Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bande à Part

Over the past month, I have stumbled across two French films --- Le Cercle Rouge and Pepe le Moko --- that were pretty terrific, and that surprised me.  It's not that I have a problem with French cinema (so far, anyway), I just don't know much about it or know where to start.  I put in about two minutes of research on the all-knowing interweb and saw a few mentions of Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à Part (or, Band of Outsiders to English-speakers) being a fairly accessible introduction into French New Wave cinema, so I rented it.

To put Bande à Part simply, it is the story of a planned heist.  Odile (Anna Karina) meets a couple of young men in her English language class, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur).  I'm not sure how old Odile is supposed to be, but she's definitely young; she smokes and works as a maid (or something), but she also dresses like a schoolgirl and is naive.  Franz and Arthur are also pretty young, as shown by their goofiness, but they appear to be older than Odile.  Is that important?  Perhaps.  Odile happened to mention that her employer, a man she seldom sees, has a large amount of money hidden in his home in a ridiculously unsecured spot.  Franz and Arthur fancy themselves criminals --- and who knows, maybe they are --- and tell Odile that the three of them are going to steal that money.
Do hardened criminals reenact Billy the Kid's death?

That's pretty much the bare bones of the plot.  The only problem with my synopsis is that this movie isn't really about the crime.  It's not even necessarily about the low-key love triangle that forms between Odile and the boys, as charming as it is.  More than anything, I think this is a classic Cary Grant movie, as seen through the cultural filter of an artsy Frenchman, director Jean-Luc Godard.
French New Wave gives me beautiful headaches, too

Whatever the intent, Bande à Part is a movie with a lot of endearing character moments, scenes that would have felt flat with lesser performances.  Anna Karina had a fairly thankless role in the film, being the girl dumb enough to be a romantic, but she made it work.  She was excellent as the coy girl, flattered by the flirtations from the boys, but she showed a bit more range once the heist actually began.  Claude Brasseur began in a similar fashion, appearing to be little more than a Lothario without much money; when we see him away from the other two, though, many of his earlier actions and reactions made more sense.  Sami Frey seems to do less than the others, from a strictly character perspective, but I found his presence magnetic on-screen.  Maybe he's just a sexy dude.
Who should she choose: Cary Grant or Bill Cosby?

Director Jean-Luc Godard was notoriously laissez-faire in his approach to films, according to the bonus features on the Criterion Collection.  He apparently wrote each day's script to this film the night before, with no definite idea of what would come next.  That could be (accurately) described as a lack of preparation, but you could also argue that lack of concrete vision allows Godard to pursue some truly inspiring impulses.  Bande à Part is at its best when it is reveling in the trivial moments that don't directly propel the main plot forward.  Arthur and Franz having mock gun play is cute, but the time spent with them simply reading grisly news items over each other was surprisingly interesting.  The way the trio shuffled seats to better gain Odile's attention was another cute moment, but this dance sequence is simply sublime:

And the minute of silence (which isn't even a minute) was pretty cool, too.  I don't know how much I admire Godard's overall approach to storytelling and filmmaking, but these little moments take a fairly standard plot and turn it into something unique.  I saw several homages to America in this movie, although I don't know for certain how many Godard intended.  Still, the fascination with American outlaws, the faux-Motown sound in the cafe, the Bogart-esque way Arthur knocks Odile's chin --- they all speak to a fascination with America that I have never seen in a French film before.  Even that ever-so-French landmark, the Louvre, gets involved when the trio decides to break the world record (held by an American, of course) for speed-sightseeing the museum.
Only Americans French actors would be stupid enough to speed through the Louvre

Much of the look and feel of Bande à Part is thanks to the work of cinematographer Raoul Cotard.  I was impressed with his unusual close-ups technique (a few appear to be taken with a wide-angle lens) and his blend of hand-held cameras (still rare at the time) with dolly-based cameras, so I watched the Criterion interview with him.  If you're interested in camera work, I highly recommend it, but the gist is that he overcame some severe technical and location-related restraints to make a beautiful film, without the benefit of studio cameras or lighting.  Pretty cool stuff.

