Archive | February, 2015

The Last Detail (1973)

11 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

WARNING: The last paragraph heavily discusses the film’s ending.

Jack Nicholson. What can you say about this iconic, highly charismatic actor (scratch that—“star,” not “actor”) that hasn’t been said already? He’s one of those actors who could read the dictionary or the phone book and be, for lack of a better word, awesome. There are a lot of movie buffs out there who will argue over which is his best performance. Some say it’s the pissed-off working-class man in “Five Easy Pieces,” some say it’s the slimily charming astronaut in “Terms of Endearment,” and so on. For me personally, it’s no question, although I’d say it’s more my “favorite” rather than “the best.” That distinction goes to his performance in 1973’s “The Last Detail,” as Naval Officer Buddusky, played with the Nicholson charm, the Nicholson attitude, and the Nicholson smirk. His nickname? “Bad Ass.” I get the feeling the screenplay was written with Nicholson in mind as this character because, to me, this completely defines everything this star stands for and is best known for.

Buddusky and his fellow officer “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are called upon for a “sh*t detail,” but this is one that seems fairly simple: transport a young sailor, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), from his Virginia Navy base to the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he will be imprisoned for eight years (“six years for good behavior,” Buddusky assures Meadows). Meadows’ crime was an attempt to lift $40 from a charity box belonging to the base commander’s wife’s favorite charity—a semi-petty crime from a budding kleptomaniac (though he never actually managed to get the money out of the box). Before Buddusky and Mulhall even get to know the kid, they agree that serving an eight-year prison sentence because of this isn’t the least bit fair. But along the way to the brig, by bus and train, they make small talk and get to know each other. The two officers escorting the prisoner find that he’s a sad-sack kid who’s as unlucky as they come. When he has a mental breakdown on the train, they take him off to relax, and Buddusky gets an idea to make this trip worthwhile by stretching it out as much as possible so he can show Meadows how to have a good time (or rather, Buddusky’s idea of a good time). Their two-day trip becomes a five-day journey of beer, ladies, and badass conduct before they inevitably must take Meadows to his destination.

One of the notable assets that works in the film’s favor is Robert Towne’s script (who also wrote another Nicholson vehicle, “Chinatown”), which doesn’t pull punches or go for the easiest task of sentiment. It’s mostly a series of scenes that are either funny, endearing, insightful, or even all three, mostly told through dialogue. The conversations between these three men are mostly natural exchanges and it’s always refreshing to hear characters just be regular people instead of pawns in a screenplay’s game. Credit should also go to director Hal Ashby and cinematographer Michael Chapman—they help what could be formless scenes into something more; something meaningful; something potent. Even in a scene where they’re just sitting around in a motel room, drinking beer, watching a movie, and talking about life and the future, it works because you get into these guys’ heads even more.

But I don’t want to make “The Last Detail” seem so deep that it’s not entertaining and it would chase people away, because it also is very funny, especially when Buddusky comes up with a new way of teaching Meadows how to have fun. There are also many sharp and witty lines of dialogue that makes the conversations between the characters fun to listen to. There’s a sense of underlying bleakness, but it only truly makes its way as a good balance. This way, when something humorous occurs, it’s well-deserved. Some of my favorite bits include a scene at a bar where Buddusky tries to get underage Meadows a drink and snaps at an uptight bartender and a scene in which he tries to hit on a pretty young woman by talking about romance or life on the sea while all she wants to talk about is politics.

Jack Nicholson was tailor-made for this role—profane, vulgar, charismatic, carrying a suitable devil-may-care attitude all throughout the film, and even kind of sentimental, which is notable in scenes such as when he tells Meadows to take back his order at a restaurant because he should “have it the way you want it.” His presence practically makes the film, and “Bad Ass” is the perfect nickname for his character (you were thinking the same thing). The other two actors, Otis Young and Randy Quaid, are solid support. Young is more controlled than Nicholson and a good counterpoint when Nicholson has another idea that may get them in more potential trouble while also (possibly) subtly respecting him in a way that he might actually wish he could be more like him. Quaid is perfect as their charge who is naïve, goofy, and likable; you could even say he’s so pathetic that it’s hard not to care for this poor guy.

At this point, I’m going to discuss the film’s ending in heavy detail. If you haven’t seen the film, please do and come back and read the rest of this review.

