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Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
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Which of these 80s erotic thrillers is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
After voting, you might discuss the list here
* known for at least three memorable uses in film, TV programs or cartoons
Which of these alliterative TV shows is your favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
But on August 17, 2019, and before the much anticipated release of The Irishman (2019), we're celebrating his 76th birthday and such a day can't go without (yes, another) tribute to the legendary actor with the mole, so for this occasion, here's a compilation of his Top 20 highest-rated films... and please, don't be angry if some favorite of yours are missing, it's not personal, strictly poll business, as De Niro said (or was it Pacino?)
Which of these movies starring Robert De Niro is your personal favorite?
After voting, you may be talkin' here
There's no doubt that the most iconic poster from a Quentin Tarantino's movie is Pulp Fiction (1994) (we all know it is, come on!) but how about your personal favorite? After all, the newly released Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019) might just be his poster's masterpiece (right, Utivich?).
Which of these "QT" movie posters is your favorite?
Are you gonna hesitate all day or are you gonna vote and discuss the list here?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
With a face that always seems ready for a quip and eyes that could do the smiling even in serious moments, Michael Keaton played many various roles that made him a very hard-to-define actor. He could play eccentric and slightly disturbed characters, cool and workaholic blue-collar types of guys, leaders as well as loners -he could even be Batman!- so there might be one word that can describe him perfectly: he was unpredictable.
This poll is a tribute to his unpredictability and naturally, his talent. It features his highest-rated live-action movies (no voice roles) all rated higher than 5.9 as of July 2019.
Which of these Michael Keaton films is your personal favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
L'arroseur arrosé (1895)
The Birth of a Notion...
... the gag!
The Lumiere brothers didn't just invent cinema, an art without which IMDb wouldn't exist, they reinvented the gag, an art (yes, an art) without which the French expression "Sprinkler Sprinkled" wouldn't exist, not to mention... cinematic comedy, you know... Chaplin, Keaton, Lewis, Carrey etc... if laughter could be counted in royalties, well, there's always a little cent owed to that seminal piece of celluloid from 1895.
The joke is as old as the Lascaux paintings: a man is watering his garden, a naughty boy steps on the hose and... I won't spoil the ending, I know what goes after is a joke even someone with a QI lower than his shoe size would guess. Still, it works. And we laugh. You know what? Because the essence on the joke doesn't lie on its premise but on the anticipation, the second of the three-act structure. Set-up. Anticipation. Punch-line.
We know the punch-line, which weakens the comedic effect a bit, but we enjoy it nonetheless because the anticipation prepared us for the laugh, if the predictable outcome happens, we're happy because it satisfies our intellect somewhat, comedy appeals in an intellectual way you know... of course the gag doesn't reinvent the wheel but how can you get a twist on that story anyway?
So, what we've got here is the shortest but the most primitive comedy ever, a short intended to make its targeted people laugh, maybe we grew too sophisticated not to appreciate that kind of humor but I dare even the most skeptical one not to let a little chuckle slip. Sure, this is no Chaplin or Keaton but this is comedy in its rawest form and the Lumière brothers got it right, all you've got to do is toy with your audience's anticipation, whatever will happen will happen and will make them laugh...
There's no need to get over-analytical in a ''sprinkler-sprinkled' short, let's just say the film has one merit: it proved that the silver screen needed to provide one emotion and the most universal one, the one that could work with that initial format: laughter, and that it happened so shortly after the first film ever proves how essential comedy was to a Boeotian audience.
It's one thing to show a train arriving or workers going for lunch, but a comedy has one edge over any filmed stuff: it tells a story.
Set-up, anticipation/ action, punch-line, maybe in this simple trilogy, you've got the seeds that planted the art of storytelling, comedy as the essence of film-making. One of the reasons Chaplin is the most emblematic figure of cinema is that three out of the four pillars that made the foundations of cinema is comedy, and "The Sprinkler Sprinkled" constitutes the birth of the visual gag.
The film might even be the first to have an official "villain" even if it's a little prankster and he gets his comeuppance in the end, so even this limited range of plot points, there's an Aesop after all.
Simple but essential...
(a short review maybe, but what did you expect for a 30-second short?)
