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Hey look, a parade!: 15 films that use colorful city festivals as backdrops

1. Jade (1995)
There’s a ripe old tradition in movies, particularly action movies, that could be described as “Hey look, a parade!” Whenever a film needs a little more visual jazz to make a standard scene interesting, there’s always the option of setting that scene during Mardi Gras, or Carnival, or the Day Of The Dead. (And by profound coincidence, if the film just happens to be shooting in New Orleans, or Venice, or Mexico, it almost certainly will be Mardi Gras, or Carnival, or the Day Of The Dead. How convenient!) Case in point: In the profoundly rotten 1995 William Friedkin/Joe Eszterhas thriller Jade, assistant DA David Caruso witnesses a fatal hit-and-run that takes out a key witness in his case, so he launches into a fairly standard car chase as he pursues the killer. But what livens up a standard car chase like just happening to crash through San Francisco’s Chinatown right in the middle of a massive Chinese New Year celebration? While all the impediments—from floats to the inevitable dragon puppets to a cadre of angry martial artists who throw angry punches at Caruso’s car—slow the chase down to a dull crawl, at least it’s an excuse to bring in (and run over) a lot of colorfully dressed extras.

2. Rio (2011)
The most recent version of the trope can be seen in the animated CGI film Rio, in which a macaw named Blu winds up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he’s meant to mate with a female macaw named Jewel and help preserve his dwindling species. But thanks to a thieving rare-bird dealer, Blu and his intended mate wind up separated from their owners and lost on the streets of Rio. The city’s vast size and crowded, dangerous vibe should be enough of a dramatic barrier to reunion all on its own, but a mere big city apparently doesn’t provide enough visual pizzazz for a big climactic chase sequence, so Blu and Jewel wind up in the middle of Carnival, a city-wide celebration that lets the birds, their owners, the birdnappers, and various other wacky animals chase each other amid scantily clad animated ladies, giant bird costumes, elaborate floats, and big dance sequences.

3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
When feckless, charismatic high-school student Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) decides to spend a day skipping school and running around Chicago with his girlfriend and put-upon best bud, he doesn’t necessarily decide to do it because it’s Von Steuben Day, a German-American cultural celebration. But hey, since he’s in downtown Chicago and there’s a big parade going on anyway, why not co-opt a float and put on a big performance while the whole city rapturously cheers him? As his friend notes, everything tends to work out for Ferris, and he can get away with anything—even turning an unrelated parade into his own performance arena.

4. The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
The plot of the fourth Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie only has a thin excuse to send Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau to Munich’s annual Oktoberfest, but the results more than justify the decision. After all, given the chance to let Sellers cause chaos in the midst of a colorful situation, why pass it up? The scene provides the uneven film with one of its undeniable highlights as Sellers wanders the festival with his usual misplaced self-confidence, oblivious to the 12 assassins from various countries who’ve all shown up to kill him, including an unbilled Omar Sharif. Instead, they mostly end up killing themselves or each other.

5. Play Misty For Me (1971)
Clint Eastwood didn’t play it safe with his directorial debut, opting for an edgy psychological thriller and casting himself as a perpetually imperiled hero far removed from the men of action that made him famous. (He also gives a big chunk of running time to a languid, daring love scene co-starring Donna Mills and set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”) But he didn’t forget to give himself some comfortable surroundings, either. The film casts the lifelong jazz fan as a late-night jazz DJ in Eastwood’s adopted home of Carmel-By-The-Sea. And, hey, when in Carmel, be sure to stop by the Monterey Jazz Festival, as Eastwood’s character does in time to catch Cannonball Adderley and a few other jazz greats. The plot doesn’t require the visit, but if you’re a jazz DJ, or a movie-directing jazz nut with the chance to catch some fantastic performances on film, why wouldn’t you stop by?

6. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)
Is there always something to celebrate in America’s Chinatowns? The Disney adventure The Sorcerer’s Apprentice follows in the tradition of Jade by making sure its heroes have to journey into Chinatown—New York’s this time—just in time to wander into a parade filled with traditional dragon puppets. Bad luck for them: Searching for a mystical nesting doll called the Grimhold, Nicolas Cage and Jay Baruchel, the latter playing the titular apprentice, meet unexpected opposition when one of the puppet dragons turns into a real dragon. (Well, a CGI dragon, anyway.) Incorporating the puppeteers into its body, the dragon tries to kill Baruchel, whose sub-Cage magical skills get put to the test. When he wins out, the dragon bursts into a confetti explosion, but leaves the puppeteers intact. But what’s really magical about the scene is the way the Chinatown residents just continue about their business once the chaos passes, as if that sort of thing happens all the time in their neighborhood. And, hey, if the movies are to be believed, it probably does.

7. The Fugitive (1993)
The cast and crew of The Fugitive decided to make use of Chicago’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade at the last possible moment, receiving the proper permits with little time to spare. That would essentially make this a real-life version of the famous trope, no? Anyway, Harrison Ford has just conducted a little research into the possible identity of the one-armed man responsible for his wife’s death. Narrowly escaping the clutches of Tommy Lee Jones, he plunges out of the hospital where he was checking records… and straight into the path of the oncoming parade. In a film known for its stunt-laden action sequences (at least at the time), this is a surprisingly subdued yet equally suspenseful game of cat and mouse, as Ford makes use of a green hat and a tossed-aside coat to avoid Jones, all in the nick of time. (And if you listen closely, the last-second nature of the shooting also becomes clear at 1:36 in the video, as spectators shout Jones’ first name in excitement when they spot him.)


8. Thunderball (1965)
A daring escape by James Bond amid a Caribbean festival pulsing throughout the streets of Nassau—it sounds like a setup for chaos. But that’s the brilliance of placing Sean Connery’s 007 in this context: Even as he weaves through a noisy, gaudy Junkanoo parade, he manages to maintain his understated cool. Thunderball’s visit to Junkanoo makes for one of the slowest chase scenes in Bond history, as Connery conceals himself by hiding under the crepe-paper decorations of a float puttering down the parade route. After he’s discovered, the chase concludes on an outdoor dance floor, when, after a rapidly edited frenzy of music and color, the villainess ends up with a bullet in her back. Connery sits her body down on a nearby table, asking the other partygoers, “Mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.” The sequence proved so enduring that Guy Hamilton, director of the later Cajun-flavored Live And Let Die, specifically avoided bringing Roger Moore’s 007 to Mardi Gras, for fear of imitating Thunderball

9. Henry & June (1990)
When writer Anaïs Nin (played by Maria de Medeiros) unexpectedly encounters her husband Hugo (Richard E. Grant) in the middle of an erotically charged pagan street festival in 1930s Paris, the bacchanalia of nude bodies and vivid costumes around them is more than a mere backdrop: It’s a symbol of Nin’s sexual exploration and the exciting carnality she’s finding in Paris, a libertine darkness that allows Hugo to finally impress her sexually by throwing her down and ravishing her in the street while in disguise. That said, director Philip Kaufman couldn’t resist using the lead-up to the street parade as background noise in an earlier, much less erotically charged scene, as Nin meets her friend Richard Osborn (Kevin Spacey) at a street café earlier in the day and listens to his disconsolate griping about how writer Henry Miller stole his ideas, his phrasing, and his clever idea of becoming Nin’s lover. His complaints are peevish and faintly ridiculous, and so is the fact that Spacey just happens to be nearly naked, painted blue, wearing a helmet, and surrounded by wiggling, unclothed bodies, all of which are entirely incidental to the scene at hand. [Warning: clip NSFW.]

