Wednesday, February 28, 2007


The Astronaut Farmer

For all their idiosyncracies, the Polish Brothers are compelling image makers. With stories pitched somewhere between small town Americana and the netherworld, their films (so far) are never boring or labored. While the stories themselves may seem far-fetched- i.e. twin brothers attached at the hip looking for love in a dank hotel in "Twin Falls Idaho" or a Montana town on the brink of extinction due to an impending dam project in "Northfork"- they make for beautiful pictures. "The Astronaut Farmer" is no different, and sadly, that's its greatest weakness. While all of the Polish Brother films examine dying dreams of ordinary small town people, the characters in "The Astronaut Farmer" are far more commercially structured and less interesting than, say, the six excavation experts who ride into "Northfork" and discover this is a town that's too small for its own roots and commonly stands in as a stomping ground for various angels (yes, you read that right!) Decked out in black suits and raincoats, the experts feel more like angels of death than human beings. There's a sense of that governmental distrust in "The Astronaut Farmer" as well, in the visage of Jon Gries and Mark Polish, two FBI men sent to Story, Texas to keep tabs on Charles Farmer (Thornton) because he's threatening to launch a rocket from his barn. When we first see the FBI men, their shadows are cascaded against a yellow sky, and the Polish Brothers are again lamenting the fact that anyone who dares to oppose their dream maker is obviously evil incarnate. But the metaphorical images surrounding these two soon subsides, and actors Gries and Polish become the most entertaining aspect of the film. Like the character Gries inhabited in "Jackpot" and the entire cast of "Northfork", simply waiting and passing time becomes his only objective. The remainder of "The Astronaut Farmer" deals with the tensions and questions as to whether Farmer (a man with a degree in aero space engineering and a dark past to boot) will overcome the naysayers, feed off the unending hope of his picture perfect family (lucky bastard, married to Virgina Madsen) and truly venture into space. Let's just say the idea and uncertainty of the Polish Brother's first hour doesn't compare to the final one. After all, its a film full of nice images, but when the story begins to turn literal, it loses some of its Americana mysticism and turns into a 'gee-shucks' feel good story. Less is certainly more.

The Lives of Others

The newest addition to the slate of Oscar Foreign film winners is Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s “The Lives of Others”. Sort of a German companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece “The Conversation”, both films feature an obsessive surveillance expert whose life is drastically altered after identifying with the very people he’s supposed to be gathering intelligence on. There’s even a scene towards the climax of “The Lives of Others” in which a man tears apart his residence and discovers the tiny ears that had been listening to his life play out for many years. And while “The Lives of Others” is certainly more upbeat about its denouement than the paranoid air hanging over Coppola’s closing moments, von Donnersmark’s film is still a finely crafted and well intentioned piece of filmmaking that sustains emotion and intelligence for all of it’s two hour plus running time. In the guise of a political thriller, director Donnersmark has created a small epic that deals with the emotional fissures that must exist within an oppressive regime- both on the civilian side and the governmental. While a few of the East German superiors are shown as militant shadows broadly dishing out evil, there are even more figures who are drawn in naturalistic and humanistic ways. Georg’s progression from good boy socialist to small-time dissenter is handled with care and all of the film’s secondary characters breathe life into their roles as members of the artistic community. And the film’s main cipher, Weisel, is given some great little moments as his humanity begins to shine outward from behind the mounds of electronic equipment placed around him. And through all of this, it’s a pretty damn good suspense film as well, especially in the way “The Lives of Others” gives us glimpses into interrogation techniques and the art of spying. It’s clear that Donnersmark is making a political statement, but he makes it so convincingly in such a well crafted form, that his film doesn’t feel like a statement. It’s good entertainment with a clear message- and wholly deserving of its recent Oscar.


