Chimes at Midnight (1965)

chimes of midnight 1“There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.”

It seems Orson Welles never did anything on a cursory level. There’s always a gravitas — the unique personality of the man displayed in his work whether it is behind the camera or in front of it. But in the same breath, he never takes himself too seriously. And it’s no different in his orchestration and portrayal of the character Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. It’s easy to argue that Charles Foster Kane was more memorable, Harry Lime was more beloved, and Hank Quinlan more remembered, but truly Shakespeare’s Falstaff just might be Orson Welles greatest role. At the very least his most underappreciated role for the very fact that far too few people have seen it.

He’s blustering and rotund, filling up the frame not only with his girth but with his witticisms and tall tales.But as much as this is a comic tale of farcical proportions, it’s also a storyline of tragedy and betrayal.

Being woefully under-read when it comes to Shakespeare, it was hard to come into this story because I had very meager reference points. However, Welles fuses together fragments of four narratives into an epic tale of his own creation, so prior knowledge perhaps was not admissible. The works he picked from include Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Still, when I do get in such a state of disarray, I have learned not to fret and to simply sit back and partake of what is offered me. With Welles, this is not a difficult task at all because of what he gives the viewer. It’s always spectacular, grandiose and richly wrought in some way, shape, or form. And for Welles the impresario, the Bard is a source of inspiration that is truly worthy of him, or you could say it the other way around even. He is worthy of the Bard.

chimes of midnight 2The triangle with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) vying for the affection of his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud), while simultaneously holding onto his relationship with Falstaff is an integral element of what this film is digging around at. But there’s so much more there for eager eyes.

Once more, rather like The Trial, it’s easy to marvel at the restrictions that Welles faced and what he still accomplished within that forced economy. He took the Spanish countryside, a budget of less than $1 million and crafted a work that is often considered the best Shakespearian adaptation ever and some say even the best of Welles. If the man himself was any indication, then maybe so, because he was fond of this work in particular.

From an audience’s point of view, he does some truly spectacular things. Despite the poor sound quality really throughout the entire film, the interiors of the castle are expressive in the same way The Trial’s cavernous alcoves were. Equally telling are Welles’ trademark low angles.  But Chimes at Midnight also spends more time outdoors, the most spectacular scene being the battle sequence portraying the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Welles uses every imaginable trick in the book to make 18o extras and the Spanish countryside work for him to the nth degree. It develops one of the most dynamic, perturbingly chaotic war zones ever through cross-editing, trick shots, speed changes and an elaborate patchwork of images that turns war into something unfathomably ugly. His smoke and mirror techniques matched with the chaotic clashing of metal, weaponry, bodies and jarring visuals is a superb showcase of a truly inspired filmmaker. Because the images are so evocative, adding to something far greater than their individual parts.

chimes of midnight 3And it’s only one high point. Aside from Welles towering performance, Jeanne Moreau stands out in her integral role as Doll Tearsheet, the aged knight’s bipolar lover who clings to him faithfully. The cast is rounded out by other notable individuals like John Gielgud, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey.

Honestly, few others can hold a candle to Falstaff. A great deal of that lies in the similarities between the character and the man playing him. He’s portly,  speaks in rich tones with tremendous wit but the bottom line is that he is met with tremendous disappointment, despite the towering heights of his reputation. He’s constantly short on funds trying to get what he needs from the relationships he’s cultivated with the people around him. However,  in the end, he wasn’t so lucky and the same could be said of Welles. Although Falstaff was exiled from the King’s presence, whereas Welles put himself through a self-made exile of his own. Still, he managed to come out with a work as stunning as Chimes at Midnight. That in itself is a tail worth noting about a man who was larger than life in his own respect. This is a miracle of a film not because it is perfect. It’s far from it, but it has so many remarkable moments in spite of its circumstances. It deserves to be seen by more people.

4.5/5 Stars

La Ronde (1950)

LarondeposterIf you know anything about director Max Ophuls you might realize his preoccupation with the cycling of time and storyline, even in visual terms. He initiates La Ronde with a lengthy opening shot that, of course, involves stairs (one of his trademarks), and the introduction of our narrative by a man who sees the world “in the round.” He brings our story to its proceedings, introducing us to the Vienna of 1900. It’s the age of the waltz and love is in the air — making its rounds. It’s meta in nature and a bit pretentious but do we mind this jaunt? Hardly.

