#16. For a Few Dollars More (1965, Leone)
Trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for me (!). Found it more consistently engaging on a storytelling level, specifically the set-up of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty killers who tenuously team up to take down El Indio. They tiptoe around each other for a bit; we are introduced to each via their disparate work strategies. Their first meeting is a special kind of dick measuring contest. Communication comes in boot-crunching, silent assessments and, in a patient bit of comedy with a matched pay-off, hat shooting. In fact the entire film is littered with pay-offs, most notably the finale (big shocker) which had me cheering out loud during a solo viewing for the first time in forever. Those kinds of moments don’t come around often; it’s always affirming to be swept off one’s feet, roused to such a degree and so firmly in a character’s corner as I was the moment Manco shows up with that timepiece.
The incorporation of the timepiece illustrates what I love so much about Ennio Morricone (besides the general fact that he cannot be beat) and his collaborations with Sergio Leone. Music becomes a tent under which the entire production gathers. In both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, non-diegetic and diegetic sound merge and inform each other with one common element. In For a Few Dollars More, it’s the timepiece. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s the harmonica. The music is a direct outgrowth of the story. Part of the fabric, its essence you could say, gallantly taking off in grander operatic directions.
This is also the most potent I’ve found Clint Eastwood’s presence as iconic figure. All fluidity in his essential movements; ever-watchful and unwavering. Waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Gian Maria Volonté has that Oliver Reed brand of magnetism (something I’d have picked up on immediately even if The Party’s Over hadn’t been the film I watched 2 days before this) with a beguiling touch of Hugh Bonneville. Co-lead Lee Van Cleef is best in show as Colonel Mortimer. Persistent weariness and endearing conviction. All three lead players compliment and elevate each other.
There is a moment that elicits a special level of ‘oh no he didn’t’ when Van Cleef dares to strike a match off Klaus Kinski’s back. I found myself instinctively shouting “WHAT ARE YOU DOING” and proceeded to have Kevin McAllister face for the remainder of the scene. Sure enough, Kinski starts FACE-TWITCHING. Moments like this are priceless, folks. Priceless.
All in all, Leone continues to perfect frame-filling studies of the masculine face and the vastness around them. Sure enough, the soundtrack has already joined the rest my Morricone on the iPod to be listened to on endless repeat.
#17. American Hustle (2013, Russell)
Hodgepodge dress-up. I cannot for the life of me find a point to this, and I don’t mean a discernible ‘message’. That’s not a necessity for me and doesn’t automatically equate any failure. What I mean by ‘point’ is that it ostensibly brings nothing to the table; it stakes out zero territory for itself. On the one hand, it’s light as a feather but without effortlessness or charm. On the other hand, it’s also bogged down in self-imposed ‘seriousness’ but without carrying any weight or impact. It wants to be both comedy and drama. David O. Russell’s strength (right below his work with ensembles) has been toeing the line between the two in ways that service both. That strategy does nothing to lift this project.
Every time it feels like American Hustle might take off, it stays put. Hell, I didn’t even get all that much out of the interplay between actors, which is always what I look forward to from Russell. Basically, the man wants an Oscar so badly, going back to The Fighter, to the point where it wafts off his work, only to be masked by the newly acquired inordinate stink of hair product. On a basic level I enjoyed a lot of the film a little, which is a mite lacking in mileage.
Filled to the brim with endless story detail, the word ‘fun’ keeps popping up in reference to the film, but that didn’t reflect my experience. It pains me to reference performances, or anything for that matter, only in an awards context, but 3/4 of those acting Oscar nods are preposterous if not at all surprising (why hello there Mr. Weinstein). Jennifer Lawrence in particular, who is undeniably very talented (oh how the recent stirrings of backlash are so hilariously predictable and dull), nails the emotions of Rosalyn but is miscast and as a result unable to sell her character. David O. Russell is now 2 for 2 with casting Lawrence in roles too old for her. The only standout is Amy Adams who shatters into place the desperate self-denial of her character and the need to con herself from the inside-out.
The pageantry of the piece is self-conscious, or at least it feels that way. I still can’t tell if this is a good or bad thing. It’s a give-and-take. Was fond of the film pulling for the Bale and Adams relationship.