Don't go into "Breach" expecting fireworks and international intrigue. Instead, director Billy Ray fashions a talky and quiet character drama that takes place within non-descript offices and features low-key but effecting performances from Ryan Phillipe as the FBI officer sent inside the agency to 'unmole' agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Based on recent events that took place in 2001, director Ray has become the poster boy for designing films that emphasize the procedural actions behind the uncovering of dishonest actions and scandals. His 2001 film called "Shattered Glass", explored similar themes in much the same matter-of-fact manner, detailing the unmasking of a New Republic writer (played by Hayden Christiansen) who falsified many of his stories. While the stakes are much higher in "Breach", it's clear that Ray is much more interested in the bureaucratic rather than the explosive. And there's nothing wrong with that. "Breach" would make a great double-feature with "The Good Shepherd", another recent spy thriller that eschews action for intelligence. Both of these films feel right at home with the 70's thrillers of Alan J. Pakula or Sidney Lumet, and that alone should be worth the price of admission. Don't go into "Breach" expecting fireworks and international intrigue. Instead, director Billy Ray fashions a talky and quiet character drama that takes place within non-descript offices and features low-key but effecting performances from Ryan Phillipe as the FBI officer sent inside the agency to 'unmole' agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Based on recent events that took place in 2001, director Ray has become the poster boy for designing films that emphasize the procedural actions behind the uncovering of dishonest actions and scandals. His 2001 film called "Shattered Glass", explored similar themes in much the same matter-of-fact manner, detailing the unmasking of a New Republic writer (played by Hayden Christiansen) who falsified many of his stories. While the stakes are much higher in "Breach", it's clear that Ray is much more interested in the bureaucratic rather than the explosive. And there's nothing wrong with that. "Breach" would make a great double-feature with "The Good Shepherd", another recent spy thriller that eschews action for intelligence. Both of these films feel right at home with the 70's thrillers of Alan J. Pakula or Sidney Lumet, and that alone should be worth the price of admission.

These reviews are excerpts from writings that can be read in full here at

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I'm Just Gonna Go Find a Cash Machine

Two films, 16 years apart that are basically a dark mirror image of each other. That’s how I see the relationship between “Cutter’s Way” filmed in 1981 and “The Big Lebowski” in 1997. It doesn’t hurt that both star Jeff Bridges as a beach bum, slowly implicated in an ever evolving murder mystery due to the assumptions of a delusional best friend. They both use a young girl (dead and maybe dead) as a morose starting point for their infantile (and at times imbecilic) quest for the truth. They both represent a class war between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. If you’ve seen both films, the similarities are too great to ignore. And both films punctuate, in their own ways dramatic and comedic, the leanest characteristics of film noir.

Released in 1981, Ivan Passer’s “Cutter’s Way” caught the tail end of the 70’s noirs- phenomenal films that carried such a dark undercurrent and featured a great sense of nihilism that they virtually ‘out-noired’ the original black and white films. Films such as “Chinatown”, “Night Moves”, “Charley Varrick”, “Hustle”, and even to some extent “The Long Goodbye”, all featured an air-tight script with stories gleaned from the 40’s, but fully realized in that 1970’s feel that highlighted psychological mood and atmosphere over twists and turns (though these films had those too). These films, perhaps influenced by the growing pessimism generated by Watergate, Vietnam or inflation, were darker, meaner and all 4 feature dynamic endings that rank pretty high on the ‘bummer factor’. The detective doesn’t always solve the case, and they often end up worse and more disillusioned than when they were dragged into their moral quagmires of death and deception in the first place. I won’t give away any of the cruel twists of fate, but I dare anyone to find an iota of happiness when the curtain closes over J.J Gittes, Gould’s Marlowe, Harry Moseby or Varrick. And I won’t even mention the fate of Phil Gaines, as those fans of Robert Aldrich’s “Hustle” are well aware. Bottom line, 70’s noirs believed in nothing (to paraphrase quite the humorous nihilist in “Lebowski”) and they rubbed our collective noses in it.

