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I collect View-Masters and am a fan of Petula Clark.
Pilot #5 (1943)
This is one anti-Fascist WWII propaganda movie that must have hit close to home
This has to be the single most articulate WWII propaganda movie in existence making the point that the Fascists were not just in Europe and Japan but everywhere the profit motive and the reign of fear were trumping democracy in the good old USA. This message still resonates today.
This is a rare American film that actually denounces corrupt and anti-democratic greed-is-good practises and equates them with fascism. It mustn't have gone down smoothly in Republican circles where fighting for lower taxes for the rich was a more important priority than actually fighting the war. To make the movie even more remarkable, the level of violence exerted against the poor exploited Italian farmers in the film is actually on a par with the violence of war and the atrocities of other future American films noirs.
There is absolutely no other film like it and it's a wonder that its script-writer and director were not suspected of Communist affiliations after the war. The only reason they escaped scrutiny was that the writer died ealy in mysterious circumstances and the director only dabbled in light musicals and romantic comedies before and after.
The kamikaze ending ("Poppa's little bomb rack isn't working") must also have been a shocker to many.
Highly recommended to anyone who doesn't think Hollywood ever showed any balls.
De helaasheid der dingen (2009)
When urine, excrement, sperm and vomit are not enough as narrative devices...
... you can always count on tears, blood, placenta and spilt beer.
Having said this, this film uses all of them to good effect. This brutal confrontation with the Flanders of Pieter Brueghel and Jacques Brel, is not without its pathetic and touching moments. It reminded me a lot of Quebec's "C.R.A.Z.Y" in its enthusiasms for its subject but with, of course, much more squalor.
The actors are all convincing and attractive in their own way and the direction is transparent and unobtrusive. The viewer should be warned that the opus is generously peppered with scenes of fornication, sometimes public, pissing, sometimes public, defecation, sometimes public, vomiting, sometimes public, public male nudity and transvestism, not to mention lots and lots of binge drinking.
I liked the anecdote in the "making of" documentary telling how one of the father's fake moustaches was fashioned from the male actors' and crew's pubic hair. It seemed fitting somehow.
Makes all other creature features look like crap
There are many reasons for the film's success. It is imaginative and daring in its concept, actually basing its story on a real incident of formaldehyde poisoning caused by American military negligence. This aspect of the film makes it very political: the real villain here is not the monster, it's the American hubris and incompetence that created the monster and invented a virus scare to cover-up its idiocy.
The viewer's interest is maintained throughout not only with stunningly integrated special effects but by the great humanity of the characters, even the secondary ones. These are presented to the audience in cursory but satisfying fashion, then elaborated. This is called character development and it is almost totally absent from dumbed-down mainstream American movies these days.
The plot is also full of surprising twists which add to the complexity of the characters instead of subtracting from it. The ending is surprising, heroic and disquieting and a long ways away from Hollywood's traditional happy end.
The whole thing is held together by technical brilliance in special effects, dialogue writing, photography, art direction, lighting, sets, acting, directing, visual imagination, suspenseful editing and a magnificent score that alternates between a Fellini slice-of-life score by Nino Rota and the romantic effulgence of Michel Legrand.
In short, this film is so advanced it can probably never be topped by anything on this side of the Atlantic for a long time.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Perfect in every way
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this film. It's incredibly well-conceived on an intellectual level, it is well-planned in the ways of art direction, lighting and photography, exhibiting a look that many live-action films can only dream of. The script is spotless, the idea is original and the talent is outstanding. (Gerard Butler is the most underrated technical actor of his generation, even when he keeps his shirt on.) Furthermore, it carries a positive message that young people should not necessarily follow in the footsteps of their elders when they find a better way. The only people who could object to that have to be Republicans or Tea Partiers.
Finally, am I the only one who finds a resemblance between the friendly dragon Toothless and Stitch but also with Totoro of "My Neighbor Totoro"? It is wonderful to see that Dreamworks Animation has attained such brilliance after acquiring talent from Disney Studios and borrowing the best technology around. (Weren't those clouds in the 2003 live-action "Peter Pan"?) I was very impressed by the off-beat humour of "Over the Hedge" but this film's expressive animation just blows me away.
Finally, it is very refreshing to see a film with a full spectrum of colours as opposed to the depressing blue-green live-action atrocities of the last ten years.
An ugly little film about ugly little people
"Splice" is an unattractive sci-fi film about two unattractive and nerdy young scientists who are also wannabe hipsters. One is played by Adrian Brody and the other by Sarah Polley. Brody's character functions in three modes: (1) as a continual whiner worrying about the deep mess that his partner is getting him into, (2) as an irresponsible idiot willing to go along with anything his partner gets him into and (3) as a person who says "f***" a lot. Ms. Polley's character is just as complex and works in the three following modes: (1) as a producer of mucous, (2) as a person who is demanding, difficult, bitchy and premenstrual and (3) as a person who says "f***" a lot. This use of the "F" word is actually one of the saving graces of the film as it does much to shorten some truly unbearable dialogue.
The two nerds are geneticists who have developed an hybrid species and want to push the experiment further, unbeknown to their employer, by mating the new breed with human DNA. The monstrous result is a cross between a chicken, a squirrel and Britney Spears. The irresponsible couple decides to make matters worse by allowing the abomination to grow and develop, the Polley character seeing it as a kind of safer and more controllable motherhood than her own dysfunctional family past, and the imbecilic Brody character just being along for the ride.
As the cage cleaners at the zoo are found of saying, "monkey s*** will fly".
The two anorexic main characters are so repulsive in their own right and on every level that I found their sexual coupling even more difficult to watch than the much more unnatural matings that follow. The film takes the viewer irretrievably down the slippery slope of unresolved and unexamined moral and ethical dilemmas right into the realm of the frankly - and splashily - disgusting. It overstays its welcome by a good half hour before everything is made permanently wrong all over again.
Still, it's a little demoralizing to note that the apparent conclusion of the film seems to be that all the two protagnists really needed to settle their myriad problems and contradictions was a good f***.
