Title: Chungking Express
Release Date: 14 July 1994
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production
I really had no preconceptions of this movie but it was still not what I expected. I guess I thought there would be more trains? Instead this is a wonderfully weird movie, and I’m not sure I quite understood, but nevertheless I really enjoyed the vibe. In some ways it reminds me of Amélie (and I would no be surprised if it influenced that later movie), but mostly it is its weird, wonderful thing.
Chungking Express is actually two short films that are tangentially related. Both of them feature Hong Kong cops as protagonists although we don’t see either of them doing much policing. In the first story, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pines – or pineapples – over a woman who broke up with him. He’s then briefly brought into the world of a mysterious underworld figure (Brigitte Lin) who remains effortlessly cool despite wearing a ridiculously large blonde wig, sunglasses, and a raincoat at all times. In the other story, a snack bar employee named Faye (Faye Wong) falls for her customer, Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is also bereft after a break up with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). She begins to influence his life in bizarre ways.
That’s all the plot summary I’m going to give, because there are some interesting twists I don’t want to spoil. Nevertheless, this movie feels more like a mood than a narrative. The cinematography is interesting as well, sometimes feeling like it’s painted in watercolors. There are a lot of shots through windows, mirrors, curtains, etc, that make everything feel dreamlike. This is definitely a movie worth revisiting.
Release Date: 5 October 2018
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Production Company: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures | Matchbox Pictures
Andhadhun starts as a rom-com in which a blind pianist, Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana), begins a romance with Sophie (Radhika Apte) after a meet cute where she literally crashes into him with her scooter. She gets him a gig playing piano at her father’s cafe where he meets the aging actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan). Sinha hires Akash to play a private concert as a surprise for his young second wife Simi (Tabu) on their anniversary. But when Akash arrives to perform he witnesses Simi and her lover Manohar (Manav Vij) hiding Sinha’s dead body.
You see (pun intended), Akash actually is only pretending to be blind because he thinks it improves his piano playing. Now he’s caught in a quandary due to witnessing a crime he shouldn’t be able to see. If all of this sounds spoilery, it’s really just the set-up for an overly long comic thriller with a new twist every few minutes. I tend to not like the style of writing that relies too heavily on unexpected twists, so I found this movie to be more and more of a drag after a promising premise. But if that’s your thing, you may enjoy this movie more than I did.
Title: The Brink’s Job
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Universal Pictures
This is a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for some time because it’s set in Boston and based on the true-life “Crime of the Century” Brink’s Robbery in 1950. The movie is directed by William Friedkin, shortly after his back-to-back hits with The French Connection and The Exorcist. I’d say The Brink’s Job is stylistically different for Friedkin, however since these are the only three Friedkin movies I’ve watched I can’t make that assertion. What I do know is that for a cantankerous guy, this was a rare occasion when Friedkin attempted to make a comedy. While there are some funny aspects to the Brink’s Robbery, the films attempt to make the robbers a bumbling gang when they really weren’t doesn’t quite work.
Where this film does work is a period piece. I’m particularly impressed by the location shooting in Boston that makes the city in 1978 look like the city in the 1940s and 1950s. The cast is also strong, lead by Peter Falk as the lockpick Tony Pino. Peter Boyle plays the shady fence Joe McGinnis and Warren Oates is great as the unstable Specs O’Keefe (although for some reason he’s never wearing the glasses the real life figure was known for). Allen Garfield and Paul Sorvino fill out the gang.
I’d say that everything up to the heist (about 3/4’s of the film) is really well done with some great moments of real tension. After the robbery, the film blows through about 6 years of loose threads without any real narrative focus, until the gang is finally rounded up days before the statute of limitations expired. The finale is good, though.
There are a lot of books about the Brinks Robbery, and one that I enjoyed was The Crime of the Century by Stephanie Schorow.
Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long. That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating. It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West. Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order. This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.
The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends. The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933. The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.
Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped. This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.
I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters. Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities. I found Jacobs was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.
The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI. Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.
Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg. But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers. Then there is the soundtrack! O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie. It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.
