Saturday, August 27, 2011

Film #60: Bande a part (1966)

Title for us English-speaking Types: Band of Outsiders

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Trio of young, restless Parisians attempt a heist, in their own silly, amateurish way.

Extended Summary (A more complete plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

In 1960s Paris, buddies Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are in the midst of planning a burglary. The two men are complete novices at thievery, but they seem bored and mildly desperate, and opportunity presents itself. That opportunity has come through Odile (Anna Karina), a pretty young girl whom Franz has met at an English school. Odile lives with her aunt in an impressive home, where she says their current boarder has a stash of millions of francs which he has stolen from the government. Odile tells Arthur and Franz that the money is left in an unlocked cabinet in an unlocked room. The three decide to relieve him of the money and escape their dull lives in Paris.

Over the course of a few days, the three grapple with their impending crime and their own feelings for each other. All three seem friendly enough, in their own flighty ways, but they all face uncertainties. Franz is a bright, well-read man who has genuine feelings for Odile. Odile, the youngest, the most nervous and guilt-ridden of the three, falls for Arthur. Arthur has a quirky yet dark charm, but is somewhat cold and beholden to his heartless and greedy family.

The triangle takes shape: Odile (left), accepts a cigarette from Arthur (right), after coldly refusing Franz (middle).

When the planned date of the robbery approaches, problems start to arise. Odile’s nervousness increases, but the fellows calm her enough to go in and allow them entry to the house. After they “break” in, they soon discover that the previously unlocked room is now firmly locked. They try the outside window, but this too is locked. Odile explains that her aunt and the boarder must have gotten suspicious, based on her own slight disheveling of the room on a previous search through it. Franz and Arthur, frustrated, abandon the job for the day, but pledge to return on the morrow.

The next day, the scene from the prior day repeats itself, to a degree. Odile lets the men in, and Arthur and Franz bully her aunt into giving them the room key, and then they bind her, gag her, and lock her in a massive cabinet. They get into the boarder’s room, but the cabinet is now empty of all but a few thousand francs. When they return to try and get the money’s location out of the aunt, she appears lifeless. They assume she is dead and they flee the house. Just as Arthur, Franz, and Odile are about to drive away, Arthur decides to double back and check to see if the aunt is indeed dead. He promises to meet Franz and Odile a short while later.

During the second robbery attempt, Arthur unleashes his nasty side, while Odile looks on.

Franz and Odile, driving away from the house, spot Arthur’s nefarious uncle, who has known of the planned caper all along, heading towards the house. Franz has a bad feeling about it all, makes a quick U-turn, and tries to catch up. When he and Odile approach the house, their fears are realized: they see Arthur emerge from the house, go into an attached doghouse, and fish the missing money out. As he is carrying the bundles of cash away, his own uncle steps out of the bushes and shoots him several times, the money spilling onto the lawn. Arthur does manage to shoot and kill his uncle in return, but then dies himself. Odile and Franz, watching from afar, then see Odile’s aunt, alive and well, come out of the house just as the boarder arrives on the scene. The two scoop up the money and scramble inside. Franz and Odile leave the bloody scene and drive away.

On the road away from the carnage, Franz and Odile share their feelings for each other and realize that they love one another, even through the attempted crime gone horribly wrong. They decide to board a ship and head to Brazil, where they hope to live happily together and explore a place far removed from their lives in Paris.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any further research)

This was a peculiar little movie, but a rather enjoyable one.

Before watching Band of Outsiders, the only other Jean-Luc Godard film I had seen was the influential science fiction film, Alphaville. I found Alphaville interesting and imaginative, but also rather baffling. Band of Outsiders was also a bit baffling, but in different and more amusing ways.

While watching this movie, I couldn't help but think of one of my absolute favorite comedies, The Big Lebowski, that fantastic, bizarro take of the Coen brothers on the noir genre. The Coen's clearly took the premise of “What if a burnt-out stoner were thrown into a 1940s-style noir crime tale set in 1990's Los Angeles?” and ran with it. In Band of Outsiders, Godard seemed to do something similar, asking, “What if three semi-hapless youths tried to pull a heist, and the story were told in noir style?” The results are pretty entertaining and, I imagine, quite novel for 1964.

From the beginning, the film does a good job of establishing the tone. Franz and Arthur drive out and “case” the house they plan to rob, but they can't help lapsing into silly games of “Billy the Kid versus Pat Garrett,” romping and rolling around the street like a couple of 8-year-olds. Master criminals, these are not.

Arthur and Franz, clowning around in the middle of their first recon of the house.