I only found two redeeming qualities in this puke-fest. First, the director and PD were not total slaves to the inescapable cliché that is the obligatory blue-green colour scheme of 90 % of the American movies and 99 % of the sci-fi films produced during the last 10 years. Some colour does poke through occasionally, although not enough to make the experience less depressing for the viewer or to counter the effect of the mortuary music that bathes the whole. Second, there is an imaginative use of the back speakers at exactly the 1:00:30 point of the film, that made me jump right out of my skin. It's sort of nice to know that at least the sound man stayed awake during part of the making of this horror.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
The music of the shite
I must begin by stating my horror for the music of "The Phantom of the Opera". This is the musical that taught me that music could be, all at once, vulgar, boring, popular and dishonest. This new film version has given me ample occasion to add to the long list of songs, musicals, operas, film scores and symphonies that were plagiarized, from Puccini to Max Steiner, for the production of this imbecilic opus. Stealing is not vulgar in itself, but swelling the orchestra (or crashing a chandelier into the audience) anytime emotion cannot be achieved by honest means, is.
As for vulgarity and popularity, suffice it to recall that the stage version was marketed, during the decade of Greed, to uneducated nouveau riche audiences of Thatcherites, people who couldn't stand or even recognize opera if they heard it - or read a book - but were willing to indulge their cheap sentimental side by listening to this swill at inflated prices at the same time art and music appreciation courses practically disappeared from British schools.
I have already suffered through a chill-inducing stage performance of the "Phantom" in the early eighties so I am quite familiar with its let's-throw-all preceding-versions-of-the-story-into-a-blender-and-see-what-comes-out kind of script. This extra-dumbed-down movie version only adds a supplementary layer of convolution and soft-core porn to the original abomination.
The direction by Joel (let's put nipples on the Batman costume) Schumacher is quite sufficient to bring shame to the project all by itself. This version finds a way to defeat its purpose at every turn: the action is set in 1870 instead of 1881 - five years before the actual opera house's inauguration (1), no particular attempt is made to make it resemble the Palais Garnier, the mirror scene has no mirror, the rooftop scene has none of the stage version's (or the 1925 film's) flamboyance, the Mask of the Red Death scene has lost its red colouring, the Phantom is sort of attractive and Christine sort of has the hots for him, the chandelier crashes at the wrong time and sets fire to the theatre in an orgy of CGI effects while the only original bit of business of the stage production - the graveyard scene - has been replaced with a sword duel. So the film can't even be counted on as a faithful record of the stage play. Oh, and the only song that is half-way decent (a Phantom soliloquy) has been thrown to the DVD extras.
The stage version may have been a classic example of production overkill masking the lack of substance at its centre, an interminable sequence of spectacular scenes lacking in subtlety and signifying nothing. But the film, surprisingly enough, with all its extra loudness and vulgarity, and ADD editing, only comes off as a dud. Imagine, if you can, "Moulin Rouge" without any good songs.
I had no particular wish to renew my acquaintance with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The only reason I rented the DVD is that I'm re-reading Gaston Leroux' original novel, a melodrama that would have been considered second-rate pulp fiction in its time (1911) but practically stands out like a masterpiece of symbolist poetry in retrospect and in comparison with this piece of cinematic tripe. What is interesting is that Leroux gave the reader every possible indication needed to recreate the music he was thinking of for every scene of the book. And it sure ain't Lloyd Webber
(1) Another indication of the idiocy of the scriptwriters comes right in the opening auction scene when the aged Raoul is referred to as the vicomte de Chagny when his deceased wife's tombstone clearly states she was the comtesse de Chagny in the closing shot of the film. Just another reminder that this musical was written for the illiterates among us.
A successful attempt at emotion (major spoilers)
This mercifully short art film is yet another example of a technique introduced in Quebec cinema by Gilles Groulx in his 1964 "The End of Summer/Le temps perdu" short which, for better or for worse, has propagated the use of the indefinitely sustained camera angle /sequence testing the limits of the viewer's endurance that is a hallmark of so many nice, little independent productions making the art circuit.
The film starts as an apparent documentary about a 69-year old man living alone in an isolated and sprawling rural junkyard that ensures his survival as a reseller of used car parts and antiques (hence the title). The man tells the camera and various visitors and customers about his strange lifestyle, his diversions, his good health, his love for his work, his girlfriends and his philosophy of life, saying "I don't care if people think I'm crazy, they can't live my life".
One day when the man is away on an errand, a group of four nomadic teenagers with Down's syndrome invade his domain and go through his belongings mostly looking for food. There are three boys and one girl. One boy seems to be the lover of the girl. One boy is carried around in a shopping cart, apparently because of a wound on his lower left leg which has been awkwardly bandaged with what appears to be a shower curtain. The third boy likes to play with a presumably unloaded rifle and make believe that he drives a derelict truck.
The owner is aware of and tolerates the presence of the intruders and carries on working as usual in full view of his transient visitors although no words are exchanged. Later, the wounded boy, left alone, reaches for a water bottle and dies. His companions proceed to bury him in the yard. The owner joins them and helps with their task. Shortly afterwards, the survivors leave the yard and shake hands with the owner who is left to ponder what happened.
This film is on the surface a reflection on time, life, death and the sad fact of our mortality. Its value is in the mood and emotions it inspires.
As the English subtitles of this French-language film are burned into the DVD image, I was sorely tempted to watch it in double or octuple speed but was forced to backtrack in order to catch some of the subtleties of the central event and its effect on the yard's owner.
The film affected me in part because of the closeness I feel for the colloquial Quebec language and the woodland landscape depicted and in part because of its simple unvarnished humanity.
Desire Me (1947)
File under "c" for "caca"
This film is an atrocious failure on many levels.
It is emblematic of the loss of imagination and the draining of talent of the studio system in the late forties when confronted with the genius of European productions of the same time, especially Italian neo-realism.