Working Girl (1988)
The gender-driven battle between horizontality and verticality...
As soon as the chorus triumphantly shouted "Let the River Run", I knew "Working Girl" aimed high. And high is the right word as the film opens with a zoom on the Statue of Liberty's face; the panoramic view on this Great Lady hints us about the film's subtext: when women show the light. Carmy Simon's song will win an Oscar and its uplifting tune is undeniable and integral to the success story.
The titular "Working Girl" is Tess McGill who looks like your typical sexy girl who can only dream of being secretary or assistant to some big shot in a big company, but there's more in her, she's not a Harvard alumnus but she took classes and reads a lot. She works hard and is able to provide sound advice whose credibility is spoiled by her little-girl voice and eyes that seem to ask for permission to exist in a man's world. Speaking of men, they treat her like dirt, for lack of another word, feeling she's got more chances to work her way by sleeping with a sleazy coked-up manager played by Kevin Spacey. If she's hungry, she should accept.
Let's get back to the film's opening now, the Statue of Liberty is a woman who stands and stands tall, defying the same verticality than the anonymous and numerous phallic skyscrapers and she's the most emblematic figure of New York. Following the metaphor, Tess is a woman who wants to move vertically, climbing up the professional ladder but through her merit. So when she's asked to sleep with "Bob from Arbitrage", it's again her perception of success. They call it horizontal promotion and she won't have it.
Melanie Griffith has an effective way to play the innocent girl yearning for respect her vulnerability can't earn, she's not a cynical person but she's got her pride and is tired of being looked down as someone who must either sleep or stand wearing skimpy lingerie. Her boyfriend, played by Alec Baldwyn, offers her stockings for her birthday, which says a lot about his own vision of ladies. Dame Statue of Liberty doesn't show anything, and she's the one who's guiding people.
This conflict between horizontality and verticality can even be expressed fashion-wise: men wear typical suits, women having those vertiginous 80s hairdos, Joan Cusack who plays Tess' friend Cyn couldn't have been any more New Yorker on that 'level', and when Tess gets back to the office, she trades her sneakers for high heels, anything that can artificially make women higher than men is welcome. But some women don't need any artifices, or do they?
When her new boss, Katharine Parker comes into the picture, she woman exudes alpha confidence in every gesture, every detail of her notability, she's warm, amiable and authoritarian, always attentive in keeping things smooth and punchy. Parker is the woman Tess wants to become, she adopts her speech patterns, she cuts her hair and cut off the fancy jewelry, but the catch is that she becomes her servant and ironically, Parker become as condescending and insulting as a man would be, a fine touch in a script that could have been labeled as male-bashing.
So Tess doesn't turn out to be the lady who shows the light but the one who carries the torch, the casting of Weaver is crucial because she does a great job at hiding her feelings, she's much taller than Griffith and she wonderfully echoes the situation of women caught between two worlds. She's feminine and seductive with the guys, especially Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) but then harbors her status as a weapon to destroy the spirit of an ambitious woman. Her ambivalence allows us to appreciate the hypocrisy of some women who pretend to be pro-feminism, and yet are only product of accomplices to the system that only select a few to keep the majority under their feet.
This is when the film gets a bit problematic and I won't get into the romantic undertones that could have kept away from the script. Being a film from the 80s, directed by a man, Mike Nichols, and with Harrison Ford as top-billed actor, we're allowed to wonder how accurate and sensitive to the pleas of women it is.
First of all, I was pleased but also puzzled by the many scenes featuring Griffith in sexy underwear, it made sense where she sneaks into Katherine's wardrobe, but the moment where she vacuums her place might be a tad gratuitous, as if the male gaze found a tunnel through the director's camera to betray the script. That said, there's a moment where Harrison Ford who plays the smooth office worker, have two long cocktail drinks and women are gazing at him with "yummy" looks, the size of the glasses leave no doubt over the symbols and overall, it was an interesting twist on the usual gender-roles tropes (no pun intended).
The second problem was in the come-uppance Katherine would get, as deserved as it was, I was perplexed by the vulgar way she was treated. The 'bony' line wouldn't have been kept today, but maybe it was her way to 'perish' by the very weapons she used, when a woman gets at the top like a guy, why should her womanhood be an excuse to hinge on. Still, I'm not sure about the way Parker was vilified at the end but maybe her contrast with Tess was crucial to comprehend that the best way to climb your way to success is to do so without compromising your femininity but more importantly, your integrity.