It’s many vignettes of love and romance take us through drawing rooms and bedrooms, past bacchanalian gardens and statues involving a menagerie of figures from prostitutes and soldiers to poets and actresses. By the standards of the 1950s, it’s a highly overt and provocative film — even cheeky. And despite being set in Austria, it undoubtedly brings to mind the Rococo work of the likes of Fragonard or even Watteau’s “Embarkation for Cythera.”

Ophuls seems fascinated with the metaphor of carousels because, in a way, everything turns. Life is constantly of a cyclical nature just as film and the stories it tells always fluctuate from high to low and so on.

When I began my fledgling investigation of world cinema Simone Signoret and Simone Simon were two names that I egregiously intertwined. Now, forced to confront my confusion, I can say definitely that there is a clear distinction in my mind. They stand alone and really this is a film with some of France’s greatest female icons with Danielle Darreiux being another name of note.

However, this is hardly a story about a certain character, but more the themes running through the story and it gives Ophuls the means to exert his artistic mores. His shot lengths indicate just how assured he was in his work — commanding every detail.

When you think he’s going to fall back on a cut and move on, he finds yet another way to keep the shot going. It really is remarkable and it becomes noticeable just how continuous this film is at times. He’s also very much in his element with figures pirouetting on the dance floor. It’s only matched by the elegantly whimsical refrains of the score.

La Ronde actually brought to mind the biblical allusion from Ecclesiastes sung about so iconically by the Byrds. There is a season turn, turn, turn. Except in Ophuls’ case, he seems only interested in the idea of this carousel of romantic encounters. He never actually looks at the inverse of these fluffy tete-a-tetes — what happens when people are alone or their hearts are broken.

It’s very convenient actually, and it allows the film to maintain it’s light, airy quality. For instance, it never looks at the underlining issues that become apparent in a film like A Brief Encounter (1945). Still, I suppose its exquisite elegance and manners are meant to cover up the more base qualities of mankind. In the end, everything goes round and round. Whether or not there is a purpose to it all is for the viewer to decide.

4/5 Stars

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Enzo_Staiola_in_Bicycle_ThievesThe original title in Italian is Ladri di biclette and I’ve seen it translated different ways namely Bicycle Thieves or The Bicycle Thief. Personally, the latter seems more powerful because it develops the ambiguity of the film right in the title. It’s only until later when all the implications truly sink in.

Vittorio De Sica’s film is unequivocally emblematic of the neorealist movement.The most notable traits are the images taken straight off the streets of Rome, depressed and forlorn as they are. The setting truly does act as another character, adding a depth to the film that cannot be fabricated. You can’t fake some of these scenes either whether it’s Antonio scavenging for his bike in the pouring rain or the sheer mass of humanity that is found in places like the Piazza Vittorio.

It’s all there out in the open, with an apparent authenticity. In its simplicity, it feels like a real story with real people. This too is aided by De Sica casting non-actors in the main roles. In fact, Lamberto Maggiorani’s gaunt face is somewhat unremarkable (sharing some resemblance to Robert Duvall). Put him next to a poster of Rita Hayworth and it becomes even more evident. Still, he too feels human in a way that Hollywood stars just cannot quite pull off. It’s easy to believe him and invest in his story.

The same goes for his young son Bruno. He’s one of the cutest precocious kids you’ve ever seen, reminiscent of Jackie Coogan in Chaplin’s The Kid. But it’s also his point of view that makes this film even more tragic later on. This father-son relationship has weight to it.

And that makes Antonio’s dilemma that much more perturbing and ultimately so traumatic for the audience. De Sica’s film is so humble and yet its depths are ripe with so many universal truths and moments of sincerity.

Here is a man trying to provide for his family. His wife, his son, and his baby. Work is hard to come by in the post-war years. Any opportunity is a good one and Antonio gets that. But he needs a bike. His wife sacrifices her sheets so he can get his bike — so he can maintain their whole livelihood as a family.

That’s why it’s so crushing. Everything hangs in the balance of this unfortunate but seemingly mundane event. When Antonio’s bike is stolen it truly means tragedy because there is no lifeline, no direction to turn.