The ending of “The Last Detail” is one of the most intriguing and talked-about aspects of the film. It doesn’t end the way movie audiences, especially today’s, would expect. A more conventional film would have ended with Meadows’ escape from his escorts or any kind of decision that would have resulted in him not going to prison. It almost seems as if they were going to go in that direction, in a scene in which Meadows has his chance to escape while Buddusky and Mulhall are discussing bitterly what they have to do in the end. What happens? He bolts, causing them to chase him. They catch him (and not only that; Buddusky pistol-whips him). In the end, Buddusky and Mulhall do their duty and take Meadows to the prison where he is taken away without a word. A lot of people must be thinking, “Why did they do this? Why didn’t they let him escape? How could they let this happen to their new friend after all they’ve done together?” There’s no doubt that both Buddusky and Mulhall are heartsick about the inevitable, but they decide that it is their duty they set out to do and, being honorable men of their position, there’s no other final route. What may throw people off is the hidden irony, which is this—Buddusky pistol-whips Meadows when he catches him and the officer in command at the prison berates him for it…and Buddusky has already mentioned the probable brutality Meadows should expect in the prison. What does that say about the situation? (To be fair, Buddusky does lie when asked if Meadows tried to escape, just to save him any more trouble.) Something else conventional movie audiences would expect is Buddusky and Mulhall would become great friends after this. Do they? It’s hard to tell—as the two men leave, they talk about what they’re going to do next, one of them hoping his Navy orders came through. They just walk away, uncertain of their futures. Fade out. The end. Roll credits. This is what the late film critic Gene Siskel used to call the “life-goes-on” ending, a rarity in films. It’s a resolution in which no matter what we would like to happen to get a “happy ending” out of the film we’re watching, it ends in a way that both surprises and unsettles the audience. (“Terms of Endearment” is another example of this.) It doesn’t end the way we expect it to, or even the way we would like it to, but that’s what you can say for just about any situation in real life. As a plus, by ending movies this way, the audience remembers the movie and can think about what it all amounted to in the end. Discussions among friends can also come about. The ending of “The Last Detail” is hard, realistic, and also ambiguous. It’s a great ending to an already terrific film. The more times I watch it, the more I get out the setup, the journey, and the resolution

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

9 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Don Siegel’s 1956 cult classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a consistently creepy sci-fi thriller with a clever idea and a chilling subtext for its time, about (presumably) McCarthyism and the paranoia it caused. When you think about it, it’s a premise that would suit any time period and act as a metaphor for whatever issue is at hand in society. That’s what made the idea welcome to be reinterpreted for a remake in 1978. If the ‘50s version is a metaphor for McCarthyism, this ‘70s version could be about the beginning of a new generation that is all about themselves, ending the era of the flower people. But it could also work as a parable for faceless city life, having moved the original setting of a small suburban town to a big city.

But even when that aside (and it’s not a thought that’s dwelled upon in the actual film to begin with), Philip Kaufman’s 1978 retelling of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” not only matches the original in tone but also surpasses it in execution, concept, and even effect. This is a horror film that frightened, delighted, and captivated me all at the same time.

Strange-looking flowers have bloomed in San Francisco. A health department employee, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), picks it and decides to inspect it. She brings it home. The next morning, her selfish, slobbish boyfriend seems like a different person—more cold and distant. This is not her boyfriend, she argues, even if it still physically looks like him. Other people in the city have this problem as well, claiming that members of their family and friends are not the same people they used to be. Her colleague, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), is ignorant of any change until his writer friend, Jack (Jeff Goldblum), and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), discover a deformed body in the bathhouse they both run. The body has an adult figure but no distinguishing characteristics…and it slightly resembles Jack.

The body is missing when Matthew brings his psychiatrist friend, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), in on the discovery, and he dismisses everyone’s paranoia as excuses to get out of relationships or not accepting change in their lives. But when Elizabeth falls asleep and Matthew discovers a forming double of her, things get stranger and even more unnerving as it seems the flowers and their pods are the cause of the phenomenon. It seems people are being duplicated and replaced as emotionless beings, and before long, it’s becoming harder for our main characters to know who to trust.