“Cutter’s Way” missed the 70’s deadline by just over a year but its mood, lingering attention to a formalized plot, and especially shocking ending lends itself naturally to the best noirs of the 70’s. I can certainly forgive its ill-timed release. Starring Jeff Bridges as Richard Bone, his character sells yachts in an exclusive California town. He spends his time between his boat and crashing at his friend’s house, a disfigured and crippled Vietnam vet named Cutter, played to delirious perfection by John Heard (yes, that father from “Home Alone”). In the mix is Maureen (Lisa Eichorn), Cutter’s estranged wife who’s become secondary to his booze and violent impulses. After Bone’s car dies one night in an alley, another vehicle pulls up behind him and dumps a young girl’s body in a trashcan. Oblivious to the crime that’s just occurred behind him, Cutter leaves his car behind, getting only a glimpse of the man as he speeds off in his expensive car. The next morning, when detectives come calling on Bone because of his stalled car just yards from the dead body, he becomes a witness in a brutal homicide. It’s not long before Bone “thinks” the perpetrator is J. Cord, oil tycoon who happens to own half of the sea-side town where everyone resides. The only discerning factors driving Bone to this decision is the fact that Cord is wearing a polo hat and dark sunglasses like the darkened figure in the alley. Forget the fact that 1/3 of the film takes place within the secluded polo field and nice restaurants that dart this sunny California town. Obsessed with solving the murder and befriending the dead girl’s sister, Cutter relentlessly feeds Bone with suppositions and formulates a plan to blackmail Cord. The logic is simple- if he pays, he’s guilty and they return the money and hand him over to the police. The murdering, rich son-of-a-bitch has to pay! Of course, nothing goes as plans, and Cutter’s dementia as he desperately tries to pin the murder on Cord envelops his life, pushing his wife away even further and releasing both Bone and himself into a collision course that results in even more loss of life. The character played by Jeff Bridges, shown to be quite the ladies man, wants nothing more than to lounge on his boat, bed beautiful women and live off the scraps of his rich friends. It’s the persistent cracking psyche of Cutter that drives the story down its dark trail as he pushes everyone towards a climax that’s inevitable… and all the while holding onto the “truth” through a few ‘possible’ ideas by Bone. Sounds eerily familiar right?

Flash forward to 1997 when Jeff Bridges embodies the Dude, a California slacker who wants nothing more than to smoke pot, bowl and bed beautiful women in “The Big Lebowski”. Due to an unforeseeable set of events caused by a simple case of mixed identities, The Dude soon becomes embroiled in the plot to find a missing young girl. When he mentions his misfortune to his Vietnam vet best friend, Walter (played by Jeff Goodman) and infers his perception of the truth, Walter pushes the film forward through his own delusional presuppositions. Need I go any further?

It’s been a long time since I listened to the commentary by the Coen Brothers or watched them interviewed about “The Big Lebowski”, but I can’t imagine them not mentioning that this film is a blatant homage or re-imagining of “Cutter’s Way”. While “The Big Lebowski” certainly aims for laughter (and gets it in spades), it’s still a remarkably assured film noir, intricately plotted, and filled to the brim with deception, goofy femme fatales and blackmail.

“The Big Lebowski” feels like a film released at just the right time, both in the Coen Brothers own progression of filmmaking as well as the timing of a comedic film noir. Coming on the heels of a rather dour and serious attempt with “Fargo”, the Coen Brothers didn’t feel the need to produce another, instead tackling the genre this time with giddy delight and comedic abandon. And, if one thinks back to the year of 1997, film noir as a whole was getting washed away in glossy and surface ‘neo-noirs’, sparked by the critical and financial success of a fresh faced talent named Quentin Tarantino. For every “Red Rock West”, “The Last Seduction” or “The Underneath”, there were 3 “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” or “Truth or Consequences N.M”, films more pre-occupied with copying the success mold of Tarantino rather than showcasing interesting and honest variations on the noir genre. “The Big Lebowski”, above all else, revealed a keen sense of awareness about the lack of creativity and electricity built into the current stable of modern noirs, and it decidedly punched holes in everything dramatic. No film up until this point really had the balls to accommodate a straight up noir structure with such a ferocious sense of humor (and if anyone can think of one, please let me know!)

So, we have two films, same actor, same plot, 16 years apart, mirror images of one another. Coincidence? I don’t know, but whether it’s a coincidence or not, I’m genuinely glad to have both films around. And about the post title, my apologies, its late and I couldn't think of a catchy one so I just used my favorite line from the film.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Recently Seen

The following reviews and others can be read here.