When the young, pretty, uncertain and almost accidentally devious Odile appears, she adds another dimension. Like Franz and Arthur, she knows only that she doesn't like her current life in Paris. Throughout the film, the three flirt with each other and make attempts to reveal their feelings about and to one another, without much success. Franz has a deeper, more thoughtful attraction to Odile, who is infatuated with the more reckless, immature and mysterious Arthur, who lusts for Odile but is more interested in the loot. It's a half-baked love triangle that one would expect from aimless youth.

The style of the film is a comedic take on noir movies. The voice-over narration reveals the inner thoughts of the three main characters. In a standard noir, such as Out of the Past or Double Indemnity, this adds psychological depth, mood and tension through terse, poetic language. In Band of Outsiders, it provides an extra layer of humor by revealing that neither Franz, Arthur, nor Odile is possessed of so much as a fraction of the ability, weariness or resignation of legitimate noir protagonists. They are restless and scattered, and their preoccupations make them horribly suited for lives of crime. But, what else are they going to do?

The plot itself is nothing extraordinary. When I saw “French” and “crime” on the DVD summary, I was ready for something quite different. Having enjoyed several French crime/escape flicks, such as Le Trou and Rififi, I hoped for a similarly tight, fast-paced caper film. Band of Outsiders makes the object of the thieves' desires one that any crime film can utilize – bundles of dirty cash – but makes its obtainment (and failure of) so simple that it's laughable. The money just sits in a cabinet, and the thieves are first thwarted when the cabinet is locked, and later when the money is moved into a nearby doghouse. There's something oddly and hilariously more realistic about all of this.

The "bande" kill some time before the heist by racing through the Louvre. Just one of their sillier adventures.

The acting is all solid. The roles were not extremely demanding, but the three main characters needed to convey uncertainly and antsiness in just the right amounts, and all of them did so. As with any film in a language that one doesn't speak, I'm sure that I even missed some of the subtle humor that can be conveyed by phrasing and tone, but the subtitles seemed to do a good enough job to keep me laughing in appropriate moments.

If a have to knock my viewing experience at all, I would say that it was due to the disorienting nature of the movie. Perhaps this was due to my ignorance of the film going in, but it takes a while to get a full grip on what the movie is trying to do. There are moments of silliness, gravity, dancing, somber soul-searching, deaths by gunshots, and overblown death throes, among others. At times it borders on incoherent, but it never slipped over the edge to me.

Another thing that tried my patience a little was the dialogue. Like many French nouveau movies of the same era, the characters tend to speak in oddly existential epigrams at times. This may have been another element that Godard meant as a mild spoof, but it was hard to be sure. When someone like Odile, who, according to the narrator “wondered if the boys noticed her breasts moving beneath her sweater,” later observes that, "All that is new is, by that fact, automatically traditional." It's hard to tell whether this is supposed to imbue her with a more rounded character, or if we are simply supposed to laugh at her suddenly-found profundity and/or pretension (two things that many French films have in nauseating abundance). Hard for me to say.

Band of Outsiders was a fun, quirky little film to watch. It was far from taxing, length-wise (a mere 93 minutes), and never got mired too deeply in the few elements that I could have found annoying. Would I watch it again? Perhaps, but I wouldn't rush to do so.

Fin. Franz and Odile take a slow boat to Brazil - some place that's not France.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Not a ton of information out there on this movie, and nothing that surprised me or altered my view of it too much.

In general, it seems that this movie is revered for the blending of its lighthearted tone with its aping of previously-established styles. Several scenes and visuals in the film inspired several later homages in other movies. The one most often mentioned is the “Madison dance” scene. I didn't mention it, but it is a standout scene for its humorous strangeness. One of the more modern and well-known homages of the scene is the Vincent Vega/Mia Wallace dance number in Pulp Fiction.

The famous "Madison dance" scene. Strange? Yup.

A rather heady 2003 essay by Joshua Clover can be found here. Mr. Clover is clearly well-versed in film history, and he draws connections between many elements of Bande A Part, its American root elements, and the relationship to the French New Wave movement of the time. It's an interesting read, though dizzying at times.

That's a wrap. 60 shows down; 45 to go.

Coming Soon: Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman has gone all serious, psychological, and disturbing on us! Last time one of his films was in this list, it was the delightful Smiles of a Summer Night. I've seen Persona before, and I know not to expect the easygoing, sly comedy of that earlier film.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Film # 59: A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Director: Richard Lester

Initial Release Country: United Kingdom

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

The iconic pop quartet spend a day running from fans, being cheeky, and mixing in several smash hits.