George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar. The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.
The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either. Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical. The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.
Release Date: 29 August 2003
Director: John Crowley
Production Company: BSÉ/IFB | UK Film Council
I saw Intermission way back in 2003 and remember having mixed-to-positive feelings about it. For some reason, there are scenes and gags that stick with me 18 years later so I figured it was a good time to revisit the movie. The film is an ensemble comedy and crime caper set over several weeks in Dublin. Stylistically Intermission feels like it’s at the crossroads of Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and The Commitments. It also has an incredible number of the top Irish actors of the time (and a couple of Scottish ones).
The movie has more brutal violence and just plain nasty characters than the word “comedy” would typically imply for me. Those things are usually a turn-off for me but this movie does it well enough that it works. Nevertheless, be warned. It’s hard to summarize Intermission since it involves several intersecting stories, but here’s the basic gist:
- John (Cillian Murphy) proposes an “intermission” to his relationship with Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald) not expecting her to take him up on it and start dating a middle-aged banker, Sam (Michael McElhatton)
- Deirdre’s sister Sally (Shirley Henderson), who is recovering from an abusive relationship, and her mother, Maura (Ger Ryan), become heroes rescuing passengers from a bus crash
- Lehiff (Colin Farrell) is a petty thief who smooth talks his way through a few crimes and then plans a major kidnapping/heist involving many of the other characters
- Detective Jerry Lynch (Colm Meaney playing against his affable guy type and relishing every minute of it) is a “hard as nails” cop with an outside ego who captures the attention of tv documentarian Ben Campion (Tomás Ó Súilleabháin) who wants to make “edgier” reality-based programming
- John’s sexually frustrated friend Oscar (David Wilmot) follows advice to pursue older women and ends up in a relationship with Sam’s jilted wife Noeleen (Deirdre O’Kane)
The movie is filmed in a verite style with hand-held cameras and quick cuts. The soundtrack is well-scored with songs by U2, Ron Sexsmith, and um, Clannad. Somehow I can manage to care about the characters despite them all being jerks in one way or another. There are also some great running gags about steak sauce in coffee and “Celtic mysticism” that are never not funny. I think I might like this movie a lot more than I remembered.
On a related note, I just learned that John Crowley also directed Brooklyn, a movie with a very different style and tone that I liked. I should check out some of his other movies.
Title: The Big Lebowski
Release Date: March 6, 1998
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Working Title Films
Many years ago a friend told me “You’ve got to see The Big Lebowski.” So I got the DVD and watched and then went back to him and told him I’d watched. “Yeah, I didn’t like that movie,” he told me. When I said, “But you told me to watch it!,” he replied “That’s because I knew you would like it.” I guess my friend knows me because I do in fact like The Big Lebowski and I think rewatching it after many years I like it even better than before.
The Big Lebowski is basically the ultimate shaggy dog story. It takes inspiration from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett novels and their movie adaptations. It’s not so much a noir detective story as the episode structure of the protagonist falling into a series of conflicts with strange people that seem like that might add up to something, but upon reflection it doesn’t make much sense. Actually, the movie Laura which I watched recently is a lot like this too.
The Big Lebowski is about “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges), whose real name is Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed slacker who spends his time bowling, drinking White Russians, and smoking pot. A couple of hired thugs mistake him for a wealthy man also named Jeffrey Lebowski and pee on his rug “that really held the room together.” In an attempt to get his rug replaced by the “Big Lebowski” (David Huddleston), The Dude ends up being recruited as a middleman when Lebowski’s trophy wife (Tara Reid) is kidnapped.
The supporting cast includes The Dude’s unstable friend Walter (John Goodman), the ultimate mansplainer and possible future MAGA who is on The Dude’s bowling team along with the dim but kind Donny (Steve Buscemi). Among the people The Dude encounters investigating the kidnapping are Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the Big Lebowski’s daughter who is a performance artist with a ridiculously affecte mid-Atlantic accent. Then there’s Same Elliot as The Stranger, who narrates part of the film and drinks sarsaparilla at the bar with no clear reason for being in the movie.
