Bob the Gambler, Bob le Flambeur (1956) – Film Review

bob gamblerDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville

Bob the Gambler was the first Melville movie I’d ever seen, and as most said it was an uncharacteristic piece for him, I was a little sad; I really liked the movie and wanted to dive into other Melville films that were just as quirky and sly as this one.

The film is about a man named Bob, and yes, he’s a gambler; he has a gaming slot machine in his closet, a little taste he indulges in at home for fun, and spends a lot of his time in gambling houses and casinos.

Bob has had one stint in prison and we find out that he’s got a bit of a guardian angel in the form of a cop. He gets picked up in a police car for a generous ride; one of the cops wants to make sure he stays out of trouble. He has them drop him off a couple blocks before his destination though, so as to not hurt his reputation.

Bob has a young apprentice, Paolo, a quasi son of sorts, but without any consent or censoring between them. He tries to keep Paolo out of trouble, or at least out of the hands of hotheads and their criminal schemes. The atmosphere and sense of place is a movie-lovers dream. The misty streets, long, narrow roads filled with high light-posts, and small little bars where people go in as fast as they pour out; ideal surroundings for a man who fancies himself a gangster.

Bob has started to run out of money as a result of his obsessive gambling, and when a friend tells him how much money a certain Casino holds in their safe, he instantly decides he wants to rob it. But he doesn’t act on sudden impulse like a lowly street hood, he tightly plans it out.

He hires distractions, men to hold-up the staff, and a professional safe-cracker; one of the more clever scenes involves the gang standing around the safe-cracker as he uses an amplifier to listen to the small clicks and movements of the combination lock, practicing for the future head-to-head with the real lock, the one that matters. He needs to softly listen for all the right internal whistling gizmos and clicks, while at the same time keeping in mind the need for it to be cracked under four minutes.

Bob      The plan and heist, of course, brings with it some very real obstacles. Earlier in the story, a young hothead, Marc, gets tangled around some trouble and the police subsequently offer him a deal: if he leads them to a bigger, top-of-the-top racket, and said tip results in a legitimately successful arrest, they’ll drop the charges against him.

Paulo, even after Bob tells him never to tell a dame their plans, goes off and brags about their upcoming plans. Then, when Paulo’s girl plays around with Marc behind his back, she tells him this, not thinking Paulo is going to go through with it, and, of course, Marc tips the police. One-by-one, the domino’s fall on top of Bob’s carefully articulated plans.

A heavy dose of irony presents itself towards the end, while Bob’s a bit distracted; his strict schedule for the heist is interrupted once he begins winning considerable sums at the tables, at the exact casino he’s about to attempt to steal eighty-million from. During the entire course of the film poor Bob has the worst of luck: It’s only good when his luck is just moments away from tipping back to the ‘bad’ spectrum.

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Hitchcock Films: Dial M For Murder

Dial-M-for-Murder

I was more entertained by ‘Dial ‘M’ For Murder’ than I expected to be. I went into the film knowing that it isn’t considered to be a top-tier Hitchcock film. It doesn’t have the exciting thrills or the grandness of Hitchcock’s Cary Grant movies, but it’s a solidly constructed character piece.

The film takes place in a single apartment loft. It is essential for anyone interested in how to properly stage actors in close quarters for a long period of time: there isn’t a single shot duplicated throughout the run-time of the film.

The pure ingenuity of the camera movement is very apparent, considering that there’s only ten or so feet to work with in a cramped loft.
Hitchcock, his DP and crew discover new techniques to mask the moving camera or dolly, making a small, claustrophobic room feel like a vibrant, perpetually-changing wheelhouse.

It involves a man, Tony, an older ‘Edward G.Robinson’ kind of individual, who wants to execute a plan to kill his wife. His wife is also harboring a behind-the-curtains relationship with Mark Halliday, a younger, more exuberant character. It’s hard to believe that Tony doesn’t know about the cheating happening all around him. Mark is constantly hanging out at the loft, quietly flirting with his wife behind his back.

As the audience, we know who the murderer is from the very beginning: we see him orchestrate a detailed plan, and Hitchcock cares about making us care about the plans details. That way, when a pin drops and the plan doesn’t go as planned, we’ll know and be watching for it.