To begin with, the subject is extremely derivative. It is based on a German play that had already been made into a successful film in 1928 in Germany. This play was inspired, like a whole family of plays and films of the era, by a real event that took place in Italy in the 20's (the Bruneri-Canella case). This case also inspired the 1938 French film "Carrefour" (set in France and remade in Hollywood as "Crossroads"). This French film was later remade in England in 1940 as "Dead Man's Shoes". The same story inspired Pirandello's "As You Desire Me", set in Italy, in the late 20's, which became a Greta Garbo vehicle in the 30's, as well as the novel "The Wife of Martin Guerre" by American writer Janet Lewis (1941), a story set in France in the Middle Ages, which became the French film "The Return of Martin Guerre" (Daniel Vigne, 1982), which was of course remade as a Hollywood film starring Richard Gere, "Sommersby" (Jon Amiel, 1993) and set after the US Civil War. The same Italian story also inspired Edward Wool's 1935 play "Libel!" (filmed in 1959 in England), which has several similarities with the classic film "Random Harvest" (1942).
As if the story was not tired enough, the big mistake was to transpose a German play about the aftermath of the First World War in a post-WWII French Brittany setting - filmed on the back lot - that just doesn't gel. The sets appear to be the ones used for the South of France in "Song of Bernadette" and the music by (the ordinarily trustworthy) Herbert Stothart is unconvincing in its attempt to convey any real sense of France or Brittany. Everything in the art direction is stilted and false. Its un-Frenchness is almost frightening. The viewer may get an occasional glimpse of O'Neil, Strindberg, Ibsen, Murnau and Rossellini, but never, never of a French fishing village.
The subject and acting try very hard to reconnect the story to some sense of lustful reality while channelling something of the drama and realism of European serious cinema. But they fail. Imagining Robert Mitchum and Greer Garson as a French fisherman and his wife is simply an exercise quite beyond anyone's powers of self-deception.
The end result is a cumbersome imitation of European simplicity with misfiring Hollywood production values, an embarrassingly stodgy melodrama that tries very hard to be a thoughtful little art film. It stinks and it sinks and it will forever remain as an example of one of the first signs of decadence of Hollywood's golden era.
The novel explains everything...
I was repulsed by this film. I couldn't understand why Jeanne Moreau, who didn't age gracefully by any stretch of the imagination (or the plastic surgeon's art), would expose her ugliness - both physical and moral - in this vehicle about an ageing female crook without any redeeming qualities falling in love with a younger man and pushing her equally decrepit ex-lover to suicide in the process.
Thanks to Ms. Moreau, her character is seen as vulgar, sly, coarse, selfish, calculating, heartless and sexually decadent.
Then, I read the novel by San Antonio and everything became clear. "La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer" is a masterpiece of the French language, which is surprising coming from an author who has specialized for decades in the kind of literature made popular by Simenon and Mickey Spillane. It is one of the definitive French works of fiction explaining the nature of physical attraction. It is also surprising that such a macho writer would take the trouble to delve - with such eloquence - into the meanders of a woman's soul.
In the novel, the old woman's intentions and her love for her young protégé are clearly understood through her many frank dialogues with God. The novel's character benefits from not being "seen" (except in descriptions) so that we can judge her soul and not her body. Unfortunately, the spectacle of Ms. Moreau's spectacular decrepitude - playing an 85 year arthritic old woman at age 63 - is enough the prejudice anyone against the personage she is supposed to interpret and the whole thing comes off as a freak show in very bad taste - "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" meets "The Grifters".
Still, one has to admit that it took quite a bit of courage - or recklessness - on Moreau's part to expose oneself in that way for all the world to see. And the film does take an added resonance when one has read the novel. It would have taken more imagination and a better director to actually transpose the novel's many interiorized levels of meaning and fleeting glimpses of poetry to the screen. As it is, the movie is only the exact physical equivalent of the book's unflinching descriptions, locales and storyline. It's the same difference that separates Mary Shelley's original "Frankenstein" novel (romantic, introspective, reflective and philosophical) from all its adaptations (outright horror films).
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A Beautiful Lie
If this movie is the nadir of Hollywood dishonest trickery and whitewashed falsehoods masquerading as fact, how does one explain its popularity? Here are some clues:
In the part where the film does talk about mathematics, it makes the viewer feel that he is more intelligent than he actually is, which is always a good idea when you're aiming for the lowest common denominator and you want your picture to sell tickets in the Ozarks as well as in Hollywood.
In the part where the film talks about romance, the worst possible woman's picture clichés are dragged out to show Nash as "different" and desirable. In actuality, he was nerdish, odd and gay.
In the part that talks about his schizophrenia, terrible care is taken to avoid mentioning the fact that the 1950's persecution of homosexuals had a lot to do with Nash's worsening condition. John Nash was forced to conceal his homosexuality and was persecuted for it by the same government that expected him to decrypt secrets for them and keep quiet about it. If that isn't enough to turn any brilliant mind into a paranoid-schizophrenic, I really don't know what is.
In all the other parts, the bad script and the bad out-of-place acting by miscast actors are immensely aided by photographic special effects and by the music (or rather non-music) of James Horner, the inventor of today's omnipresent minimalist "fear music", where the cinema's sub-woofers are put to maximum use to make the viewer feel danger directly through his anal sphincter, the only part of one's anatomy that is actually needed to "enjoy" this film as written.
Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)
Simply put, the most important film of this century
I have been repeating for 40 years that the last two serious films produced in the XXth century were "The Madwoman of Chaillot" (1968) and "Oh! What a Lovely War" because they was both supremely entertaining and meaningful in their pacifist message. This film is just as important for the same reasons.
The flashy exterior reminds us of a circus performance, a modern opera (paying homage to the endlessly entertaining incidental music of Max Steiner), an evening of fireworks, a celebration of the French language and of the art of acting as well as a tour de force of visual brilliance referencing 100 years of comic cinema.
But at its core is a timeless message that most viewers who confuse "revenge" and "justice" at the movies will miss: war is serious business and the people who wage it for profit are seriously twisted. I only feel pity for the critics and viewers of this film who speak of "style over substance" (cough, Roger Ebert, cough). They are either too superficial to reintegrate the human race or too black-hearted to know the true value of anything.