Despite all that, Bande à Part is not as satisfying as I would have liked.  Yes, the silly, goofy, and charming moments are great, and this is a film whose influence can still be felt --- Quentin Tarentino's film company was (or is...it's a little unclear) named A Band Apart, and the Pulp Fiction dance scene is clearly indebted to this film's --- but there are a lot of bizarre points that I just don't get.  I'm okay with Jean-Luc Godard's poetic narration, but it only serves as an extra layer of foreignness to me; some of the things he chooses to say are just odd.  I'm not quite sure why Odile breaks the fourth wall at times, and I've tried to figure it out, which frustrates me.  Maybe this film simply speaks to a time and place that I am woefully ignorant of.  Whatever the cause, I was left with some questions:
  • Do French drivers really use the sidewalk for the odd hundred yards when pulling a U-turn?  
  • Are tigers on the front lawn a common occurrence?  
  • How ridiculous is the cartoonish death stumble toward the end?  
  • Is the promise of a South American sequel a joke, an homage to Hollywood, or just an idea that never made it to film?
There are other, smaller moments that bothered me, too, but those were ones that really pulled me out of the moment.  Of course, I also prefer films that are based more on plot than style.  Still, Bande à Part is undeniably entertaining, just a bit lopsided in its tone.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

I've never been a big fan of Roger Ebert, but I do "Like" him on Facebook; while I frequently disagree with his opinions, he posts a lot of interesting links to essays and other cool websites.  Another thing Ebert likes to do is call out some of an actor's best work on their birthday; for Helen Mirren, Ebert suggested The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  I had never heard of the film, but the more movies I see Helen Mirren in, the more I like her, so I gave it a shot.  I'm the sort of person who likes to be surprised by movies, so I usually don't research them before I see them; in the case of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, I probably would have liked a heads up.  This movie is a little artsy-weird.
How can I say such a thing?

Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is a British mobster (or a thug with underlings, if you don't like that term) with some unique passions.  He loves money, he loves food, and he loves...well, the third one is better left unsaid for now.  He has plenty of money, so he indulges his second passion by owning a fancy French restaurant, even though he doesn't appear to truly like much French food.  Unlike most fans of fine dining, though, Albert likes to force his opinions and tastes upon everyone else.  The film opens with his head chef, Richard (Richard Bohringer), being publicly humiliated --- stripped naked, beaten, peed on, with excrement smeared on his body and shoved in his mouth --- for contradicting Albert.  Everything that Albert does to "improve" the restaurant is gaudy and classless, and he only appears sophisticated next to his boorish underlings. 
His actions even make that claim questionable at times.  Albert and his posse impose themselves upon the restaurant every night, making it a terrible place to work and/or eat.  Accompanying Albert is his wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), who is sophisticated and does appreciate French cuisine.  Why is she with such a brute?  Well, it appears that she has given up escaping or changing Albert, and has resigned herself to ignoring her surroundings as much as possible.  One night, though, Georgina makes eye contact with another restaurant patron, Michael (Alan Howard), and something changes.  No words are exchanged at first, but they begin a passionate affair, right there in the restaurant, under Albert's nose.
Passionate affairs apparently aren't always fun or glamorous

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a film steeped in directorial intent.  I haven't researched it, so I'm not exactly sure what director Peter Greenaway is commenting on with this movie, but I'll hazard a guess that it has symbolic meanings (and, given the time period and country of origin, probably has something to do with Thatcher).  That's fine and all, but I'm going to concern myself with the film out of the context of the times.  The first thing that struck me about this film is how strange it looks.  The visuals are simply striking.  There are only a few sets in the movie, but they all have their own color scheme and lighting; the restaurant is red, the bathrooms are a spotless white, and the kitchen has kind of a greenish hue.  The sets are enormous; the kitchen looks like a warehouse and the bathrooms are large enough to play soccer in. 
The costumes change as they leave one set for another, too --- and when they don't change, it is supposed to evoke a subtle reaction from the audience.  The film is ripe with symbolism, but of what?  Gluttony?  Passion?  Disgust?  Complete bullshit?  You can make a solid argument for any of these.

I think it is indisputable, though, that Greenaway worked well with his cast.  Michael Gambon --- a classically trained actor, with many Shakespearean credits to his name, along with some Harry Potters --- is thoroughly reprehensible as the boorish Thief of the title.  He's so rude and gross and vulgar that it is easy to forget what a dignified actor he typically is; that's some damn fine acting, right there. 
Bibs: not classy
Helen Mirren was also excellent in a very brave performance; not just any actress would be willing to spend so much time on screen completely nude, especially one that was in her mid-forties at the time.  Her work as the Wife justifies that excess, though.  Her moments on screen with Gambon are filled with self-loathing, but she transforms that into passionate desperation with Alan Howard; she is so convincing in these scenes that her turn toward the end of the film seemed absolutely effortless.  I also liked the vocal style of her shameful monologue to Howard --- it is so hard to speak half-phrases on film naturally, but hers were very believable.  Alan Howard was pretty good as the Lover, providing substance to a role with little dialogue, but I wasn't as impressed with him as I was with Gambon and Mirren. 
***no dialogue***
I was indifferent to Richard Bohringer's Cook.  I'm not quite sure why his character was important enough to be mentioned in the title, but I might have missed something.  Tim Roth is fine as Gambon's most noteworthy henchman, but the character is pretty dumb, so Roth's performance just seemed adequate.  Ciaran Hinds played a supporting character that actually had a bit of a dramatic arc, but he was so far removed from the main plot that it had little impact on the overall story.  There are a few other recognizable faces in the crowd (punk rocker Ian Dury and Harry Potter alum Roger Lloyd-Pack), but they were just role players.

There was a bit of controversy when The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was first released --- the MPAA was going to rate it X, so the filmmakers decided to release it unrated (the modern equivalent would be NC-17), which meant that only adults could see it.  With such an edgy rating, you would think that this film reeked of sexual and violent excess.  It really doesn't.  Yes, there is a decent amount of nudity; Mirren, Howard, and Bohringer all have full-frontal scenes.  These scenes are not meant to be erotic (most of the time), but sad and desperate.  There is violence in the movie, but nothing too gory.
Evil Dead 2 did it so much better
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover received its rating because the sex and the violence had very disturbing, emotional, and frightening undertones.  Oh, and there's some gross fecal content, too.  This is definitely an adult film, but don't mistake that for an exploitative one.

There is a lot of artistic merit in this film, but the big question remains: is it good?  I acknowledge that this film has many technical achievements in film style.  I compliment the main two actors on their excellent performances.  Heck, I even like the surreal settings and soundtrack.  But did I like it?  Not a whole lot, but I think I appreciate it.  The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a hard film to sit through because it is uncomfortable to watch; if you have a different viewing experience, then I would probably not feel comfortable around you in social situations.  And that's fine (the film being uncomfortable, that is), since that was clearly the filmmaker's intent.  Thankfully, that intent stops before the film becomes unwatchable and/or too pretentious for words.  Still, it's a pretty strange trip, and not a very fun one at that.  I think I would have enjoyed the film more if the bizarrely theatrical sets were less obvious; every time I looked at the classical painting in the restaurant, or the enormous size of the bathrooms, or the hobo town appearance of the kitchen, I found myself distanced from the story, and that's a problem for me.  In strictly technical terms, TCTTHW&HL is an impressive piece of work, but it's a piece of craftsmanship that that won't appeal to many.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


This isn't the first time I have seen Otto Preminger's Laura, but this is the type of film that benefits from second viewings.  Most of the time, that means that a movie is a "grower," that it gets better with repetition.  I don't know if that's true with Laura.  There are some interesting artistic things going on with the story and direction that benefit from examination, certainly, but there is a more important reason for re-watching this film: you might need to battle your common sense to enjoy this one.

Laura begins with the titular character (Gene Tierney) dead.  Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) is on the case, but that doesn't necessarily make him the main character.  No, the film opens with narration from Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), a renowned newspaper columnist and Laura's socialite Svengali.  Apparently, Laura was a sweetheart of a girl that Lydecker took under his wing and transformed into a Someone Important.  While Lydecker never (on camera, anyway) hinted at any romance between them, he was intensely jealous of any man who entered Laura's life; he would trash his opponents in print if he could not sway Laura with wit or logic.  Nevertheless, Laura became enamored with Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a fairly simple fellow with an aristocratic name, but not much money.  According to Shelby, the pair had become engaged...although Lydecker argues that Laura's death coincides with when she was going to break up with Shelby.  Laura's aunt, Anne (Judith Anderson) also seems to have had a romantic interest in Shelby, which is more than a little creepy.  All three paint a picture of Laura as an angel on Earth, but someone killed her --- with a shotgun blast to the face, for that matter --- so you would think that Detective McPherson's hands would be full.  They are, but things get more complicated when Laura shows up, alive and well...
"I give up.  Where's Waldo?"

I would like to start by admitting that I have a bit of a crush on Gene Tierney.  Sure, this is only the second movie I have seen her in, but I'm a pretty big fan.  Sadly, she's surprisingly bland in Laura.  She spends the first half of the movie dead and the second half being simply pleasant; I was hoping she would flaunt what enamored Lydecker, Shelby, and (perhaps) Detective McPherson, but no such luck.  In this film, she's just a pretty face.  Similarly, Dana Andrews gives a fairly boring performance as the hard-boiled detective.  He's not particularly charismatic, tough, or smart; the only things that make him stand out are his truly bizarre methods.  While Tierney and Andrews are undoubtedly the lead actors in Laura, the film belongs to Clifton Webb, and not just because the script allows him to narrate the opening (although that's always a good hint).  Webb is ridiculously entertaining as the surprisingly jealous, and yet very fey, opinion-maker.  You can argue that his character is a bit campy, but you would be doing him a disservice by qualifying it as "a bit."  Vincent Price was actually pretty good, too, in a fairly slimy role --- I'm still surprised when I see him act in non-horror movies, with his distinctive voice toned-down.
"...and though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver, for no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller...."

Otto Preminger is a director who I have not studied extensively, but have enjoyed what I have seen so far.  Preminger may not have the directorial intent of Hitchcock, but he can be very crafty with the right story.  With Laura, Premniger abandons the common notion of explaining the idiosyncrasies of the plot and instead focuses on the overall tone of the film.  On the one hand, Laura is a ridiculously stupid movie.  And yet, with Preminger's masterful direction, the film seems mysterious and dreamlike.  This is the third time I have watched Laura (twice in a row, this time around), and I'm still not entirely sure what Preminger was intending with his direction.  Nevertheless, this is an arresting story that leaves intelligent viewers with many unresolved questions.
Like, for instance, who hangs a portrait of themselves in their own apartment?

Those questions are pretty important to Laura's legacy, though.  Film noirs are not renowned for their plausible plots, but this story sticks out as one of the least likely to happen.  First of all, Laura is not a femme fatale.  While that is not necessary for a noir, it is surprising that Laura doesn't even hint at having a dangerous edge to her.  More importantly (to me, anyway), is the likelihood of any moderately likable woman having a big-ass portrait of herself as the centerpiece of her own living room.
"...just in case you forgot whose fireplace it was"
I don't mean to argue that having your own portrait in your home, as the only featured piece of artwork, is obscene, but...well...it kind of is.  I've seen dumber self-tributes, but Laura's portrait might be the least modest I have seen since Jackass: The Movie.
I hate Jackass, but I laugh every time I see this tattoo

I can't review this film without delving into what makes it so ridiculous, but that also requires a SPOILER ALERT: Laura could very easily be partially a fantasy movie.  Gene Tierney doesn't appear outside of flashbacks until after Dana Andrews falls asleep thinking about Laura.  She is far too perfect to be a normal human being; while she doesn't always do the smart thing, Andrews is always able to easily decode her reasoning and solve  it.  For the record, though, I don't have any solid evidence that any of this is a dream sequence, aside from McPherson being asleep when the truly odd stuff began.  .  That doesn't even get into the questionable methods of Detective McPherson, though.  He allows suspects to accompany him on his rounds of questioning.  He pays absolutely no attention to now-standard CSI standards; this man hasn't seen a crime scene he hasn't soiled.  Don't even get me started on how he finds the murder weapon, examines it, and then carefully puts it back where he found it, with the intention of bringing it in as evidence in the morning.  McPherson also toys with his suspects, leading them to believe that he is going to arrest them and then stopping short.  There doesn't appear to be a greater master plan in play here; McPherson just seems to be a rude fellow.
"You're all under arrest.  Or not.  Maybe you're just dicks."
Despite these flaws, I actually enjoyed Laura.  Preminger's direction isn't spectacular, but I liked the tone of the film (aided by the score) and Clifton Webb's performance makes even the least likely things seem plausible.  Is this realistic?  Oh, God, no.  Even considering Clifton Webb as a heterosexual was laugh-out-loud ridiculous in 1944.  Is it entertaining?  I think that is undeniable.

The inclusion of Vincent Price in this film made me nostalgic for his part in the immortal Michael Jackson song, "Thriller."  When I was a child, I had dozens of nightmares featuring Michael Jackson turning into a monster and chasing me though the woods; when I finally saw the video for "Thriller" on a countdown of classic music videos fifteen years later, I realized that my fear stemmed from seeing this music video at a very young age.  For the record, though, I would like to point out that I was afraid of Michael Jackson years before it became trendy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pepe Le Moko

I don't know if I ever would have stumbled upon Pepe le Moko if I wasn't consciously choosing to beef up my film noir knowledge.  First of all, it's not (strictly speaking) a noir.  Secondly, the cast and director were resolutely French; while Jean Gabin did come to Hollywood briefly, his star shined primarily in France.  It's not that I have anything against French proto-noirs from the late 1930s --- I just don't usually dip into that sub-sub-sub-genre for my viewing pleasure.  Thankfully, blahblahblah Toby included this in his Noir-a-Thon, because it piqued my interest and I ended up finding something pretty great here.  Oh, and full disclosure: I shamelessly stole a couple of screen shots from Toby's site for this review.

Before I get into the film, I wanted to point out how you (regardless of who you are) are familiar with Pepe le Moko.  This 1937 film was immediately remade by Hollywood as Algiers in 1938 (and also as a musical in 1948's Casbah).  "Oh, of course!  It's my love of Algiers that makes me familiar with this movie!"  Don't sass me, boy, I'm not done yet.  While Hollywood did change the title of the movie, they kept the name of the main character, Pepe le Moko.  The character's name and Charles Boyer's portrayal of Pepe inspired Mel Blanc's vocal stylings when Pepe le Pew was created in 1945.  So, in a roundabout way, this film led to the creation of the first sexual predator cartoon character.  The second, obviously, would be the Humping Robot.

Enough trivia!  On with the show!  Pepe le Moko (Jean Gabin) is a charming jewel thief who has pulled one heist too many; after his last big job in Algiers, he narrowly escaped the police by seeking refuge in the labyrinth of the Casbah.  If your knowledge of the Casbah begins and ends with the Clash song, it was a quasi-slum, filled with all sorts of unsavory characters and its winding streets were impossible to navigate by outsiders.
"...you just go down that alley, through the window, down the stairs to the rooftop, up the ladder..."
Unfortunately for Pepe, the police in Algiers are all too aware that he is hiding in the Casbah.  They realize that there is no way to arrest Pepe in the Casbah, though; it is far too easy for him to be tipped off and escape, and that's without dealing with the criminal element that enjoys attacking police anonymously from windows and rooftops.  They need to get Pepe out of the Casbah and into Algiers proper, but Pepe knows that, and they know he knows that.  It's too bad, since Pepe longs for his home town of Paris.  With that knowledge, a curious relationship has formed between Pepe and Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux).  Slimane hangs out in the Casbah frequently and even chats with Pepe on a regular basis, but he doesn't arrest anyone; he simply reminds Pepe that he will be the man who arrests the infamous thief...whenever that day comes.

That day might be closer than Pepe thinks.  While he has been safe being a big fish in a small pond for almost two years, the Casbah is starting to wear on him.  His gypsy lover (Line Noro) isn't enough to keep him satisfied, so Pepe charms and seduces any beauty he encounters.
She's got Betty Davis crazy eyes
Of course, this fuels their bickering and passionate (and very French) relationship; she is devoted to him, but knows she will lose him if he leaves the Casbah.  One evening, when some ignorant police try to raid the Casbah, Pepe accidentally encounters Gaby (Mirelle Balin), a socialite from Paris.  They immediately hit it off; she is pretty and wears fancy jewelry, he is handsome and likes to steal fancy jewelry.  But their mutual attraction ignites something far more dangerous inside Pepe than his love of theft: a desire to return to Paris.
Pepe le Moko, pouting at a city

While the acting in Pepe le Moko is, one the whole, not terribly impressive, there are some standout performances.  Jean Gabin was wonderful as Pepe.  It's difficult to be charming and dangerous, crafty and fatally flawed, but Gabin pulled it off.  Just look at him:
He's so cool, he paired a scarf with a suit, and nobody gives him an ounce of grief over it.  Nobody jokes about him using it to hide his cleavage, either.  Gabin's Pepe is a lover and a fighter, a lady's man and a chauvinistic pig --- I think my favorite line is when he states matter-of-factly that he doesn't listen to women when they speak.  He's the lovable rogue that could knife you at any moment.  While he does not have the presence or charisma of Gabin, I also enjoyed Lucas Gridoux as the clever (and arguably lazy) Inspector Slimane.  I typically enjoy enemies who maintain a relationship of mutual respect, and Gridoux's laid-back inspector was fun to watch.  The rest of the cast was less impressive, but they played their parts capably.  I was disappointed in the two main female roles, though.  Neither Gaby nor the gypsy really had a whole personality; even combined, I don't think they would have made a convincing character with depth.
"You're right!  If you look at her from the side, she is two-dimensional!"

This is the first French film I have watched from this time period, so I don't know how Julien Duvivier's work here fits into the larger picture of French filmmaking.  I do know this, though: it's reeeel purrty.  Claustrophobia is a difficult sensation to convey well on film, especially when the enclosed space is fairly large, like the Casbah.  Without any clumsy camera zooms or anything obvious, though, Duvivier made Pepe's need to escape the Casbah feel urgent enough to not seem incredibly stupid to the audience.  That is an accomplishment.  Duvivier did wonders with the lighting and framing of certain scenes.
While Pepe le Moko does not have the stark contrast of film noir, there are many scenes that use shadows quite effectively.  I'm not sure how much I like the very end of the movie, but it was pretty surprising and something that the Hays Code would not have allowed in Hollywood.

I don't have any strong complaints about this film, aside from the weak female roles.  I wish the movie wasn't framed as a romance, because it's misleading; Pepe's love was for his against-the-system lifestyle, not for a particular person.  I think this film would be infinitely more satisfying if that concept was explored more explicitly, because Pepe's romantic motives seem a little unrealistic.  And how could they make a movie about a criminal in the Casbah and not have a ridiculously awesome chase sequence through those winding alleys?  That was a missed opportunity.  That said, Pepe le Moko is a very well-made film with good direction and a stellar lead actor.  Genuinely good stuff.

The Clash - Rock The Casbah by zebenj

Thursday, September 15, 2011

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

I'm not a big fan of comedies, possibly because I believe that I'm funnier than what I am watching.  And if I'm watching a Happy Madison production, then I'm definitely correct.  I find even fewer foreign language comedies funny because so much of humor is based on timing, and the delay that comes from reading subtitles usually ruins the moment for me.  And while I like some French films, I can never forgive their sense of humor for extending Jerry Lewis' career.  When you consider all the facts, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies had a pretty slim chance of me liking it.  So why did I even bother?  I'm not sure...I just had a hunch.

When French secret agent Jack Jefferson (Phillipe Lefebvre) disappears while on assignment in Cairo, it is up to his fellow agent and friend, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath (Jean Dujardin), to uncover the plot that took his friend and (probably) endangers the world.  This would be a tall task for any man, but the odds are a little better when your secret agent code name is OSS 117.  Why?  Um...let's just go with it for now, okay?  If absolutely nothing else, he's the sort of macho super-spy stereotype that we have come to expect; men want him, women want to be him, etc.
Seducing a dangerous woman...?  007 would be proud.

In Cairo, OSS 117 meets up with Jefferson's Egyptian liaison, Larmina El Akmar Betouche (Berenice Bejo), and begins his investigation while maintaining the cover story of assuming control of Jefferson's poultry plant (I assume that's what you call a large-scale hen house).  In the process of uncovering the truth, OSS 117 stumbles upon a plot that involves Soviet Russia, America, France, the British, a few different splinter Egyptian groups, Nazis, and a particularly incompetent Belgian.  Of course, it would be a whole lot easier for OSS 117 to learn the truth if he wasn't a complete idiot.
Their disapproving stares are for the nation of Belgium, France's beer-swilling cousin

The spoof is a difficult form of comedy to pull off successfully.  Sure, you could make fun of a film subgenre by using obvious visual gags and throwing pop culture references left and right, but the best spoofs find a way to balance stupid humor with cleverness --- and it always helps when the filmmakers have a genuine love for what they're ridiculing.  OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies isn't just poking fun at classic James Bond-type films, it is spoofing itself.  A few years before Ian Fleming created Bond, French author Jean Bruce created Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, and the character starred in seven theatrical films from 1956-1970.  Of course, I had no idea about any of that until I clicked on the character link on IMDb, but it doesn't surprise me.  This is a spoof that warmly recalls the ridiculousness of 1960s spy movies and is gently poking fun at some of the more outlandish themes.

Surprisingly, this spoof does a pretty good job doing just that.  Sometimes it is the little things, like having de la Bath wake up with pillow hair and simply running his fingers through it to achieve a sculpted quaff.  Sometimes it is capturing the film era perfectly, with the projected backgrounds in every driving scene.
"My quaff isn't the only thing that's sculpted"
What I liked most about those little moments was that they weren't called out; other jokes were being made simultaneously, and these were just clever nods to the past.  As for the more direct humor, it's not as successful.  Yes, there is a slight language barrier, but I didn't find myself doing much more than smiling at most of the jokes.  The writing was okay --- having OSS 117 be completely ignorant of Egyptian history, politics, and religion was a solid comedic premise --- but it rarely became clever or crude enough to make me truly appreciate it.  I think my favorite bit was how de la Bath's flashbacks consisted of very cliched scenes, only with the dialogue completely replaced with manly laughter.  It's a basic and stupid gag, but it was handled perfectly.

For the most part, the cast of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies plays the straight man to Jean Dujardin's moronic super spy.  That means the two love interests, Aure Atika and Berenice Bejo, primarily just act cross with OSS 117 while looking pretty.  That doesn't matter, because this film belongs to Jean Dujardin.  He is very impressive in this role, blending suaveness with stupid humor better than anyone since James Coburn.  Of course, this is nowhere near as ridiculous as the Flint films --- it's hard to top a spy that can speak to dolphins --- but Dujardin seems equally at ease with the tough guy spy moments and the truly silly stuff.
Like what?

While I didn't find all the humor very funny, I will credit director Michel Hazanavicius with crafting an intelligently stupid and respectful spoof.  It never panders to the lowest common denominator (like Austin Powers), but its tone is never too arch, either.  Since this is a comedy, the direction is a little harder to judge; cinematography and coaching the actors doesn't really work the same way when you're trying to be funny.  Still, I appreciated the little things Hazanavicius did and I liked the apparent bond between him and Dujardin.  I wouldn't call this a directorial triumph, but I am looking forward to the pair's next project, The Artist.

To summarize, I thought OSS 117: CNoS was clever and occasionally funny, but not funny enough to love.  Oh, and I have one question that's been bugging me as I wrote this: why is a member of the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) a member of the French secret service, too?  If anyone can answer that, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Naked City

I've been making an effort to expose myself to more classic noir films recently, which brought me to The Naked City.  I went into this one relatively blind; I hadn't heard anything about the film (aside from hearing that is was a noir) and I didn't recognize anyone involved in it.  In fact, the only thing I was relatively sure of with this movie was that it probably had nothing to do with the first paperback collection of The Tick.
Nothing except prominent Viewmaster use, of course.

The Naked City begins with a surprisingly self-aware voice-over that points out that you are a viewer and this is a movie.  I suppose that self-awareness isn't a bad thing, since this movie isn't about Skynet, but it's kind of annoying.  The narration quickly slips into a more conventional documentary style, similar to the narration in old-timey instructional videos.  As the narrator guides the film from a bird's eye view of New York City down to the teeming streets, the audience becomes witnesses to the murder of Jean Dexter by two unknown men.  The film then focuses on her murder investigation by the experienced Detective Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and the young Detective Halloran (Don Taylor).  Muldoon does most of the thinking, Halloran does the footwork, and the two begin to turn up clues in this seemingly unmotivated murder.
Above: four men discuss an important case, while one silently farts

That's pretty much it.  This isn't a steamy noir so much as it is a conventional police procedural with stunning cinematography.  That doesn't make it bad, but --- like Law & Order episodes --- it does make it pretty boring to summarize.  And like most police procedurals, this story relies more on the way the story is told than the characters involved.

As far as the acting goes, it's all right, but it has gotten a little corny with age.  Barry Fitzgerald plays a wise Irish cop quite well, but he doesn't show anything more than mild concern for the case.  Don Taylor gets a bit more character development, but showing that he is reluctant to beat his child on his wife's command doesn't exactly make him a deep character.
It does make him a wimp, though
Howard Duff was far more entertaining, but the reasons for that are primarily due to how idiotic his character was.  Ted de Corsia gave the film's best performance as the desperate killer, but even his character is surprisingly shallow.
Detectives detect, coaches slouch, and athletes...scissor?

More than any actor, the cinematography stands out today.  While there were other movies made on location at the time, it was still pretty rare.  The Naked City succeeds in having this fictional story play out in the most authentic-looking New York I have seen on film in this period. 
Starring...New York!
It's not just the camera work that makes the city come alive.  The annoying narration manages to give a documentary feel to the story and the occasional voice-over in crowd scenes (while terribly manhandled) was a cool idea that impressed upon me how busy the city really is.
Example crowd voice-over: "He needs a gun to compensate for running like a girl"

Despite enjoying the overall look of the film, I didn't particularly care for director Jules Dassin's film.  The Naked City seems to be an exercise in style; there are a number of dramatic shots incorporating the cityscape, as well as the choice to maintain bookend narration that differed slightly from the story narration.  I have to admit that the movie is visually stunning at times.
Unfortunately, it is only "at times."  For every fantastic visual, there is at least ten minutes of uninspired shots.  I wouldn't pick on the movie for this, if it wasn't for the fact that the story is so vanilla.  There's no crazy twists, there are no real surprises, and we have no reason to support the good guys, aside from the fact that they are pleasant.  When you combine an uninspired story with melodrama, corny dialogue, and outdated production values (it is shocking how often dialogue was obviously recorded over a scene), it becomes very hard to recommend this movie.  On the other hand, the occasionally great camera shots are a treat and the film's closing line, "There are eight million stories in the naked city.  This has been one of them," is pretty fantastic.  That's not enough to overcome my apathy toward the story, but at least you get something of value for watching The Naked City.

And, because the narration reminded me of it, please enjoy this instructional dating video, circa 1950.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The World In Film Blog-a-Thon

Alan at The Great Movie Project --- who is insane enough to post a movie review every damn day --- set up this challenge:   
Pretend you’re taking a geography class and your instructor wants you to pick a movie that is set (or filmed) in one of each of the seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, South America. The movies do not have to be “authentic” but they should be reasonable facsimiles of the continents. They can be in any language, any country, any genre, and feel free to sub-theme these movies in any way that grabs your fancy. 
 Okay, challenge accepted!  My theme is...drumroll, please...pretty please?...BAD-ASS!

Africa - Casablanca (1942)

Yes, it's a romance.  No, Rick doesn't rough people up.  But Rick is a freedom fighter that put The Cause before his own happiness and took it like a man.  A really, really cool man that didn't need to get physical to fight.

Antarctica - The Thing (1982)
For this continent, I could have picked Alien Vs. Predator or Whiteout --- but they both suck.  And The Thing is awesome.  I don't frequently praise Kurt Russell's acting (aside from the awesomeness that is Big Trouble in Little China), but he is about as macho as you can get here.  First hint that he's a bad-ass: he doesn't crap his pants when the dog monster appears.

Asia - Fist of Fury AKA The Chinese Connection (1972)

Apparently, this movie changed its name and I never noticed.  Bruce Lee is the ultimate martial arts bad-ass, but this is the film where he kicks an entire dojo's ass.  I've always wondered what those last seven or eight guys are thinking: "Well, he beat the hell out of the best of us with his bare hands, and now he has nun chucks flying faster than my eye can follow.  Attack!!!"   Idiots.

Australia - The Road Warrior (1981)

Like American children dream of becoming astronauts and reality televisions stars, I assume all good Australian children want to grow up to be Mad Max.  While the first movie was a pretty sweet B-movie, The Road Warrior is about 30 different types of bad-ass.  To sum up the film, Max defeats a hockey mask-wearing monologuist and a mohawked berserker with assless chaps.  Bad-ass vs. bad (and bare) ass.

Europe - The Third Man (1949)
 I know he's not the hero, but Orson Welles is so good in this movie, and his speech on the ferris wheel is chilling.  Bad-ass villain.

North America- In Like Flint (1967)

Flint invents things in his spare time and writes textbooks, and is an adventurer, and maintains a small harem.  He also has learned how to speak to dolphins.  'Nuff said.

South America - Mega Piranha (2010)

Putting the "bad" in "bad-ass," these fish are so bad that they defy logic, science, and common sense.  This movie is so bad (ass) it's nearly perfect.