About what I wrote above about how the film works as a parable for city life, that theme of individual isolation is present throughout, especially when more of the city’s residents become converted by the growing population of “pod people” and our main characters are easily outnumbered against many. How do you trust your fellow neighbor when you don’t know who he really is? It’s a scary notion that is played very effectively, as the invasion expands slowly but surely. The tone laced within the film’s atmosphere is perfect—there’s a great sense of quiet foreboding that makes small actions almost seductive. Even in the final half-hour, when the climax should be loud and bombastic, is still quietly creepy and succeeds at being suspenseful in moments of betrayal, fear, and shock. This isn’t a case of the “it’s-good-but-it-could’ve-been-great” syndrome that countless resolutions cause; this film is riveting from the beginning to the middle to the end. (And speaking of endings, I won’t spoil it, but it ranks among the best shockers in horror-film history.)

Most of the credit has to go to Kaufman, whose direction constantly fills the audience with uneasiness. And it looks and feels like he thought up every shot and decided to throw in a little extra something here or there for every frame of the film. He has a disturbing shadowy look that works with the material; he has extras stand still in windows and walls for unnerving effect; reflections cast oddities such as rays of light; and so on. I’ve seen this film about ten times so far—I’m not sure I caught everything as of now.

But more importantly, with a unique gritty style of filming, it feels real, which is one of the main reasons this film still continues to scare me.

This may not seem like an actor’s film, but all the actors do great, believable jobs. Donald Sutherland is excellent what could’ve been a thankless role; this actor knows how to grab your attention with his voice, his poise, and his attitude. Brooke Adams is suitably vulnerable and easily sympathetic. Leonard Nimoy gives us the same deadpan wit that his Mr. Spock character on “Star Trek” is known for, and it rings true for the character and for the situation at hand. Jeff Goldblum is good comic relief. Veronica Cartwright is the least impressive of the bunch, but she’s not bad; her terrified reactions seem a little over-the-top sometimes. While we’re on the subject of casting, Kevin McCarthy, from the original 1956 film, makes a terrific cameo appearance.

To sum up, I love this film. It’s a brilliantly unsettling remake that, in my opinion, even better than the original. I know someone out there is thinking of redoing this idea for a new version in a new era (as well they should, because a good allegory remains a good allegory); one can only hope it’ll be as solid as this version.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

9 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you—a bland, underdeveloped main character hates his or her life but doesn’t realize the very important reason for existing until someone or something is on the attack, causing the person to rise up, accept destiny, and fight back.

This story is tired and old, but I wouldn’t mind that if it had strong characterization, a gripping story, and an imaginative world. With the Wachowskis’ latest science-fiction adventure, “Jupiter Ascending,” they certainly have the world down. The film excels at establishing this new universe with great detail and even first-rate CGI. And you also want to find out more about this interesting place. But the problem is it constantly distracts from everything else and the characters get lost in it. You know the expression of the actors “chewing the scenery?” This is the scenery chewing the actors.

What’s worse is it’s trapped in a story with uninteresting characters, a ton of exposition that lost me as quickly as it had me, and even a shorter running time than it needs to really explain the backstory instead of rushing it out so quickly. But I should probably take back that last one, because it’s already two hours and I wouldn’t want to sit through much more of this mess.

Now, to be fair, there are a few nicely-done action scenes, including one involving attacking spaceships and a soldier flying around on anti-gravity boots, having to evade the enemy fire and keep hold of the film’s protagonist at the same time. That was a riveting scene and it had my attention. A lot of the action is nicely-handled. But there’s another problem with that—I easily forget what it is these aliens are fighting for. I assume it’s Earth, as it usually is, but what was the reasoning? (To be fair, I probably missed it in the ongoing exposition.)

Oh yeah, there’s a story here, right? Our protagonist is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant to the United States who works as a maid to aid her indigent family in Chicago. But things turn upside-down when a band of aliens try to kill her. It’s a hit ordered by the inter-dimensional Abrasax family—Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth)—who see Jupiter as a threat or as an opportunity to get what they’re interested in. It seems Jupiter is the reincarnation of someone who was originally part of their world, and she may even be of royal blood. A half-man/half-wolf being named Caine (Channing Tatum) is hired to protect her. As he gains her trust, he brings her back to his world, they experience more chases and fights, and she realizes who she truly is by the end of the film.

Oh I must reveal how they find out Jupiter is “royal” because this made me laugh so hard, I almost fell out of my seat in the theater. As Jupiter and Caine visit a farm where lots of bees surround Jupiter before she realizes they’re actually following her every move. Why is this happening? As one character explains, “bees recognize royalty.” If you think that’s funny, you’re going to love the true answer to the question, “what killed the dinosaurs?”