Miss Mend (1926)
Making fun of America's Wicked Capitalists
This is quite a find. I'm watching this serial on TCM right now. A Soviet melodrama (with humour) based on a Russian pulp novel heroine modeled on "The Perils of Pauline" is the pretext for a satire of American institutions (wicked capitalists, anti-Soviet hatred, rampant racism) while never failing to entertain. Its central premise is a plot by rich American fanatics to poison the whole Russian population with bacterial warfare triggered by radio antennas. Its main protagonists are a resourceful typist and three reporters alternately channeling The Three Stooges and The Three Musketeers.
While referencing France's "Judex" and the much more somber Fritz Lang spy thrillers of the same era, the film keeps a light tone thanks to actors who are talented, easy on the eyes and physically fit, a necessary requirement for the many action scenes.
The many complex and involving story-telling tricks and subtleties are what will keep you riveted to the screen, however. These characters look and feel like real people you could actually care about. Many of the incidents in this serial would find their way in the comic-book "Adventures of Tintin" later on.
It's interesting to note that one of the co-directors, Fedor Ozep, went on to make films in France ("La Dame de Pique", 1937) and that Quebec's burgeoning cinema of the forties owes him two important early films ("Le Père Chopin" and "La Citadelle").
The depiction of an "imagined America" by a foreign filmmaker is very rare in the history of cinema, although Americans never had any compunction about slapping together their recreation of other countries in their own image on film.
One of the only other parallels I can think of is Henri Verneuil's 1953 comedy "L'Ennemi public numéro un"/"The Most Wanted man", starring Fernandel as a timid Macy's product demonstrator who gets mistaken for a notorious criminal. It was a satire of American gangster films as perceived by the French audience who had a love-hate relationship with them.
Le monde selon Monsanto (2008)
This is easily the most important film of this century so far
This documentary tells the story of how the evil and greedy American corporation Mansanto has developed food staples (soy, corn) that have been genetically modified (GM) and carry potentially lethal (carcenigenous) strains and how it has conspired, with the help of corrupt officials everywhere, to have those GM seeds gradually replace the existing ones worldwide, all in the name of profit, thereby levying royalties on anyone who uses their products.
These GM organisms are also based on a lie. They were created to eliminate the need for insecticides, yet require just as much insecticides and fertilizers as non-genetically modified organisms.
This unrelenting policy has made possible the silencing of dissenting scientists, the firing or corruption of government employees and officials in the United States and abroad and the displacement, elimination, impoverishment and, frequently, death or suicide of thousands upon thousands of small farmers in the world's poorer countries (Brazil, Mexico,Argentina, India, and so on). Monsanto's deadly poisonous seeds are also destroying by contamination the genetic stock of most foods on this planet so that the time will soon come when the Earth's population will never be sure of what it is ingesting and of its effect on their health.
It sounds like a sci-fi or at least nightmarish scenario. Unfortunately, it's all true. This film could only be made in France as the European Union requires the labeling of all GM products while the US do not.
The Thin Man Meets Pirandello
I was really taken in by the premise of this film: A respectable French citizen (William Powell) married to a lovely and loving wife (Hedy Lamarr) is accused at the onset of having been a cheat in a previous incarnation before a train accident destroyed his memory and he had a chance to assume a new life and identity.
Some shady characters (the always alarming Basil Rathbone and the equally ambiguous Claire Trevor) then approach him ("out of the past", in film noir fashion) in order to get back from him money he supposedly absconded with during his previous life as a devious and cowardly petty criminal. Or is it just a case of blackmailing a perfectly innocent man?
What makes this storyline fascinating at first, of course, is the chance to delve in a rather profound and affecting manner into the mysteries of identity, the kind of subject that Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello had tackled spectacularly in his 1930 play "As You Desire Me", turned into a MGM blockbuster starring Greta Garbo in 1932. In that respect, the scene where the hero confronts his supposed mother (Margaret Wycherly) is especially affecting: the very fact that the woman does everything she can to deny her motherhood is all the encouragement the hero needs to imagine she really is whom she claims she isn't.
The film's photography, music and editing are all sufficiently slick and atmospheric for the possibility of this version of events to stick with the viewer for a while. This makes it only more regrettable that the seemingly grafted-on happy ending and Agatha Christie-type final revelation make all this soul-searching seem ridiculous in retrospect. It might as well have been a bad dream. And the message might as well be: Don't be taken in by those fancy European dramas, fellas; life is much more simple than you think in the real (American) world.
Still, the film stands out as a perfect example of what cultured, educated and potentially creative script writers can come up with when they have to model their storyline on the prevalent Hollywood trends.
The "French" setting is equally devious. The actors, set designers and art directors make minimal efforts to create the illusion that the action is set in that strange, foreign Neverland called France, just enough for the viewer to assume that this is either a true story, a story of substance or at least based on a famous French novel or play, the better to disillusion everyone in the end.
What most people don't know, of course, is that this film really is the remake of a French 1938 film, "Carrefour", directed by Curtis Berhardt, based on a script by German émigré writer Hans Kafka, where the hero had lost his memory during WWI. The French film was later remade in England in 1940 as "Dead Man's Shoes". The original script, loosely based on a real event in Italy in the 20's (the Bruneri-Canella case that Kafka investigated and which also inspired Pirandello's "As You Desire Me") was of course one of the main inspirations for the novel "The Wife of Martin Guerre" by American writer Janet Lewis (1941), a story set in France in the Middle Ages, which became the French film "The Return of Martin Guerre" (Daniel Vigne, 1982), which was of course remade as a Hollywood film starring Richard Gere, "Sommersby" (Jon Amiel, 1993) and set after the US Civil War. The same Italian story also inspired Edward Wool's 1935 play "Libel!" (filmed in 1959), which has several similarities with the classic film "Random Harvest" (1942). All of those various versions, adaptations and rip-offs showed, in various degrees, considerably more respect for the theme of identity and memory inherent in this inspiring premise than "Crossroads" did.