Tony plans to take his wife’s key to the loft and hide it underneath the staircase rug. He can use his own key to get into the apartment, thus proving he didn’t give away his key.

Tony hires an old friend to retrieve the key, open the apartment, and strangle his wife. The plan goes smoothly, no stains or residue left behind. No signs of a break-in or convenient marks to aid the detectives in their search.

Eventually, through all the grey area and intrigue, Tony’s plan breaks apart completely. He now must race to insure that nobody discovers the man he just recently hired to harm his wife. Among those fighting on the offensive against Tony is, naturally, Mark Halliday, the third angle of the triangle.

A Dangerous Method (2011) – Film Review

There is a hope that Director David Cronenberg doesn’t turn Jung and Freud into the archetypes they define, and he definitely does not; it’s the sharpest detour from his usual style that we’ve seen since “A History of Violence”. It features great period costume design and performances from a bunch of young talent, including Michael Fassbender as Jung; a psychotic storm of a performance from Kiera Knightly and some slightly subdued acting from Viggo Mortenson as Freud.

The movie is pulsating with humanity and compassion, yet still extremely engaging. It involves a patient turned-affair between Jung and Sabina, and the anger and self-hatred that ensues following the trajectory of said affair; a sort of growth in Jung’s own person, a feeling of a massive hole in the world, an absence of any real answers. Letters are sent conspicuously between Freud, Sabina, and Jung. The characters interweaving stories combined with their well-known sensibilities pulls the narrative briskly forward.

The different schools of thought between the two famous psychologists fuels a sort of competitive tension throughout. Freud says at one point, as Jung and he dwell on the deck of a ship, that he had a dream. But when Jung asks him about it, he refuses to tell him it in fear of it diminishing his authority, as he is usually the one saying what is and isn’t wrong with a person. It reveals Freud’s desire to make psychoanalysis legitimate by not following Jung’s phenomenological theories, or fairy tales, which he felt would make psychoanalysis look unscientific.

The movie was wrongfully cut off from the Oscar parade. It’s one of my favorite films of 2011. A deep, intellectual study of psychological and sexual obsession, and an enchanting showcase for Kiera Knightley’s dramatic abilities.

Flight (2012) – Film Review

Flight stars Denzel Washington in a new live-action movie by Robert Zemeckis, which walks over all the sentimental tracks he’s known for. The film is a study of an alcoholic man and pilot, a ticking combination as it is: Whip Whitacker, constantly drinking, even while piloting 102 people on an airplane. Watching the man drive a car under the influence makes you think how easy it must be for him, though its no less illegal.

After he successfully lands an airplane doomed to fail by erroneous malfunction, he must battle the ensuing rage over his blood alcohol level that’s far off the legal level for even driving a vehicle. But he’s not taking on this battle sober. He’s a steady alcoholic, drowning away his alcohol problem with an alcohol problem.

Whip not only has to work through an alcohol problem through the course of the film, but a minor drug addiction as well. He, and his new girlfriend, who he meets in the hospital after she overdoses and he crashes, both need rehab. But Whip denies it, a process of self-loathing that ultimately leads to an ending characteristic of Hollywood.

John Goodman brings on his massive charisma as Whip’s ready-to-help drug dealer, and Don Cheadle stars as a Chicago lawyer working to save Whip from prison-time. Flight is a straight-forward, but effective morality tale, with enough reality to out-weigh the sparkly sensibilities.

Cosmopolis (2012) – Film Review

David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’ isn’t as effective as one would hope from a director with such longevity. It features Robert Pattinson as a young capitalist, Eric Packer, roaming in a limo through a city that, in numbers, is practically his. He is confident and filled with absolutism, the sort of rock-hard complex that can explain his seat in society without one even knowing his profession. Pattinson rolls off Cronenberg’s intellectual jargon with sterility, creating a mood outside of the character: The things Packer says sometimes seem outside of himself, like he is talking not about what he wants to do, but what he should.

The themes are different for Cronenberg: sure, the movie has sex, sexual demands, and lack of meaning behind sex, all part of his past portfolio, but he takes on capitalism with a preachers might. He’s really trying to pry some nastiness up from the ground; but in all, It’s hard to take it in from a character like Eric Packer, who has conquered the system. As the majority are not rich and well-informed, the didactic notions of the people concerned in the movie all seem hypocritical. The people who are more impacting when it comes to capitalist unfairness are from the neo-realist films of Italy and America’s depression-era.