There are two bona-fide brilliant moments. First is Adams’ left-field bathroom stall howl, a moment of agony and ecstasy. Second is Lawrence, head-chopping and scrubbing away, belting “Live and Let Die” directly to the camera. These types of spontaneous alleyways, these peeks into character, are what I wanted more of.
The three times I laughed:
a. Cooper messing up Bale’s toupee
b. Cooper impersonating Louis C.K (I don’t know if I’ve seen a funnier moment this year)
c. Lack of resolution to C.K’s ice-fishing parable
I so dearly miss the David O. Russell of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The issues I had with Silver Linings Playbook are irredeemable and more infuriating, but this one is yet even less of an achievement.
#18. The Train (1965, Frankenheimer)
The bookends of moral dilemma serve as John Frankenheimer’s statement, with a steely action flick sandwiched in-between. Solid diversion in which it is easy to see the acclaim even if I can’t whole-heartedly hop aboard. Frankenheimer dollies around the premises with an excellent sense of establishing situation and place in one fell swoop. Burt Lancaster is game to play his own reckless stunt man, yet amusingly and unsurprisingly (and isn’t this part of the fun?), puts zero effort into convincing us he’s French. In this instance, Lancaster has a tough time connecting to the audience with his character and general presence, but this could also have something to do with his character being disconnected from the specific stakes in play.
Are inanimate objects, even masterpieces of art, worth the risk of human life? Frankenheimer and Lancaster’s Labiche answer with a resounding no. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is an obsessive connoisseur and appreciator of the arts to the point where he feels ownership to the masterworks at risk. In the meantime, Lancaster’s motives are purely revenge-based. So there’s a topsy-turvy quality to the motives in motion. The end is a statement coda and resonates in a confrontational way. Even if I don’t agree with Frankenheimer’s perspective, he throws a pile of dead bodies at the audience, right next to the pile of paintings that get to persevere as a result. Throw in a spiteful revenge killing and you’ve got an ending that leaves us on a dire note, a note that forces you to think and sit with the consequences. For that I admire The Train.
#19. Le Bonheur (1965, Varda)
It’s as if Agnes Varda’s point of view should be clear as day to me. Clear as the found and placed pop colors that populate the Le Bonheur, giving it a cognizant and joyful brightness. But the film is elusive, or at least I find it to be, and that’s what draws me to it so much. The more I think about it, and read about it, I keep coming back to the name (as ya do). Happiness. For quite a while the film soaks in a picaresque and tranquil happiness. Nature seemingly pervades but really conceals just-over-there civilization. The married couple (who are married in real life) have perfectly behaved little cherubs (yes those are also their actual children). They make love in the grass. There are no complaints, no problems.
When Francois finds a look-alike of his wife to also love, we get a portrait of a different kind of cad. A cad who honest-to-goodness has no idea he is one. He is happy. He is the happiness of the title. It’s not an affair borne out of the usual domestic tiredness. He simply has a compartmentalized way of looking at things. Self-excusing and wrought with florid nonsense as his explanations are, I agree with a lot of the basics of his thought process. But the fact of the matter is that he has embarked, solo, on a polyamorous relationship without the other’s consent. Without care or any spark of consideration for his other half, or even for his second other half.
His wife has little personality. She is loving, demure, shines bright. Her life is a domestic one; blissful, but it revolves around him. Everything she has is based on the notion that he is hers. That he thinks what he’s doing is okay simply because it doesn’t change how he feels is most selfish of all because Therese’s feelings are screened out. Not even on the table. She does everything she is ‘supposed’ to, but there’s still someone else. She can’t handle this but Emilie can and takes her dutiful place. The new and easily repaired couple walk off in newfound glory, seen in increasingly mournful distance, surrounded by the beautiful decay of autumn. I don’t know if I’m anywhere near the mark here (but whatever, individual interpretation is subjective so it’s okay), but this is what I took away from it.
Watching the onscreen ‘happiness’ at the start can take a toll on the viewer, and thus it takes a while for Le Bonheur to get going, but once it does it’s engaging. Jean-Claude Drouot looks exactly like Bill Hader. Varda’s camera is potent and sly.
#20. Her (2013, Jonze)
Separate post coming soon