The Big Lebowski is great because of its quotable dialogue, great performances (even actors who only appear in one or two scenes are memorable), and an eclectic soundtrack with songs tied to the various characters. The Dude also hates the Eagles, man. The movie may be one of the all-time great Los Angeles films, and I’m glad I watched it so soon after Mulholland Drive which makes a great double feature.
Release Date: March 8, 1996
Director: Joel Coen
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Working Title Films
The movie is called Fargo although it largely takes place in Minnesota, and the one scene set in the South Dakota city wasn’t even filmed on location in Fargo. The introduction of the movie claims it based on true story but this is a bold-faced lie. The layers of deception are already piling on before we see car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, whose real life friendly exterior hides some sliminess) begin to carry out a plot to have his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) kidnapped in order to extort money from his father-in-law and boss Wade (Harve Presnell).
Things go horribly wrong, of course, as hired hoods Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) are too incompetent to take basic actions to cover their steps, leading to multiple murders. 34 minutes into the movie enters our hero, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the police chief of the small-town of Brainerd, Minnesota who is seven months pregnant. She has a natural instinct where she leads her to Minneapolis and Jerry’s auto dealership to begin unraveling the mystery.
As a New Englander my cynical feeling is that Minnesota Nice is as a much of a cover for darker behaviors as Southern Hospitality. But Marge Gunderson, one of the great characters of film, shows that you don’t need to be a tough guy who throws punches and puts the pressure on in interrogation to solve the crime. You just need to be a decent human being.
Title: Touch of Evil
Release Date: February 1958
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Universal-International
Touch of Evil takes place on the border of Mexico and the United States, beginning with someone placing a time bomb in a car in the sleazy Mexican border town that doesn’t explode until the driver crosses the border. Witnesses to the explosion include Mexican special prosecutor Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas takes an interest in the case and unravels the corrupt career of a racist American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Susan stays at an isolated motel not realising that it is owned by the sinister Grandi gang. Bad things always happen when Janet Leigh stays at a motel.
This is not a movie that you watch for the plot as it doesn’t make much sense if you think much of it and every scene exists simply to set up the next twist. Instead this is a movie you watch for the technical brilliance of its filming, particularly the camera work that is exemplified in the brilliant opening scene where we follow the car with the ticking time bomb and are simultaneously introduced to Vargas and Susan walking down the street. Heston may be the least Mexican person ever (he either has a deep tan or is wearing brownface) but he acquits himself well as the noble prosecutor. Welles for his part is suitably slimy as the cop who plants evidence on his suspects. Other notable performances include Dennis Weaver as the twitchy night manager of the motel (another precursor to Psycho) and Marlene Dietrich as the brothel owner and Quinlans ex-lover. This is the movie I’d like to see again on the big screen if I have the opportunity.
Note: I watched the 1998 version of the movie that was edited to Welles’ specifications.
Release Date: April 9, 1932
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: The Caddo Company
Scarface is classified as the first gangster movie so it’s one of those situations where the tropes and gimmicks that are all so familiar are done for the first time. It’s also full of ethnic stereotypes. You get a good sense of what movies like the Godfather were reacting against, while also being influenced by it. For a film from 1932, it has some excellent action scenes including car chase, gun battles, and gun battles from racing cars. The pre-code violence can be explicit, but there’s also some artistry in its depiction. Particularly impressive is scene where a rival gang leader is shot while bowling and the camera follows his bowling ball to show that he still got a strike.
Paul Muni brings a kind of goofy charm to his performance hiding the monstrous violence of a Chicago gangster. Inspired by Al Capone, Muni plays Tony Camonte, a lieutenant in a gang who goes well beyond his boss Tony Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) orders in carrying out hits on rival gangs leading to an all-out war. Muni also pursues Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley). It’s particular hilarious when Poppy insults Muni and he’s too dumb to realize it.
The introduction to the movie claims that everything is based on real-life events and exhorts the audience to a moral panic over gang violence. This is a lie. This movie revels in the violence, and enjoys the spectacle. And no matter what you say about this movie, you can’t deny that it is entertaining.