2015 Blindspot Series: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

My contribution to Ryan McNeil's 2015 blindspot series blogathon, where I watch a film each month that I have never seen before.

John Cassavetes attempt at a gangster film noir is steeped in night-time darkness and red colored lighting. The clothes are very 1970s. The story is a simple one about a nightclub owner who gets into trouble when he loses a large amount of money during a poker game at a mob gambling club. Ben Gazzara delivers a great performance in the lead role as Cosmo Vittelli, he is virtually in every scene. The standout sequence is in the middle of the film when he goes to the Chinese guy’s apartment, which is quite thrilling and nail-biting. The meeting in the abandoned warehouse is also suspenseful. The film feels quite improvisational in the dialogie scenes, which director John Cassavetes is known for during that period.  I've read the dialogue and action was scripted but delivery was not.

I don’t have the same praise for the rest of the movie. It’s too slow paced and in need of an editor. I imagine the same story could have been told in 100 minutes rather than 135 minutes. Too much time is spent on the night club performers and their acts, which does give the movie a sense of place, but tends to meander. Apparently the director has subsequently made a shorter edit of the film running at 109 min.
Cosmo Vittelli is the only character we really care about, and it’s interesting how he goes ahead as usual despite everything, not wanting to face the facts. There are chinks in his armor, which those close to him are able to notice. Perhaps it’s about masculinity and the inability to show weakness in the face of adversity. The slow transformation of the main character is not that obvious. In the end, I see it as a character study rather than a crime story. I've read you can watch the film as an allegory for director John Cassavetes' own life, who in order to support his family had to compromise his morals by taking acting jobs in Hollywood.
Overall, I just wish the first hour was as strong as the last hour. It failed at the box office, but has since gained an appreciation on home release and is now part of the Criterion Collection.

Rating 7/10

Agree or diagree? Have you seen The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)? What do you think of John Cassavetes as a filmmaker?

Top 10 songs by Nirvana

With the recent release of what some have called the definitive Nirvana documentary Montage of Heck (2015) (see my review here), it seems appropriate to take a look back at Nirvana's career.

You can listen to my top 10 below on the YouTube playlist I created.

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit (from 1991's Nevermind)
2. Come As You Are (from 1991's Nevermind)
3. All Apologies (from 1993's In Utero)
4. In Bloom (from 1991's Nevermind)
5. Lithium (from 1991's Nevermind)
6. Something In The Way (from 1991's Nevermind)
7. About A Girl (from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York)
8. Heart Shaped Box (from 1993's In Utero)
9. The Man Who Sold The World (David Bowie cover) (from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York)
10. Lake of Fire (Meat Puppets cover) (from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York)

Just missed:
Dumb (from 1993's In Utero)
Pennyroyal Tea (from 1993's In Utero)
Stay Away  (from 1991's Nevermind)
All Apologies (from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York)
Rape Me (from 1993's In Utero)
Oh, Me (Meat Puppets cover) (from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York)
Territorial Pissings (from 2001's Nevermind 20th anniversary edition)
Polly (from 2001's Nevermind 20th anniversary edition)
Sappy (from 2004's boxset With the Lights Out)
Serve the Servants (from 1993's In Utero)
You Know You're Right (from 2002's Best of Nirvana)
Where Did You Sleep Last Night (from 1994's MTV Unplugged in New York)
Breed (from 1991's Nevermind)
Been A Son (from 1992's Incesticide)
Sliver (from 1992's Incesticide)

Agree or disagree? Which are your favorite albums or tracks by Nirvana? What did you think of the new documentary Montage of  Heck?

Book review: On The Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

I’ve attempted to write the review with no major spoilers.

About being young, restless and searching for adventure. The journey sometimes more important than the destination, hitchhiking and meeting people on the road, giving the narrator (who is a writer) lots of experiences and people to write about. A time capsule to a particular period in the 1950s. In the novel, Kerouac defined a new rebellious, counter-culture generation known as the beat generation. The media buzz surrounding the book sent countless kids on the road.

