Niro himself in the title role. While his infamous “You talkin’ to me?” mirror scene is deservedly lauded (De Niro is indeed “terrifying” during this moment):

… his entire characterization of Travis Bickle is fascinating to watch, as Bickle gradually descends into righteous madness, driven by a complex cocktail of PTSD, sleeplessness, headaches, and a confused moral compass.


(Interestingly, we never learn why Bickle — a Vietnam vet — was discharged from the army, but he’s clearly deeply damaged, and remains alienated from those around him — as evidenced most clearly in his futile attempt to turn to a colleague, Peter Boyle, for help).

While Taxi Driver is undeniably a violence-filled movie, Peary accurately notes that many of the film’s “best moments” are those without violence — such as the “surreal rides De Niro takes in his cab”, which (thanks in large part to cinematographer Michael Chapman) are “beautifully shot mood pieces”; as Peary points out, “no director has better captured the peculiarly wretched feel and odor, as well as the look, of the underbelly of New York.”

Another of my favorite scenes (among many) shows Jodie Foster picking at a grilled cheese sandwich while defending her lifestyle in front of De Niro’s incredulous Bickle; it’s clear that Bickle’s noble obsession to “rescue” her from her pimp — much like John Wayne’s quest to rescue Natalie Wood from her Indian captors in The Searchers (Peary calls out this parallel in his review) — will be met with a decided lack of gratitude, further complicating this enigmatic tale of a self-made redeemer in search of “justice”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle (voted Best Actor of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book, where he changes his tune slightly and insists his “gripes about Travis’s character have only to do with the script, not De Niro’s performance”)
  • Jodie Foster as Iris
  • Michael Chapman’s cinematography
  • Scorsese’s direction
  • Paul Schrader’s uncompromising script
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
Of course — numerous times. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

“The simplest tasks are by no means the easiest.”

Synopsis:
A sickly young priest (Claude Laydu) in the French countryside struggles to bond with his suspicious parishioners.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Character Studies
  • Downward Spiral
  • French Films
  • Priests and Ministers
  • Robert Bresson Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “award-winning film” by writer/director Robert Bresson — based on a novel by Georges Bernanos — is “somber and slow” but sustains a “haunting, almost poetic quality” throughout. Peary argues that the film’s titular protagonist (effectively portrayed by non-actor Laydu, who went on to pursue a film career) is “a typical Bresson hero in that he is extremely introverted and incapable of social conversation; … feels isolated; … has grave self-doubts; and suffers terribly, … not only from guilt and spiritual malaise… but physically as well”. Yet “Bresson admires this individual because he somehow retains his faith through [a lengthy] period of terrible despair”. The storyline itself is sparse but oddly compelling, simply following Laydu as he attempts (usually in vain) to connect spiritually with his parishioners, meanwhile assuaging his increasingly crippling stomach pains with wine (leading those around him to unfairly suspect him of alcoholism — though he’s never overtly seen as “under the influence”). What lingers longest in one’s memory of this introspective film are its many “memorable images”, courtesy of both Bresson’s unique vision and Leonce-Henri Burel’s “exquisite” cinematography; see below for a few representative stills.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful tale of spiritual longing
  • Leonce-Henry Burel’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as Bresson’s acknowledged “masterpiece”.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Argent, L’ (1983)

Argent, L’ (1983)

“Oh, money, visible god — what we wouldn’t do for you.”

Synopsis:
A delivery man (Christian Patey) finds his life changed forever when he’s handed several counterfeit bills by an unscrupulous photography store owner (Didier Baussy).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Downward Spiral
  • Falsely Accused
  • French Films
  • Robert Bresson Films

Review:
Based on Tolstoy’s story “The Forged Coupon”, Robert Bresson’s final film is a clear indictment against a mercenary society in which an innocent worker can be forced to pay dearly for the callous indifference and moral bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie. What begins as a naughty schoolboy prank — a wealthy teenager, miffed at his father’s refusal to give him extra pocket money, uses a forged bill to get change at a frame shop:

— quickly shifts to criminal activity, as the shop’s irritated owner (Didier Baussy) knowingly pawns the money off onto Patey, who is subsequently arrested when he innocently tries to spend his earnings. When Baussy convinces his employee (Vincent Risterucci) to lie against Patey in court, Patey’s downward spiral continues, leading him to a life of petty crime, violence, and imprisonment:

which are ultimately viewed as catalysts for the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. In the film’s tragic denouement, Patey impacts the lives of yet another innocent family — thus perpetuating the cycle of devastation sparked by the film’s opening “boyish prank”. It’s bleak stuff, to be sure, and Bresson’s signature application of stylized detachment makes it particularly difficult to watch the story with anything other than morbid curiosity. Indeed, the entire screenplay — which borders strategically on contrivance — seems more like a formalized exploration of moral ambiguity than a living narrative, and I’ll admit I’m not sure where my sentiments on it lie. With that said, as the capstone of Bresson’s unique oeuvre, most film fanatics will at least be curious to check it out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A disturbing and provocative screenplay

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Dames du Bois de Bologne, Les (1945)

Dames du Bois de Bologne, Les (1945)

“You don’t seem to realize where a woman’s scorn can lead.”

Synopsis:
A vengeful socialite (Maria Casares) plots to ruin her ex-lover (Paul Bernard) by scheming to have him fall in love with a penniless ex-prostitute (Elina Labourdette).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • French Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Revenge
  • Robert Bresson Films

Review:
As noted so accurately in Jeff Stafford’s DVD review for TCM, this early film by minimalist French director Robert Bresson evokes nothing less than “a Joan Crawford forties melodrama but without the histrionics, rendered in a cold, dispassionate style.” With shades of Les liaisons dangereuses in its cold-blooded storyline, Les Dames… is essentially a tale of female vengeance taken to tragic extremes, as Casares stops at nothing to assuage her damaged pride. The highly stylized characters and dialogue (a strategic decision on Bresson’s part) make it difficult to connect with the story, which we watch with morbidly detached fascination rather than personal recognition. Bresson wouldn’t become internationally recognized until the release of Diary of a Country Priest in 1951, which is probably a better movie for film fanatics to start with when exploring his oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maria Casares as Helene
  • Jean Cocteau’s pithy dialogue: “There’s no such thing as love — only proofs of love.”

Must See?
No, but film fanatics will likely be curious to check it out at some point, as Bresson’s first significant film. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Purple Rain (1984)

Purple Rain (1984)

“He’s never done anything in his whole life for anybody but himself.”

Synopsis:
A narcissistic musician (Prince) from a troubled home romances a gorgeous wannabe starlet (Apollonia Kotero) while trying to prevent her from joining a rival singer (Morris Day).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this cult ’80s rock musical — which “catapulted… rock star Prince… into Michael Jackson megastar status” — Peary notes that “the story is trite and simplistic, and the direction by Albert Magnoli is crude, but the picture has enticing sexual tension… and the flamboyant Prince” (who evokes “the explosive energy of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause“) has “undeniable charisma and charm”. Unfortunately, Prince’s character (based on himself) is also self-absorbed, petulant, immature, and abusive, to an insufferable degree; at first glance, he’s no one we could ever root for, but what finally helps to redeem him in our eyes is seeing the pain he experiences in his violent home (he’s clearly reacting to, and imitating, his dysfunctional parents), and watching him perform on stage, where he truly is “spellbinding” as he belts “out a soulful song, his fingers whipping his guitar”. With that said, Prince-the-performer is really the only reason to watch this poorly-acted and lamely scripted film, which amounts to little more than a full-length music video with a skeletal storyline. Others agree: Time Out’s reviewer, while acknowledging Prince’s undeniable charisma, calls it “at best predictable, at worst incomprehensible”, while Culture Cartel’s John Nesbitaccurately notes that “were it not for some excellent music, this film would be a complete waste of time.” Nonetheless, I reluctantly recommend it as must-see one-time viewing for film fanatics, simply for its cult status and its Oscar-winning soundtrack.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Prince’s dynamic presence
  • Some truly electrifying performances during the final half-hour of the film

Must See?
Yes, simply as a cult film and for its Oscar-winning soundtrack.

Categories

  • Cult Movie
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

Links:

Grand Illusion / Grande Illusion, La (1937)

Grand Illusion / Grande Illusion, La (1937)

“Frontiers are an invention of men; nature doesn’t give a hoot.”