A lot happens in this hastily-rushed story that it’s hard to keep track of whose backstory and even harder to be invested in what little character development there is. Jupiter and Caine are supposed to fall in love, but I think Anakin and Padme in the “Star Wars” prequels had better chemistry than these two. There’s never a sense that these people really connect in a meaningful way. Jupiter is hardly interesting; she’s just a “regular person” without much depth to her that has all this madness happen to her. Caine is a semi-interesting character, but that’s only in his background of being engineered as a half-man/half-wolf creation; aside from that, he’s a standard tough badass hero role. Kunis and Tatum are likable actors, but they don’t have much to work with here.

The villains actually have nice moments and are given at least some personality traits, such as Titus’ smarmy charm. But this brings me to another problem with the film: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Balem. Balem is a straightforward villain, but Redmayne plays it with what he probably thinks is an “intense whisper” but comes across as Hugo Weaving imitating Dumbledore. Redmayne is currently nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” and we know he’s a great actor, but he really picked the wrong choice to play this character in this manner.

The “Star Wars” sequels helped further the development of its hero, Luke Skywalker, making his journey more harrowing and personal. With Thomas “Neo” Anderson in the “Matrix” sequels…well, they tried. I don’t think “Jupiter Ascending” is lucky enough to get a franchise, so I’m sorry, Jupiter—I hope your future missions go well without us.

NOTE: I’m just going to address the Abrasax family personally—Have you ever considered she probably wouldn’t be a threat if you didn’t try to kill her in the first place, you morons?! Oh wait. Then we wouldn’t have a movie. Never mind.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

6 Feb

last house 72 01

Smith’s Verdict: **
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning: This review contains many spoilers (but it is an older movie).

“The Last House on the Left” was the feature debut for director Wes Craven, who would go on to be best known for horror films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (and its sixth sequel, “New Nightmare”), the “Scream” movies, and “Red Eye.” I know he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of interesting ideas to put into the mix of his films, and to be fair to “The Last House on the Left,” I think I kind of understand the reasoning behind most of the choices made for it. Let me explain…

There are many strange elements to this film, all of which are very distracting in comparison to some disturbing, brutal scenes of sex and violence. The soundtrack contains a lot of cheesy, upbeat music, including a theme song for the film’s antagonists and a melancholy (“foreboding”) theme song for their victims that features the central lyric “and the road leads to nowhere.” The unnerving scenes of uncomfortable flirtation and upcoming torture are constantly intercut with quirky scenes in which parents prepare a surprise birthday party for their daughter who happens to be in danger during all this. And even more distracting is the central rape-and-murder sequence interlaced with scenes involving two bumbling police officers who look and act like they belong in a completely different movie.

I suppose the reasoning for this choice in music is what was going on at the time, when you would tune in to TV and radio and hear stories about Vietnam and then switch the dial to chirpy folk music to calm yourself down. I think Craven was trying to satirize that probability through this film. But to me, it didn’t work at all and it kept losing my attention. Maybe back then, it worked. But now, it’s extremely dated.

The film’s tone constantly shifts in the first hour of the film, from horrifying terror to quirky comedy. I know we need some comic relief after some of the scariest of moments, but this is just too much. It’s sloppily handled and has no clever way of seguing from one to the other. Am I being too harsh? Probably, but I never got a laugh from these clowns.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. “The Last House on the Left” is about two young women, Mari and Phyllis, who go out for a night on the town and meet a strange young man their age who might supply them with pot. But quickly, they’re trapped in a motel room with the young man, two escaped convicts, and their whorish girlfriend, who torture them and kidnap them. (This happens along with Mari’s parents preparing the birthday party.)

The following morning, the brutes stash the girls in the trunk of the car, which breaks down during their “pleasant” drive in the middle of the woods. From that point on, they take the girls further into the woods and go on to violently rape and murder them. It’s extremely violent and very depraved in its execution. The visceral thrills are well deserved, especially since the scene is well acted, very disturbing, and quite scary in that you don’t know what these people will do to these poor young women. What’s especially heartbreaking is that all of this is happening just across the street from Mari’s house and she tries to find a way to escape that far, even trying to talk the weakest of the killers (the young man) into helping her, but it just won’t happen. And when Phyllis tries to escape, you root for her to escape and are saddened to find out what happens to her when the killers catch up to her, just as she almost makes it to the highway. It’s crude and startling, but it’s very effective.