And he does his best to recover his stolen property. Going to the authorities, rounding up his friends to search for it, even tracking down the boy who undoubtedly nicked his bike, but none of it leads to a successful conclusion.

Another day finished with no hope for tomorrow, no money to bring home to his family so they can eat and live. He’s got nothing — a reality that’s made painfully obvious when he and Bruno sit down for dinner at a restaurant. They eat a meager meal as those just behind them gorge on a full buffet of courses. Bruno eyes them longingly and his father tries to lift his spirits, secretly knowing that he can never offer that to his boy.

It puts his lot into a jarring perspective, suggesting the state of the affairs in Italy. But what makes the Bicycle Thief truly timeless is not its scope or what it says on a grand, majestic scale. It’s an intimate film and perhaps the most personal story ever put to film. In a matter of a few moments, it says more with the moral dilemma of Antonio than many lesser films conjure up in a couple hours.

And because this is not a Classical Hollywood film, it does not sell out to its audience. There is no obligation to the viewer to keep them from being downtrodden — because that might rub them the wrong way and actually evoke a searing response. But there can be beauty in that and De Sica’s film is certainly beautiful for precisely those reasons.

It feels real, it feels honest, and rather than sugar coating the world, it draws up a reality that is almost as old as the world itself. So yes, this film is so-called “Neorealist” and yes, it most certainly makes good use of its contemporary setting of Rome in the 1940s. But if any film can claim timelessness Bicycle Thief might just be the best bet because at its core are the type of issues that are not unique to time, space, language, or any other man-made barrier. Every person knows what it means to steal — to battle with their conscience — upending the moral framework that guides their lives. That hasn’t changed even if the context has and that makes The Bicycle Thief continually relevant.

It ambushes us with the same emotional wallop each and every time. I mentioned Chaplin before briefly, but it didn’t occur to me until some time later that we leave our characters walking off into the sunset rather like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, except it’s a very sad sunset indeed.

5/5 Stars

Trafic (1971)

TraficWatching films with French treasure Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) is a wonderful experience because, in some respects, it feels like he brings out the child in me. And if history is any indication — I’m not the only one — others feel this sensation too.

It’s not sophisticated humor. The laughs are not dependent on any amount wit or mature understanding, but it’s universal. Everyone, whatever age, language or temperament, can laugh along with Monsieur Hulot.

Once more it’s easy to see his debt to the great silent stars and his use of sound is always impeccable yet still outrageous in the same breath. It accentuates anything on the screen with auditory hyperbole that is absolutely brilliant. Any sound imaginable is amplified in Tati’s memorable everyday comedic symphony of noise.

If you wanted a plot Trafic, as expected, has very little. Mr. Hulot, for a reason not explained to us, is now working for an automobile company named Altra that is preparing for a big car show in Amsterdam. He along with a truck driver named Marcel and Ms. “Public Relations” (American model Maria Kimberly) must weather the roads and every hiccup imaginable to make it to the show on time. She streaking in her bright yellow convertible and they riding in their truck cursed with flat tires and an empty gas tank among other ailments. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that they don’t quite make it there on schedule.

Jacques Tati was always one to playfully nudge at our modern culture obsessed with technology, expedience and, of course, automobiles. However, there’s nothing terribly vindictive about the way he goes about it. In contrast to the images of hustle and bustle and “progress,” there are also a great many that take comfort in the tranquility of farm life or quaint cottages. Everyday people and their mundane lives that, while idiosyncratic, are in no way inconsequential. He is a director who makes us appreciate people more. Mechanics, old couples, even cats, and dogs.

Many viewers undoubtedly will remember the crazy traffic jam with cars careening everywhere, hubcaps and tires rolling every which way and so on. It’s comedic madness. In fact, for numerous reasons, it’s easy to juxtapose Trafic with an earlier French film of a very different sort, Jean-Luc Godard’s political satire Weekend, which has some massive traffic of its own. And Tati creates comparable chaos, mischief and so on but I prefer his method of execution. Because he finds the charm and humor in every situation — even a car accident (with the multitudes simultaneously relieving the cricks in their joints). There’s no spite, cynicism or anything of that sort. He doesn’t feign pretentiousness, choosing instead to remain comically genuine right to the end.