Breaking and Entering

Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, "Breaking and Entering" is a film full of the aforementioned acts, both physically, mentally and sexually. In what amounts to his most intimate script since 1991 and "Truly, Madly, Deeply", Minghella has gathered an all star cast to play out a morally complicated but somewhat hollow chess game that details the experiences of an affluent architect who decides to follow his cheating desires and go slumming for the love of a Bosnian mother. Sounds possible right?

Jude Law plays Will, a successful man who's the brains behind a multi-billion dollar project to revamp and revitalize the ghetto area known as King's Cross in London. After a series of break-ins at his warehouse, Will takes it upon himself to sit outside and wait for the bandits to strike again. They do, in the form of Miro (Rafi Gavron) a 15 year old Bosnian refugee working for his uncle who masterminds the burglaries. Will follows Miro after an aborted break-in attempt and begins to insinuate himself into the life of his mother, Amira, played with a hint of overacting by Juliet Binoche. Slowly, Will seduces Amira, presumabley because his beautiful Swedish wife (portrayed sensitively by Robin Wright Penn) and her autistic daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers) are way too much to handle, right? Soon, the moral complicities begin to pile up. Amira finds out that Will suspects her son of the break-ins, so she has herself photographed with him one day after he falls asleep in her bed in a desperate attempt to protect her family from the impending accusations if and when Will has ulterior motives.

The script for "Breaking and Entering", while it raises some interesting scenarios and wants desperately to be a very serious adult drama, never reaches anything beyond a dry specimen of acting, writing and directing. There's no emotion or force behind the characters. They simply plod through the narrative points obediently without ever infusing life into their situations. The liveliest moments come from Ray Winstone as a been-there-done-that police inspector and Vera Farmiga as a prostitute who sits in the car with Will outside the warehouse each night. These secondary characters, lining the edges of Minghella's ethnically complex melting pot of Kings Cross, momentarily break out from the hermetic universe of "Breaking and Entering's" other insufferable men and women and carve out indelible moments. Otherwise, you have Law uttering lines such as "I love your laughs. I want to collect all those laughs and put them in a box....a box that only I have the key to." Pretentious moments such as this make it hard to take anything else in "Breaking and Entering" seriously. The film does look phenomenal though, thanks to the cinematography of Benoit Delhomme and while Minghella is always an interesting filmmaker (I loved, loved, loved "The English Patient") he aims for something grand and self-important with "Breaking and Entering" but comes up short.

Hannibal Rising

Acting as a sort of prequel to the 1991 film "The Silence of the Lambs", its amazing just how far they've come from the original myth and suspense built around Anthony Hopkins and his monster cannibal/murderer Hannibal Lecter. I always assumed the franchise was effectively put down after the last gasp of "Hannibal", diluting the franchise down to a parody of itself- none so much than the now infamous 'dinner table' scene in which Ray Liotta is fed his own brain as he groggily surveys the scene and murmurs questions. If you've seen that movie, you surely know what I'm referring to. Now arrives "Hannibal Rising", Peter Webber's extension of the Lecter franchise that charts the traumatic childhood of young Hannibal through the German occupation of Lithuania and his subsequent growth into the embodiment of evil. Yes, this is the film that places justification of Hannibal's cannibalism within the atrocities of World War II.

Stepping into the lead role of Hannibal is new-comer Gaspard Ulliel in a one-note performance that requires the Tom Cruise-like effect... i.e. progressing through every emotion with two facial features- a smug sneer and an faux intense gaze that should (but doesn't) instill fear and dread behind a handsome face. Opening in Lithuania during the German blitzkrieg of 1944, Hannibal sees his family killed during a squirmish between German and Russian forces after being ejected from the family castle. Left to protect his sister, Misha (Helena Lia Tachovska), their solace is soon broken when a group of gypsies stumbles upon the children while taking cover in an abandoned lodge. Hannibal is again forced to witness the damage humans propogate against each other when the men decide to resort to cannibalism, and the brunt of their hunger falls on his sister. Hannibal eventually escapes and survives the war, landing in the calm graces of his dead uncle's widow in Paris, played with sensuality by Gong Li (and what else would anyone expect from this legendary screen goddess?) Now safe, Hannibal's past haunts him nightly in his dreams, turning him inside out with anger and resentment. "Hannibal Rising" soon digresses into a slasher film wherein Hannibal tracks down the Nazi war criminals who killed his sister, while a Paris police inspector (HBO "The Wire's" Dominic West, forced to carry an awful French accent) determinedly shadows Hannibal.