Extended Summary (Spoilers included, not that it matters)

Pop music sensations The Beatles are busy young lads. On one “typical” day, they spend their time charming some fans with their playful puns, avoiding stodgy drags with impish impassivity, or simply driving the teenyboppers wild with their monstrously popular tunes. They bounce from trains to limos to concert halls to night clubs, bringing their playfully subversive charm with them.

Accompanied by Paul McCarthy's rakish granddad and the band's managers, the Fab Four break into song several times, be it in a train car, on the street or in its presumed proper place, a concert hall. After a series of misunderstandings nearly lose their drummer, Ringo Starr, to arrest by the local police, the four arrive at that evening's gig just in time play their set, sooth the panicked stage manager, and send the adolescent girls into absolute rapture.

Lennon & Harrison, dazzling adoring fans by their meer presence.

After all of the screaming, cheering and hoipaloi die down, John, Paul, George and Ringo run off with their managers to board a helicopter and fly away, presumably to the next day's gig and yet another bout of non-stop insanity and hijinx.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any research on the film)

I simply don't get it.

This isn't to imply that there's anything about the movie to “get”. What I mean by that opening line is that I don't get why it's placed on the TIME magazine “100 Great Films” list. A Hard Day's Night is ultimately harmless fun, featuring arguably the most popular band of all time. Still, it showed me nothing that would explain bestowing “great film” status on it.

I suppose full disclosure would be appropriate. I am not a huge Beatles fan. I have nothing against them. I certainly don't dislike them. In fact, I have several albums of their and actually quite like several of their songs. However, I've never felt drawn to them with the religious dedication seen in so many millions of other people. Not even close.

The rabid fandom gets going early and continues through the film and into the 21st century.

I can best describe myself as being a “post drugs” Beatles fan – a person who likes the music they made after they started dabbling in better living through chemistry. Hence, all of the songs I like are from 1965 and after (Revolver, Rubber Soul, and their successors). A Hard Day's Night predated these by a few years and was the apex of The Beatles early, teenybopper heyday (after seeing this film, I might dub The Beatles as the first ever “boy band”, though they grew out of that shortly after). The music was pure bubblegum – catchy, crisp, and lyrically shallow. The movie follows suit, for the most part.

Going into the movie, I didn't really know what to expect. I didn't know if it was a pure documentary or what. The answer was “or what”. A Hard Day's Night was a comical take on the hectic daily life of an incredibly popular “band on the run”. While the four band members play themselves, everything in the film is totally scripted, and it is quite clearly meant to be a lighthearted farce. The boys crack wise, ditch their uptight managers, and generally frustrate any person over the age of 30. The kids obviously loved it.

I, however, am not a starry-eyed 15-year-old British girl (so my girlfriend tells me). Whether my age had anything to do with it, I can't be sure, but I found the movie to be mostly a bore. There are a few one-liners that elicited a chuckle here and there, but the vast majority of the movie was plain dull. The jokes were mostly lame puns and the physical comedy was sadly sophomoric.

McCartney hides from fans by wearing a fake moustache. Just one of many silly jokes I can only guess were aimed at the vaudevillian/8-year old demographic.

One reason I assume people rate this movie highly is the music. The soundtrack is, essentially, the album of the same name. Without doubt, some of the band's most enduring and infectious hits are to be heard and seen performed. If you love that album, you'll no doubt love the movie, just for hearing the songs. As previously explained, though, these are not the Beatles tunes that draw me in. For me, these little musical interludes simply tried my patience.

I do have to say that the movie is shot well. It's in black and white, but the framing is solid and the acting is decent enough. Alas, it takes far more to make a great film. Sure, this one features a pop music group the likes of which may never be seen again, since our modern culture precludes the dominance of any one superstar band or group, but it's still very flat to me.

For people who love The Beatles in general, or just prefer their earlier G-rated vibe, this movie is probably one that you'd like. It wasn't my cup o' tea, sorry to say.

Take 2: Or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie. (Done after some further research on the film)

A little research has shed a wee touch of light on the enduring praise of A Hard Day's Night.

While the earliest reviews, including this original one from TIME magazine, seem to find the movie far funnier than I did, several more modern reviewers bring up more salient points. As is often the case, Roger Ebert saw the greater picture in this 1996 review of his. Though he also found more humor in the movie than I did, he pays even more attention to the technical merits exhibited by director Richard Lester. Lester's unique blending of various filming styles apparently influenced movies, TV shows, and television commercials for decades to come. I certainly can't argue with this, as the cinematography was a clear standout aspect of the movie.