That’s why there’s something so endearing and satisfying about Mr. Hulot. He remains unchanged and unmarred by the world around him. We can count on him to be the same as he ever was — the same hat, the same coat, the same pipe and the same hesitant gate. Maybe his adventures are not the most titillating. Some people admittedly will not like Trafic. It’s either too meandering like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or too jumbled compared to the exquisite patchwork ballet that makes up Tati’s earlier masterwork Playtime.

But, no matter, Tati is still a joy for what he brings to the screen, for those who are acquainted with his work and those who are willing to join an ambling adventure full of small nuggets of humor. Here is a film that through inconspicuous nose picking, windshield wipers, and road rage tells us more about humanity than many other more ostentatious films are able to manage. Trafic is certainly worthwhile.

4/5 Stars

Love on the Run (1979)

love on the run 2You can’t just do anything at all and then say ‘forgive me!’ You haven’t changed a bit.” ~ Colette

The prospect of watching Love on the Run saddened me and not for the reasons you might expect. Not because it’s noted as the weakest film in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel series, although that it is. Not because it utilizes a clip show rather like a lazy sitcom as some will undoubtedly note (although this does actually give way to some rather entertaining reminisces as Antoine crosses paths with two old acquaintances). And it’s not even because this is the last film in the series and Truffaut never got around to any more installments before his death in 1983. Though that is sad.

The truly heartbreaking thing about this film is not even the fact that Antoine and Christine (Claude Jade) are getting a divorce although that is at the core of it. It’s that Antoine, who has long been the focal point of these films with his certain brand of charming charisma, really has not changed a great deal.

Time and time again, his superficial relationships with women are explored and time and time again his self-destructive habits hardly seem playfully entertaining but if you want the most honest answer, it’s all rather disheartening.

He has a new girl who we meet in the opening credits. Her name is Sabine. She’s young, radiant, very pretty and works in the local record shop. If we didn’t know any better we could easily make comparisons between her and Christine.

We see that little boy from 400 Blows and even that same young man looking to win the affection of a cute brunette named Collete. However, now a few years down the road, none of that panned out. He’s terribly selfish, undeniably a cad and always trying to say he’s sorry to save face. Sabine says it well when she calls him a pickup artist (You sure have a strange idea about relationships. You seem to only care about the first encounter. Once they’re together it’s all downhill).  

However, if we look again we remember that Doinel’s home life was hardly a prize, schoolmasters were unfeeling and his mother passed away — the only real family he had in the world.
Maybe, love on the run 1Antoine Doinel is a character who thinks only in the cinematic and it is true that he often functions in a bit of a faux-reality. He seems normal but never quite is. He seems charismatic but we are never won over by him completely. Still, we watch the unfoldings of his story rather attentively.

Like all the women who he tiptoed around with, as an audience, we have liked him but never truly loved him — an important distinction to make. And coincidentally, we also see right through him. Perhaps because he’s often too much like us or other times not enough like us. It’s hard to put a finger on which one it is exactly.

We leave the film essentially where it began. Antoine has once more been scolded by his girl and made up. It’s difficult to know quite precisely how to feel about that. Love on the Run is worth its nostalgia, woven in between the most recent moments of Doinel’s life. While his character is trying, he is still strangely compelling. But at this point, it’s hard to know what to do with him. Nevertheless, Francois Truffaut was unparalleled in the continuous narrative he was able to craft — flawed, personal and most certainly memorable.

3.5/5 Stars

A Short Film About Love (1988)

a short film about love 1Why do you watch me? -Magda

Because I love you – Tomek

Early on it becomes evident that Tomek is a very lonely young man. He lives in Warsaw in a room belonging to the elderly mother of his best friend, who is off deployed by the U.N. There is also some brief suggestion that Tomek’s parents left him when he was very young. Look at him now and this taciturn lad of 19 is all alone. He has no true friends.

Every evening his routine involves waiting for his alarm clock to go off at precisely 8:30. He pulls out his telescope from under its covering and readies himself for another evening of people watching.  Except he is interested in one person, in particular, his strikingly beautiful neighbor across the way. So, yes, he’s a peeping tom and his voyeurism is a bit reminiscent of Rear Window without the pretenses of a murder mystery.

a short film about love 2And despite the clandestine nature of his activities he still somehow remains innocent in the eyes of the beholder. Daily he works at the post office behind the glass and in the evening he studies languages. But he’s continually drawn to this lady across the way. He feels like he knows her. He wants any pretense to meet her and so he creates a bit of fate anytime he can.