As the above plot synopsis describes, there's very little room for subtlety in "Hannibal Rising". I'm not sure exactly what I expected from a film such as this, but there's something perverse in the way Thomas Harris' script justifies a life of murder by placing it within the context of war crimes. "Hannibal Rising" wants to have it both ways- eliciting sympathy for Hannibal while clearly reveling in the bloody killings throughout the film. Unfortunately, neither outlook balances the film very well and lead Ulliel lacks the cold, calculated menace of Anthony Hopkins. And through all of its uneveness, Harris and director Webber even find room for Hannibal to learn the ways of the samurai, using a sword to enact several of his first killings. I guess we're not too far off the parody of "Hannibal" after all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lovesick-Blog-a-Thon: The Most Romantic Film You've Never Seen

Take a show of hands: how many people out there have seen a film by Spanish director Julio Medem? I doubt there are very many hands in the air right now. I say this not to sound elitist, but to exemplify just how many great undiscovered cinematic treasures there are out there right now, and why the existence of blogs (and blogathons) is important; because they give ordinary people ample amount of space to wring out thousands of words about movies past and present at such a frequency that it borders on sensory overload. Julio Medem hasn't made a film since 2002's "Sex and Lucia", so therefore the print media has no reason to highlight this extraordinary director or his work. And that's where blogs come in- to put a pulse on whatever type of film breathes life into a movie watcher or his/her compulsions. More specifically, blogathons, a cyber event that links a host of ideas and thoughts within a given context, do something else that's unique to the blog universe- they help form a community of like minded individuals whose one passion is the consumption of film watching and writing. That's something I don't take lightly.

So back to this Julio Medem fella. In 1999, Medem directed a film entitled "Lovers of the Arctic Circle" (and it certainly sounds romantic doesn't it?) I wandered into it not knowing anything about the filmmaker, any of the actors, or even the storyline. I initially went to see another movie, but that show had been cancelled due to the reel breaking. Even though this was before the oil prices that strangle us car owners today, I couldn't let this trip go to waste, so "Lovers of the Arctic Circle" it was. Upon exiting the film, I was enraptured and stunned by the film's emotional connection. It had touched a nerve deep inside, announcing the presence of a great filmmaker.

As to the film itself, its plot concerns Otto (Fele Martinez) and Anna (Najwa Nimri) as star-crossed lovers who meet as children, fall in love as teenagers, and desperately attempt to reconnect as adults. Like all of Medem's films, "Lovers of the Arctic Circle" plays heavily with chance and fate and it features a fractured narrative that utilizes visual cues as time progresses (cows in "Vacas", a motorcycle in "The Red Squirrel" amd Anna's deep brown eyes in "Lovers"). The relationship that exists between Anna and Otto is not a precocious one, but earns its depth through the playful interaction between Medem's lead actors. By placing them as half brother and sister when Otto's mother marries Anna's father, Medem flirts with something taboo or perverted, yet he plays everything as just the opposite- sweet and endearing. And when the film reaches its bittersweet denouement, it certainly earns its romantic stripes. Medem has built up an incredible well of empathy around his palindromed characters, and the ending is a near-perfect example of heartbreak rendered as magical release. I do have a heart, so I wouldn't dare betray the genuine surprise and sadness that ends Medem's "Lovers of the Arctic Circle". Part of the reason I fell in love with this film is the way it blindsided me, and having a film do that is one of the great pleasures and the reason we watch over and over, hoping for something transcendental. "Lovers of the Arctic Circle" is definitely that.

This entry is a part of the Lovesick blogathon hosted at 100 Films blog. Go there and enjoy some great writing.