Le beau Serge (1958)
The Truth About The New Wave
France's so-called New Wave was a confluence of pretension and mediocrity. It was first and foremost a mid-fifties school of film criticism that postulated that (1) cinema was of great intellectual import, probably too good for the masses, and that (2) most successful French directors before the publication of its fanzine, "Les Cahiers du Cinéma" (Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, Marcel L'Herbier, Jean Gremillon, Henri-George Clouzot, Jean Delannoy, Henri Decoin, to name a few) should be despised, shunned, bullied, ridiculed and persecuted or at least treated with suspicion while most American directors of the same period (except for Wyler, Zinnemann and Stevens) were to be considered as "geniuses" and "pioneers". It was therefore based on a misunderstanding which made it more important to talk intelligently and pretentiously about films (thereby excluding most people from film appreciation) than to make films that people would actually want to see.
The movement had two cliquish firebrands, Jean-Luc Godard - who made increasingly unwatchable and solipsistic films all through his career - and François Truffaut - an acid-tongued journalist who attained a certain commercial success with the help of snobism, in spite of his idiotic and dogmatic principles and his obvious lack of talent and humanity. They will always be remembered as the two vindictive and parochial "mean girls" of French cinema and judged by posterity as "dwarves standing on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them" (e.g.: Jean Renoir, René Clair and Sacha Guitry). Their main legacy is the sad fact that very few of France's really important films (i.e. pre-New Wave) have been preserved and restored for posterity, unlike their own idiotic opuses. For good measure, Truffaut also despised the work of Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, Gerard Philippe and Michel Simon.
This misunderstanding also means that all the more successful, quietly innovative or truly revolutionary films of the period have been claimed as "New Wave" when they simply were not (e.g.: the best films of Chabrol, Malle, Varda, Demy, Resnais and Rohmer) and their directors have repeatedly said so, while the films of their "enemies" were excluded from any form of recognition (e.g.: Marcel Carné's "Les Tricheurs" and Julien Duvivier's "La Fête à Henriette").
"Le Beau Serge" is a case in point. It can only be considered "New Wave" in that it is made with no money by a young, dedicated but inexperienced director who tried to imitate his elders and betters and made many mistakes along the way. At that point, Malle didn't know how to sustain attention, direct actors or put a final product together (look at the editing and listen to the music, all dreadful).
This film is only watchable today because of Gérard Blain's heartfelt James Dean impression, Blain having been exploited by the New Wave for his charm and screen presence (and the fact he was married to Bernadette Lafond) and then vomited as soon as he started producing intelligent films that didn't carry the official New Wave label (e.g.: "Les Amis", 1970).
Everything I wrote here has been written countless times before but it can never be repeated often enough.
Chabrol himself once said: "There is no new wave, there is only the ocean."
Masks and Memories (1934)
"Masks and Memories" and "Le Portrait de Manon"
Granted this short film was written and produced in a drunken haze and is an incredible mismatching of contradictory styles ripping off "Show Boat", here is another element to add to the equation:
In 1894, Jules Massenet penned a one-act sequel to his monumentally popular 1884 opera "Manon" (which would later itself inspire the convent scene in "Show Boat"). The work received its United States premiere at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on 13 December 1897.
Here is the synopsis of the book by Georges Boyer. I'm just putting it out there (from Wikipedia). You be the judge:
"The opera opens with a chorus of peasants singing outside the home of the Chevalier Des Grieux; they remind him of his own happier days and he looks at his miniature portrait of Manon (in his youth, Des Grieux loved Manon, a courtesan who eventually died young). His nephew Jean arrives for a history lesson but tells Des Grieux that he is in love with Aurore. Des Grieux believes that the young girl is unworthy of Jean having neither noble birth nor money.
Tiberge enters and tries to persuade his old friend Des Grieux to allow young love to run its course; left alone Aurore and Jean are in despair. Jean tries to snatch a kiss from the girl but in the chase knocks the chest and the portrait of Manon falls out. They admire the face of the portrait. After Tiberge has called Aurore away, Des Grieux lectures Jean again and dismisses him. But now Aurore appears wearing the dress which Manon wore on her first meeting with Des Grieux in Amiens. When Tiberge reveals that Aurore is in fact the niece of Manon - the daughter of her brother Lescaut - Des Grieux yields and consents to Jean's marriage."
Beaumarchais l'insolent (1996)
Where is the Sacha Guitry wit?
It's easy to understand why Guitry would write a play about Beaumarchais, a man of action, a wit and a man of the theatre he would have obviously admired. What is not as clear is how much of his original intention was wasted in this dreary production. The characters are charmless, witless and move in and out much too quickly for any of the cameo players to make any distinct impression.
Worst of all, the actors give in to the worst temptation they could have felt, which is to play in an unconvincing pedantic, precious and yet anachronistic manner, something Guitry would never have allowed in one of his plays. The worst offender is Fabrice Luchini, who doesn't look anything like the original Beaumarchais and has to be most prissy and effeminate heterosexual alive today. His "moues", "oeillades", "plissements de lèvres", egg-sucking and neck-twisting mannerisms succeed in nothing more than a rather good impression of Eric Idle playing an upper-class frump in drag.
The script doesn't spend a single minute pondering the gravity of the title character's situation as the man who wrote the play that arguably brought about the French Revolution. His motivation is never explained apart from the fact that he was left holding the bag of the expenses he incurred helping the American Revolution. In that sense, the film is extremely superficial and potentially libellous.
Its only qualities lie in its original locations (including creaky floors that should have been corrected with a little Foley work), its magnificent score by Jean-Claude Petit (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990) and its costumes. It is unfortunate that the latter most often end up wearing the players rather than the other way around.
In short, this film is a discredit to both Beaumarchais and Guitry.
The Crazies (2010)
Best film yet about the Tea Bagger movement... but it has its faults
As a non-American, I can only see this film as a parable of the Republican Creed of Greed that has already infected that large part of the American population called the Tea Baggers and turned them into potential heartless and mindless home-grown gun-toting terrorists. It is also evocative of giant man-made disasters like the BP Gulf oil spill.
I found the film inspiring in that it shows an America that is still powerful, wealthy and efficient enough to actually pull a valid (though extremely brutal) containment strategy in a time of crisis.
