A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS

 

Before Clint Eastwood became a crazy old man yelling at empty chairs in front of a worldwide audience, he was The Man With No Name, and he was awesome.  In A Fistful of Dollars, his name is actually Joe, and he rides into a tiny corrupt town where two families are at war with one another, rendering the rest of the town hostage.  Upon entering, he’s told that he will either leave rich or dead.  Faced with those two choices, he chooses the former, pitting the two families against one another and taking money from each as they think they are on his side, until the action culminates in a bloody standoff where only one of them can survive.

Though the films A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly aren’t really a trilogy, the three are often lumped together, since they are all directed by Leone and star Clint Eastwood.  After an awesome animated opening credits sequence with the requisite amazing score by Ennio Morricone,  it took  me a while to get into A Fistful of Dollars, almost a little too long where I was starting to wonder if it was going to be worth sitting through the rest of the film.  About a half hour in to the film it picked up, and actually became enjoyable, and even pretty intense at times, but not enough to make up for my initial disinterest.

I really don’t think that Clint Eastwood was any better or more of a badass than in his Spaghetti Westerns, and I think that Eastwood really deserves some of the credit for that.  Joe is a mysterious man of few words, but Eastwood gives the character depth by humanizing him and even providing him with a little goofiness and humor – but you never doubt that he’s going to kick ass, take names, and end up the victor.  That’s kind of a cool hero, in my book.

Leone is a great filmmaker with a really distinctive style: you never doubt you’re watching a Leone film from the first frame.  He’s stylish, and sometimes weird with the camera angles, and it’s always effective.  I actually count The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as one of my favorite films of all time, but I can’t muster up nearly as much praise for A Fistful of Dollars.  It was a decent film, entertaining for much of the running time, but overall felt a little flat for me.  The bottom line is, I liked A Fistful of Dollars, but I liked it a lot more when it was called Yojimbo and was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1961.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita
Director: Federico Fellini
1960 • Italy

Remarkably, despite having attended film school and being obsessed with all things classic film, I’d never seen La Dolce Vita before finally watching it earlier this week, and while I really enjoyed it, I didn’t have quite the revelation a lot of classic film lovers seem to have after watching it.

The film follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip journalist who, along with the paparazzi, follow B-level stars and the idle rich around to get a great item or photo op.  Until the end, the film takes place over approximately a week in Marcello’s life, where he finds himself wrapped up with Maddelena (Anouk Aimée), a socialite, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a Swedish actress visiting from America to film a movie, and the alleged miracle vision of Mary by two youths.  Along the way, he contends with his extremely dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who would be hopelessly pathetic if you didn’t feel sorry for the way Marcello treated her.  His backbone of stability is Steiner (Alain Cuny), a friend who seems to have it together: a home, a beautiful family, and who surrounds himself with cultured people.  It is Steiner who inspires Marcello to become the legitimate novelist he seeks to be, until a tragedy leads to Marcello’s life spinning out of control, leaving him vulnerable and in danger of becoming one of the people who bemuse him, and living a life he so disdains.

La Dolce Vita is known as the film that served as a bridge between Fellini’s earlier Neo-Realistic films like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria and his later, slightly more surreal work like 8 1/2 and Satyricon.  While I definitely prefer the Neo-Realism genre as a whole, I thought that La Dolce Vita had an interesting balance of realism and fantasy.  I think I was expecting, based on the adulation many filmmakers and scholars have for the film, to see more in the film than I actually did, however.  To me, La Dolce Vita is pretty straightforward; a slice of life that highlights the silly, slightly grotesque pseudo-elite culture by their actions rather than hitting the audience over the head with the message, “These people are pathetic and shouldn’t be taken seriously.”  And we see all of this through Marcello’s eyes, until he becomes so immersed in the culture that we no longer have him as a filter – we can only stand on the sidelines and become spectators in what becomes the hedonistic circus that is his life.

Fellini is a master of aesthetic, and La Dolce Vita is a beautiful film.  From the contemporary fashion to the incredible location shots, the film is a feast for the eyes.  His use of light is astounding, with several scenes that were breathtakingly beautiful (particularly the scene in the nightclub with Marcello and his father, when the trumpeter performs for the crowd.)  Ever since seeing Nights of Cabiria years ago and being moved to tears simply from the lighting of a shot (you have to see it to believe I’m not just being overly dramatic) I’ve always expected the best from Fellini in this area and have never been disappointed.

The unfortunate thing about La Dolce Vita is that I had little emotional response to it.  With the exception of Steiner’s outcome, and perhaps the disappointment that Marcello not only gave up on his dream, but became what can only be considered a step down on the entertainment industry evolutionary scale, a publicist, there was little to connect with.  And perhaps that was Fellini’s intent; I mentioned earlier that this was simply a slice of Marcello’s life, and maybe there’s not much to derive other than that.  I’ve read several accounts of film critics and filmmakers who say that they love La Dolce Vita, but it took several viewings to fully appreciate it, but I don’t necessarily think you should have to work that hard to enjoy or understand a film.  Either you like it or you don’t, and I liked La Dolce Vita – I just don’t think watching it was a life changing experience, nor do I consider it to be influential for me.

“The Girl”

I just read this article about the new HBO film The Girl, which tells the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s relationship with and mistreatment of actress Tippi Hedren when they worked together in The Birds and Marnie.  It sounds like a pretty disturbing film for Hitchcock fans, and unfortunately, it’s all been pretty much proven to be true.

Which begs the question, can one separate the person from his art?  I find that there are some actors that I just can’t stand on a personal level (as personal as I can get reading the news, etc.) so I find myself avoiding their films.  (Like Tom Cruise)  So should Hitchcock’s genius be marginalized because he was an asshole?  That’s a really tough question, one that I’m not really prepared to answer (nor do I really want to) right now.  Sounds like an interesting film, though one I don’t know I need to see.

Film Club Revisited is back in business!

A long time ago… in a not so far away land, there lived a girl who decided to watch some films that the consensus had deemed “classic”, so she decided to start watching films on the IMDB Top 250 list.  Along the way, she invited others to watch with her, since it was much more fun to experience films with other people.

Unfortunately, the girl experienced many setbacks; people who didn’t want to watch the movies she did, people who hadn’t seen as many films as she had so she had to wait for them to catch up to her… until one day, more than eight years later, she realized she hadn’t made that much progress at all.

After many tries, she has decided to give it one last shot with her friends, and the resurrected Film Club Revisited was reborn and back in business.  (Editor’s note – if it stalls again, the girl says “screw all y’all, I’m watching them on my own time!)
So I get first pick, and we have to watch it and review it by October 29th.  I picked Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic, La Dolce Vita because it’s the only Fellini film on the list I haven’t seen, I’ve loved every other Fellini film I’ve seen, and I’ve wanted to watch this one for quite a while.

Plus, the number of westerns I have to watch on the list is crippling.  I’m not avoiding them by any means, but it’s a pretty well-represented genre I’ve noticed.  Besides, I’m not sure how often I’m going to have the luxury of a pick being a film I haven’t seen so I want to take advantage of the opportunity.  My review for the film will be posted soon after I watch it.

And so it begins again!  I have 19 films to watch on the list, let’s hope it doesn’t take another eight years.

When Ladies Meet

WHEN LADIES MEET

1941

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: Joan Crawford, Greer Garson

A remake of the 1933 film of the same name, When Ladies Meet stars Joan Crawford as Mary, a writer who, during the course of writing her latest book, has fallen in love with her married publisher, Rogers (Herbert Marshall). This doesn’t sit well with Mary’s erstwhile (and still pining) sweetheart, Jimmy, (Robert Taylor) who, after a chance encounter with Rogers’ wife Claire, (Garson) conspires to have the two strangers, who don’t know their common bond, meet.

While watching this film, I kept getting the feeling that I’d seen this movie before, but there wasn’t anything familiar about it beyond the actual storyline. When I realized that it was a remake the light bulb went on because I must have seen the Myrna Loy/1933 version. I really enjoyed When Ladies Meet; it is a perfect melodramatic vehicle with perfect casting. Crawford is strong but naive, and somehow, despite her awareness for what she is doing, is even a bit sympathetic. She’s just so darn good at what she does. And Greer Garson… if she’s played an unlikeable, weak woman I’ve never seen that movie. It was these two actresses that actually drew me to watch the film in the first place, and they didn’t disappoint.

I’m also a complete sucker for melodramas, and while there were some lighthearted moments, usually provided by Robert Taylor, When Ladies Meet is a melodrama all the way, and considering the plot, how could it not be? Since the viewer knows what eventually has to happen, it becomes excruciating to watch Crawford and Garson become close friends during the course of the evening they spend together, and when the moment of realization happens, it’s absolutely devastating. However, it’s not a weepy film because the strength of the female characters don’t allow it to become mired in treacle, and that is an admirable trait in a film, particularly one from the 40’s, a decade which produced some of the best melodramatic films of the century.

When Ladies Meet is a great movie that should be seen by those who enjoy this genre of film, but it’s a must see for Crawford and Garson fans.

4 out of 5 stars

For a Few Dollars More

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
1965
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef

Full disclosure: With a handful of exceptions, I can’t stand westerns. However, there is something about a Sergio Leone film that makes me positively giddy. After finally seeing For a Few Dollars More (I seem to be working my way backwards through the series, since The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the first one I saw) that familiar giddiness was back because these movies are just so good.

For a Few Dollars More finds bounty hunters Monco (Eastwood) and Col. Douglas Mortimer (Van Cleef) chasing after the same target – El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), a really bad guy who, along with his gang, are going to attempt to rob the most impenetrable bank that exists, in El Paso.

I really enjoyed For a Few Dollars More, possibly because it was kind of fun to see Van Cleef and Eastwood together before The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For a Few Dollars More is full of Sergio Leone-isms: sweeping landscapes, minimal dialogue, that great Ennio Morricone soundtrack that is both awesome and comical at the same time and shot after shot of people looking at one another. Really, rereading that last sentence, it’s kind of surprising that Leone’s films work as well as they do because in a vacuum, those four elements don’t sound all that favorable. But work well they do, because after about ten minutes, I was hopelessly lost in the movie and enjoying every minute of it. Eastwood actually has a lot more dialogue in this film than some of the others, and is sometimes a little goofy, yet maintains his status as badass. Van Cleef is full-on badass, however, and acts a little bit like Eastwood’s mentor in the film. I actually really like Lee Van Cleef; he really looks like he has no business playing a tough guy, but he really embraces that role and pulls it off fantastically. One of the things I expect in a film that has a villain is that he or she be a good villain. It’s really easy to get this wrong, but Volonte’s “El Indio” is a really, really bad guy. Women, children, anyone innocent – they’re all cannon fodder for this guy. To add a little touch of fun to the character, Volonte also threw in some nifty insanity and flamboyance which I think enhanced the role a lot.

Though not my favorite Leone film so far, For a Few Dollars More is indeed a great film. I really enjoyed it and it’s definitely a must-see for anyone who enjoys the genre. Plus, I personally enjoyed the “what the hell?” casting choice of Klaus Kinski as one of Indio’s gang members. I also think that it’s accessible enough for people not familiar with “spaghetti westerns” to enjoy, perhaps even more than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; despite being the superior film, there’s a little more patience needed during Leone’s infamous “we’re looking at each other” scenes, which tended to go on for more than a minute, whereas For a Few Dollars More is a bit more straightforward. And it’s just plain awesome.

4 out of 5 stars

Breathless (1960)

BREATHLESS (1960)
2010 Restoration

(French with English subtitles)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard (Story by Francois Truffaut)
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg

(Note: this is not so much a review as just a few thoughts about the film, since there have been about 3 million reviews written about this film in the past 50 years)

Michel (Belmondo) is a car thief who, while joyriding in his latest acquisition, shoots and kills a policeman. When he returns to Paris, he tries to secure money owed to him, avoid the law and convince one of his former lovers, Patricia (Seberg) an American journalist and student, to join him in Italy so he can hide out.

Breathless is absolutely exquisite, and a gleaming example of the French New Wave film movement, by its leading director, Jean-Luc Godard. In crisp black and white, beautifully photographed with quick, jarring edits, Breathless is contradictory with its pacing. Some scenes are fast-paced and set on the busy streets of Paris, with an incredible jazz soundtrack screaming over the action, while others are quiet and intimate between Michel and Patricia in her room. It’s really amazing to realize that Breathless is 50 years old because it seems absolutely timeless; everything about the film is hipster-cool and barely dated.

The French New Wave is not a movement for everyone, but those, like me, who are devoted to it as an art form should not miss this beautiful restoration; it is absolutely breathtaking and it makes me want to crack open my vintage French New Wave film books again.

MFF Ballot Vote: 5
My Scale: 5

Who’s That Knocking At My Door

Film #42 of 2010 – Who’s That Knocking At My Door

J.R. (Harvey Keitel) is your typical unambitious young guy in New York in the late 1960’s; he carouses with his friends, drinking and getting into physical scrapes with other guys from the neighborhood, he is between jobs, and lives at home with his mom. His life truly revolves around his friends until he meets “the girl” (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island ferry. Though the initial conversation is slightly awkward, the two begin to make a connection, and the majority of the rest of the film alternates between his burgeoning romance with her, and his “normal” life with his friends. He is respectful and gentle around the girl, even going so far as to not sleep with her because he wants to keep her “chaste”, which is in contrast to his behavior around his friends: though he seems to be one of the more reserved and quiet members of his group, he still enjoys the carousing. When the girl decides to share the fact that she is not a virgin because she was raped by a boyfriend a couple of years prior, J.R. responds with disdain, blaming her for getting herself into the situation in the first place. In his eyes, she is tainted, and she’s no longer good enough for him. Later, he decides that he can “forgive” her, but she has to decide whether her self-respect will allow herself to take him back.

*Spoilers from here on out, but nothing that should deter you from watching the film*

Who’s That Knocking At My Door started out as Scorsese’s final project at NYU film school, generally consisting of scenes with J.R. and his friends. The film began to evolve into his first feature film when Scorsese added in the romantic plot between J.R. and the girl, and after a couple of years of filming as money came in, he found a distributor who offered to buy and release the film under the condition that Scorsese turn it into a sexploitation film. The end result is a really well fleshed out film that includes a fantasy sex scene with a couple of hookers that is actually stunning and beautifully filmed (with male and female frontal nudity to boot!).

The film is black and white, and the cinematography vacillates between crispness and dark and shadowy, which may be a result of the age and quality of the film or simply a stylistic decision. Regardless, the photography is fantastic and I felt like I was looking at the work of street photographers of the 1940’s and 1950’s most of the time. Scorsese’s camera work is astonishing; though there were a number of fantastic overhead shots, the scene in which J.R. and the girl meet and converse for the first time is great. Instead of having a potentially boring one, two or three camera shot facing the subjects, he moves the camera, creating fluidity and movement that not only engages the audience but make the scene much more intimate. It helps that the lead actors were as natural as they were, considering their relative inexperience. Zina Bethune was the most experienced of the group, with a few soap opera roles under her belt, but when filming began back in 1965, Harvey Keitel had answered an ad for actors and filming had to be done around his day job as a court reporter.

One of Scorsese’s strengths has been his use of music in his films, and Who’s That Knocking At My Door shows that this was a strength from the beginning. Loud, energetic songs from the 1960’s permeate the soundtrack and punctuate scenes with uncanny expertise. There is a scene in the middle of the film where the guys are carousing in an apartment when someone pulls out a gun as a joke. Scorsese uses slow motion in the scene, and the composition is exquisite: contorted bodies doubled over in laughter, the look of terror on the guy that has had the gun pulled on him. Throughout the scene, there is an energetic song playing, and he segues this scene and the next with a bunch of shotgun sounds, closeups of classic western film posters and then a shot of J.R. and the girl walking out of the film Rio Bravo to the song “Shotgun”. It may sound obvious on paper, but it’s exquisite in execution.

The entire feel of the film was that of New Wave and Neo-Realist films of mid-century Europe that have had a huge impact and influence on Scorsese’s life and career, and I’m sure that was no accident. If Who’s That Knocking At My Door was merely independent cinema eye candy it would still be fulfilling, but Scorsese also wrote a really simple but good love story that starts out sweet but goes bad. Considering how much the love story had to compete with the rest of the film for screen time, it was really well mapped out and compelling. The end of the film was disturbing and breathtaking, with J.R. returning to the girl, who is so grateful to see him again because they are in love. His words to her are, “I understand now and I forgive you. I’m going to marry you anyway.” The look on her face is unforgettable, she is completely stunned. He, of course thinking that he is being chivalrous, can’t believe that she wouldn’t thank him, and when she doesn’t, he completely breaks character, screaming at her, “Who is going to marry you, you whore?” before she inevitably throws him out. What follows is a sequence of shots with the song, “Who’s That Knocking At My Door?” playing in the background: J.R. going to confession, various shots of religious iconography, then suddenly a closeup of the girl’s face with her blood curdling scream during her rape and then J.R. just moving on with his life, laughing with friends. I was actually left breathless (probably because I was so startled by the closeup and the scream) but that feeling really extends to the movie in general.

Watching Who’s That Knocking At My Door was such a wonderful experience, and the film nerd in me went into overdrive because I couldn’t help thinking about how exciting it was that I was watching Scorsese’s first film and that it was actually really good. I also really enjoyed seeing his influences come to life in his own work, knowing what films have been influential to him from seeing his documentaries My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. But what I truly loved was that, despite the high polish of his films made since the 1970’s, his independent spirit was there from the beginning; when he was told to sex up the film in order for people to see it, he did, but he did it beautifully and artistically. He used relatives’ apartments and his neighborhood haunts (including its church) for locations. Having covered an international film festival for five years, after seeing the “Official Selection” badge from the Chicago International Film Festival before the main titles, I also really envied those people sitting in the audience who were able to experience this film at that time, for the first time. I don’t know if anyone who doesn’t have a love for independent cinema is going to appreciate Who’s That Knocking At My Door, but I would highly recommend giving it a shot.

4 stars out of 5

Boxcar Bertha

Film #41 of 2010 – Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1972 stars Barbara Hershey as Bertha, a young woman living in the South during The Great Depression who witnesses the her father’s death after his crop dusting plane crashes. Having no one, she immediately takes off on the rails and hooks up with and strikes up a romance with a union organizer, Bill Shelly (David Carradine). When the two are separated, she ends up with a Yankee gambler, Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and when she later reunites with Bill and her old friend Von (Bernie Casey), Rake completes their quartet of thieves, usually the theft of train cars. In addition to the police, the train magnates have sent their thugs after them because of Bill’s union affiliations, landing them in various prisons and, when they are able to escape, running for their lives.

Boxcar Bertha was intended to be an exploitation film, and it truly was, with a lot of unnecessary shots of Barbara Hershey’s legs (she really looks like a guy when she’s filmed naked from the back) and lots of languid and sweaty bodies. The film almost seems like a series of vignettes rather than a complete film, and the scenes are jarring and lack any sort of fluidity. There were also a lot of odd cutaway shots and strange closeups. As an audience, we are asked to embrace a surprising number of coincidences, usually in regard to the group being separated and then somehow meeting up with one another again. After a while, I started to chuckle because of course Bertha was going to run into Von in a bar after being separated for quite some time and who knows how many states. The acting is nothing to write home about; Barbara Hershey hasn’t really evolved, her lips have just gotten bigger. The only truly notable thing is that they managed to prop John Carradine up for a couple of scenes in the film.

Having said all that, the film was produced by Roger Corman, and it does have the cool vibe of an exploitation film, plus the staggering amount of violence, particularly in the end of the film was reminiscent of a Peckinpah film and actually pretty shocking. The film also simply ends, which was actually kind of disturbing and disconcerting, but I actually really liked that aspect. I can’t give Boxcar Bertha a great rating just because it was an early effort by Scorsese, and it did have more negatives than positives, but I actually ended up thinking it was better than I thought I would when I initially sat through the first few scenes.

2.5 out of 5 stars

New York, New York

Film #40 of 2010 – New York, New York

Opening with the iconic scenery of V-J Day in Times Square in New York, Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York follows former G.I. and current musician Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) in a quest to hook up with a girl and celebrate the evening in style. After striking out with several women, he comes across Francine Evans, (Liza Minnelli) a former WAC who also shoots him down, but their witty banter indicates that she is playing hard to get and he’s actually interested. After a couple of serendipitous situations, they finally get together, get married, and, since she is actually a singer, they proceed to literally make beautiful music together, traveling the country with a swing band. It soon becomes clear that the rising star is Francine, and soon after they start up their own swing band, when she becomes pregnant with their first child, she moves back to New York to do studio work while Jimmy continues on until the band ultimately fails. Back in New York, Jimmy, already insecure and slightly abusive, struggles with doing what’s right for his family and participating in the emerging jazz scene, his obvious true love. Ultimately, the two discover that though they have a mutual attraction and affection for one another, they can only succeed if they are apart.

Scorsese was obviously paying homage to the musicals of the 30’s and 40’s, from the decision to film it full frame and not wide screen to the obvious sound stages, to the musical montages showing “progress!” The sets are sparse, simple and intentionally theatrical; sometimes they look fake, but that is clearly the intended aesthetic. One thing that I really liked about the film is that nothing is really announced in the film; rather, things just happen, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions. (For example, when the audiences dwindle after Francine has left the band to return to New York, that is really the first time that we actually have concrete evidence that she was the draw all along.) DeNiro is once again fantastic in another unlikeable role. Jimmy is a complete child who sees Francine’s doormat tendencies and completely manipulates her until she finally stands up for herself. The result? He leaves her. I’m not a big fan of Liza, but she’s solid in this film, and she gives one hell of a performance of the title song, which I thought was much older than this movie, but turns out to be a product of the film.

Unfortunately, other than a particularly great ending (in that it was not-so-happy, but perfect) there wasn’t much else I liked about the film. In an attempt to be epic, it actually came across as overblown and needlessly long. There is a completely nonsensical music number lasting about 20 minutes near the end of the film that makes the movie, which had already been on for well over two hours, come screeching to a halt, and did nothing more than serve as a major irritant. Before that part I was just really tepid about the film, but during and after that long scene I actually started to actively dislike it. Though I’ve mellowed out a little in the couple of days that I’ve watched the film, I still think New York, New York is definitely one of Scorsese’s missteps. But hey, I guess the guy has earned a couple of those.

2 out of 5 stars