It means sending her fake money orders just so she enters the post office and he can interact with her. It means calling her home at night and hearing her voice over the telephone or taking on a job as an early morning milkman just so he can get another chance encounter with her. It even strays into the territory of purloining her mail and calling the gas company just to disrupt her life a little bit.

All these facets easily push Tomek over the line and his bit of obsession could easily be seen as creepy, in fact, it is creepy. However, when he runs after a distraught Magdelena leaving the post office and discloses his activities, everything changes.

He is ashamed. She is repulsed by his admissions. And that looks to be the end of it. But she ultimately realizes the innocence in his eyes, the sincerity in his voice. He says in the most genuine way possible that he loves her.

Intrigued she pries more. What is it he wants? To kiss her, to make love, to run away together? His answer? Tomek wants nothing, nothing. This surprisingly tender conversation leads to several more encounters. First, she willingly masquerades in front of his telescope and then they meet for ice cream in a cafe.

a short film about love 3However, often times sex and love become synonymous terms and that is the underlying tension between Tomek and Maria Magdelena’s relationship. Though innocent, he wants true love, a love that transcends a simple physical act and is summed up with affection, intimacy, and an inherent closeness. He is taken with her beauty certainly but even more so he is invariably alone. Meanwhile, she is so enraptured with sex and denigrating such a grand (and admittedly messy) thing as love, to a simple physical act. She can’t understand this wide-eyed boy and his delusions. She’s ready to open him up to the way the world actually turns. And her callousness ultimately crushes Tomek’s tender heart. She broke it not by simply rejecting him, because this is a ludicrous love story, but truly obliterating any of the naive aspirations he had for love.

The final act is executed with pristine restraint because Kieslowski does not sink into melodrama but the twinges of emotion begin to overcome Magda as she comes to realize how much she devastated her young admirer. Now she looks out her window every night for any sign of his return. She tries calling him up to acknowledge her mistakes and even goes to see his Godmother.

In the final contemplative moments, Magda is finally given a view into Tomek’s perspective — seeing exactly as he had seen — envisioning the scene from across the way.  As is his nature, Kieslowski’s film is insightful and thought-provoking, a fuller examination of his work in the Decalogue. It’s a rather perturbing parable in some respects, but that is only due to the perversity and desires that dwell within the human heart. It’s a telling Biblical allusion that the main female heroine is named after Mary Magdelena, a woman who was historically known for her dubious reputation and promiscuous ways. But it was the exact same woman who went to a redemptive transformation in the Biblical narrative.

Kieslowski leaves his film essentially open-ended but the character’s name is a powerful one because it somehow suggests even to the tiniest degree that these characters too can be redeemed. There is still hope. It’s certainly a tall order to make a short film about love that still manages to leave its mark and yet Kieslowski does it with immense grace. He employs brevity while still succeeding in delivering a thoughtful study on one of the world’s most perplexing mysteries: Love.

4/5 Stars

Review: Le Samourai (1967)

le samourai 1There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…

It would be easy for some to call Le Samourai flat and pedestrian due to its visual style and even the workings of its plot. All very straightforward with cool tones and characters who barely crack a smile. Emotions are even less common. But that’s disregarding how exquisitely confident it is in its execution. Jean-Pierre Melville is a director who evolved into one of the great forgers of crime films for the very reasons mentioned above.

His hero played so iconically by Alain Delon is one of those great film characters who does not need to fill every moment of silence with a witty comeback. In fact, Jef Costello is not one to spitfire witty repartee at all. Instead, he’s calculating, steely-eyed and ridiculously phlegmatic. He fits the corridors of this film like a glove, perfectly suited for the cold exteriors and drab interiors.

We meet him not in some moment of dramatic action, but while he reclines silently on his bed, veiled in shadow, cigarette smoke clouding over him and the chirps of his caged canary piercing through the traffic sounds murmuring outside his window. Although we linger there for a time as the credits roll, it takes a moment to acclimate. If you’re not paying attention, the contours of his body are almost lost to us — an extraordinarily ordinary man. But that’s precisely what he wants you to think.