Believing this allowed me to sit through this very efficient display of gore tainted with suspense without actually losing my mind.
Unfortunately, this film has many faults. They are not in the writing, the acting, the editing or the direction, which are all excellent. They have to do with the slavish imitation of the movie zeitgeist in such details as cinematography and music.
"The Crazies" is the 788th straight film in a row of the past decade that is shot in a kind of icy, livid, washed-up blue-green digitally degraded hue that is very hard to correct even on the best TV monitor. I tried upping the colour level, deepening the blacks, blooming the whites and increasing the contrast but it still stays a depressing Manganese Blue and Pond Scum Green nightmare. One way to get through this ordeal is turning the colour off altogether and watching it in black and white. One can also hope that, say, in ten years time, when this blue-green fad will have gone the way of the nose ring and the vuvuzela, distributors are going to implement a re-colourization program that will make the best of those films watchable again.
As for the music, it is the usual noise + sound effects + percussion + mind-altering low frequency hums mix that is the trademark of every horror film of the past ten years and is the continuous soundtrack of the fear-mongering History Channel documentaries. It is technically known, for now, as "fear music", and to be fair, composer Mark Isham is one of the creators of that new genre of non-music. This too shall pass, if music education does not disappear from American schools altogether, which is a very iffy proposition at this time, given the state of the US education system.
Word Is Out (1977)
How things have changed
I saw this 1977 pre-AIDS documentary on TCM this week. I had never heard of it and found it remarkable.
So many positive things stick out: The fact that none of the participants are angry or overly resentful; the fact that they are all candid, non-delusional and totally open to the questions; the fact that they are at their ease; the fact that they can tell everything about their past experience and still have hope in the future in spite of some occasional twangs of nostalgia for their "underground" life and of pain at what they have endured. I can't imagine (in a SF alternate universe), straight people being so forgiving if heterosexuality had been persecuted for thousands of years.
But the thing I found the most remarkable is that all the participants are so lucid and very articulate. Even the ones that are not scholarly (like the two women living as a farming couple in the country) express themselves in a clear, concise and honest manner. The same can be said of the few "flamboyant" gays. What they say ultimately makes sense, in spite of their expressiveness and their love of hyperbole. This kind of faculty for expressing the truth or simply communicating in a direct manner has totally disappeared from most of the gays I know today. It's as if these troubled times on the cusp of new era made people more intelligent and perceptive. Now that homosexuality is "more or less" accepted (except by inbred small-town Republicans), gay people seem to have lost some of that lucidity and that is very sad. Or maybe Americans have just gotten dumber as a whole with the influence of movies, television and video games and the loss of basic literacy due to a degrading education system. I'm just saying... It's interesting to note in that respect that the IMDb user ratings show that this film doesn't "connect" as much with the younger generations as it does with older viewers.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no reference by any of the participants to any concept, reality or news from outside the U.S. (except for a few insights on growing up Asian and gay or Black and gay), which to a non-American of today like myself, may seem strange. There are also very few references to the influence of the media. Even the most inarticulate, delusional, and misinformed gays of today know they live in a global media-controlled universe and can compare themselves to other parts of the world. But that is just another sign of the times, I guess. Today's young people take the global village for granted and that may not necessarily make them more intelligent, more self-aware or more informed about anything. And gay liberation was perhaps (arguably) first and foremost a North-American phenomenon, made possible by relative prosperity, democracy and the access to higher education.
The only things that can bring a smile or a wince today are the conscious and/or unconscious role-playing of some of the lesbian couples and the few mentions of "lesbian separatism" by some of the participants. But that is - and has always been - something for the feminists to analyze. And who's to say the male-male couples wouldn't have exhibited just as much butch-femme role-playing if they had actually been shown more?
In conclusion, I like the way the participants - despite all the rhetoric - mostly come off as thinking individuals first and gays second.
Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov (2006)
More skies of grey Than any Russian play Can guarantee..
I was ready to put down this fantasy film for the following reasons:
1. The very cliché colourless blue-green photography that has become almost universal since "Lord of the Rings" and makes me wonder if fans of those films (and the CGI artists responsible for them) have ever experienced real sunlight; 2. The bloody battle scenes borrowed from the spastic camera work of "Gladiator" and the first scene, borrowed from "Conan the Barbarian"; 3. The fact that there are not enough speaking parts and the stories, back-stories and flashbacks are difficult to follow and put together; 4. The music that aspires to loudness more than anything else; 5. And the fact that most blond, bearded long-haired Russians look alike.
But I decided to be more lenient because...
1. This is a Russian fantasy film that can look back to a great tradition of movies like "Sadko" (1954); 2. It is based on a book and it must have been difficult to compact all that data into a coherent whole; 3. The ending is kind of cool and carries a positive message; 4. The sets, costumes, art direction and composition are excellent - IN SPITE of the anaemic colour scheme; 5. I liked the bat; 6. It wasn't an American action film.
The Book of Eli (2010)
A generic post-apocalyptic film that is itself the product of a post-literate society
This film postulates a post-apocalyptic society where the survivors have become conscience-less killers solely bent on survival. This new society is illiterate (except for the characters payed by British actors, for some mysterious reason). A wanderer through it (Denzel Washington) holds on to the last copy of the Bible, which he uses for his personal moral betterment. All such books were understandably burned by the survivors because the nuclear holocaust itself was caused by a war of religions. A local evil crime-boss (Gary Oldman) wants to get hold of a copy of the Good Book at all cost, because he sees in it the best way to further enslave and exploit the desperate, the poor and the ignorant he longs to control. God knows it's worked before
The problem with this film is that it is itself the product of a post-literate society. Every element of the script has been borrowed – not from books or novels – but from other films and even comic books too numerous to mention. Its art direction, like that of countless other recent productions, is entirely derived from the comics of French artist Jean Giraud, creator of the "Lieutenant Blueberry" series. Every plot point is conceived in visual terms, i.e. how it will look on the screen. This logic leads to multiple scenes of violent carnage (often perpetrated by the "Christian" hero) with machetes, guns, axes, crowbars, chain-saws and explosives, like any other B-grade action or horror film, or, more precisely, like any post-apocalyptic-themed video game offering an extreme violence content. "The Book of Eli" is actually just another comic book for Americans who are too illiterate to read a comic book.