But the big problem here is that it constantly loses its horror; this whole sequence is intercut along with a lot of the material involving the two cops.

One of the most interesting and refreshing things about the film is that the young man, one of the killers, is as unsettled about his companions’ crimes as we are. He has nightmares that night about what they’ve done (with Mari tauntingly chanting his name) and even in the beginning, he believed things were going too far. But the kid is also mentally unstable and is constantly convinced by the two older men to go along with the plan. When the kid finally steps up and tries to put a stop to all the mayhem, it’s especially tragic that he can’t allow himself to. One of the best scenes in the film is when the ringleader of the group, Krug (David Hess), is held at gunpoint by the kid and Krug manages to talk him into pointing the gun at himself and “blowing his brains out.”

Only the last twenty minutes remain consistently unnerving and violent. The killers find themselves spending the night in the home of Mari’s parents. The parents find out who these strange people are when they discover blood stains on their clothing and one of the men wearing Mari’s locket. They decide to take revenge and singlehandedly kill them all in ways that are shockingly more dangerous and violent than the killers’ previous actions. The father attacks with a chainsaw and sets traps around the house (one of which involves electrocution), while the mother does something to one of them that I’m not even going to describe here. A psychologically disturbing scene that gets into the minds of the parents before they carry out their revenge is a dream sequence in which they smash one of the killers’ front teeth out with a hammer and chisel. This climax is horrific but it’s fascinating in that you can see the lengths that the parents are willing to go through to avenge their daughter’s death.

But need I also mention that the curtain-call ending credits feature the same cheesy, upbeat music as well? That’s right; just when we’re supposed to feel something after a gruesome series of murders and ask ourselves questions of how we as people would handle a similar situation, it’s immediately ruined. Something else I should bring up is the advertising for this film—it originally released a trailer with a reassurance, “To Avoid Fainting, Keep Repeating, It’s Only a Movie…Only a Movie…Only a Movie…” I can’t imagine anyone, even back when the film was released, mistaking this for anything else, especially if you show them the scenes involving the two cops.

NOTE: Okay fine, I laughed once, at a scene in which the bumbling cops encounter a woman driving a chicken truck and try to hitch a ride. I might as well admit it.

Rashomon (1950)

4 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Japanese classic “Rashomon” is a mixture of simple storytelling and psychological complexity. Just when you think you may have a handle as to what the film is truly about, it raises questions, offers subtle symbolism, and has some things to say about human nature.

Labeled the film that put Kurosawa’s name on the map and had him declared one of the best film directors of all time with his further-coming films (“Seven Samurai,” “The Hidden Fortress,” and so forth), “Rashomon” has a great story idea that is very effectively handled here and has gone on to be copied in other films and TV shows, such as the 1996 war drama “Courage Under Fire.” The central story is about the murder of a man (Masayuki Mori) in a remote wooded area, most likely by a bandit named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to appear in other Kurosawa’s films) who wanted the man’s wife (Machiko Kyo) for himself. But the story is told through four different perspectives. The strange thing is neither of the four stories told by the witnesses match up. We see from each perspective presented in flashback as each person tells the story. The characters and the details are roughly the same, more or less, but the accounts of the incident are presented differently.

The film begins as a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) stay dry from a rainstorm, beneath the Rashomon city gate. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them as he wonders what’s troubling them, as they are upset about something not making sense to them. They tell him they witnessed a disturbing story, which they begin to describe to him. The woodcutter claims to have found the man’s dead body and reported it to the police. At the courthouse garden, he and the priest listened in to three different testimonies, describing what happened. The bandit Tajomaru was brought in to tell his part of the story; he accepts the responsibility that he did commit the murder but states the rape of the woman was of mutual consent. The woman’s story follows, as she claims Tajomaru attacked her. Then comes the story of the dead man, told through a medium, which states that there was betrayal from his wife and he committed suicide. It makes very little sense to anybody, since so many details are changed in each story, but then the woodcutter reveals that he not only found the body but saw the event first-hand. His story intertwines elements from the other stories so everything makes more sense.

