Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

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Is the subject of this film a religious one? – A Religious Leader 

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. – Guido

It famously opens with a dream. Our main character stuck in a silent traffic jam, completely disillusioned by the scene around him until he’s able to escape everything inhibiting him and soar into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. But it hardly lasts. Soon he finds himself tethered, being brought back down to earth.

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Our protagonist of sorts turns out to be Guido (the famed Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who is going through a spell of director’s block. His most recent activities include an extended stay at a luxury spa at the behest of his doctors. It’s also early on in the film that someone asks him if his next film is also going to be one devoid of hope. It’s a very quick statement but in some sense, it sets the groundwork for Fellini’s entire film.

And it is a very personal film and a fascinating exploration of the art of filmmaking — the thing making it the most compelling is the strange suspicion that parts of Fellini himself dwell inside of Guido. Perhaps Guido shares a bit of his philosophy and stance or more precisely Fellini is like his main character.

The film within a film soon becomes evident and in that sense, it’s also a personal picture. Its title being derived from the number of pictures the Maestro had directed thus far. And numerous meta qualities come to the fore, most obviously when Guido is going through the screen tests his producer (Guido Alberti) and wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) among those viewing the proceedings.

But going back to that issue of hope, the film’s finale has always been striking to me but I realized that it takes on new meaning put in the context of higher issues altogether. In some respects, Guido or Fellini, whichever you prefer, is trying to derive some sort of higher meaning, whatever that means to him.

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That’s in part why he has his legions of characters join hands in an almost communal dance of absurdity. Simultaneously, a journalist can be heard throwing his questions out, “Are you for or against eroticism?” and in the same breath, “Do you believe in God?” Because this is Fellini’s answer — the solution he has drawn up for himself. There is a sense of grandiose absurdity which is full of dreamscapes — where the distinction between reality and fantasy hardly means anything. Because in the eye of the beholder they are hardly different.

On purely a level of spectacle, it’s indubitably a fascinating set-up. Fellini is known for his quintessential style. To be Felliniesque is to be wrapped up in the surreal and the fantastic. But the philosophical conclusions that go hand in hand with such a provocative approach to film are rather disheartening. If this is part of what Fellini is trying to grapple with as it pertains to love and ultimate truth then 8 1/2 does fall back on a rather dismal ending.

As Guido explains to the man of the cloth, he is looking for some flash of understanding, some obvious moment of truth, like Saul at Damascus. He, like all his peers, carries the foundations of a Catholic upbringing. The religious authorities tell them that there is no salvation outside the church. His strict Catholic school told him what was wrong. Likewise, Guido plans to have a spaceship in his next film — humanities “new Noah’s Ark.” And it’s true that space exploration has been the final frontier, a beacon of potential hopes and truths. You see that in later works like 2001 and Solaris.  However, Noah’s Ark was also a vessel to escape destruction as much as it was a ship of exploration.

In drawing other cinematic comparisons, Fellini’s film revolves around a pointless MacGuffin (the phrase Asa Nisi Masa) rather like Welles famed Rosebud. Truthfully, this is a comedy in the same way perhaps Citizen Kane is a comedy. In a similar way, Guido seems isolated, but his mind, in particular, is twisted up with fantasies.

The most divisive scene in the film is yet another fantasy conjured up by Guido that is either extraordinary humorous or sadly indicative of his state of being depending on how you view it. He dreams himself in the stead of all the women he has crossed paths with thus far. — all ready and waiting on his whim — his personal harem of sorts — totally and completely objectified for his pleasure. Again, it’s played for truly comic effect but what are the implications?

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As the eternal beauty Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) notes, “He doesn’t know how to love.” She speaks of Guido’s protagonist but as the meta-ness suggests, this protagonist is Guido himself and going down even a layer further maybe even Fellini too. It’s precisely these problems that tie back into Guido’s disillusionment. “There’s no part in the film. And there’s no film. There’s nothing anywhere,” he says to Claudia.

Chaos and nothingness. True perfection is nothingness. His final conclusion? Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together. In essence, it’s true but the carnival showmanship and parlor tricks cannot obscure the bottom line here. As Francis Schaeffer once noted someone like Fellini “has no way to distinguish between right and wrong, or even between what is objectively true as opposed to illusion or fantasy.” That’s a terrifying world to come to terms with. During filming, Fellini supposedly kept a note on his camera to remind himself that this was a comedy film. But much like Citizen Kane, perhaps there’s a need to label it a Tragicomedy. You cannot deal with such issues without elation being matched with some amount of melancholy.