Meanwhile, he highjacks cars, puts an airtight alibi in place, takes on a hit at a local nightclub with ease and disposes of all evidence without even a hiccup. Veins of ice and nerves of steel give him the perfect physique for a hitman. Top it off with his uniform — a trenchcoat, fedora, and cigarette, bolstered by Delon’s imperious stare and it’s difficult not to be mesmerized by his every movement.

It’s the kind of self-assuredness that allows another character to ask him, What kind of man are you? and no answer is needed — at least not with words — because with every action, every look, he tells us precisely what he is. An aloof assassin of the highest order. Yes, if you want to make the comparison, a samurai.

le samourai 2And though he does call on his lovely girlfriend (Nathalie Delon), who is absolutely devoted to him, as well as making eyes at the nightclub pianist who is the main eyewitness to his hit, Jef for all intent and purposes, is alone. It’s a kind of forced solitude, a self-made exile created by his trade. After he goes through with the hit, he must shut himself off more and more. That is his job.

So he goes to the police station to be questioned. Goes through the lineup. Stairs down the witnesses and goes home. Not to his girl but the dismal flat with his mournful canary. His contractors are out to get him, the cops are looking to catch him in his fabricated alibi and still, Costello maintains his composure as is his habit. He’s unphased by bugs or tails and when he has a gun to his face he never blubbers, only proceeds with beating up his assailant when the opportunity arises.

And although there is never much of overt romance in Le Samourai — Jef never shows any kind of passion — there are still glimpses that he cares about people. Perhaps he holds onto chivalry as part of his moral code. Even after staying away from his girlfriend for many days he comes back to her not expectant of anything but asking her if she’s alright. Pragmatic but concerned. Distant but still invested.

The same can be said for the film’s tremendous finale. Le Samourai is not a film of gratuitous killing but pointed moments of violence that are careful acts of deliberation. Costello kills two people and the film ends with his third and final hit. But it is in these tense moments that we gain yet another insight into the moral makeup of a world-class hitman.

Melville was obviously an admirer of American gangster films but what makes his vision of the genre so fantastic is the demeanor of his characters. Again, some might say boring, but that is probably a predilection of those raised on Hollywood action. There is no aura left. No shred of intrigue or tension left to be examined. Le Samourai is a crime thriller that performs differently, its pacing is entrancing and far from being tepid, it elevates the hitman to enduringly riveting heights to the last bullet fired. It doesn’t hurt that Jef Costello just might be the coolest action hero of all time.

5/5 Stars

10 Films to Watch if You Like Classic Bond


North by Northwest (1959): It’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was offered the chance to direct Dr. No because he had singlehandedly propelled the spy thriller into the public eye through such classic as The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and Notorious. It’s also no surprise that he turned down the chance because had essentially made the greatest spy thriller ever. There was no reason to attempt to make another. Cary Grant. Eva Marie Sainte. Bernard Hermann. Ernest Lehman. Mt. Rushmore. Cropdusters. Just a few of the things that make this film awesome. It’s a must for all Bond fans.

That Man from Rio (1964): So there’s no doubt that Philippe de Broca’s film was made in a world conscious of the James Bond phenomenon but it’s also a charming blend of Tintin-esque action serials and wild humor that’s anchored by the charming pair of Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. Its mixture of lavish location shooting, fun-filled action, and consistent humor makes it a must for all Bond lovers.

Charade (1963): By now we’ve all heard that this picture from Stanley Donen was the best Hitchcock film that he never made. Sure, that’s probably true if you want to put any stock in such an assertion but beyond that, we have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn starring opposite each other in a spy comedy romance. It sounds like an absolutely delightful proposition and it is. It’s funny as a rom-com but still exhibits enough intrigue to pass as a compelling thriller.

The Ipcress File (1965): Sir Michael Caine as British spy Harry Palmer should be enough to pull audiences into this franchise. But if not that then consider this. Although it was made by some of the minds behind Bond, this franchise was supposed to be its antithesis in its representation of the spy life. It’s the anti-Bond if you will. Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain would follow in the subsequent years.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): However, if you want something completely different from Bond with a sense of stark realism matched with a cynical edge you probably couldn’t get closer to the mark than watching this thriller based off the work of John Le Carre. Richard Burton is as disillusioned as any spy in the history of the movies and you get the strange sense that he has the right to be. If you looking for another tonal shift in the realm of spy thrillers look to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s demanding but certainly worthwhile.

