Thursday, November 16, 2006

Taxi Driver

Directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest films of the 20th Century. The story about a man drowning in loneliness that desperately seeks the approval of the social lives of those around him. He is Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), who (as the film opens) gets a job as a cabbie because of the insomnia he suffers of. He prefers working nights (12 hour shifts), will take anyone anywhere, and still he can't seem to sleep. His point-of-view is an ingenious cinematic approach whereas it is viewed in slow-motion (which symbolizes his heightened observation). There are so many undercurrents within the film that even Bickle himself doesn't realize. There is an apparent prejudice against african-americans (the usual stereotype of them all being pimps or drug dealers - and ironically enough when Bickle finally does meet a pimp, he turns out to be white).
Bickle bides his time in a coffee shop where all the 'night shift' cabbies hang out. He listens to them ramble about imaginary women who give them $500 tips and their phone number to somewhere in South America. His attention wanders and his inability to socialize presents an awkward air that is at times difficult to watch.
Bickle eventually meets Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) who is an avid supporter of the presidential candidate Palantine. His former view of the inhabitants of New York as "scum" is finally changed when he meets a girl who "is not like the rest of them". He asks her out to a movie and it turns out to be porn. He knew it was porn (he goes to the same theatre every night he's off work), but he doesn't go for the usual reason people go, he gets no satisfaction out of it, it is as if he's punishing himself for having walked into such a place. He seems to not realize why she looks at him with disgust and eventually leaves and never wants to see him again.
Bickle is a "walking contradiction" whereas he sees the world as evil and wrong, but in his attempts at being accepted, he finds himself bending the rules of morality and becoming what he despises.
He comes across a 12-year old prostitute named, Iris (Jodie Foster), who he immediately likes, but the only way he can be near her is to pay for "half an hour". He does so, and despite her attempts to "make it", he tries to tell her that he's come to set her free from the life of prostitution. "Don't you want to get out of here?" he asks. "But it saves me from myself," she answers innocently. He leaves frustrated.
Bickle is (like the John Wayne character in "The Searchers") trying to rescue women who don't want to be rescued. It becomes his obsession that these women are being oppressed and that his goal in life is to set them free.
His obsession leads to violence when he purchases weapons and attempts to assassinate Palantine, but runs away almost as if, at the last moment, coming to his senses. But that is only the "dress rehearsal" for the climax of the film which is one of the most graphic scenes of violence ever filmed. It is shot in 'washed out' colors as if the ensuing violence has drained the blood from the film.
The famous line, "Are you talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here," spoken to himself in a mirror, has been many times mimicked but the meaning can only be fully realized in this film. It is the voice of a lonely man amidst the crowd, a voice of sarcasm at his own worthless condition. The condition we all find ourselves in from time to time.
The film ends with Bickle meeting Betsy one more time as he is driving her home in his cab (by a chance meeting). Her look has changed from one of disgust to admiration and the viewer senses that this scene is not real. That it is either his final dying thoughts or simply a fantasy in his mind. It is Bickle finally finding redemption, finally finding his place in society. It has all been resolved and now he can lead a normal life or die happily.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Ipcress File