With all great filmmakers, a flop is still worth more of a penny than the work of other less gifted directors. There are moments in Cosmopolis that are thrilling and artful, most especially the scenes including Paul Giamatti as a man who wants to kill for notoriety. It takes a scene with little physical content or inventiveness and analyzes it far beyond first glance. In the end, if you’re going to be killed, talking about it doesn’t change anything.

One aspect of Cosmopolis that is done right: the music. It’s a bumping, techno-like rhythm that rolls along side the colorful limousine, all done originally by Howard Shore. It features the death of a rapper–and his subsequent song playing as Packer mourns the death he, as an information man, didn’t know about right away. He’s as much crying about his lack of knowledge as he is the death, having met him but once.

The cold nature of the film will turn some away  without a doubt. But this surreal, strangely engaging film presents streams of ideas followed by detailed direction by David Cronenberg.

Ordinary People (1980) – Film Review

‘Ordinary People’ shows that a drama doesn’t need to be flashily edited or force intense drama into the obnoxious use of a shaky-cam. Here, we see a modern family encountered with internal issues, and they all play out in a wide lens, where all the gesture and concerns of the family are seen, or unseen, in the case of the mother. The past unravels subtly through the course of the film: Conrad Jarrett is a quiet teenager with transparent problems with himself and his surroundings. Once the story starts, his point of desperation is of the past: he is a post-suicide patient. The Jarrett family is torn between the grief of losing their older son in a boating, and the grief of almost losing their younger son. Based on a novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People is a movie that you will remember for its characters. This is a screen that is filled with characters that are as descriptive, it seems, as they were in the pages of Guest’s book.

The mother is a self-restrained, calculated mess, who can’t handle her son and the trouble he puts on her; nor can she handle the fact that her older son, her prize sportsman, is gone forever. One emotionally exhausting scene is when Conrad comes home unexpected to find his mother, while she is sitting and breathing in the room of her first son. The room seems to not have been cleaned or altered a hair. With Conrad standing tensely in the hallway, she yelps that she didn’t expect him home, seeming to be angry, almost a mechanism to cover up any form of weakness she thinks she is displaying. Conrad sees it differently: he wants a mother who will mourn with him, not one who dreads while the rest of the family isn’t home.

The father is an over-sympathetic wreck, throwing blame on himself where he should be nurturing. He is an extremely loving person, and ends up attending the same psychiatrist Conrad is going to. He hopes to piece his family together, but so much lack of assurance from his wife and son leaves him in quiet desperation.

And Conrad, the sullen, skinny teenager, is quiet yet tempered, walking through life as if he just made bail and has been released from prison. He is in the shroud of surviving attempted suicide, and it is a cause in itself to be weighed down: it seems like all eyes are on Conrad’s behavior, hawks perching along side, making sure he is alright, but little else. When a conversation is most engaging while talking about hurting oneself or the death of a family member, a personality disorder cannot seem very odd.

The film is a magnificent exploration of family dynamics and the suppression and consequence of extreme grief. Every performance is well-defined and complex–a film that won’t be forgotten easy, like the lost Sonny, because of the sheer impact of its characters, both in story and relevance.

The Master (2012) – Film Review

The Master is a meditative exercise into the mind and mannerisms of Freddie Quell, a man whose quest for post-war sanity is filtered through the radicalism of a cult leader. This ‘cult’ is based loosely, as has been said somewhat hesitantly by the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, on L. Ron Hubbard and his pseudo-religion, Scientology. The film poses many questions during the course of its two-hour plus run-time: It is not restrained by the objectivity of a plot. We’re taken into the world of Lancaster Dodd, played with the veteran finesse that has come to characterize actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work, and offered the choice to make our own judgements of the material, like how a reader judges and deciphers a religious or ‘cult’ book.