10. Cutter’s Way (1981)
Cutter’s Way begins with footage of Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days parade, an annual tradition dating back to 1924. Designed to celebrate the city’s Mexican heritage (and to draw tourists), the parade is just one part of the weekend’s events; here, as the movie’s slow-motion introduction, the dancing Mexican girls surrounded by American flags put a glossy, racially integrated face on Santa Barbara. Then the rest of this downbeat noir tears it apart. Later on, as Jeff Bridges drives back from a hotel assignation, a group of horses with no one guiding them walk across his car’s path, setting the tone for the city’s true seediness and class stratifications rather than the parade’s colorful tourist fiction.

11. I Am Twenty (1964)
As in Cutter’s Way, the May Day parade dividing Marlen Khutsiev’s epic, three-hour coming-of-age portrait into two parts shows up the gap between the heritage being celebrated and the reality of life around it. Three friends spend their 20th years messing around Moscow, attending uneasy poetry-reading parties that quickly degenerate into incivility, or arguing with their dads about the Revolution. But the film’s first half is an upbeat portrait of idealistic post-Stalin youth, and the May Day sequence—documentary footage, with the actors mingling with beaming marchers everywhere—is a memorable setpiece of unsullied celebration.

12. The Tarnished Angels (1957)
Douglas Sirk said his adaptation of William Faulkner’s Pylon was the only time he was given good source material to work with, which goes some way toward explaining why its Mardi Gras setting is captured in somber black-and-white widescreen. (To get Robert Stack in the right frame of mind to play a doomed pilot, Sirk read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to him.) While people are celebrating in the streets and inside cheap apartment buildings, hard-drinking journalist Rock Hudson is the middle point of a love triangle with a husband-and-wife stunt flying team whose marriage is on the rocks. The celebrations outside mostly give Hudson an excuse to start drinking earlier, providing an ironic counterpoint to the obviously doomed tragedy unfolding inside.

13. Easy Rider (1969)
A film that exploited the burgeoning counterculture without seeming like it was exploiting the counterculture, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider is all about big, bold, plainly obvious shows of rebellion and freedom, like motorcycle-riding, drug-dealing, and drawn-out Jack Nicholson monologues about rebellion and freedom. Another potent symbol of outlaw culture that Hopper seized upon in Easy Rider was Mardi Gras, which marks the final destination for Hopper and his cohort Peter Fonda on a long voyage of discovery across the country. Once Hopper and Fonda arrive—with prostitutes in tow—they wander the streets before deciding to up the sheer far-outness of the proceedings by dropping acid. 

14. Femme Fatale (2002)
Brian De Palma loves to tweak and magnify the conventions of filmmaking, always making sure to remind the audience that what it’s watching derives from his cinematic imagination. For his playful 2002 erotic crime thriller Femme Fatale, he underlines the inherent “movie-ness” of the film by staging the opening sequence at a place where appreciation for movie-ness runs at an all-time high: Cannes. Following the clockwork intricacies of a highly complicated robbery, De Palma’s bravura filmmaking is set against a background of patrons and movie stars celebrating bravura filmmaking. Not surprisingly, Femme Fatale played at Cannes a year after it filmed there. 

15. Assassins (1995)
There’s nothing like a good Day Of The Dead parade to bring local color to an action scene: Not only do Day Of The Dead celebrations come with bright costumes and the gravity of solemn ritual, they also tend to be filled with portentous signifiers like skulls, skeletons, religious symbols, and tombstones. Given that Richard Donner’s Assassins is about dueling contract killers (played by Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas) and that it generally fetishizes guns, killers, and the act of murder itself, it’s no wonder Donner decides to stage a key cat-and-mouse scene between the two hit men and love interest Julianne Moore amid a Day Of The Dead celebration in a lovely, whitewashed, but distinctly fake-looking cemetery. As the locals sing sweet songs and wander about aimlessly with flowers and candles in a show of sweet innocence, the contrast between their celebration of the dead and the killers’ attempts to make each other dead is thrown into stark relief. Only problem is that the scene is set in Puerto Rico, where Day Of The Dead isn’t commonly celebrated.