"The Ipcress File" is a gripping spy thriller that was a big hit back in 1966. This was the time when Michael Caine was a rising young star, and this movie was an excellent showcase for his talent. Visually, the movie is dated in spots, especially in its use of psychedelic colors and images in the brainwashing sequences. These images, along with Caine's character's wearing of thick-lensed, horn-rimmed eye glasses, were later parodied in spy spoofs, most notably in the Austin Powers series. Fortunately, the story is as engrossing as ever, and Caine's Harry Palmer remains one of the most indelible movie characters ever.
Harry Palmer is a shrewd, cocky, amoral Army sergeant who was busted in Germany for some illegal trading. Sensing his abilities, the British army has offered to keep him out of prison in exchange for his becoming a spy. It's the threat of prison that keeps the freedom-loving Harry in line. [This plot device has been used countless times since "The Ipcress File" was released, most recently in "XXX".] When a prominent British scientist is kidnapped, Harry's boss loans him out to another department. What our confident hero doesn't realize is that he's being used as bait. By whom and for what purpose is what keeps the suspense going right up to the movie's tense climax.
"The Ipcress File" is in the category of spy movies which, unlike James Bond films, portray the characters as participants in a dark, sinister and deadly serious game. In this game, only the hero can be trusted.
Len Deighton's first novel presents the micro-detail workings of a nameless espionage agent's workaday world. The protagonist is as far removed from the glamour world of James Bond as you can get -- in fact, it's the polar opposite. The film is a departure from Deighton's novel but what is here works well.
The entire cast is very good. The story moves along at a leisurely but good pace. The cinematography takes on a persona of its own that bears well under repeated viewing. John Barry's score is one of his best and quite different in tone from his Bond scores. Production values are top notch. And it's quite surprising when you realize this film's producer is Harry Saltzman -- one of the co-producers of the Bond series! In fact, Saltzman brought along some of the Bond crew to work on "The Ipcress File".
This is Michael Caine's first starring role in film. Saltzman tapped Caine after seeing his excellent performance in "Zulu". Caine does a yeoman job of portraying the novel's spy with no name as Harry Palmer, complete with deadpan, wry humor.
Harry Palmer is minus the gizmos, the flash of Bond, he offers you instead an ex-con pressed into using his talents for the British spies. He is a gourmet cook, cannot see too good without his coke bottle glasses, and poor Harry, caught between Ross, his former boss, and Dobly, his new boss, in a thinking man's game of cat and mouse.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is agent 003, a Dick Tracy character, complete with trenchcoat, felt hat, Zippo, and a .45 calibre automatic. He has come to Alphaville to assassinate its dictator, Professor Von Braun. This is a city ruled by the computer, the Alpha-60, and its scientist creators and neophytes. Politics no longer exists, only the dehumanizing logic of the binary system.
Shot in Paris on a very tight budget, Godard makes graphic use of his surroundings, playing with the black and white images and emphasizing the ruggedness of Constantine and the striking beauty of Anna Karina. In doing so, he revisits a science fiction theme - computers and new technology will transform the physical world, this is true, but their most immediate, global, and lasting impact will be in the reconfiguration of the human mind and consciousness.
The film opens with the legend, "Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication." While Godard will employ his typical blend of visual imagery, flashing words and still pictures on the screen, making philosophical and literary references beyond the story, etc., "Alphaville" follows a more obviously linear, narrative path than his earlier films.
In this futuristic world, people are no longer capable of free thought. They must adhere to the control of the computer. Each hotel room is equipped with a bible - in the form of a dictionary which lists what words are acceptable and what their meaning must be. Those who express the forbidden emotions of love or betray contrary thinking are to be executed. The computer interrogates those suspected of crime, denouncing them as liars if they do not adhere to established truths.
Lemmy Caution poses as a journalist for 'Figaro-Pravda' - a blend of French and Soviet newspapers. The role of the journalist is to enforce the truth; to disseminate what the State wants its citizens to believe. Before the word, nothing existed. Language is responsible for bringing reality into existence. But Caution appreciates that the seeds of destruction lie not in the future, but in the meanings we inherit from the past. Ironically, for 'the word', we can now read 'cinema'. Film, Goddard is suggesting, can no more be trusted than a dictionary.
Alpha-60 has analyzed the past and realized that man cannot create his own future with any certainty. It is vital that the computer take control and change people into logical travelers into the future. The present is terrifying because it is irreversible. Once people become mere ants, automatically obeying instructions to create structures beyond their ken, they will be free of the stress of uncertainty. The computer is a very moral beast.
Godard's vision of this computerized world is bleak and terrifying. While the narrative sweeps along, it is not a story which can simply be enjoyed. As a viewer, you have to concentrate and try to absorb the themes and images. The acting is consciously stylized, the direction and editing curt and sometimes oblique. The portrayal is that of comic book good versus evil, yet values and morality are fluid to say the least.
Perhaps "Alphaville's" message is symbolized by the habitual greeting exchanged by its characters - "I'm fine thank you, you're welcome", voiced as a simple statement on meeting or leaving. Communication is symbolic, devoid of feeling or individuality. The story reduces its characters to caricatures who act out their instructions against a soundtrack of ironic, B-movie music which seems to instruct the viewer that this is meant to be a moment of cinematographic tension.
The film, therefore, defines meaning as clearly as does a dictionary or computer. This is how you are supposed to think, these are the emotions you are required to feel at this point. Godard, as ever, challenges this message. As a viewer, you are forced to deconstruct his images and narrative and assess meaning for yourself.
"Alphaville" does rely pretty heavily on a wide source of literature (Orwell, Huxley and French surrealism being the obvious influence), however it is Godard's entrancing visual style and clever blend of high art and pop culture that makes this film seem so refreshing and prophetic. A demanding film, a highly entertaining film, an extraordinarily rewarding film, and one which should be watched again and again by all lovers of cinema and students of filmmaking.