Casino Royale (1967): We’re about to enter the territory of less demanding fare and the epitome of that is this initial Casino Royale (please don’t dare confuse this installment with Daniel Craig’s. Please don’t). All you need to know is that Peter Sellers plays Evelyn Tremble (ie James Bond), Ursula Andress is Vesper Lynd (ie James Bond), Orson Welles is Le Chiffre, Woody Allen is Jimmy Bond…must I go on or do you get the idea? If you had any preconception that this was a Bond movie you were mistaken.

Our Man Flint (1967): James Coburn the tough guy from such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape landed his own headlining gig as a spy in his own right. See him in Charade (previously mentioned) and the continuing installment In Like Flint.

Murderers Row (1966): Dean Martin as super spy Matt Helm. Need I say more? Is it any surprise that he’s a dashing ladies man who also seems to like the high life and hitting the sauce. It grabs hold of the Bond phase like any good (or mediocre copycat) although it was based on a number of novels by Donald Hamilton. A number of sequels followed including The Silencers, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Mike Myers as Austin Powers the most ludicrous, wacky, grooviest, and strangely perverse spy you’ve ever known. But his arch nemesis Dr. Evil is far worse. Pit them off against each other and you’re bound to have a stupid good time amid all the outrageous bits of parody. Oh yeah, check out The Spy Who Shagged Me and Austin Powers in Goldmember too. Groovy Baby!

Get Smart (2008): This is a public service announcement. No offense to Steve Carell or Anne Hathaway whatsoever, but please just go ahead and watch the TV show with the iconic duo of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with Edward Platt. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were comic geniuses and they knew a good fad when they saw one. Spies might come and go but “Shoe Phones” and “Cones of Silence” will never die. Would you believe? Because you should.

Bonus – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) et al: It might not feel exactly like Bond and Indiana Jones is a big enough star in his own right but there’s no doubt that the special mixture of thrills, humor, and iconic status also falls on the mantle of Dr. Jones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt either that his father is played by none other than Sean Connery the guy who was in Marnie, The Hunt for Red October, and, yes, a few other movies.

This is only a few options so please don’t think you have a license to kill me for leaving something off. But hope you enjoyed this assortment of 10 classic flicks for every Bond lover.

Mouchette (1967)

mouchette 1Robert Bresson’s film is an extraordinary, melancholy tale of adolescence and as is his customs he tells his story with an assured, no-frills approach that is nevertheless deeply impactful.

There is one moment early on that sets the tone for the entire story to follow. Mouchette stands in her class as the line of young girls around her sing a song in harmony with one another. She is the only one not involved, standing sullenly as her headmistress passes behind her.

In front of the whole class, her face is dragged down to the piano keys and she is forced to sing aloud, her pitch nowhere near the mark. She goes back in line with tears in her eyes as the girls around laugh at her sheer pitifulness. But as an audience, it makes our hearts twinge with pain.

She is the girl who looks out of place at a carnival, her clothes frayed and clogs constantly clomping. She is the girl who doesn’t have enough money to pay for a ride apart from charity. She is the girl who gets hit by bumpers cars. She is the girl looking for a friend, but none can be found — the school girls having nothing to do with her and her father scolding her if she ever made eyes at a boy.

She is forced to be mother, housekeeper, and caretaker as her mother lies in bed deathly ill and her swaddled baby brother cries helplessly night and day. When her father comes home he’s of no use and when he’s out he’s quick to drink.

So in many ways, Mouchette understandably finds life unbearable. She never says that outrightly. In fact, I doubt a character in a Bresson film would say something like that because it wouldn’t feel real. It wouldn’t fit his MO. Still, every moment her head is tilted morosely or she trudges down a street corner dejectedly nothing else must be said. That’s why she slinks off into the surrounding forest and countryside to get away from all that weighs on her.