What's In the Netflix Queue #2

Excluding recently mailed, here's the next 10 titles in my Netflix queue:

1. Suzhou River- I'm working on writing a piece of director You Le. Seen this one before and loved it.
2. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts
3. Running on Karma- Number 2 and 3.... yes still working my way through the films of Johhny To. When this guy breaks out in mainstream success this year after audiences get a chance to see "Election", "Election 2" and "Exiled", remember where you read about him first!
4. Damnation- Bela Tarr flick... his previous ones have put me to sleep, but I still want to give him a chance.
5. Le Samourai- Melville... read my recent post on this fabulous director.
6. Blackmail is My Life- Here starts my investigation into the film ouevre of Kenji Fukasaku. I've only seen "Battle Royale" a few years back and was blown away by its attitude and energy. I'm thinking I'll like what I see from this guy, and it helps to have about 20 or so titles available on DVD.
7. Yakuza Papers disc 1
8. Yakuza Papers disc 2
9. Yakuza Papers disc 3- More Fukasaku, this is a TV series produced in the early 70's.
10. The Wire season 2 disc 1- From Fukasaku in the early 70's to today, TV still seems to be a highly energetic arena of creativity. Season 1 was awesome and intelligent, and while I've read season 2 strays from the Baltimore drug trade storyline, this show's still regarded as a detailed and poignant look at a myriad of issues.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


In reading through the list of great DVD releases that hit the shelves today, it made me think critically about all the great films still not available on DVD. I posted a comment about this over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog and Dennis was kind enough to open up a forum on this very topic. So get over and start the discussion and list your top choice for film not available on DVD.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Revisiting a Classic- Bob Le Flambeur

Is film noir passe? Have we, via modern times, recycled and re-invented the genre so much that a majority of its energy has been parodied, zapped out and left for dead? Well the cure for this type of dirge is to go back and enjoy the black and white melodies emanating from the films of Jean Pierre Melville, and especially the relaxed 1955 character study called "Bob Le Flambeur". Starring Robert Duchesne as the title character, Bob is a degenerate gambler who sleeps until eight every night and then stumbles through the neon lights of Paris, drinking and gambling his way to oblivion. He's a genial enough fellow, creating a makeshift family along the way in his friendship with two youngsters, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) a small time hood and the beautiful (yet frisky) Anne (Isabel Corey). He invites Anne to share his apartment, but not for sex, but due to the fact he feels sorry for her having to walk the glittery streets in the morning hoping that an American GI or a Frenchman with money will open a door for her. She's just an inch away from prostitution, and Bob sees the tremendous damage a life like that might do to the young Anne. Through an acquaintance, Bob discovers that a local casino usually holds close to 800 million francs the night before the Grand Prix. Armed with that information (and the fact that Bob has done time in the past for robbery) Bob slowly sets a plan in motion to recruit and rob the casino. As in alot of Melville's films, good and evil are closely intertwined as Bob is friends with a local detective (Guy Decomble) and, naturally, in this world of pimps, thieves and jealousy, not everyone can keep a tight lip about Bob's foray into crime. Melville slowly boils the plot to a deceptively simple climax. Like the best of the burgeoning French New Wave cinema (which many regard this film as the first), Melville infuses more life and thought into the longeurs leading up to the crime rather than the crime itself. When most films would stage a set-piece around the casino hold-up, "Bob Le Flambeur" magnifies the small moments- the act of learning to crack a safe, the precise way in which Bob gets dressed before the robbery and looks around his apartment, and certainly the hypnotic spell that one gains when confronted with a hot winning streak. Like the best of Melville, the glory is in the details.