The cinematography uses filter manipulations that make it veer into a blue-green nightmare (like countless other recent productions) verging towards monochromatic ochre through much of its running time and finally giving us a glimpse of colour towards the end. This happens to be the cheapest way to give a film's art direction unity (not to mention making your movie look like it was directly lifted from the pages of graphic novel). I insist on noting here that when Jean-Pierre Jeunet used colour manipulation in a film like "Amélie" (2001), he did it in a playful and whimsical manner, an attitude that is miles removed from that of the makers.
Its "music", except for a few final bars borrowed from the religious repertoire, is really electronically manipulated noise putting the accent on the lowest, stomach-churning frequencies the human ear can endure. This is known as "fear music", the kind that plays round the clock on the History channel (the "H" stands for "hignorance") during its never-ending post-apocalyptic-themed pseudo-documentaries.
The film itself lacks logic in many ways. Questions such as "How did Eli survive the gunshot?", "Where do the thugs get their gas?", "Doesn't the most compact Braille version of the King James Bible come in 17 over-sized and unwieldy volumes?", "Given the film is made by morons for morons, isn't is safe to suppose that an awful lot of them will assume that Eli is himself blind if he carries a Braille Bible (even if he is never seen actually reading from it)?", "Why does the final printed Bible come with footnotes?" and "Why should Denzel Washington entrust his career to such a gimmicky premise?" are never answered. The film also overstays its welcome by a good thirty minutes during which it has ample time to choke on its own sanctimonious pretensions and doubly underline the painfully obvious. This is sad because its cast includes many fine actors chosen either for their talent (Washinton, Oldman, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits), their photogenic qualities (Mila Kunis) or their resemblance to comic book characters (Ray Stevenson, Evan Jones and a host of other murderous thugs).
The script is so badly written, more than one interpretation of Elis' "blindness" is possible, namely (among many others):
(1) Eli has been blinded by the flash but has miraculously learned to read the miraculously-compacted Braille book he miraculously found and miraculously can go through all the motions of a seeing person, like miraculously hunting a cat and miraculously feeding a mouse; (2) Eli is not blind, has never learned how to read Braille or any other language (he is illiterate, like the writers) and he is totally guided by faith, having learned the Bible by heart through either his "voice" or a mentor; (3) Eli is blind but can see during the main part of the film, from the moment he wakes up in the cabin until his eyes "glaze over" (according to some) towards the end; (4) Denzel Washington is himself blind. He had to blindly rely on his agent to commit to this disastrous project and never really read the script.
Any film whose moral seems to be: "See, boys and girls, if you believe hard enough in the Bible, you too will be able to kick ass and decapitate bad guys on sight with a machete, just like a real blind Ninja in a real video game or a real Muslim terrorist in a real life situation" deserves nothing but contempt.
In a society where films like this one have become the main form of entertainment, it is to be expected that people will indeed become illiterate, blind, deaf, dumb, leprous, conscience-less and murderous. No nuclear holocaust needed.
The fact that the book which caused all this mayhem survives at the end is by far the most chilling aspect of this film. It makes you wonder what happened to the comic books...
A Cry in the Night (1956)
This 50's time capsule is a prelude to "Psycho"
This little-known sordid shocker played as part of a Natalie Wood homage on TCM. The action is set in Los Angeles, "although it could be any city, your city", intones the voice-over. Yeah, right. Natalie, 18, is abducted from lovers' lane by a voyeur-psycho (Raymond Burr) who slugs her beau (Richard Anderson) and absconds with his car. Her father (Edmond O'Brien) is a police captain who happens to be a sexist, macho, insensitive, over-protective, overbearing, filthy, repulsive S.O.B. and probably a Republican to boot. He is neglectful to his wife and has shouted down his sister into the life of a sterile old maid - a plan he seems to be enacting again with his daughter. He would probably also be a homophobe if he had any notion that such a thing as homosexuals even existed.
The details of police procedure are laughable. The slugged-out beau gets first mistaken for a drunk and put in the drunk tank. When a doctor intervenes and diagnoses a concussion, his story checks out but he still has to contend with the captain's brutality, fatherly possessiveness and attempts at psychological castration.
Meanwhile, through another coincidence, the police stumbles on the abductor's mother - an even more unhealthy version, although living, than "Psychos"'s dead and embalmed mama, which leads to a break in the case. We are asked to believe that those cops - who don't have the slightest element of psychology or know how to raise their own children - immediately associate a missing 32-year-old male living with his possessive mother with a potential sexual psycho who is probably the abductor. They turn out to be right.
Given what Natalie has to put up with at home, one has to wonder if she wouldn't be better off with her abductor for understanding and comfort. She limps through half the movie in a torn-up skirt, thus fulfilling the obligatory prurient cheesecake element for a film of that genre, budget and period.
The climax takes place in a brickworks factory, the dirt and slime being a fitting visual complement to what goes on in the male characters' minds.
David Buttolph's incidental music tries hard to make this sound like "Rebel Without A Cause" but is too generic to make a mark.
The film as a whole is a priceless - if laughable - time capsule of attitudes towards crime, sex, cops, victims, perpetrators and anything and anyone that is slightly out of the ordinary. It's enough to turn any "Momma's boy" into a "pinko commie" or a "psycho"...
Shutter Island (2010)
The product of a very sick mind... but still a pretty good film
Do people still wonder why the Academy of Arts and Sciences hesitates to give an Oscar to Martin Scorsese every time he is nominated? Could it be because of his propensity to use his huge talent for directing and his academic knowledge of cinematic story-telling devices only to gross out his public? I mean, what are his real accomplishments besides upping the violence quotient in every film he makes and telling us that Italians are murderers and Mafiosi with colourful speech patterns and creative ways of killing the people who show them disrespect and even the people they love? Scorsese is like that distant cousin who is uniquely preoccupied with looking up women's skirts and wonders why he never gets a date. Except his particular vice happens to be showing, analyzing and brooding over the myriad facets of the wonderful world of violence and bloodletting, like a creep tearing the wings off flies.