And even there she cannot find complete relief. One such night during an escapade she witnesses what looks to be a fight between two men from town who have feelings for the same woman. As they are drunk in the rocky depths of a stream, such a confrontation does not bode well. When both men go tumbling down and only one gets up, Mouchette believes she is privy to a murder. The perpetrator Arsene sees her and coalesces her to keep a lie for him, making sure she doesn’t say anything. But she’s also not safe in his presence and so she eventually flees into the night.

In the waning moments of the film, what we expected from the outset comes to fruition and Mouchette loses her mother, the only person who seemed to deeply care for her with reciprocated love. And as she wanders through town to retrieve milk for her brother, she turns off anyone and everyone who makes any pretense to help her. Of course, their help is always a backhanded or pious type of charity and in the same breath, Mouchette is not about to be thankful for them. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of sorts. All parties are to blame.

In the end, she seems to be at her happiest rolling down the grassy hills away from any sort of human sorrow or interaction. It’s a sorry existence highlighted by very few silver linings. Bresson’s film hits deep with numerous bitter notes, offering up a life that is wounded and broken. Mouchette’s tragedy is great but perhaps the most important question to ask is where does her solace come from?

It’s interesting how Bresson often focuses on bodies in action, at times it almost feels like the characters are faceless. We know them, we see them but what they do and how they move speaks volumes about who they are. Posture, actions, desires, these are the things that define characters far more than even the words that cross their lips.

4/5 Stars

Close-Up (1990)

close up 1I’ve heard people like director Jean-Pierre Gorin say that there is little to no distinction between documentary and fiction. At first, it strikes us as a curiously false statement. But after giving it a moment of thought it actually makes sense, because no matter the intention behind it, the medium of film is always subjective. It’s always a created reality that’s inherently false and even in its attempts at realism — that realism is still constructed.

So you see, this is the start of an interesting idea. Film is about what you decide to put within the frame and what you keep out. Directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and editors among others all play a part in this process. They all formulate what we see on the screen — the reality that we perceive.

It occurs to me that Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up stands at the crossroads of the documentary and classical fiction filmmaking with the two lineages blurring together like very few undertakings have ever been able to do, at least to my knowledge.

The story feels simple. It follows the real-life trial of a man who impersonated popular Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to gain the confidence of a family of film enthusiasts. He wanted to make a movie and they were to be his actors. Abbas obviously took interest in the story that he read of in a magazine because of its relation to film. Here was a seemingly ordinary man who loved movies so much, that he was willing to masquerade as a film director. The irony is that this cinephile Hossain Sabzian also became an actor in the process, donning this role for the family. The family who accused him consider him a confidence man, even a burglar but that’s not how he sees himself. In fact, in a way, this film reminds us that we’re all actors. It all depends on your definition and the circumstances at hand. In some way, shape or form at a given point in time, we’re playing someone who is supposed to be us.

close up 2The beauty of Close-Up that not only does it feature the real individuals involved in this whole ordeal: There’s Sabzian playing himself, the Ahankhah family who brought the case to court, and Kiarostami appearing as well. But it blends the actual footage from the trial with reenacted scenes set up by the director as if they are happening for the first time.

One of the few things to tip us off that some of these moments are reenactments is that we see the same sequence twice, just from different perspectives. Thus, the whole docudrama becomes this blend of reality and falsity. Documentary paired with purposeful re-creation, utilizing a kind of cinema verite filmmaking. I almost don’t want to know what is real and what is fake and in some respects, I don’t care. And that’s what’s fascinating about Close-Up. The story is not altogether extraordinary but, again it’s this dichotomy between reality and fiction. The dividing line proves to be paper thin.

Since much of the film is made of a close-up on Sabzian’s face, it does bring up some questions about the defining factors of identity. Is this man in front of us really what he says he is? Is how he is acting genuine and real. Is it all a facade? Was this whole sequence contrived by a director for the benefit of the viewer? You could go on and on with such assertions and with such questions I think you start getting at the profound aspects of Kiarostami’s film and film as an artistic, expressive construction.

If you’re ready to actually consider what you are being fed, what you are viewing and how you can react to it, this is a film worth your time. I have never known a film to be more engrossed in the dilemma of reality versus fiction.  It took me long enough to see a film by this late great of Iranian film, but now that I have been opened up to his oeuvre, I look forward to more on my horizon from Abbas Kiarostami.

4/5 Stars