The other semi-novelty is that A Hard Day's Night was apparently an early stab at the "mockumentary". It certainly doesn't go all the way, as later films such as "The Ruttles" or "Spinal Tap", but one can see how the zaniness is there, though much tamer than those later entries to the genre.

I must that that, even in the more sober reviews, I couldn't help but think that the writer's couldn't shake off a certain amount of nostalgia. I'd probably do the same for any group that provided the primary soundtrack to roughly 15 of my formative years, if such a band existed. Despite this, I have to take the glowing reviews from the Baby Boomers with a tiny grain of salt.

That's a wrap. 59 shows down; 46 to go.

Coming Soon: Band of Outsiders (1964)

A French crime movie, oui? Actually, I've found many a pleasant surprise in watching French crime films, so I look forward to this one. Come back and check out my review, non?

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Film # 58: Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: Roughly 7 or 8 (Last time – about 5 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Wingnut general unleashes nuclear bombers on Russia. Loads of bizarre and hilarious characters fumble their way through the insanity.

Extended Summary (More complete synopsis; spoilers included. Fair warning)

In the middle of the Cold War, at Burpelson Air Force Base, deranged, rogue brigadier general Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) sends out a “go” code to an entire fleet of bombers. His orders are for them to dump their nuclear payloads onto scores of targets inside the Soviet Union.

General Jack D. Ripper - the man who seeks to annihilate the entire Soviet populace based on a rather...unusual theory.

When word of this catastrophic attack command reaches the U.S. War Room, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is called to confer with the country's executive and military leaders. Turgidson is a buffoonish hawk, completely caught up in the Red Scare, and suggests that the U.S. simply allow the unauthorized attacks to take place, as this will give them the upper hand in a Third World War. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) scoffs at this and starts the process of contacting the U.S.S.R. In an attempt to warn the Soviets and seek a solution.

In the air and fast approaching Soviet air space in the crew of one of the B-52 bombers, this one being flown by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens). The crew is rather nervous about getting the attack codes, as it signifies the start of all-out nuclear war. Still, the crew is determined to carry out their mission.

Back in the War Room, it soon becomes very clear than recalling the bombers is an impossible task. General Turgidson explains to all present that recent and obscure legislation allows for a single general to enact an attack under his own authority under certain provisions. While these provisions were not met, the rogue General Ripper has ceased to care. The President grows more desperate.

General Buck Turgidson continues his half-baked attempts in the War Room to bulldog the rest of his peers and superiors into pressing the attack on Russia.

Back at Burpelson, British group captain and executive officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers again) soon discovers that the supposed Russian attack is not true, and he confronts General Ripper. Ripper locks Mandrake into his office and explains his reason for launching the bomber attack: he believes that the communists are taking over American “bodily fluids” through fluoridation. At this point, it is clear than General Ripper is thoroughly insane. Mandrake demands the recall codes, but to no avail. He must await his psychotic superior's next move.

In the War Room, President Mandrake calls on the Soviet premier and calls in the Soviet diplomat in an attempt to resolve the crisis. In explaining the impending catastrophe, it is revealed that the Soviets have just created a “doomsday device” that will exterminate all life on the face of the earth, should any attack be made on the Soviet Union. The choices are now stark – the president enacts two assaults: one by the Americans on Burpelson Air Force Base, in order to wrest the recall codes from Ripper; and another, Soviet attack on the B-52 bombers that are rapidly approaching their targets inside the Soviet Union.

At Burpelson, the base has come under attack by the U.S. Army, and Ripper fights back. With Mandrake attempting to reason with him, Ripper keeps up his fight until the last moment. When it is clear than he can hold out no longer, Ripper commits suicide, seemingly taking the recall codes with him into the hereafter. However, Mandrake puzzles out the codes from some of Ripper's desk scribblings. After a bizarre hold-up at the hands of a dense and over-zealous army officer, Mandrake reaches the president.

In the War Room, the government's plan seems to have worked. The Soviets have shot down many of the American bombers, and the codes sent along by Mandrake have recalled all of the others. All, that is, except...

...the B-52 piloted by Major Kong. Their coding equipment having been shot up, they have not received the recall code from base. In addition, they have eluded all attempts to shoot them down. With gumption that is almost admirable, they make it to one of the targets and attempt to drop their payload. However, the bomb doors are jammed. In a final act of wherewithal, Major Kong straddles the bomb, fixes the bomb door wiring just above it, and rides the bomb down to its target. Nuclear winter has begun.