But did he really see anything at all? Whose story is the more accurate one? What really happened in those woods? What does it say about human nature when you consider all the perspectives about the horrific event in the first place? These questions are all raised, especially by people who try to comprehend the chronology of the incident, and those people aren’t going to find real answers except for those they come up with in their heads. What just about everyone will find in “Rashomon” is what they can learn on the news, when another horrific crime with very few witnesses comes up—that we have hardly a way of knowing the truth unless we were really there ourselves. And even if we did see anything, how will the people we tell our story to interpret it? Perspective is different from reality; it’s how things are seen in retrospect than what happens in the moment that lives within us as time goes on. Therefore, when someone thinks he remembers things clearly, is it really as clear as it seems? We also know people lie, and we know some of these people in this film are lying, but we don’t know who and therefore we don’t know which side to take here. What really happens in “Rashomon” is unsure and not absolute; what do we know for sure? This is why ‘Rashomon” works so well and still holds up after all these years—its themes of unknowable truths, perceptions of innocence & guilt, and variations of human nature are evident and very profound.

Kurosawa’s script is wise and intelligent, but his filmmaking is also very sharp, tightly focused, and quite thrilling and riveting, especially when each of the four stories are told. By the time the fourth story comes about, something happens in the storytelling that makes the visuals and the emotions even grander than before. It makes for a riveting climax that left me on-edge the first time I saw it and still gets to me today. The cinematography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) is gorgeous and really captures the feel of that semi-tropical forest the action occurs in, and there are moments in this film that owe more to silent film than to the Westerns that Kurosawa’s work associated with in the future, particularly in the swordfight sequences between the bandit and the man and also in the first flashback which shows the woodcutter’s journey through the woods before he comes across the body.

The actors must be given due credit as well, since they are asked to play four different variations of the same character. The actor who pulls it off the most is Toshiro Mifune as the bandit Tajomaru; whether playing it dirty or violent or even frightened, he gives an excellent performance, riveting throughout. I can also say the same for Machiko Kyo as the woman in question, who probably has the most difficult challenge of playing the damsel in distress, a fierce, manipulative siren, or a spiteful, sexy vixen.

It’s a brilliant move on Kurosawa’s part not to reveal what really happened in the woods. Every time I watch “Rashomon,” I find myself having a different opinion as to how everything played out. Surely, everyone else who watches the film will have their own opinions, each of them different, but that’s what makes film a great art form; the secret, subtle resolutions can be the way you want it to be, especially with films like “Rashomon.” It’s a great film, it’s still a classic today, it only gets better each time I see it, and I find myself thinking about it a lot more afterwards.

The 400 Blows (Les quatres cent coups) (1959)

3 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The title of the 1959 French drama, “The 400 Blows,” refers to an idiom that roughly means, “to raise hell.” It’s actually a somewhat-misinterpretation of its French title, “Les quatre cent coups,” derived from the French expression “Faire les quatre cent coups,” meaning, “to live a wild life.” (The literal translation is “400 practical jokes.”) I didn’t know that until I looked it up after I saw the film. Up to then, I didn’t understand what “The 400 Blows” meant and its literal translation didn’t make much sense to me either. But when the phrase “to live a wild life” came into place, I started to think about it and it made more sense.

The film’s central focus is a resourceful, misunderstood adolescent who is unlucky—he doesn’t necessarily go looking for trouble but it always seems to find him. Adults see him as a troublemaker—his insensitive teacher finds it easy to describe him as a troublemaker, his mother sometimes loves him while doesn’t know how to feel about him at other times, his stepfather tries to be his friend but even he sort of the same as everyone else does toward him, and by the end of the film, he’s labeled as a juvenile delinquent. Even before then, when he gets into trouble, he finds it best to run away and live on his own rather than go home. This kid lives in a world he didn’t make, he doesn’t understand, isn’t understood by, and would rather be left to his own resources, or to put it bluntly, “to live a wild life,” which the film’s title indicates.

“The 400 Blows” is a brilliant film—one that gives us a hard-edged, open-minded portrait as to how this boy, Antoine Doinel (played perfectly by Jean-Pierre Leaud), slowly but surely turns to crime because of how everything and everyone around him seems to judge him. We see events in his life that help shape his present while raising questions about his future. This material could have been treated as light as a feather, but through the vision of French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, it becomes as real as the feelings many kids like Antoine feel.