Bonnie and Clyde

"Bonnie and Clyde" is the superb 1967 milestone movie that changed much of the face and the mind of the films that followed. Producer-star Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn have dealt with an American folk legend in almost ballad form and triumphed. Where the fact ends and the fiction begins is no longer decipherable or very relevant to the brief history of the couple who earned their niche in the hoodlum drifters, nobodies yearning to be some kind of somebodies, rebels with no cause beyond the moment's rebellion, when a third of the Depression-bruised nation, debilitated and apathetic, was ready to secretly admire those who could get away with striking at the Establishment. It is in retrospect that the pathos of this pair is evident--and this evidence provides the particular distinction of what might well have been just another gangster movie, another glorification of violence and rebellion, another bit of lip service to morality. Instead we have a story of two self-made outsiders, aspiring nothing beyond the moment's satisfaction, terrifying in their total dissociation from humanity. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are flawless in underlining the universality and contemporary significance of the theme; and Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons (Oscar winner), and Michael J. Pollard offer superlative support--all to the rickety twang of a banjo and a saturation in time and place.
This movie ignited critics and the public alike when it was first released in theatres. Much discussion centered around the movie's graphic violence (which was considered shocking by 1967 standards --- two years later "The Wild Bunch" would raise the ante even higher); there was also considerable hullabaloo over the film's glamorization of its lawless true-life anti-heroes (which was in fact an old Hollywood tradition best exemplified by a handful of late 1930's and early 1940's biographical Westerns including "Jesse James", "Belle Starr", "Billy the Kid", etc. in which beautiful actors portrayed the murderous title characters as Technicolored lads and ladies).
39 years later the fires of debate have burned out, and what remains notable about "Bonnie and Clyde" is neither its cutting-edge violence nor its historical inaccuracies, but instead the fine craftsmanship that went into its creation. The performances are uniformly outstanding; the cinematography is evocative of a time and place that can still be glimpsed in parts of the Ozarks, Oklahoma, and North Texas; the editing is clean and well-paced; the direction is innovative and assured, even poetic in some sequences (the initial acquaintance of Barrow and Parker, the reunion of Bonnie's family, the final ambush scene). This film is the telling of legend, not the chronicle of biographical scholarship, and it unfolds its story masterfully.

American Gigolo

American Gigolo is one of my favorite films and yet it is really not one of the greatest films that you might encounter. Shot in rich tones, particularly blues and greys, the director, Paul Schrader, wants us to know that we are not going to be afforded the opportunity to get to know the characters too well. One might be able to argue that American Gigolo was one of the films that literally catapulted the movie going public into the 1980's mindset of materialism.
Richard Gere in one of his earliest films portrays straight male call boy, Julian, who is tops in his game. Julian is gorgeous and knows many gorgeous women. He sleeps with those who will pay him. He doesn't bother with those who won't. Julian's lifestyle is one of everything "is a means to an end". He is interested in beautiful clothing and looking good, but because it helps him get something that he wants. He enjoys artwork and stylish digs, but not because he loves them, but because they are status symbols for his success. Julian enjoys being a gigolo because he is the best there is. He wouldn't (and doesn't) enjoy it when it isn't on his terms. For someone like me who feels he is too in tune with his emotions, Gere's Julian is cool, calculating and enviable. He goes about life without a care for anyone but himself.
When Julian meets Lauren Hutton, he is actually smitten with her. This is evidenced by the meeting taking place in a bar with deep reds and comfortable upholstered booths instead of the abounding greys, blues, and steel evidenced elsewhere in the film.
When Julian finally becomes intimate with Hutton and allows his emotional wall down for a moment, Schrader pulls us in close, but just afterward he lets us see that Julian can't maintain such intimacy and the camera pulls back for a long shot of him as he gets out of the bed leaving Lauren Hutton alone in the bed.
The story is secondary to the style of the film. It is a thriller, but not an exciting one. The music of Georgio Moroder and Blondie complement the film and give it even more atmosphere. It needs it because the films two false endings drag this picture out longer than needed in trying to show us how emotional involvement can change someone. The message should be left that a lack of emotion can be dangerous.

I rewatch this film every so often. It's a guilty pleasure watching the opening of the film with Julian driving down the PCH in his 450SL. Or when he's laying out different Armani outfits determining which to put on. Or looking at paintings, never deciding where he will hang them.

The Big Sleep.

THE BIG SLEEP has a reputation for being a film that gets lost in its own complexity and which fails to clearly identify all the perpetrators of all the murders that litter its scenes. There is a certain truth to this: like the Raymond Chandler novel on which it is based, the plot is extremely complicated, and it requires the viewer to mentally track an unexpected number of characters--including two characters that never appear on screen, a pivotal character who doesn't actually have any lines, and a character who is frequently mentioned but doesn't appear until near the film's conclusion. There is not, however, as much truth to the accusation that the film never exposes all the killers: only one killer is not specifically identified, but even so his identity is very clearly implied.
All this having been said, THE BIG SLEEP is one helluva movie. In general, the story concerns the wealthy Sternwood family, which consists of an aging father and two "pretty and pretty wild" daughters--one of whom, Carmen, is being victimized by a blackmailer. P.I. Philip Marlowe is hired to get rid of the blackmailer, but an unexpected murder complicates matters... and touches off a series of killings by a number of parties who have covert interests in the Sternwood family. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is that you don't actually have to pick apart the complicated story in order to enjoy it. The script is famous for its witty lines and sleek sexual innuendo--much of it lifted directly from Chandler's novel--and the cast is a dream come true. Philip Marlowe would be played by a great many actors, but none of them ever bested Humphrey Bogart, who splendidly captures the feel of Chandler's original creation; with the role of Vivien Sternwood Lauren Bacall gives what might be the finest performance of her screen career; and the chemistry between the two is everything you've ever heard. The supporting cast is superlative, all the way from Martha Vickers' neurotic turn as Carmen Sternwood to Bob Steele's purring hitman Canino. There's simply not a false note to be found anywhere. Although the film really pre-dates the film noir movement the entire look of THE BIG SLEEP anticipates noir to a remarkable degree--it would be tremendously influential--and director Hawks gives everything a sharp edge from start to finish.