Major Kong succeeds in bringing his payload. Personally.

Back in the War Room, the mood is understandably somber. That is until the floor is taken by the wheelchair-ridden Doctor Strangelove (Peter Sellers, yet again), an ex-Nazi-turned American adviser. He seems oddly chipper about the entire scenario. He explains that the world's leaders can survive within caves beneath the earth. In his scenario, he suggests that the military and political leaders will take precedence and that they will have ample provisions to survive. In addition, in order to repopulate the earth after the fallout clears, they will need a high ratio of women to men. The cherry on top is that these women will need to be exceptionally attractive, so as better to allow the men to function in their role as procreators. With all of this to ease their worries, all of the men in the War Room seem to have already moved far beyond the nuclear apocalypse taking place above their very heads, to the point that they are already plotting how to get a leg up on post-Apocalyptic competitions with the Russians.

Did I Like It?

If you noticed how many times I've seen this film before, the answer is obvious. This most recent viewing did nothing to change my mind – this movie is one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

Now sure, there are probably other movies that I've laughed at more, and there are probably some comedies that have been wittier. But for balancing sheer inventiveness, zaniness, and canny social commentary, Dr. Strangelove is all but untouched.

While the theme of lampooning the Cold War era political philosophies of fear-mongering and arms racing may seem dated, it surely is not. The entire notion of the pre-emptive strike will never go away, and Dr. Strangelove takes the idea to its Swiftian extreme. Considering how the specter of nuclear holocaust continued to haunt the world for decades after the book and movie's release, Dr. Strangelove has serious staying power. By pushing the era's prevailing martial ideologies a little (I stress “a little”) further, it's easy to see how laughably insane they were. (We can laugh now, anyway.)

Beyond the brilliance of the story line and its execution is the real strength of the movie – the actors. Dr. Strangelove is mostly populated by caricatures goofy enough to laugh at, but also frighteningly real for what they represent. Such a strange balancing act can only be pulled off by just the right cast, and this film got it perfectly. Sterling Hayden as the chillingly calm, thoroughly insane General Ripper is as horrifying as he is hilarious. (His interactions with Mandrake are some of my favorite scenes in any movie). I can't imagine gung-ho pilot Major King Kong being played by anyone other than uber-hick, Slim Pickens. Even the bit role of Sergeant “Bat” Guano is done to pitch perfection by Keenan Wynn and his fantastically mispronounced catchphrase, “pre-versions”. As excellent as all of these, and other, actors are in the film, they are far surpassed by one of the all-time greats.

Peter Sellers, who had some of the most memorable comic performances of all time throughout his career, pulled off his greatest feat in Dr. Strangelove. In playing the amusingly sober Commander Mandrake, the oddly pliant President Muffley, and the hilariously twisted title character, he utilized every one of his considerable acting skills. It's been said of Sellers that few people (if any) actually knew the real man, for he would so completely lose himself in the characters that he was playing. In watching Dr. Strangelove, it's not hard to believe this. If you didn't know better, you may not even guess that the same actor is playing all 3 vastly different roles, as each of the three is busting your gut in vastly different ways. Just seeing him is more than worth the price of admission.

Officer Mandrake does his best to weather the storm of deranged General Ripper's apocalyptic dementia. Seller's role as Strangelove may be more iconic, but his turn as Mandrake is far funnier to me.

One interesting mental note I made as I watched the movie this most recent time – I had a moment of emotional guilt, not unlike when I was watching Double Indemnity earlier in the list. At the moment when the B-52 crew is trying to desperately make their bomb run, I felt myself pulling for them. Major Kong, the all-guts patriot/pilot redneck, shows no end of moxy by shrugging of missile attacks, broken fuel lines, and other malfunctions to get to his target and drop his payload. As I watched him almost single-handedly overcome each obstacle, I admired the simple yet brave soldier. Then I realized, “Wait a minute...this guy's about to trigger the ultimate nuclear winter!!!” There's something about watching a truly determined character use sheer willpower to smash through barriers that's gratifying, often regardless of their ultimate goal.

So yeah – I love this movie. I'll certainly watch it many more times in the years to come, and I can't recommend it highly enough. There may be a few moments where things seem a little slow (particularly in the B-52 scenes), but this film is a masterpiece the likes of which may never be duplicated.

That's a wrap. 58 films down, 48 to go.

Coming (Very) Soon: A Hard Day's Night (1964)

The Fab Four in one of their early feature films. I certainly respect, if not exactly love, the Beatles. Let's see how they did on the silver screen.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.