Sal Paradise narrates the story, he is friends with unpredictable Dean Moriarty. To some extent both of them are drifting around America, sowing their wild oats. The book is an autobiographical account of the author's own life. Fearing libel suits, Kerouac and the pubishers changed the names to pseudonyms.
Viking Press demanded major revisions prior to publication, and many of the more sexually explicit passages were removed. I read the original novel from 1957, but there is also a longer unabridged scroll version, which was written in 1951 and was released in the 2000s. The scroll is essentially nonfiction, a memoir that uses real names.

At first Sal hitchhikes by himself. Later he journeys with Dean and others. They are always running away from problems, or seeking something new. Not dwelling very long. In some respects this short attention span mirrors today's youth culture. Sal reflects on page 113: “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

You could argue what they are doing lacks purpose. Saying yes to plenty but not really committing to anything serious. Perhaps the reason they keep moving is because staying in the same place they would become bored and realize what they are doing is futile, partying, going to bars, stealing cars, having random sexual encounters, doing drugs, etc.
Old Bull (aka Old William S. Burroughs) on page 131 asks them why they travel and they have no answer. Page 121: “We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function, move. And we moved!”
On page 105 Sal says: “This can’t go on all the time – all this franticness and jumping around. We’ve got to go someplace, find something”. A journey of self-discovery. As a critic noted, the characters are "replacing the ladder of success with the freedom of the road as primary measures of male identity."

 Ann Charters writes in the introduction that Sal’s point of view is comparable to that of Nick Carraway, who befriended and observed Jay Gatsby. Page 120: “Dean had every right to die the sweet deaths of complete love of his Marylou. I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to follow”
Kerouac has admitted he studied The Great Gatsby (1925), and it "had shown him the value of inventing a sympathetic narrator to tell the story of an American hero who fled his past to embrace what he imagined was the freedom of his future."

Acquaintances tell Dean he is irresponsible and has “absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks”(page 176). Sal knows Dean and Marylou are getting him into all sorts of trouble, but some friends are better than no friends, and Sal misses the excitement when he is alone. Dean (real name Neal Cassady) was beloved for his ability to inspire others to love life.

I didn’t jot down all the references to music, except the song Sweet Adeline. To be honest the passages about listening to jazz bands I didn’t find that interesting. I guess it was more fun to have been there than to read about. Ann Charters describes jazz in the introduction as "symbolizing the source of American freedom and creativity. Like Dean, Sal is passionately immersed in jazz, an ardent admirer of Billie Holliday, Slim Gaillard, George Shearing, Lester Young"

In one of my favorite sections (part 1, chapter, 11, page 53-71), Sal goes to San Francisco. Here his friend Remi Boncoeur helps Sal get a job at a barracks. The events really comes to life and the situations are memorable. It’s quite different to the rest of the book, as it doesn’t take place on the road.

Another favorite passage of mine (part 3, chapter 8 and 9, page 203-216) takes place on the road, a fast-paced trip in a Cadillac limousine from Denver to Chicago. It’s undeniably thrilling, told in a way so I couldn’t stop reading.

The book seems to endorse the reckless and impulsive “on the road”  lifestyle as a method to gain experience and live life to the fullest, yet also acknowledges living that way can be hurtful to those you are irresponsible towards.

Today considered a classic. The Modern Library ranked On the Road 55th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Rating 4/5

Agree or disagree? Have you read On The Road? 

New songs I'm listening to

The Only Thing Worth Fighting For by Lera Lynn (True Detective, Season 2)

It Gonna Come by Melody Gardot

B a noBody by SOAK

Sitting Up On Our Crane by Pond

Wallflower by Peacock Affect/George Holman  (listen to his other material here)

Fade Away by Susanne Sundfør

A Million Stars by McCluskey, Kroehler, Antonoff, Dost  (The D Train soundtrack)

I have not previously shared any of these tunes. All are from 2014-2015 albums. Are you familiar with any of these artists? Which new or old music are you currently listening to?