Synopsis:
During World War One, an aristocratic French captain (Pierre Fresnay) bonds with his German captor (Eric von Stroheim) while secretly making plans with his fellow POWs (including Jean Gabin and Marcel Darlio) to escape.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Class Relations
  • Erich von Stroheim Films
  • Escape
  • French Films
  • Jean Gabin Films
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Prisoners of War
  • World War One

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this classic wartime drama by Jean Renoir is a “heartfelt cry for an end to wars, which are casually undertaken at the expense of the natural bond among all men.” Indeed, Renoir’s tale of the “respectful relationship” between two “cultured and aristocratic” career soldiers who “believe war can be carried out in a chivalrous manner” is somewhat heartbreaking in its naivete, given that war is “simply too cruel” for such a noble sentiment; despite being “treated well” by their captors, the prisoners know they must escape, and they risk their lives repeatedly to do so.

A number of memorable, powerful sequences are sprinkled throughout the film — including, as noted by Peary, the scene in which a soldier “dresses up like a female for a variety show, [and] all the men silently stare at him, thinking about the women the war has taken from them”:

and the moment when “Russian prisoners receive textbooks and cookbooks instead of the expected food from their insensitive empress”.

The final “act” of the film — once Gabin and Dalio have escaped and found refuge in the home of a German farm woman (Dito Parlo) — takes on a decidedly different tone from what’s come before; Renoir seems determined to show an idealized alternative to war, in which a French soldier and a German woman can fall in love “despite not knowing each other’s languages”. I have mixed feelings about this sudden shift in narrative and mood, but it’s lovely to see Parlo (so memorable in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante) in another significant role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A powerful portrait of humanity in the midst of war

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring classic. Nominated as one of the best movies of the year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

List of Adrian Messenger, The (1963)

List of Adrian Messenger, The (1963)

“The fact remains that six deaths by accident, out of any ten names, is too high of a proportion for chance.”

Synopsis:
A retired British intelligence officer (George C. Scott) attempts to unravel the mystery of a man (Kirk Douglas) who has killed all eleven people on a list given to him by his murdered friend (John Merivale).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Clive Brook Films
  • George C. Scott Films
  • John Huston Films
  • Kirk Douglas Films
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Murder Mystery

Review:
Based on a novel by crime writer Philip MacDonald, this murder mystery (directed by John Huston) is primarily remembered today for its somewhat gimmicky use of A-list actors (Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster) in heavily made-up, nearly indistinguishable cameo roles.


Audiences at the time were invited to guess who was who, and were rewarded when each actor unmasked himself during the closing credits. To that end, Bud Westmore’s make-up is truly impressive: while we can tell that the characters played by each of these actors are clearly in disguise, it’s remarkably difficult to discern their real faces underneath. Kirk Douglas — acknowledged almost immediately as the film’s psychopathic villain — plays the largest camouflaged role, hiding behind various effective personae as he commits a series of cold-blooded murders.

The fact that we know the killer’s identity from the beginning means that the story really belongs to George C. Scott:

playing a retired British intelligence officer determined to follow through on the suspicions raised by his recently deceased friend, the oddly named Adrian Messenger (John Merivale) — who does indeed attempt to leave a final message for the man by his side (Jacques Roux) as he’s dying. As fate would have it, Scott knows Roux, and the two collaborate together on the mystery. Meanwhile, in the weakest element of the plot, Roux falls for and romances Messenger’s widowed cousin, Dana Wynter (beautiful but poorly used here).

Huston’s firm directorial hand is evident throughout; unfortunately, however, the story he’s working with is merely serviceable entertainment — worthy viewing once, but not must-see for all film fanatics.

Note: Interestingly enough, character actor Jan Merlin was actually the man behind the make-up during several of the presumed “cameo” roles by the famous actors; apparently only Douglas and Mitchum actually did any real acting in disguise, while the others merely showed up for their “unmasking” scene at $75,000 each.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bud Westmore’s truly impressive make-up

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out for one-time viewing.

Links:

Fat City (1972)

Fat City (1972)

“You gotta wanna win so bad you can taste it.”