5/5 Stars

The Professionals (1966)

220px-Movie_poster_for_-The_Professionals-Who wouldn’t be enticed by a film entitled The Professionals? It feels a little like an amalgamation of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, with a  little sprinkling of Mission Impossible, and dare I say The Wild Bunch? We have a band of four big-time pros who are brought together to rescue the wife of a man named Grant (Ralph Bellamy). She is being held at ransom in the heart of Mexico. That’s no small task in the wake of Pancho Villa and the Mexican-American conflict, but these men are the best of the best.

The leader is none other than Lee Marvin (of The Dirty Dozen) with his prematurely white hair, leading the band as Rico Fardan, a skilled tactician, and former U.S. Army Officer. He is joined by Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who is the best tracker around and also a crack shot with a bow and arrow. Next, comes skilled horseman and pack master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), who keeps mainly to himself. The most dynamic part is that of Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), an unscrupulous scrounger who nevertheless is a good shot and an artist when it comes to using explosives. He’s not what you call a trustworthy type, but Rico would trust this man with his life and that says a lot.

Richard Brooks story is straightforward enough. This dream team goes in with their mission clear: The man who stands in there way is revolutionary turned outlaw Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who is the one keeping Maria (Claudia Cardinale) captive.

As they push forward, they witness the brutality of Raza and his men as they raid a passing train and execute many of the occupants. Soon Fardan and his crew move in on Raza’s compound and wreak havoc one night so they can pull Maria out and take her to safety. But she seems like a very reluctant damsel in distress. She also seems very intimate with Raza. That’s the first sign that something’s up, but still, they follow the parameters of the assignment and pull her out.

Retribution follows and after a gunfight The Professionals flee through the mountains with Raza in hot pursuit. They use explosives to try and impede the progress of the rebels, and then Dolworth resolves to stay back to bide his partners time so they can get across the border. It’s at this point that he fights like one of the magnificent seven, in an impressive rearguard action that has his foes befuddled.

It’s when he actually comes face to face with his enemy that things become interesting. They know him and he knows them. Once upon a time, he fought with Raza and he was also acquainted with the lively female marksman Chiquita. When they finally get back to good ol’ Mr. Grant they find he’s not as straight-laced as they once thought, so they make a costly decision. They lose out on their big payoff but do the honorable thing by setting Maria free.

The Professionals gives us want we want. Honestly, we want cool characters and fun action sequences and that’s essentially what we get. There’s quite a bit of fairly graphic violence too for a ’60s western signaling a slow change in the genre. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the self-assured, tough as nails commanding type. Lancaster is, of course, the most interesting, and I can only imagine he had the most fun because playing a scoundrel would undoubtedly be a treat. Strode, Palance, and Cardinale were enjoyable to watch in their own rights as well since we did not necessarily need a whole lot of depth from them. It was only Robert Ryan’s role that felt rather like a throwaway part that did not have much to it. No matter, the Professionals was still an enjoyable all-star western.

J.W. Grant: You bastard.

Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

4/5 Stars

Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once_upon_a_Time_in_the_West 2I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.

Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup.  The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.

The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.

James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.

Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.

Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.

At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.

When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.

5/5 Stars

The Pink Panther (1963)

Pink_panther63I came into the Pink Panther with a bit of prior knowledge about the franchise and Henry Mancini’s legendary theme music. In all honesty, the first film I ever saw in the series was A Shot in the Dark (1964). Peter Sellers‘ Inspector Clouseau is the undisputed star of that film which came out only a year later.

That’s why this initial installment from Blake Edwards was rather surprising, to begin with. This is a David Niven vehicle with him playing a modern Don Juan of sorts who also is a world renown thief known as “The Phantom.” He and his female accomplice have their eye on the equally well-known diamond christened the Pink Panther. It now is in the possession of a beautiful young princess (Claudia Cardinale), but the people of the country believes the diamond belongs to them. Into this seemingly serious story of theft and international relations waltzes in the ever-bumbling but good-natured Inspector Clouseau.

Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) has his eyes on Princess Dala, surveying her every movement. What he doesn’t know is that his young nephew (Robert Wagner) is up to some tricks of his own, and he flees the United States in search of his uncle. Clouseau leaves France with his lovely wife Simone (Capucine) and follows the princess to a ski resort to see if he can sniff out the culprit. They turn out to be a lot closer than he realized.