Top 10 songs by New Order

Following the untimely death of Ian Curtis, the remaining members of Joy Division changed their name and returned as New Order. I love them primarily as a singles band.  Run is a great single, but the 1989 album Technique I consider overrated, and its plonkity-plonk sound is a bit dated now. Disc 1 of Substance (1987) is my favorite album by New Order.

You can listen to my top 10 below on the YouTube playlist I created

1.) Bizarre Love Triangle (from 1986's Brotherhood)
2.) True Faith (from 1987's compilation album Substance)
3.) Temptation (1982 single)
4.) Ceremony (1981 single)
5.) Your Silent Face (from 1983's Power, Corruption & Lies)
6.) Blue Monday 88 (1988 single)
7.) Everything's Gone Green (1981 single)
8.) Procession  (1981 single)
9.) Elegia (from 1985's Low-Life) (used in the 1986 John Hughes movie Pretty in Pink)
10.) The Perfect Kiss (from 1985's Low-Life)

Honorable mentions:
Age Of Consent (from 1983's Power, Corruption & Lies)
Thieves Like Us (1984 single)
Run (from 1989's Technique)
Vanishing Point (from 1989's Technique)
Crystal (from 2001's Get Ready)
Ecstasy (from 1983's Power, Corruption & Lies)
All Day Long (from 1986's Brotherhood)
1963 (from 1987's compilation album Substance)
Dreams Never End (from 1981's Movement)
Doubts Even Here (from 1981's Movement)
Confusion (1983 single)
I'll Stay With You (from 2013's Lost Sirens)
Hellbent (from 2013's Lost Sirens)
Touched By The Hand Of God (from 1988's Salvation! soundtrack)

Agree or disagree? Which are your favorite albums or tracks by New Order?

Viewing recap June

Ex-Machina (2015)
Good but not great. The film looks impressive, sets, special effects, and so on. I was interested in the characters and how the story would play out.
Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but the ideas didn’t feel fresh, basically was a rehash of themes from Blade Runner (1982), about what makes us human, is it ok to love a robot, and the dangers of AI.
The story wasn’t exceptional, so not quite a genre classic. Perhaps a film I need to see again to appreciate.
Rating 7/10

It Follows (2014)
Horror/mystery about a group of youngsters. A curse follows the inflicted and cannot be seen by others, when they have sex it is passed on to another person. This is actually a pretty good idea. Sadly the only thing I remember is the pool scene. The rest was decent but forgettable. The biggest weakness is it just wasn’t scary at all. The synth-driven score by Disasterpeace I liked.
You can interpret it as a film about sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of unsafe sex. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell told The Daily Beast:
“For me, it’s not just that the characters have sex and are then put in danger. In the film, sex is more symbolic of life itself—just the act of living opens ourselves up to danger.”
Rating 6/10

Lost River (2014)
I liked the neon colors, the Johnny Jewel soundtrack, brooding atmosphere, and the poster. I hated the violent scenes. Somewhat reminiscent of Only God Forgives (2013).
Obviously the economic downturn is touched on with rampant unemployment, and the main characters struggling to keep their house.
Ben Mendelsohn’s singing performance was unexpected. The “skull costumes” at the nightclub reminded me of the skull helmets from Batman Returns (1992).
No masterpiece, and a bit flashy and pretentious, but not as bad as the reviews suggest.
Rating 6.5/10

American Sniper (2014)
The scene when the phone is dropped and she doesn’t know if her husband is alive or dead is quite horrifying. The lack of explanation about the ending is puzzling, I suppose we are supposed to google ourselves what happened.
While the action scenes are quite suspenseful and the main reason for praise, the story tends to go in a good vs. evil direction, depicting the Americans as hero’s and Muslims as blood thirsty enemies. There are no diplomatic solutions mentioned besides murder, which is unfortunate. The film does nothing to make us like the Muslims, in fact it demonizes them and encourages racism. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is nicknamed legend, but in reality Chris Kyle describes killing as fun in his memoir, which is not addressed in the movie. Neither pro-war nor anti-war, American Sniper balances somewhere in the middle.
Rating 6/10