“The 400 Blows” was Truffaut’s debut feature and it came at a time when filmmakers took advantage of the French “New Wave” cinema by making unique choices through personal stories. This film was one of the most influential at the time because you could tell it was personal and even semiautobiographical (I’ve read reviews that state how the movies saved Truffaut from crime, and there are times when Antoine’s mood is softened by a trip to the cinema). Add solid filmmaking to that and it’s easy to tell why this film was so well-regarded from the start and even still holds up today.

Antoine is a real kid, not much different from other kids his age or from his own classmates for that matter. It’s just he’s usually the one that’s caught and he’s unlucky enough to get punished. At the start, the students are passing around a pinup; the teacher punishes him once it’s in his hands. Antoine fails to turn in homework, skips school, and even makes up a lie about his mother dying to cover for both. Once the lie is revealed, that puts him in a worse spot. For Antoine, it seems he can’t do anything right in his teacher’s eyes. At one point, he writes an essay about his grandfather’s death in homage to Balzac, whom he has a shrine dedicated to in his bedroom. But his teacher gives him a failing grade and suspends him, accusing him of plagiarism.

At home, things aren’t much better, especially when his parents immediately take things from the teacher’s perspective instead of Antoine’s. The only time there seems to be an attempt at understanding Antoine comes when he tells his mother he has trouble concentrating, and even then, it’s hard for Antoine to get across what he wants to say (like real people in general, not just children). Antoine lives in a tiny apartment with his mother (Claire Maurier) and stepfather (Albert Remy). It’s revealed that Antoine was the product of an unwanted pregnancy and his mother wasn’t ready for parenthood. It’s clear that she still doesn’t quite know how to handle issues with her son and grows impatient with him when something new comes up. She has her own problems as well, such as poverty and attempting to cover up an affair; she seems to want to spend as much time out of the house as possible. The stepfather seems friendly sometimes but also has his short-tempered moments due to work. The moments when the family is even remotely happy seem sporadic. For example, the happiest moment in the film comes after Antoine accidentally starts a fire. First, the parents are infuriated but then they decide to forgive him, and the whole family has a pleasant night going to the movies. But most of the time, they just see their son as a bother. This is why, when he gets into real trouble, he’d rather live on the streets than in his own home.

He does live on the streets for a while, with the aid of his school chum Rene (Patrick Auffay), who sometimes instigates Antoine’s troublesome activities. He slowly but surely stoops to petty crime, stealing milk, theater lobby cards, and eventually a typewriter from his own father’s office so he can sell it for money. But when he has a change of heart and decides to return it, he gets caught and arrested by the police. From that point on, he’s labeled as a juvenile delinquent and sent to reform school. His parents won’t help him anymore because they believe he’ll just run away again if he comes home. No one will help him because they have no interest in doing so. He’s left at the mercy of social services and is simply a victim of circumstance. The saddest moment in the film is when he is treated like a criminal and put in a police holding cell and a police wagon in the company of prostitutes and thieves. His look through the bars is heartbreaking.

Author Stephen King once said, “In all our lives, there’s a fall from innocence, a time after which we are never the same.” “The 400 Blows” is a film that illustrates that viewpoint very effectively. Nowhere is that clearer in this film than the scene in which Antoine and his friend discuss a way to make more money through petty crime…during a puppet show. While dozens of children are laughing and enjoying the show, these two older kids are in the middle of scheming. By the end of the film, Antoine is no longer innocent and his future is uncertain. The final shot, following a half-grim/half-satisfying final scene, is a freeze-frame with an optical zoom on his face—this closing image has been copied long since this film’s release, but this one has a purpose: for us to interpret Antoine’s predicament for ourselves.

“The 400 Blows” is a subtle, well-acted, great-looking, and emotionally deep character-study that I can’t recommend enough. Today, it still holds up wonderfully as a remarkable film and a classic. Truffaut’s style is direct and truthful so that his film is far from a traditional melodrama, like a good chunk of teenage “coming-of-age” dramas. It’s moving, effective, and causes us to reflect on our own youths. Where will Antoine end up? How did we get here?

NOTE: Truffaut would bring back actor Jean-Pierre Leaud to reprise his role of Antoine Doinel in four other films: the short film “Antoine and Collette” and the features “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” and “Love on the Run.” This could show that “The 400 Blows” really was from a chapter in Truffaut’s life and wants to show how he became the kind of person he is now, but I haven’t seen these films…yet.