It’s during a chaotic masquerade ball when the diamond is in jeopardy, with several costumed apes having their eyes on it. The bumbling Clouseau clumsily tries to set a trap, and yet he unwittingly stumbles upon the culprits leading to a chaotic car chase. In fact, The Pink Panther has a rather odd ending with the culprits getting away and Inspector Clouseau getting the blame. Don’t be too worried, however, because Sellers brought the character back numerous other times.

Despite being initially relegated to a supporting role, there is no doubt that Sellers steals his scenes with his ad-libbing and numerous brilliant pieces of slapstick. He might be stepping on his Stradivarius in the dark or getting his hand jammed in a beer stein.  It’s all the funnier when everyone else is playing the scenes relatively straight. There were some other humorous sequences of deception as the culprits try and pull the wool over the Inspector’s eyes. It’s not all that difficult because he’s an utter buffoon. But lovable. Did I mention that?

3.5/5 Stars

8 1/2 (1963)

4b2c1-8mezzoDirected by Federico Fellinni and starring Marcello Mastroianni, the film follows the famous director Guido. After an opening sequence that reveals how he feels, we see Guido as he spends time at a spa trying to get healthy. However, he also must prepare for his next epic film production and he is constantly being bombarded by his writer, producer, actors, and all others involved. First his mistress arrives which he is unhappy about and then his wife comes and he is glad to see her. All these various things leave Guido confused since he does not have any answers. He wanted to make a genuine film full of truth and yet he cannot even be truthful in his own life. Even the ideal woman, the actress Claudia, has no real answers for him. Despite this, the film ends on a positive note with everyone holding hands in dance. What makes this film so fascinating is the interlocking dreams, reality, fantasy, and Guido’s childhood memories. Sometimes the viewer may get confused and yet often it is possible to decipher what is going on still. This is  a very personal film about film making itself and for Fellini it is also considered by many to be his greatest achievement.

5/5 Stars

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

27ccb-once_upon_a_time_in_the_westStarring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards with director Sergio Leone, this is another memorable Italian western. The film follows a recently widowed beauty (Cardinale), the villainous killer who is after her (Fonda), a anti-hero bandit (Robards), and of course the man with a harmonica who is looking for revenge (Bronson). The gunman Frank commits murders, turns on his employer the railroad tycoon, and forces the widow to auction off her land. However, “Harmonica” comes to her aid and then he is confronted by Frank several times since he wants to know the man’s purpose. After a flashback we know what “Harmonica” wants and another gunfight ensues. The ending is bittersweet but the town’s future looks bright thanks to the railroad and the radiant widow. The long opening sequence sets the tone nicely for this visually beautiful film. It moves at its own pace and it has a good score and great characters including an evil Henry Fonda!

5/5 Stars

The Leopard (1963)

Directed by Luchino Visconti and starring a stellar cast including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, this Italian film revolves around a Prince and Patriarch during a period of social change in Italy in the 1860s. 

His Excellency the Prince of Salina (Lancaster) is a highly respected noble, who lives with his family on a large estate in Sicily. In his own life, the Prince is annoyed with his marriage and perturbed about the company his nephew Tancredi (Delon) is keeping. However, a revolution led by a man named Garibaldi means great change for the nation and finally following the lead of his nephew, who joins the rebel redshirts, the Prince sides with the new way and supports the plebiscites that are set up. His nephew falls for the beautiful daughter (Cardinale) of an aristocrat, and despite the fact that his own daughter has an eye on Tancredi, Don Fabrizo fully supports the marriage knowing it is good for the family. Because of his title and the respect he has garnered, the Prince is offered a position as a senator in the new government. But he courteously turns it down feeling he is too old and too attached to the old ways. Tancredi and Angelica are to be engaged and they are presented together at an extravagant ball. Over the course of the evening, Don Fabrizo has time to talk, dance with the young beauty Angelica, and reflect on his own life. As the lavish evening begins to dwindle the Leopard walks off to clear his head. 

In some respects, I saw this as an Italian equivalent to Gone with the Wind, and I could see some precursors to The Godfather here because the Italians portrayed are very religious and chivalrous people who can also be ruthless. However, I think it is fair to say that The Leopard is its own film entirely, and it should be taken as such. Tancredi and Angelica are no Rhett and Scarlett and the Prince is not the Godfather. They are their own unique characters. In my personal opinion, I would recommend the Italian version because that is the way the director meant it to be seen and Lancaster’s normal voice seems out of place in the film. Some may say that this detracts from his performance, but I think his presence and acting ability show through even if he is dubbed.

4.5/5 Stars