Freddie Quell is played by Joaquin Phoenix with such determination and angst that it would seem the actor is hosting completely opposite thoughts than his character: naturalistic yet seasoned, Freddie is a skin-and-bones alcoholic with nothing to lose.  He is a drifter and as usual with drifters, he is fairly free-minded. He allows Lancaster Dodd to enter his mind with his enlightenment garbage, yet comes out the other end with little visible improvement.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson has said before that he is an actor’s director; as shown by his previous films, like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, Anderson enjoys weaving the intricacies of relationships and the pasts of his characters. This is shown indefinitely in The Master. He uses rack-focus and blurriness to describe his characters and their emotions. He uses extreme close-ups and holds them for a long period of time to show the tenseness flowing behind the eyes. During the ‘processing’, the movie’s equivalent to auditing, we feel like we’re asking the questions: the frame is positioned directly on Freddie Quell, a squirmy, defensive man, anxious to protect any self-pride remaining in him.

The character of Freddie Quell holds a consistent pattern: he is sexually obsessive, too young for his body, and absolutely alcoholic. He uses paint thinner and even accidentally poisons an old man. Upon meeting Lancaster Dodd, the cult leader wants him to make a boat-load of this potent, dangerously concentrated liquor for him. Freddie blatantly replicates actions of people, but only when they seem to work out successfully. But of all, he is not a man, as The Master says, but a guinea pig. He is used by Dodd to perform strange interrogations of character, one session where Freddie has to remain unblinking while being intensely questioned.

The film is beautifully shot and rendered, a slow-moving piece that isn’t restrained by expectations. Anderson doesn’t seem to have a firm viewpoint or judgement on the merit of Scientology: he is filling the screen with flush images and letting us judge them for ourselves.

Arbitrage (2012)

Richard Gere stars in this engaging legal thriller, a pot-boiler of a film that takes a look through the arbitrary lens of Robert Miller, a hedge-fund magnate. Gere plows through the film in style, an assured actor with an even more assured character. Confidence is what’s important to Robert Miller, and he embodies it like a club owner, a talent scout, a man pronounced lower than what his age describes. But after an unexpected, self-caused tragedy occurs, a desperate cover-up ensues to protect the intricate life he’s created.

He is a man of several lives, with an adult family and an artistic mistress on the side. The movie has a coherent plot, but mainly it is a character study; during many points in the film, Robert Miller uses his power position as an excuse for what he’s done; that people are counting on him, his paychecks, his advice, and his continuity. There are several moments that reveal his true character, and at the beginning we are left in the dark, first stopping by a family gathering in celebration of his birthday, and then off to his late-night date, a rousing artist with an old man crush.

It’s hard not to like Robert, too. He’s a man who uses people at his disposal, a manipulating con-man whose tactics you can’t help but admire. He’s a free roaming form of Leonardo DiCaprio from ‘Catch Me If you Can’, but he’s evil and a deterrent to society and the values we stage. It’s always known when a man with well-backed finances is convicted of a crime: because the effects of it are so loud. And so, the men at the top are consistently guarded by politicians and other easily bribed figures; but one man, Det. Michael Bryer, is willing to get up on his toes and attempt to push Robert down. Det. Bryer is played by Tim Roth with a sort of Brooklyn go get em’ grit, and it is this hot head energy that ultimately postpones Robert’s demise.

The film boasts excellent performances from Richard Gere, and a much-needed character performance by Tim Roth; the intense energy of Roth’s role as detective Bryer prevents Arbitrage from becoming a grossly overwhelming study of a capitalist. Nate Parker has a side role also, as a young man who takes the fall for Robert’s circumstance, though I feel his acting is as disposable as his character. Too many gasps and cliché notions of loyalty: when all things close, Arbitrage is a movie with definite intelligence, but a few dramatic gaps.

Hard Eight (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature-length film is a testament to his consistency as a filmmaker, admirable in itself. It’s a character-driven movie of confused morals and intentions–the latter remaining unknown for a majority of the film. It features a bravura performance from that actor who you’ve never seen not old and always wondered why–Philip Baker Hall–because this was the movie that introduced him to the world. His name is Sydney, and he seems to be a giving, fatherly character. He finds John, played by John C. Reilly, sitting on the ground in front of a coffee shop, broken down by the thought of his empty-pockets following his departure from Vegas. He offers him some coffee and the opportunity to sit down with him. Like most would, maybe not so many homeless folk, he wonders what Syndey wants from him, stating upfront that he wont do any gay acts.

