Weekly Quick Notes: Chinatown, Bob le Flambeur

Brief blurbs for each movie I watched last week, favorites first.

Chinatown (1974)

Dirty water.

Everyone wants to appear as though their water is clean and respectable (Jake makes a fuss about "working" and making an "honest living"; "He has to swim in the same water we all do."), but just having water at all signifies high class living and moral corruption (Noah Cross has a pool and a fountain in his backyard; "We're in the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns."). Class conflict as a struggle for resources in an ocean owned by the aristocracy.

(Piano slowly drips onto the score, building gradually into waves of strings and brass crashing into the rocky shoals of percussion.)

Top 10's: Mystery | 1970's | 70's Neo-Noir
Best Picture Losers | The Rewatch List

Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Dark corners of Parisian nightlife distinctly located in time and space (post-WWII, end of the French Fourth Republic). Boys and girls drinking and gambling their youth away trying to be grown ups in glorified back alleys. One man, older and wiser but just as alive, watches over the streets and cares for this troubled family.

A fragile society reduced to the imperative to have fun and enjoy life, struggling to maintain its own code of conduct. A fraught movie struggling with the vanishing morality of the world after the war.

A tale of friction and strife told with so much vigor and ingenuity that it inspired a new wave of French cinema. Exuberantly stylish.

Favorite of its Year | France | Heists

Carlito's Way (1993)

"The street is watching, she is watching all the time."

Opening title card plays over Carlito's dying face: the way of Carlito is found in death. A man driven to uphold his ideals even when those he upholds them for abandon and betray him.

A man doubly out of time: with the start of a new era, he has found that he no longer belongs, no longer knows his place, and he's running out of time to figure it out.

The first cracks in the foundation of society's belief in the future are found at the bottom; when criminals struggle to find their morality, the whole world feels its structure shaking. The only "escape to paradise" comes after life has already left.

Brian De Palma

Sanjuro (1962)

The (super)heroic impropriety of a sword unable to be sheathed. Sanjuro's superpower is the knowledge that to establish a new system of law you have to violently violate the old system, but also that this violence does not belong within the new system.

This is both why he succeeds (he's willing to go all the way) and why he can't stay afterward ("all the way" is "too far"). Sometimes an unsheathable sword is necessary (up against another unsheathable sword; "He was just like me..."), but it's too dangerous to keep around.

The eruption of blood here has an ethical dimension which is lost in its subsequent imitations. Sanjuro embodies this excessive bloodshed in a way that is both righteous and unacceptable. The villainy of heroism.

Akira Kurosawa

Focus (2015)


1. The skill of a con artist in concentrating her target's attention away from the central action (the stealing).

2. The act of a cinematographer maintaining beautifully shallow depth of field (turning background lights into gems, as if to be stolen by the protagonists), likewise (re)directing the audience's attention.

3. The characteristic of a film which eschews concerns of character depth and thematic complexity in order to concentrate more completely on the entertainment value of charismatic leads, quick pace, and a solid soundtrack (and, of course, the visuals).

2015: New Releases | Digital Cinematography

Chappie (2015)

"Maybe he's more than a stupid robot that kills people."

Nothing to say about what separates humanity from intelligent machines or intelligent machines from human-controlled machines (in this world they're all stupid and violent). Instead concerned with the dangers of bad parenting: Chappie's initial innocence, the way his stupid and violent parents make him stupid and violent.

Blomkamp always imbues his films with a unique sense of place—the infantile pastels of his machine guns hint at his characters' relationship with warfare.

More a collection of (disorganized) thematic one-acts than a single developed narrative. No sympathetic perspective after Chappie "grows up".

2015: New Releases