Margaret (2011)
My first viewing of the extended cut (179 min), which is about 30-40 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The added scenes extend already existing scenes, and add a few new ones. What still impresses me is the writing. A mature coming of age drama suitable for adults. The length of the film makes us step into a world and see Lisa's mood swings, good days, and bad days, good decisions and bad.
Cinematically the restaurant scene when two conversations are going on at once is interesting, albeit gimmicky. Robert Altman may have been an influence there.
The scenes of tall buildings in New York with planes flying above felt a bit too on the nose. Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) seems less likable in the extended cut, especially in how she treats her male friend from school.
I'm glad I finally saw this longer version, but I'd rate the theatrical cut higher, which feels sharper and to the point(and is in my top 100).
Rating 8/10

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
I see it as a satire on the rich, who have nothing better to do than play flirtatious games. Even helping the poor is seen as a means to grab the attention of a woman.
Won an Oscar for adapted screenplay, and it is cleverly written, although I found the schemes difficult to follow, and all the names thrown around difficult to keep track of. The best scenes are at the end, and the last 10 minutes surprised me.  I didn't like any of the characters, but I suppose they weren't supposed to be likeable.
The acting was good by John Malkovich and Glen Close. I agree with SJHoneywell that "there is something undeniably erotic and tawdry about someone using one lover as a desk to write a letter to another lover."
Rating 7/10

Grown-Ups (1980)
Made for TV film, written and directed by Mike Leigh. Mandy (a young and attractive Lesley Manville) and Dick (Philip Davis) have just moved into a council house. Gloria (Brenda Blethyn) is Mandy's needy and difficult sister. Gloria is helpful and has her heart in the right place, but she doesn't realize she is bothering them, and comes round a bit too often. Mr Butcher (Sam Kelly), one of their former teachers, happens to be living next door. He is depicted as an insensitive husband. They disliked him a school, but don't speak of it in his presence. For someone who educates children on history and religion, it's funny to see him read conspiracy theories in his spare time. Amusingly, Mr Butcher doesn't want to give Gloria a cup of tea, despite him claiming it's a "decent Christian household".
There is subplot about Mandy wanting a baby, but most of the time the characters react to what Gloria is doing. This is fine enough, just I felt the conflict is a bit one-dimensional. Things are too spelled out towards the end. The premise is comparable to Another Year (2010), my favorite Leigh film, which I felt was more emotionally involving.
Grown-Ups (1980)  has some humor, especially by the characters Dick and Mr Butcher, and gives an honest portrayal of working class life. Worth seeing, if you are a fan of Mike Leigh's work.
Rating 7.5/10

The Skeleton Twins (2014)
I love the lip-sync scene. Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now is a great pick-me-up song. The rest of the movie was decent, but the screenplay was a bit too sundance-y.
Rating 6/10

Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
Sequel to the monster hit from 1986. It's pretty obvious how the film will end, but along the way there are some fun moments, both in the city and in Australia. Not as bad as its reputation, although it did bother me her ex is not mentioned at all in the second half? An entertaining follow-up, if you are in the mood for something light.
Rating 6.5/10

The Wedding Singer (1998)
Entirely predictable romantic comedy. What lifts it above average are the charming characters and great 80s soundtrack. It's also quite funny in places. One of Adam Sandler's better films, before his career nosedived.
Rating 7.5/10

Brief Encounter (1945)
Rewatch. Directed by David Lean. Some aspects are a bit dated today in terms of marriage, although it is a film I became emotionally involved in. In fact made me shed a tear. The black and white photography is beautiful, and Celia Johnson delivers a captivating, awards worthy performance.
Rating 8/10

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Blind spot review
Rating 8/10

Agree or disagree? Seen anything great during June? As always, comments are welcome


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