The relationship between Sydney and John grows into a budding friendship and a personal enterprise for John. Sydney teaches him how to reel in the cash with only fifty dollars, and ever since, John’s been doing fine scrapping cash in casinos. Sydney reveals at one point that he has kids, but that he hasn’t seen them in a long time, very similar to the character of Amber in Anderson’s next feature, “Boogie Nights”. The suppression of emotion from losing their kids, be it emotionally or legally, is replaced by the need to be a parental figure to someone completely unrelated to them; Amber is obsessed with Dirk, Sydney with John, though for slightly different reasons.

The swooping camera pans that are so familiar to fans of Anderson are on great display in Hard Eight. Walking through the flashing casino floors, the main characters present themselves like kings, regardless of the fact that they aren’t Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino. The two leading men, played by John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, would end up mostly being character actors for the bulk of their careers. And great ones, too. We can see from the beginning that John is not a particularly intelligent person; and the problem doubles once he falls in love with Clementine, an equally witless waitress played by Gwyneth Paltrow. They get married suddenly, very early on in the relationship. After a short time, they end up in a violent pickle of sorts, one of the best scenes of the movie; on the Hard Eight audio commentary, Anderson and Philip Baker Hall talk about the struggle of shooting the hotel scene, or any scene that involves big chunks of dialogue in a constrained area such as a single-bed room. They beg Sydney to help them out, like a child shocked and afraid of the fact that they’ve just spilled milk. They are, through the eyes of Sydney, a bunch of crazy, unguided kids living in an overwhelmingly wild-west world.

The movie is mainly about Sydney: It’s a character study above all else. ‘Sydney’ was in fact the original title Anderson intended for the film, until executives demanded it was changed to the more flashy and marketable title of Hard Eight. The film is essentially split into two acts: Sydney helping John and Clementine; and the discoveries made about Sydney once the two lovers have to run from Vegas. The first act has a confusing, somewhat blank tone. We’re given virtually no clues as to why Sydney wants to help these people, besides the fact of being a bored old man consumed by habitual afternoon gambling. The second half is much more revealing and consequentially more engaging, featuring a pitch-perfect performance from a young Samuel L. Jackson. Once the end credits roll, the movie feels rewarding and contemplative, a story of dangerous desires in an equally dangerous city.

Lawless (2012)

Lawless isn’t a particularly consistent movie when it comes to narrative, but its characters and the actors behind them are always riveting. The main performances from Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf are dimensional and more than just a showcase for pulpy grit. It has enough mixed personalities in the bag to keep the movie shaking, keep us entertained and unsuspecting, and most importantly, engaged.

The plot surrounds a truth-based story of the Bondurant brothers, set in the ambient and potentially over-done time of prohibition. The movie is not a blown-up picture of the TV show Boardwalk empire: It’s an atmospheric, well-lit movie with enough slow-panning shots to please the people who hated the shaky-cam of 2009’s Public Enemies. That said, the story is a bit slight, featuring nothing but a slow and determined death wish, mainly from younger brother Jack (LaBeouf), who can’t control his young and angry energy. Jack is the one brother who seems intelligent: quiet-spirited, rather small, he stands low in contrast against his two older brothers. At one point in the film, he walks in on his brothers making revenge, a lashing that Jack wanted a part of; when he sees what they are doing, it hits him hard that this isn’t a playground beating, this is a torture cell.

The authorities are obviously the main object in the brothers bootlegging path: mainly, a man from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played frighteningly by Guy Pierce, who means to take them down at all costs. When he charges into the moonshine factory, after following Jack and his new religious bred girlfriend, Bertha, Jack stands his ground and his partner Cricket leaves with Bertha. When Jack makes it back home, with his brothers, he’s worried about Cricket, yet shows no sense of worry for the girl we spend a lot of time watching him wag his tongue over. He seems to show her a lot of affection, buying her a dress, driving her in his car, yet doesn’t even mention her or show concern if she’s alright.

Of course there is always a lack of dimension and depth when there is only one villain: we have to pour all our energy into Charlie Rakes, and be confident that he is such a snake that he would definitely act the way he is acting. It worked mainly because of Guy Pierces performance, hair parted down the middle in black grease. He was truly sinister man, and creates the often done contradiction where the smugglers don’t seem like the bad guys, but the authority does; and we want him to die, like the brothers. The movie has strong characters and acting, and the setting is enough to entertain despite a pretty limp plot.