Synopsis:
A down-on-his-luck ex-boxer (Stacy Keach) encourages a talented teen (Jeff Bridges) to pursue a career in the ring, and eventually finds himself fighting again — for better or for worse.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Boxing
  • Has-Beens
  • Jeff Bridges Films
  • John Huston Films
  • Stacy Keach Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “effective sleeper” (directed by John Huston) isn’t “about the glamorous, publicized world of title bouts and million dollar purses”, instead focusing on “the armpit of the sport, where washed-up, injured, or untalented pugs fight it out for peanuts in prelims in dingy arenas”. Indeed, boxing merely serves as the backdrop for what is essentially a character study of a loser living in a “seedy world of people with smashed dreams and opportunities lost, who not only feed off each other but infest any new blood that happens along.” Huston’s gritty landscape, as filmed by DP Conrad Hall and conceived by screenwriter Leonard Gardner (who adapted his own novel), is bleakly authentic, showing the menial lives of unskilled workers (Keach picks onions), and clearly demonstrating why men would risk their health and safety for the allure of earning a few dollars in the ring. Peary accurately notes that “Keach gives a memorable performance”, but that Susan Tyrrell “almost steals the picture as [his] whining girlfriend”; when Keach’s character takes an interest in this pathetically obnoxious barfly, we finally understand the depths to which he’s sunk. Interestingly, Keach and Bridges (fine though undistinguished in an early supporting role) don’t interact much after their initial meeting; Huston and Gardner seem more interested in telling their parallel tales, hinting at the unending cycle of poverty and desperation that fuels the dreams of so many.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stacy Keach as Billy Tully (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Susan Tyrrell as Oma
  • Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben
  • A refreshingly authentic look at the world of low-stakes boxing
  • Conrad Hall’s naturalistic cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a unique character study by a master director.

Categories

  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Dante’s Inferno (1935)

Dante’s Inferno (1935)

“Since the beginning of time there’s only been one sin and that’s failure. People don’t care how you win, so long as you win.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious young man (Spencer Tracy) helps a carnival employee named Pop (Henry B. Walthall) turn his “Dante’s Inferno” show into a success; but his marriage to Pop’s daughter (Claire Trevor) and his general livelihood are threatened when he begins to cut corners on safety.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carnivals and Circuses
  • Claire Trevor Films
  • Corruption
  • Rise and Fall
  • Spencer Tracy Films

Review:
Dante’s Inferno is primarily remembered today for its stunning special effects and set designs — most notably during a ten-minute dream sequence in which the protagonist (Tracy) literally descends into Dante’s vision of Hell. Director Harry Lachman was trained as a painter himself, and purportedly based his images on Gustave Dore’s well-known engravings, to haunting effect. Visuals aside, however, the film tells a fairly standard tale of greed coming before the fall; Tracy is an appealing presence, but his foolhardy decision to bribe a safety officer is beyond reproach, and he deserves his penance. Watch for young Rita Hayworth (billed as Rita Cansino) in a tiny dancing role.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Spencer Tracy as Jim Carter
  • Claire Trevor as Jim’s long-suffering wife
  • The haunting “Dante’s Inferno” sequence

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once.

Links:

Without Warning / It Came Without Warning (1980)

Without Warning / It Came Without Warning (1980)

“No Chance… No Help… No Escape!”

Synopsis:
A pair of teens (Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson) on a camping trip fight for their lives against flying alien discs; meanwhile, an insane veteran (Martin Landau) and a determined hunter (Jack Palance) try to track down an alien (Cameron Mitchell).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Aliens
  • Cameron Mitchell Films
  • Horror
  • Jack Palance Films
  • Martin Landau Films
  • Science Fiction
  • Veterans

Review:
This low-budget sci-fi/horror/slasher flick — most notable as a thematic predecessor to Predator — starts off as a standard teen exploitation flick, with a small group of horny, scantily-clad teens placing their lives in mortal danger while Just Trying to Have Some Fun. Fortunately, the two most obnoxious teens (David Caruso and Lynne Theele) are killed off right away; the remainder of the film focuses on Nutter and Nelson (slightly more appealing protagonists):

fending off flesh-sucking alien-frisbees while simultaneously sussing out whether they can trust either Landau (wackily insane):

or Palance (grimly determined):

to help them escape with their lives. Upon its release, the New York Times referred to the film as “wretched”, and it’s really not much better than that — but it does possess some effectively creepy atmosphere, and has earned a small cult following over the years. It’s sure to appeal to those who enjoy this type of fare — like Peary, for instance, who lists it as a Sleeper in the back of his book. The rest of us can stay away.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Martin Landau as Sarge
  • Plenty of creepy atmosphere

Must See?
No; this one’s strictly for fans of the genre. Listed by Peary as a Sleeper.

Links: