CHUNGKING EXPRESS and People Trying to Connect With Each Other

How do you write about a Wong Kar-Wai film? I have no idea. Of his filmography, I’ve only seen In The Mood For Love (2000), Happy Together (1997), and now Chungking Express (1994). Each film is crazy different, but often with the central themes of (I’m assuming, remember, I’ve only seen three of his films) people trying to connect to each other.

Obviously, some spoilers coming up. Beware. Proceed with caution. Just watch the movie, it’s so good.

In Chungking Express, Cop 223 is trying to get over an ex-girlfriend. He hangs out at a snack bar and makes phone calls, often to his ex-girlfriend (May) and her family. They broke up on April 1st, which he though was a joke, and now buys a can of pineapple every day that will expire on May 1st, to see if this is a long con and also because May 1st is his birthday. So, on May 1st, he eats thirty cans of pineapple. It’s a strange and bizarre choice to show someone grieve like that, but it gets the sadness and absurdity across pretty clearly. Nice job!

Then there’s the Woman in the blonde wig (hereby referred to as WBW). We learn pretty quickly that she’s a criminal who uses Indian families to help her traffic drugs. She’s always wearing sunglasses, hiding who she is. Not because she’s ashamed, but more so because she’s mysterious and difficult to connect to. Anyway, she’s at the airport with many Indians and many drugs. She goes to check in at the counter and, welp, where’d the Indian family go? Who cares? Now she’s a woman on the run and with a mission. Find the Indians who took her drugs or be killed by the person putting this together (aka the only white person in the film, which I’m sure is saying something but I don’t think I have the cultural knowledge to really unpack it, but you’d have to be blind to not really see the subtext here) (sorry, that sounded condescending).

At one point, 223 and WBW run into each other, going in opposite directions. The voiceover that’s been going on the whole film comes back here, saying something along the lines of being 0.01 centimeters away from each other, but that in fifty-seven hours, he would fall in love with her.

So, again, 223 eats his cans of pineapple, goes to a bar, throws up in the bathroom, sees WBW, sits with her, and tries to talk to her. It takes her a long time to respond, which is the moment where you can really see her reason for wearing the sunglasses. Although she has A LOT on her mind, she isn’t willing to connect with someone, or anyone. 223 just wants to talk. Eventually she does talk to him, but only because she needs to sleep somewhere tonight.

Chungking2

They go to a hotel, she sleeps, he watches two old movies on TV and eats a lot of food. In the morning, with WBW still asleep, he goes for a run (because then he’ll sweat and his body will have less moisture so he’ll cry less, his words, not mine). He checks his messages, and the woman in room 700-something (I forget what number their hotel room was) wishes him a happy birthday. He says something along the lines of, “On May 1st, 1994, a woman wished me happy birthday. If memories could be canned, would these also have expiration dates? If so, I hope this lasts 10,000 years.”

All right, so, they’re not together, but he’s happy. Then he bumps into Faye, a new employee of the snack bar he frequents, and the owner’s cousin.

“At the high point of our intimacy, we were just 0.01 cm from each other. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”

AND THEN THE NARRATIVE JUST STRAIGHT UP SWITCHES TO FAYE AND THIS GUY SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH, AKA COP 663. WHAT!? HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?

WBW and 223 are now gone from the picture. They never come back, but they’re happy with where they are and we think they’ll be okay.

So, what’s the deal with 663 and Faye? Well, 663 is dating an air stewardess, and in one of the coolest shots in the movie, he plays with a toy airplane while she watches him. I can’t find a screenshot of it but man it’s super cool.

663 goes to the same snack bar as 223 did. He usually gets the same food and brings home food to his girlfriend. He’s then encouraged by the store owner to try other foods. So he does, and one day he comes in, and his girlfriend has left him. For a movie with a lot of sadness, there’s a lack of crying, which is actually really nice and allows you to find new ways to show grief.

663, for example, talks to the things in his apartment. When a towel (a very worn down one, in fact) drips, he describes it as crying. He keeps his girlfriend’s stewardess shirt hung up. He takes care of her (? his?) stuffed animals. It’s a weird way to show him grieving but it also shows that he’s hoping things can go back to how they were.

Enter Faye, the woman at the store who always listens to California Dreamin’ too loudly at the snack bar. She and 663 talk basically every day, then she starts going out of her way to run into him. Eventually, she starts breaking into his apartment and changing everything there. The towel is replace with a new one, the mug he holds his toothbrush in is now a new mug, the stuffed animals are different stuffed animals, a lot of weird things that 663 doesn’t notice are changing, and that he attributes to finally starting to get over his ex-girlfriend.

That’s kind of all I really want to say about the plot right now. You have a sense of the characters by now, I’m sure. You also should have watched the film before reading this. But let’s talk a bit more about the actual filmmaking and how it serves the story/characters.

A lot of the first half of the film has the Saving Private Ryan type shutter speed blur that adds to the chaos of characters running after each other. They’re too busy to really pay attention to the world around them, which is understandable because they’re running in tight quarters with billions of people around them. I think the film also has a lot to do with how it’s kind of a miracle that we’re able to talk to people at all. We walk by SO many people we will never talk to, but there’s the chance that you’ll become close friends with them.

With that being said, when the camera is staying somewhat still, we are usually looking through things (glass doors, glass windows), have things in frame that block the whole picture, or people just walk all around (emphasizing just how BUSY the world can be). These constant neon soaked images are a reminder that it’s a big world, and small coincidences are a crazy and wild thing. And if you choose the future, rather than wallowing in the past, maybe you’ll be okay.

A few quick notes on the editing. I’d describe it as jumpy but not jump-cutty. There are obviously a lot of jump cuts, but they’re the types of jump cuts that we are so used to seeing. The only kind of jump cuts that are still really disorientating to me now are the jump cuts Lars von Trier does. The jump cuts here speed up the pace (obviously, “nice observation, wow who would’ve thought”) but there’s also a different kind of jump cut at work, which is the play on the linear structure. Though not as non-linear as In The Mood For Love, there are still sudden jumps to the past, some skip forward in time. Technically, it “breaks the rules” of editing. But, you know, it worked, and a lot of people, myself included, LOVE this film. Take rules lightly. Make your film how you want to.

Chungking Express has a lot to say about relationships and people connecting. This is a wonderful film I will return to over and over again, most likely. Everything about the film is unconventional (the structure, the editing, the cinematography) but it told such a simple story and made it huge to us (the audience) and allowed us to REALLY care about these characters. We feel their sadness and we feel their joy. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

-ERO

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and Angry American Political Films

Sorry it’s been a little while. My computer died and I didn’t start a review site to write things from my phone, so, I apologize if you have missed what I write, my thousands of readers.

But what a time for my computer to die! A small warning, this review is going to be somewhat political, maybe even a little pretentious, but these are my opinions. If you disagree with any of them, please discuss them with me because I’m always down to learn.

SO! Here we go! The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is almost too relevant. I watched it today, 2016, and although the film is about Communists that brainwashed American soldiers to use them as assassins after the Korean War, the main theme still rings today. Eh, main themes. There are a few. Including: brainwashing, fear-mongering, irresponsible media, witch hunting, and, I guess, American exceptionalism. “Whaa, that’s so many main themes!” I know, thousands of reader. It’s an expertly crafted film. So wonderfully written and directed and acted. Everything about this movie is just awesome. It’d be pushing it to call it a satire… It’s not funny at all. But it’s in that realm of awareness.

But I digress. Quick plot to get you to understand where I’m coming from. Frank Sinatra plays Major Bennett Marco and suffers from the same recurring nightmare when he returns from the Korean War. Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a Medal of Honor recipient who saved many men in the Korean War. His step-father (John) is a Joseph McCarthy-esque senator and his mother (Eleanor) pulls the strings on the step-father. She tells him what to say and how to say it. We soon learn that everything Raymond did was fabricated under hypnosis by the Communists. Whenever someone tells him to play Solitaire, he goes into a trance-like state and awaits orders. Bennett, tired of his nightmares and trying to figure out what they mean (his nightmares are shared with other people he served with), when in fact, they (the nightmares) are the moment they were under hypnosis by the Communists (and it is one of the most fantastically edited scenes I’ve ever seen).

That’s the gist of the plot. Complicated, but it gets less complicated as the film goes on (like any plot, I guess…). But let’s talk about the themes. In a second. We’re going to focus on the themes because this film, while the characters are complex and have their individual problems/motivations, they are acting out a) against their will and b) as ways to discuss these themes mentioned above. This is no way does not mean they are not expertly crafted characters. Dialogue is used to convey characterization (e.g. when Bennett is talking about all the books he’s read but also shows a boredom with his life BUT also sets up the last scene). I just think the themes are the driving factor in this film. I’m going to move on now.

Brainwashing: Everyone in this film is brainwashed by someone/something else. The soldiers by the Communists, Senator John by Eleanor, the people by the media, etc. Characters are trying to pull each other’s strings, more often succeeding than not.

Fear-mongering: Senator John’s big appeal is that he has a list of 207 known Communists in the government. (Or is it 247? Or is it 47? Ha! Jokes from the film!) John doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. But his whole campaign is built on these lies to scare the people into voting for him. Only he can fix America. “Wow, I think I’m starting to see the relevance to the politics of contemporary America!” HOLD ON WE’RE NOT THERE YET!

Which brings me to irresponsible media. While this may be a bit of a stretch, or I’m just paying attention to it because of 2016’s irresponsible media, there’s a lot of media focus on a guy (John) who is just saying a lot of bullshit. Congress groans whenever he tells them there are 47 known Communists in the government because they heard him say 207 last scene. But he’s so loud and he just keeps talking. And he’s saying outrageously spooky things that we just have to listen to him. The media in the film just need to report it. Even though everyone sees he’s full of it.

Witch hunting: as a commentary on American 1960s paranoia, of course there is witch hunting in this film. Really, you could tie fear-mongering and irresponsible media in with this category. This theme is personified and given weight when we hear Raymond’s back story. He fell in love with a girl, Jocelyn Jordan, who’s father was Senator Thomas Jordan. Senator Thomas and Senator John are enemies, to say the least, but this has to do with Eleanor’s plotting. Eleanor believes Senator Thomas to be a no good, dirty Communist. But then we get a line from Senator Thomas that says something along the lines that he never agreed with Senator John, thus he must be a Communist. Thus Jocelyn and Raymond have a doomed love. Thus tension buildup between Raymond and his mother! Look at all the ways this theme works its way into the plot!

American exceptionalism: This is the last theme I’ll talk about. This one will be kind of short because I think I made my point clear above that people are hunting Communists in the name of Lady Liberty. There’s even a sign near the convention at the end that says something like “AMERICA NEXT WITH -PRESIDENT NAME- AND JOHN ISELIN”. That slogan sure does sound famili- wait, not yet! American flags are everywhere, as is Abraham Lincoln (seriously, there’s a painting of him, a bust of him in John’s office, and multiple people dress up like him).

So let’s talk about today. Trump is the new president-elect. Which kind of sucks, but he’s whistling a new song now and toning it back. But, this is no way excuses what and how he talked about things to get to where he is. And that’s why this film is relevant to today. Fear-mongering. Trump built his campaign on saying awful things about Mexicans and Muslims and Terrorists. I read somewhere that Terrorism is the new Communism in regards to how the government thinks about it. Yes, terrorism is a real thing that must be addressed, but to go to wars that didn’t make sense to anybody or to have this fear of people who look Arab is just kind of, you know, witch-hunty. And some of the blame to this can be put on the irresponsible media. I watched some tapes from the McCarthy hearings today (purely by coincidence) and Edward Murrow’s response to McCarthy. It’s amazing to see how old news would hold the camera on something for so long without cutting. Modern news must think we’re all pretty stupid to cut the camera that much to “keep our attention”. If you turned on the TV in the last year, all you had was a new soundbyte from Trump saying something ridiculous and then him having the nerve to say he didn’t say that (excuse my emotions, but politically angry films are supposed to make you politically angry, stay tuned next week when I maybe watch All the President’s Men for the first time and talk about how Clinton/the DNC are just as bad as Trump). And then there’s American exceptionalism. Much like the characters in the film fetishize Lincoln, there is much festishization happening with Reagan, aka the Republican party’s pinup boy. Looking to the past and being nostalgic about it is fine, but to have that nostalgia control your life? That’s where things go wrong. Jon Stewart said in an interview (the last week or so) that Trump never defined what made America great. Instead, Trump just said we need to “make America great again,” which is just a bigly (hey-o) general statement that is meant to appease that sense of nostalgia.

So! I’m horribly sorry with how off track I got, but I did warn you. This is a relevant film. It’s actually a bit spooky how relevant it is. But that’s the power of picking powerful themes. Arthur Miller compared McCarthyism to the Salem Witch Trials and I’m sure someone in Salem during those times compared it to something else. There’s this scary Other that we’re always looking for and films can give us a way to talk about it without screaming at each other.

Also, on a somewhat related note, this is the second film I’ve watched this year that had a political “scandal” in the background of the film that ended with a huge gathering of people with a really great ending (that other film is Blow Out (1981) which is also relevant, but probably less so than The Manchurian Candidate).

I had other points I wanted to talk about with this film but I have forgotten. Oh yeah! So, this film was almost not picked up by anyone because it was so political. Imagine seeing this in 1962, golly! I haven’t seen much of John Frankenheimer’s work but he’s a pretty rock n’ roll director (I will consider any film made in or before the early 1960s that uses handheld to be rock n’ roll (but he uses the handheld shots with purpose! If you don’t get excited about anything today at least get excited about a director that knows how to use the camera to effectively tell a story!)). But this film almost not being picked up kind of brings me back to the irresponsible media theme. There’s the Frankfurt School of though in film criticism that a bunch of pessimistic dudes (understandably though because I think they say the Holocaust) that watched films and saw them as a way to inject ideologies into the passive moviegoers. This was called the Hypodermic Needle Effect. The fact that this film almost wasn’t picked up (and it probably only got picked up because Sinatra was in it) and the fact that I, at the moment, cannot think of any really great political films in the last few years should be a potential sign that we’re still in this Hypodermic Needle mode (cough Marvel films cough (not making fun of them I just think they’re okay and we can talk about that another day) cough). We need relevant and challenging political films to get us talking about anything! And that’s one reason why I’m somewhat excited for Trump. Imagine all the angry media we’ll have in the next four years. It’ll be a bad time for life but perhaps a glorious time for storytelling.

-ERO

AFTER HOURS and the One-Act Structure

I have been looking forward to watching After Hours (1985) for quite some time. It wasn’t until I was reading a screenwriting book and the film was about to be ruined for me that I decided to go check the film out from the library and finally watch it. And I’m glad I did! It’s a bizarre chronicle of a man’s surreal/kafkaesque night that just keeps building and building. Almost as if the story has ONE ACT! Whaaa!

Watching this film reminded me a lot of what my film professor said was a great way to structure short films. Have a character have to do something and then keep it building until the end. After Hours does that. It starts with Paul at his office trying to teach a guy how to use his computer. It’s tedious. The guy then starts talking to Paul about how he wants to start his own magazine that publishes writers who can’t get published anywhere else. Paul doesn’t listen and looks around the office while this guy keeps talking. Eventually, Paul just leaves the conversation. So, we’re in for a film like that. A man (Paul) is obviously tired of his tedious life filled with offices and people having their own dreams but not living them through.

But then Paul meets a girl and they like the same book! Wow! It’s like that short story I began writing in 11th grade when I was trying to be hip and deep. But they’re meeting each other is actually pretty solid and there’s a waiter in the background they talk about who keeps dancing and Paul says something along the lines that the waiter is just waiting to be discovered.

To hurry along with this plot wrap up, Paul goes to the girl’s apartment (her name is Marcy) that she lives in with an artist named Kiki. But on his way to the apartment, the cab driver was driving so fast that Paul’s money flew out the window, thus he was unable to pay the cab driver. It’s a short, awkward situation we have to sit through but it’s pretty hilarious watching Paul try to tell the cab driver what happened, because it’s just one of those weird things. And this film is filled with just “those weird things.” More on that in a second. Continuing forward, everything Paul tries to do is awkwardly inverted (an example being the money in the cab) or when he gets to the apartment and Marcy isn’t there and he just needs to sit around with Kiki, and their conversation gets more and more sexual until Kiki just straight up falls asleep. The rest of the film, after Paul realizes he and Marcy won’t hit it off, is Paul trying to get back to his own apartment but is unable to. That’s it. It’s taking this one main problem (getting back home) but with many different characters along the way adding conflict to the situations. The small situations are somehow all connected with each other by either one person knowing another or Paul sees Situation B happening while he is in the middle of Situation C, so he leaves Situation C in the middle of it to go back and deal with Situation B, only for Situation D to come up. It must have been complete hell to write this because every connects in some weird way. Things are just slightly off for his whole night.

But, by golly, it’s fun. We’re constantly reminded by Paul that he just wants to get home so we begin to really feel his frustration. Also, we see it in the acting, obviously. Everything is working against Paul. I called it “kafkaesque” before because it reminded me a lot of The Trial, the book or the movie, take your pick, in that Josef K. is trying to do one thing but EVERYTHING is against him. After Hours relies more on the strange interconnectivity of life and circumstances rather than the bureaucratic nonsense The Trial is making fun (?) of.

Another thing that surprised me in the film was its inclusion of homosexual characters. While some of them are a kind of stereotypes, there’s a great scene where two men are making out at a bar where the bartender is saying some heavy information he just received about someone he knows that may/may not have been caused by Paul. The men stop kissing, and Paul says, “I just don’t know what to say,” because he really doesn’t, then one of the gay men says, “well, what can you say at a time like this?” And that’s it! It’s one of those scenes where you may be thinking, “why did they have to be two men?” but, you know, why not?

A great moment that might wrap up how Paul feels near the end of the film is when he’s running away from a mob who thinks he’s a burglar (if you haven’t seen the film then you’re probably thinking, “wow, that escalated!” and that’s what I’ve been saying this whole review, pay attention) and he’s sitting on a fire escape. He looks around and he sees a woman shoot her husband about six times in the chest. Paul just says to himself, “I’ll probably get blamed for that.” That’s all we hear/see about the couple. They never come back into the story. It all has to do with the weird intricacies of modern day life. Remember, at the beginning of the film, every side character has a dream and Paul is horribly bored. But how can you be this bored in a world this bizarre? Connections to things and people are everywhere if you just look! BUT THEN! AND I THINK I JUST FIGURED OUT THE FILM! Paul is complaining the whole time! He just wants to go home and go to bed. Paul! You’re having the craziest night of your life after being so horribly bored in the first scene! Look at what’s going on with you!

SPOILER FOR THIS PARAGRAPH! If you don’t want to have the film spoiled, jump to the next paragraph. So after this wild and crazy night, he somehow just ends up at his office where he sits down and goes to work. The camera moves around the office while the credits play. Paul is choosing a life of boredom maybe because he can’t handle how wild life can be. Maybe he cannot accept the counterculture lifestyle of artists, homosexuals (not that they are counterculture, but I feel they are presented as a lifestyle that Paul is not used to in this film), and people who stay up late (the bartender, the restaurant owner, the nightclub people, etc.).

No more spoilers here. The structure of this film is very interesting. I don’t think there are really any act breaks. More like things just happen and that adds to the chaotic nature of the film. It’s a lot like Mean Streets (1973) that way. So I guess it’s a good thing Scorsese directed After Hours. Nobody really does chaos like him. Yes, obviously things happen in the film. But Paul’s only concern is how he’s going to get home that night. Even when people are opening their soul to him, we feel awkward because Paul feels awkward and we know he has just one goal. He doesn’t really grow as a character. He may be a stand-in for many people in society. He seems just as bored as any of the side characters we met earlier in the film. But the side characters he meets later on (the bartender, the multiple girls he meets, the woman in the basement of that nightclub) they seem to be multi-faceted and fully realized characters. And when you put these characters in front of someone who just wants to do one thing, ya get conflict.

A really great and out there film that has aged a little bit, but not too much. It’s not a typical Scorsese film, but it’s still a wild ride. You might even appreciate life more after it. I did.

-ERO

LA NOTTE and Wow What A Film

I put off watching La Notte (1961) for a while. I watched L’Avventura (1960) last year and, while I liked it, I wasn’t absolutely crazy about it. It was just a very cold film and to think that Michaelangelo Antonioni did a whole “trilogy” of similar cold movies, I think I just wasn’t in the mood for it. But then I saw La Notte on blu-ray at the library and thought “welp, gotta watch it eventually. Also, Marcello is in it.” I haven’t seen a bad Marcello Mastroianni film, so this one couldn’t be bad. Thank god, it wasn’t. In fact, this may be a darn near perfect film.

Say whaaaa? “But, ____,” you say, “you’ve definitely never said that before, especially on this blog, what gives?” Oh, I’ll tell you what gives. What I liked a lot about La Notte that L’Avventura was missing was how fun it was. (Granted, L’Avventura deserves another viewing from me. I liked it but I don’t think I understood it so I’ll stop making comparisons (see that article I wrote where I said you shouldn’t compare films (uuf))). I guess another thing I really liked was that this one felt way more human. The first scene is Giovanni (Marcello) and his wife Lidia (played by Jeanne Moreau (who looks nothing like how she did in Jules and Jim (1962)) go to visit their dying friend. Their friend’s mother soon comes in and their friend turns to his mother and says something along the lines of “These are my only two real friends. Everyone else are colleagues or acquaintances.”

This scene goes on for a little bit. Lidia leaves and Giovanni leaves five or ten minutes later. But! As he’s leaving, a female patient he and Lidia saw earlier asks him for a match, then she kisses him and drags him into her room. Giovanni isn’t totally cool with it but he also isn’t totally uncool with it. He doesn’t leave the room until nurses come in and slap the female patient who never appears in the film again. So, Giovanni is a cheating dude. But he also tells Lidia about it five minutes later. Her response to it is… nonchalant? Which concerns Giovanni. He feels bad about it, but Lidia is sitting here talking about that the female patient must be feeling better now. What kind of response is that, Lidia!?

Let’s stop talking about the plot. There are more things to talk about. Actually, let me just wrap up the plot quickly, spoiler free. They go to a book party (Giovanni is a well known author) and Lidia eventually leaves. She ends up in a part of town where people are shooting rockets in the streets. Giovanni goes home and can’t find her, she eventually calls and he goes to her. They eventually are back home and are getting ready to go out, but Lidia is going back and forth about wanting to go out or stay in, or if they go out if she wants to be with just him or go to that party they were going to. Decisions decisions. They eventually wind up at the party. And, get this, the party lasts an hour in the film. The whole night, hence the title La Notte which, according to my girlfriend who knows Italian, means “the night”.

Structurally, it’s a day in the life type of film, so it’s going to be episodic but with an overarching feeling. It follows this couple and Giovanni isn’t totally faithful to Lidia but he still seems to like her. She’s definitely in a rut this day, what with her friend dying in the hospital and all. So we don’t think too much about it. Also, this trilogy of Antonioni’s films look at the ennui of the bourgeoisie. For films like this, I think you have to use those words. It’s practically the law in film textbooks. And Lidia has plenty of ennui. Giovanni does as well, but to a lesser extent, I think.

It’s really bizarre watching this party scene because you just want to be there at this party. It’s at a beautiful house owned by a company founder (and the only person Giovanni knows there). A huge pool, a garden the size of a park, a live jazz band, putt putt, you name it. Everyone there is just having a really good time. But as you’re watching it, you also can tell that through what we know from the main characters, the filmmakers are poking fun at this lifestyle. So, you almost feel conflicted because you want to be in this party but then you’re one of the people they’re making fun of. This party isn’t as bad as, say, the end party of La Dolce Vita (1960). This party actually seems worth going to. Well, maybe they’re not making fun of the party guests. Maybe they’re using the party as a way to juxtapose how the main characters are feeling. Some of the older men Giovanni talks to seem to be intellectual enough to hold a conversation. Or maybe the film is taking an approach like The Exterminating Angel (1968) where, yes, they’re making fun of the bourgeoisie, but they also treat them as humans with problems. I don’t know. You can go back and forth with this party scene forever. Right now, I’m going to take the stance of they’re using the party as a way to explore a culture of boredom and the means of escaping that boredom. Maybe the most important part about the party is Lidia going back and forth about wanting to go/not wanting to go to it. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I had another point, but I stopped writing this review for two days so I apologize for forgetting it/having it not be hastily written. This is probably a film that gets richer with each viewing. Oh! I remember what I was going to say. Again, going back to structure. This seems to be a film that unfolds episodically rather than a Hollywood type film where everything builds together. La Notte is a coherent whole because of this unfolding. It’s technically plotless, but there’s plenty of character revelations and conflicting motivations that drive it. While also plotless, setting seems to play a character of its own. When the couple aren’t in a room together, they’re looking for each other. A metaphor for distance and the inability to communicate. This inability to communicate plays out especially in the night club scene before the party, where Lidia has something on her mind but won’t tell Giovanni (but we find out at the end! Chekhov’s gun!).

I could write more, but I’m about to watch a movie. So, get ready for that review, hopefully it’s hastily written. La Notte is a superb film with much to say about humans, boredom, relationships, and communication and tells it in such a fascinating way that I will probably watch this film over and over again.

-ERO

DOWN BY LAW and, Technically, My First Jarmusch Film

Any film that starts with any song from Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs,” especially Jockey Full of Bourbon though, has got to be a pretty rock n’ roll film. That’s what I thought, anyway, when Down by Law (1986) started. Dolly shots, going right to left, shot in beautifully creamy black and white, give a sense of the location we’re in. It’s pretty at times, it’s empty, it’s a little sketchy, cops have some people pulled over, then we see the famous architecture that is New Orleans. Cut in with these dolly shots, are shots of Tom Waits going to his home and slipping into bed with his girlfriend, and John Lurie is in bed with his girlfriend (but gets up and asks a girl what she’s doing on the porch, I don’t think the girl ever comes back but she has the second line in the film.)

And thus! Character introductions. Men who have problems. Tom Waits’ problem is set up first. His girlfriend is throwing things around the room and yelling at him and he just sits there and takes it. Tom Waits wants to move to another city, again, and she’s tired of it. He grumbles the way he does about feeling trapped (look at that foreshadowing!) and that he just wants to try a new place. He finally gets up after she’s about to throw his shoes out the door. “Not the shoes…” he says to her.

Then John Lurie’s problem. He’s a pimp, but one of those nice pimps, that has to go see about a new girl from a guy that owes him money. As a way of making up for it or something. I can’t really remember his introduction that well, but that’s the gist of it. He’s well liked and respected among his peers, he tends to run things in his part of town.

One more character introduction then I’ll move on. Roberto Benigni, aka the director/writer/actor of Life is Beautiful (1997), in one of the funniest roles I’ve seen in a while. He walks up to a drunk Tom Waits outside a closed liquor store and just wants to practice his English. But he’s so damn cheerful it’s difficult to not fall in love with every scene he’s in. They talk for a minute, Tom Waits tell him to buzz off, and so he does. He’ll be back later.

Anyway, this isn’t a shot by shot explanation of the film. This is technically a hastily written review. So! There’s isn’t much to say about the story because not much REALLY happens. It’s more character-driven, which is all I’ve heard about Jarmusch films. And that’s not a bad thing at all! I loved this film. It was totally awesome. Basically, these three men eventually end up in a jail cell together. Then try to escape. That’s all I’ll really say about the plot right now, I think. Who knows, it’s my hastily written review, I can say what I want to.

A really dope thing this film does is play out a situation for a while and then totally flip it on you. Minor spoilers that happen in the first 30 minutes coming you way, I’ll let you know when I’m done spoiling things with a paragraph break, ergo, skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t/won’t watch the film (but watch it, it’s really good). E.g. John Lurie when he gets caught by the police. So he goes to meet up the girl the guy told him about. He goes into a dark room and starts talking about why he’s the best pimp for this girl. The cops come in and turn on the lights, John Lurie says something along the lines of, “I’m just hanging with my girlfriend.” Turns out the girlfriend is a very young girl. Obviously under 18. Probably under 13. But you know he was set up AND he didn’t know the girl was 13 or so. But everything until you saw the girl seemed totally fine, like this is an average day for him. For Tom Waits, he needs to drive a stolen car across town for $1,000. Whatever, he thinks, he’ll do it. Well, he gets pulled over. Cops open the trunk, turns out there’s a dead body in the back. Whaaaaa. I know it doesn’t SOUND crazy, but it blew my mind because it came out of nowhere (without being something to just push the plot along). We’re left in the dark because Tom Waits was left in the dark. But the buildup is really sketchy and we should have expected the worst.

Spoilers pretty much done now. There’s another great reversal when all three men are in the jail cell. Where one is not who they seem to be. Or, better put, where one of the men in the jail cell actually committed a crime. It’s these little things that set apart the film from others. Small reversals that make you see everything differently. It’s so well done and it’s so amazing that I can’t think of many big films at the moment that have these reversals that keep the viewer engaged in the story (save for The Nice Guys (2016) but that’s Shane Black and that’s kind of his thing).

Another thing that really sets this film apart from others is the cinematography from cinematographer extraordinaire Robby Müller. Paul Thomas Anderson was always jealous of Müller (not jealous, really, more amazed) at how he lights his night scenes because they actually look like night time. You can see it in Repo Man (1984) and you can see it here. Down by Law is definitely an indie film. But has the look of a polished Hollywood big-budget flick. The cinematography and lack of handheld shots (not that I’d argue this script calls for handheld shots at all) separates it from other low budget indie films that often too quickly rely on handheld for whatever reason. I’m not knocking handheld, but it’s nice to see an indie film look crisp and clean every once in a while. I’d say Green Room (2015) has a nice, non-indie look to it while still very much being an indie film.

That’s all I can think to say right now. Down by Law was fantastic. There’s a lot more I could say on it, probably, but I’m tired. Go watch it.

-ERO

WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT and Bringing Characters Together

I had no idea what to expect when I checked out What’s New Pussycat (1965) from the library. I knew it was Woody Allen’s first produced script and that it was his first acting role. So I expected a Woody Allen-esque type film. It is, in a way. But it was way more slapstick than I anticipated. In a good way! What’s New Pussycat is super fun. And that second to last end scene that probably goes on for a half hour is mind blowing. But let’s build to that moment.

What a fun cast this movie has. Peter Sellers as a sex-hungry psychoanalyst with an angry wife, Peter O’Toole as a sex-hungry, non-committal boyfriend who has sex with every woman he knows, Woody Allen as a neurotic trying-to-get-sex guy and when he finally is able to get sex is interrupted over and over again, Romy Schneider as Peter O’Toole’s girlfriend who just wants him to commit, Capucine as a nymphomaniac who comes from a family of nymphomaniacs (her father and two brothers), and Paula Prentiss as a woman who’s a half-virgin because she isn’t a virgin in America but she is in Paris and she tries to kill herself all the time by swallowing pills, so much so that the suicide ward at the hospital gives her a medal. Do you see a theme here?  You should.

It’s sex. The theme is sex. Or, characters defined by their sexuality and how much they get sex. “Wow, that sure does sound like a stupid way to have characters. People are more than their sexuality, you know?” Yeah, I totally agree. BUT! It totally works here. The film is a little slow for most of it. It’s entertaining but I wouldn’t say it’s laugh out loud funny every second. BUT!!! The film builds to this crazy climatic scene with every character walking around this hotel and hiding from each other and confronting each other and their motivations don’t line up with other motivations and it’s a wild ride of people wanting things and not getting them and miscommunications and jokes! I was so impressed with this end of the film that I’d watch this over and over again just for that scene. It’s a lot like the restaurant scene in Playtime (1967), whereas there’s that forty minute scene of everything going wrong, but there are few characters in that film that we really care about and know because we’ve only really spent time with Jacques Tati, and we’re more watching that scene for what’s going to happen next to this restaurant that’s falling apart. Whereas in What’s New Pussycat, we’ve spent over an hour with all these characters. We know what they all want and what their weaknesses are and their relationships to each other. Then you put all these very conflicting sex-hungry people in a small country hotel together and see what happens.

Let’s talk structure. There’s a pretty funny part that would be the end of the movie in any stereotypical Hollywood flick. An hour and ten minutes into the film, Peter O’Toole goes to his girlfriend and confesses his love for her and says he’s ready to commit. While this monologue is being done, big words and an arrow pointing to Peter O’Toole appear and flash on screen. They say, “AUTHOR’S MESSAGE.” Which, shit, that’s pretty funny. I expected the film to just end there. But the film has a whole half hour left. Maybe it was trying to break conventions and show what happens after the “happily ever after” moment or maybe we needed this happy moment between the couple to really add to the hotel scene I talked about above. Comedy is pretty similar to drama, in that way. You need the small happy moments to make the real climatic moments bigger. You need to build character tensions together so that the audience thinks “oh no, what’s going to happen when they’re finally in a room together?” In a drama, you’ll expect someone to die, or something dramatic like that. In a comedy, especially this one, you can expect weird absurdism.

This film plays with storytelling a lot and doesn’t really seem to follow many rules unless making fun of them, like the “AUTHOR’S MESSAGE” joke. When the film is following the conventional three act structure, it seems to be making fun of it in a way. The hotel scene at the end of the film goes on for so long that it almost feels like a different film, thus giving it an episodic vibe. I guess this film is a bit episodic, now that I think about it. Of course there is an overarching story, but I remember more of the small scenes that are more character than plot.

Uh, what else can I talk about? I had to stop writing but now I’m back to it a few hours later so… Oh! The way the film is told can be analyzed, I guess. I feel like many comedies I have seen do not really use the camera and editing as a way to enhance the story. They more or less sit back and let the characters act. And that’s not a bad thing. A film doesn’t have to be flashy to tell a story. I do think many modern comedies do typical shot/reverse shot type set-ups to allow for more improvisation without continuity errors. What’s New Pussycat uses the style of filming that was how movies have been told since they started (but don’t seem to be doing much now of, somewhat unfortunately) and that is by doing master shots where both characters are in frame and they just act out the whole scene. Obviously there are cuts in there, nothing drastic like a 180 degree break or anything. I think this film uses editing cleverly, especially in the hotel scene where SO much is going on. The cinematography is safe, and that’s totally fine. I can’t imagine a different way to film this kind of film.

So it’s pretty good. Not the best comedy, but one that builds to something that is totally worth it. It’s worth a watch!

-ERO

FANTASTIC MR. FOX and Joy from Movies

I am sitting in a hotel room around midnight after having to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and having been doing things all day. So I’m a little sleepy. Please forgive me for any errors I type. But a few days ago, I watched Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) all the way through for the first time and, by George, it was delightful!

I know I describe films as “fun” over and over again, but that’s kind of the point of films. You go in to a dark movie theater with strangers to be entertained. That entertainment may be from laughing, to tuning out for some conventional entertainment, to getting scared, or to watching some deep dramas to see how characters act in certain situations. Fantastic Mr. Fox is basically every reason why you go to the movie theater.

Let’s look at the structure. It is probably the most conventional Wes Anderson story you’ll get (not to say Wes Anderson does anything structurally crazy, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) probably being his most structurally crazy with all the flashbacks and flashforwards). But that’s because Fantastic Mr. Fox is a children’s film. Better put, it’s a family film. You need some storytelling conventions to keep things simple. But that obviously does not mean you can’t play around inside the structure, which I’m going to say seems like a pretty basic three act structure. Again! Nothing wrong with that!

Wes Anderson seems to love books. Many of his films open with books or books are used as some sort of narrative device. Many times in his films, you’ll see characters walking from left to right (the way we read), unless something bad is happening, in which case, the characters move right to left. Yes, this isn’t true for every lateral shot but you’re welcome to fight me on where I stand with this. Wes Anderson uses his love for books and turns it up to eleven for Fantastic Mr. Fox. He uses shots of characters looking straight into the screen with their names above them. Or how there seem to be chapter titles. Or a lot of left to right movement. Everything is put together to form a moving picture book. Fitting, since it’s adapted from a Roald Dahl story, aka the king of children’s stories.

Is this my favorite Wes Anderson film? Nah, of course not. While the structure is conventional, it does make it a little predictable, BUT this is also a family film. So I can forgive the easiness of plot. Next time I watch the film, I can put myself into the mindset that this isn’t a… normal(?) Wes Anderson film. It is, however, an expertly crafted, well told, fun, poignant, and all around good film. I very much look forward to watching it again.

Remember, I’m so tired. I’m sorry this “review” wasn’t that dope. I’ll do better next time.

-ERO