I first watched "Bob Le Flambeur" about five years ago when I was catching up with the films of Melville (few there are on DVD and VHS). It's unusual that 2006 was, perhaps, Melville's breakthrough year in filmmaking after being dead for over 30 years (he died in 1973 of a heart attack). Last year saw the release of his previously unseen 1969 film entitled Army of Shadows. The film went onto claim top spots in many critics' lists and renew an interest in Melville. It renewed my interest as well, forcing me to place the few Melville films I've seen onto my Netflix queue. My favorites, a close tie between "The Red Circle" and "Un Flic" (unusual because both are color efforts) are there but "Bob Le Flambeur" is something altogether different. It's a film that feels both familiar and alien at the same time. The similiarities are striking upon second viewing, however, that Melville was always working close to something basic, such as the way Detective Ledru and Bob are friends. All of Melville's films pare the film noir genre down to its simple essence. His characters are men of few words, calmly going through the rhythmns of crime with a precise attention to detail. In one scene, Bob takes all of his recruits out to a field where chalk lines are drawn on the ground mimicking the lay out of the casino. He forcefully but scientifically walks each man through his assignment, then calls it quits and hops back into the car without a word further. One gets the sense that Bob (like all of Melville's men) are floating towards an inescapable destiny that owe less to man's choices and more to the roulette wheel of chance. And that is what makes a great film noir- the idea that this is a world that defies calculation and planning, and runs by an entirely different set of rules that act like a black hole and, eventually, will suck the life and energy out of any man who chooses to step into the noir universe. Melville understood that, and Bob is the definitive noir character. If Bob could've been something else... a dentist or a construction worker... he would've been that nice guy next door. But, this is film noir, so he's a high rolling gambler who walks towards the void. The alien part comes with the way Melville's Paris feels like something out of a science fiction novel, framed at just the right moment when night is fading and daylight begins to unmask the neon ugliness. I can't think of another black and white film that uses light and darkness in quite the same way.

There's been one attempt to remake "Bob Le Flambeur", notably by director Neil Jordan in "The Good Thief" from 2003. Lacking in worn-out feel and featuring a disenchanted lead played by Nick Nolte, if anything, "The Good Thief" was to glossy to be a true noir. In a much less structured attempt, there are also some similiarities of "Bob Le Flambeur" to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight" in 1997. The great Philip Baker Hall embodies the same type of wordless, gentle creature of the night who sulks across the Las Vegas dens and casinos with pure cool. He too befriends a puppy-dog like loser named John (John C. Reilly) and a down-on-her-luck beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow) who create a small family out of very little expectations with each other. Whereas Melville's world outlook was bleaker than Anderson's, giving the Paolo/John dependent a more sinister denouement in "Bob Le Flambeur" at the scene of the hotel robbery, "Hard Eight" is probably the closest any modern film noir has come to establishing that feel of all night activity taking a toll on the human body and mind. Both films portray the world outside of the dark gambling rooms as frustrating and encroaching. And both films present main characters who come from a life of crime and are simply waiting for that lifestyle to collect its dues. And its almost sad when those dues catch up to Bob the Gambler.

"Bob Le Flambeur" is the type of film that's easy to saddle with the monikor of film noir, and even easier to admire as a cynical and brilliantly simple representation of characters drawn to a certain type of lifestyle. I don't think film noir is dead. I just think it was done with more intelligence and passion when Jean Pierre Melville was creating masterpiece after masterpiece. 1955 and "Bob Le Flambeur" is as good as any place to start.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Viewing Blues

The only thing worse than being sick with the flu is having to sit in a crowded doctor's office for four hours on Monday night while the flatscreen TV on the wall plays, in succession, the final 30 minutes of Bruce Willis in "The Kid" followed by "Radio" and topping it off with "Daddy Day Care".... while you have the flu. At least the TV was a plasma and the attractive woman sitting next to me had a nice sense of humor and agreed with me between sniffles on how unbearable the whole night has been for both of us in this doctor's office. And when in the hell did 'web check-ins' gain precedence over us fine folk who actually walk into the clinic first? But I digress. The only positive aspect of my four day sickness has been the opportunity to drown myself in television. I guess if one has to get sick, there's no better time than February when Turner Classic Movies is running its 31 days of Oscar salute. It's given me the chance to revisit some classic films ("The Last Picture Show", "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Stagecoach") and step into some new experiences ("Lovers and Other Strangers", Alan J. Pakula's "Comes a Stranger").

My Netflix queue has also gotten a charge, giving me the opportunity to knock off a couple of selections with little delay. While the choices themselves weren't that great- Marco Bellochio's "My Mother's Smile", another impenetrable film by this Italian director who continually produces pretentious and suffocatingly dense efforts that one needs a roadmap of Italian history and politics to clearly follow, and Anne Fontaine's "Nathalie" which is one of those French films that thinks by placing iconic actors like Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu into a sexually compromising narrative automatically makes for good viewing- its always nice to chip away at the Netflix queue.

And everyone, please, get their flu shots soon. Take it from me, you don't want this.