Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

Beijing Bicycle

Based on the classic Bicycle Thieves, (1948)  Beijing Bicycle (2001) has some funny moments, some touching moments and shows the local color of the hutong neighborhood of Dongcheng, but I just couldn’t watch the whole thing.

I got the DVD from the library and had no idea that it was a Chinese version of Vittorio De Sica’s earlier film. At first this story of a poor boy who comes to the big city and gets a job as a messenger pulled me in. His boss hires several new messengers and they get nifty uniforms and new bikes which they can buy once they work a certain amount. His one friend in the city, tells him this is a really good job. Yet it’s not easy to keep it. There’s plenty of trouble getting across this labyrinth of a city and dealing with hard to find customers.

As in the original, just as the boy’s about to own the bike, he comes out of an office and it’s gone. He looks high and low and it’s been stolen. It’s catastrophic.

I sympathized with the hero when his bike was stolen. I was impressed by his perseverance in tracking down the bike (though in a city as vast and populous as modern Beijing, I didn’t entirely buy that). But after watching scene after scene when the boy’s beaten by the thuggish friends of a kid whom he found with the bike. This other boy’s dad had promised him a bike, but then tells him he couldn’t buy the bike because his younger sister has tested into a good school so the father decides to use the money for her tuition. This second boy, who attends a private school, where his pals are all wealthier. They all have bikes. So this kid steals from his father and buys the bike at a second hand bike shop. There’s a lot of conflict over the bike and the hero is beaten and harassed by the second boy’s thuggish friends.

Eventually, I reached a point where I couldn’t take any more of the film. I couldn’t imagine a way for the film to end and satisfy me. It was a portrait of a society or sub-culture of people with no morals. Everyone learns that the second boy stole money to buy this bike, yet his pals still beat the other kids and hold him hostage for hours. I reached a point where if felt like punishment.

Monsieur Vincent

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Vincent tries to get someone to adopt this orphan

When Monsieur Vincent opens, we see Vincent Depaul entering a deserted town. Whenever he knocks on a door, someone throws rocks at him from the second floor. Finally, Vincent who’s the new priest in town gets let inside. He discovers that the aristocrats inside are hiding hoping to avoid the plague. They’re in the midst of a wild party just in case they don’t escape the plague.

As the new priest, and one that lives the gospel, Vincent tries to convince the nobles to take in a girl whose mother has just died. They’re all to scared. He winds up taking her in a very modest room he’s rented.

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Vincent’s wisdom is revered by the rich. He’s soon the mentor and spiritual guide for a wealthy couple, but he wants to help the poor. When he tells his patrons that he plans to leave they keep him near by supporting his charity efforts more. This works for a while, but eventually Vincent goes to Paris where he begins a charity for the poorest of the poor.

Throughout his work with the poor, Vincent recruited wealthy women to help him and found great frustration when they didn’t agree with his ideas of expanding and expanding their charity programs. Eventually, realizing that people who understand the poor may be better to work with, he taps a poor girl to become one of his first nuns. Actually, she came to him and the light bulb went off.

I went to a high school named after Louise de Marillac, a wealthy woman, who became key to Vincent’s outreach to the poor. In the film, she’s just in a couple scenes. You can see that she’s a peer of the wealthy women, so Vincent wants her to lead them, though it’s tough to convince these opinionated women to trust Vincent. (St. Louise de Marillac wound up leading the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns that serves the poor.)

This bio pic was interesting and well done. I was surprised that so much of the time Vincent Depaul dealt with administrative issues and trying to persuade the aristocracy to help him more. I thought he was more “hands on.” In any event, the film moved along well and introduces people to this 17th century saint.

In French with subtitles.

Le Ciel à Vous

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Jean Grémillion’s Le Ciel à Vous, stands out as it’s uplifting film. Released during the occupation during WWII, it’s the story of a married couple, who must move their family’s home and business when their land is sold to make room for an aviation club’s airfield. Thérèse and Pierre Gauthier are happily married and even when they disagree they respect each other. They have a daughter and a son.

When Lucienne Ivry, a famous aviatrix, performs at the airfield, the Gauthier’s flock to the show. Nostalgic, Pierre remembers his days as a mechanic in WWI. He’s a master mechanic and saves the day when Ivry’s airplane’s engine fails.

Pierre grows more and more keen on flying and takes it up as a hobby. Meanwhile, his competent, beautiful wife gets more jealous. Her jealousy propels her to take up flying herself on the sly. When Pierre finds out, he panics. But when he sees how much she loves flying, they begin to share this somewhat dangerous hobby. Since Pierre’s a great mechanic and Thérèse has a knack for business, they are able to afford their own plane. In fact, they soon start winning prizes for aviation. All isn’t smiles though, when the family hits some financial troubles, the parents decide to sell their daughter’s piano. (The daughter was a fabulous pianist, but the mother made her quit the piano since she wanted the girl to enter a more practical field.)

Gremillon_Filmw_CielVous_originalEven when the going gets tough, and it seems that they should sell their plane, Pierre and  Thérèse keep flying. She racks up so many trophies her mother complains of all the extra dusting. As proficient as he was, Pierre knew their plane couldn’t break any more records for me. Then Thérèse decides she has a good chance to break the women’s long distance record of 2000 some miles. Her mother is against it and Pierre is torn too. He wants her to seek fulfillment and he does believe she can do this, but he also realizes it’s dangerous. Grémillion gives us such a multi-faceted marriage at the film’s core. Each wants the best for each other. Both Pierre nor Thérèse believe in fulfilling their duties to their business and family. They don’t just do what feels good. They’re cheerful, smart people throughout the story and while they may disagree, they do so with respect and dignity, which was so uplifting to watch.

The plot held my attention and I admit I wasn’t certain what would happen at the end. This is a film I’d definitely watch again.

Red Beard

 

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Two English Girls

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I was on a roll with Truffaut’s films till I got to Two English Girls, which based on a Henri-Pierre Roche novel. Again Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Claude, a young man whose mother sends him to stay with her British friend, who’s the mother of two young women, Ann and Muriel. Ann decides that Claude and her sister Muriel, who’s possibly going blind, are perfect for each other. Claude is rather inexperienced with women and there aren’t any other young women

All the characters are solemn. Missing in Two English Girls is the humor that is found in most of Truffaut films like Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Zazie dan le Metro, or even The 400 Blows. Since Jean-Pierre Léaud is never better than when he can be funny, so I’m not sure why that talent is wasted here. Probably the story is somber, but then why adapt this book? I just can’t figure out what compelled Truffaut to make this film.

Ann keeps pushing Claude into Muriel’s arms. She says it’s because Muriel is so smart and talented, but we just are told she is. There’s no demonstration of her talent or intelligence. Thus the film unintentionally demonstrates the poor results when you break the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing.

Claude does fall for Muriel, but I thought that’s because Ann and Muriel were the only women he saw. It’s almost like Claude is stuck on a low budget, Gilded Age version of The Bachelor. Eventually, Muriel pushes Claude away so the turns to Ann.

I bet you guess that some complications ensue, but they aren’t as explosive as you’d hope. These characters were more Zen than any I can remember. Very matter of fact and earnest. Very little joy. And when a character is heart-broken, he or she was something of a stoic zombie.

“Sometimes even Homer sleeps,” and in the case of Two English Girls, Truffaut seemed to be napping.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

 

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.