In this case, the film is well put together and tells an acceptable story, not without a lot of channeling of Kubrick's "The Shining". It has atmosphere in spades and the hurricane scenes are particularly well thought-out. The art direction, acting and cinematography are superb even though the director has once again opted for the extremely clichéed blue-green colour scheme that has become, from sheer banality, the shame of the American cinema of the past 10 years. The script is semi-literate in spite of its numerous anachronisms (to name just three: the use of the phrases "electronic systems" and "no problem" and the depiction of an attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation).
The music is effective in communicating suspense and terror even though it is an anthology of every piece of modern writing that could never ever please an audience on its own except as an accompaniment to scenes from an insane asylum.
Violence is such a powerful force in modern American society that it is indeed a legitimate field of enquiry and exploration. What Mr. Scorsese should ask himself, however, is whether he belongs with the people who are legitimately reflecting on violence or whether, as one of the individuals who have contributed the most to desensitizing the movie-going public to its horror, he is part of the problem.
In that sense, the film is indicative of Martin Scorsese's own career: ***SPOILER*** in the end, the patient discovers all the crimes of which he is guilty and understands the measures that must be taken to protect society from his further abuses.
I'm not saying that his next project should be a remake of "Heidi" but it WOULD be therapeutic for him and certainly a step in the right direction.
The Wolfman (2010)
The making of a turgid flop
I watched the seemingly interminable "unrated edition" of this boring claptrap on DVD before committing this judgement to paper. In my opinion, this film is the unfortunate product of a Hollywood film industry that has no future because it keeps trying to reinterpret and recycle its past glories. The only way it can do this is to use ever more sophisticated but lifeless technological means to render the gore gorier and the noise noisier while paying no attention to the other aspects of film entertainment that are logic, structure, continuity, viewer involvement, intelligence, wit, humour, deft touches, originality and creative power.
Everything about this film is derivative. Its photography, rhythm, lighting, art direction and best effects are all imitated from F.F. Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" with the major exception that Coppola's film wasn't shot in this generic blue-green half-assed washed-out imitation of a two-strip Technicolor film, a yawn-inducing conceit borrowed from every other horror film produced in the last 10 years. It is high time that CGI technicians leave their mother's basement and learn once and for all what real sunlight looks like. The overall effect is as depressing as the overdone CGI landscapes in "Van Helsing", the very nadir of this kind of artificial entertainment. The only film this one is NOT derivative of, actually, is the original 1941 "The Wolfman" script by Curt Siodmak.
The film fails in logic in many ways. One of them is casting Benicio Del Toro not only as an Englishman but as an aristocratic Englishman who is also a Shakespearian actor. The man can hardly speak recognizable syllables in any language, let alone recite English verse. Why hire him if the wolfish part of his role is all done in CGI? Because he is one of the producers. The other star of the film is Anthony Hopkins channeling once again the role of Professor Von Helsing from the aforementioned Coppola film. In this outing he has pushed all his acting tics to unbearable levels and has definitely taken Kate Hepburn's advice too much to heart when she told him "Don't act – just speak your lines" on the set of "The Lion in Winter". There is no acting here. Just monotonous drivel. The efforts of Hugo Weaving and Emily Blunt are totally wasted in this context.
The intelligence of any viewer willing to give this pabulum its chance is totally alienated in the first 20 minutes when he is asked to believe that the hero, after refusing Gwen's invitation to help seek his missing brother in England, leaves for America on a theatre tour and is then summoned back by a letter written by the same woman, thus making it at least four months between the brother's disappearance and the discovery of his body, given the transportation modes of 1891. We are also asked to believe that Talbot's giant castle is run by only one Indian servant.
The level of graphic violence in this film may be its only original element although I am not versed enough in sadistic mayhem at the movies to form a definite opinion. But it certainly was the first time for me seeing the actual contours of the various human organs ripped from a living human body. The London cityscapes are also very well done and would have been fun to watch in any other film. The best of these, showing a masked ball at the Crystal Palace, has been cut from the film and can only be seen in the DVD's deleted scenes, unfortunately.
More derivation: Danny Elfman was certainly the man to write music for this type of film. He unfortunately doesn't have a single original descending minor chord left in his arsenal and his score sounds like a rehash of many, many such outings (but especially Wojciech Kilar's themes for "Bram Stoker's Dracula") while dangerously bordering at times on that twilight zone where noise meets sound effects. The beginning and end titles look suspiciously like the ones for Mel Brooks' satirical "Dracula Dead and Loving It".
In short, one has to be a particular type of idiot not to be able to make something inspiring and scary from the raw material of foggy and shadowy English moors, decrepit castles and ancient legends about werewolves.
The film ends the only way it can: with a particularly gruesome WWE-type confrontation (although those are usually better scripted) followed by a recreation of the final scene from (you guessed it) "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and a just few added clichés for good measure.
P.S.: What was Max Von Sydow doing in an uncredited cameo as the man who leaves his cane to the hero? Could it be he didn't want his name associated with this film either?
Comeback Season (2006)
It would have been perfect without the happy ending
In this feels-like-a-TV-movie opus, Ray Liotta plays a father of two daughters who admits to his wife that he has had an extramarital affair. The wife instantly turns into a money-grubbing castrating harpy and his daughters conspire to humiliate their father and turn him into a hobo by grabbing as much money as they can for the eldest daughter's Bridezilla-type wedding. In the process, the father turns to a neighbour kid who has lost a promising football career to a knee injury for advice and comfort. He quits his job and begins a process of introspection which is highly believable. The only part that stretches credibility after such an unflinching look at American matriarchy/vaginocracy in action is the happy ending where the husband comes back to a miraculously humanized and forgiving wifey. The film would have had much more import if the husband had started a homosexual affair with the football star and moved to Alaska away from those egotistical and superficial bitches. Ray Liotta gives an exemplary performance in a kind of comeback role that could rescue him from the sadistic parts he has been cast in ever since "Reservoir Dogs".