Indeed, and that's why, more than a chick (or chic) flick, it's such a culturally significant film marking with "Wall Street" the end of the yuppie years, there's no dress code to be a successful man or woman, and keeping on the Statue of Liberty metaphor, what's the purpose of standing tall if you have no light to show?
Wait Until Dark (1967)
The doll-faced heroine and the doll full of heroin...
When a doll is stuffed by heroin, heroin becomes the stuff a big nightmare is made on, and if you think your comfortable viewer's position will get you immune to genuine fright, you've got another thing coming... or jumping.
So, we have a blind woman named Suzy Hendrix, left alone in her apartment and three men who want to get the doll. How that doll got in Suzy's possession is swiftly handled like a typical Hitchcock McGuffin. How the two con-artists Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) accept to help a sinister black-clad sunglasses-spotting criminal named Raut (Alan Arkin) to get a hold on the doll is smoothly executed in an expositional blackmailing. And how we get to this get-the-doll premise to a harrowing thriller is the second of a three-act structure from Frederic Knott, who wrote "Dial M for Murder".
Then Terence Young's nonsense directing transcended the unity of time and space and plot, making for an experience that would frighten the audiences through a vicious exploitation of theaters' darkness. The film is indeed known for its exceptional demand of minimal lighting in the theaters in order to enhance the sense of sheer terror at the climax. And yes, while experiencing it, I was wondering how it would have looked in the theater, the last scene that made me think so was the horrific shower in "Schindler's List".
Remember, women were taken to the camp shower, they have heard rumors about hem being death traps, but what could they do? The door was closed and then the anticipation is worse than the ensuing situation. Of course they scream, what else could they do? Since the dawn of ages, darkness has been associated to death and terror in a way that's been rooted in our DNA. But here we get a plot where for once, darkness is synonym of life, because that's how the blind person's life is defined... and yet it doesn't make the moments in the darkness any less scary.
And the whole story is based on an audacious plan that relies on the writer's creative ability in anticipating his own character's creativity. First, Suzy is the center of a plot meant to earn her trust so the three thugs can look for the doll without awakening suspicions. And progressively, she starts to realizes that something isn't right, she's capable to hear familiar footsteps or stores being opened and closed. It's a matter of time before she assembles the pieces of the puzzle, not without the help of a kid named Gloria... who lives upstairs.
The film sets the tone and the mood in an effective way, and no matter the flaws that come in the way, the ending is satisfying because we're kept at the edge of our seat, rooting for a heroine twice, because she's blind and because she's Audrey Hepburn... and because she's facing a villain who mans business although I'm not much a fan of the way Arkin played his Raut like a master of disguise, it looked too farcical for such a no-nonsense film. Anyway, after "The Miracle Worker", I wanted to stay on the 'blind' theme and watch another classic, so "Wait Until Dark" came as a natural choice.
I expected another tale of damsel in distress lost in an apartment and I got that but a little more I didn't expect, a film that seems to exploit in a playful way the idea of having a blind protagonist surrounded by criminals and turn a promising gimmick into a frightening and unforgettable experience, especially during the final ten minutes. Indeed, if one must judge a thriller by its climax then Terence Young" "Wait Until Dark" ISa masterpiece.
What can be blamed though is that it take a little time to build up and that the film is so cautious in not letting many loose ends that we ought to find a few glaring ones. Roger Ebert kept wondering why Suzy didn't lock the door, I saw the film carefully and I guess that one can be so distraught he might forget. I had just forgot my glasses today and have difficulty writing right now, quite fitting for the movie. But I'm not giving up easily on the film, there are a few contrivances here and there but Audrey Hepburn gives the kind of performances where she encourages our own suspension of disbelief.
From the very start we can feel that she smells something fishy, too many things happen in a short span of times, two many intrusions, a cop, an old friend, but in the confusion, she seems to maintain her trust on Crenna because their interaction seems to work despite its malevolent starter, which speaks for the film's effort to maintain a realistic touch.
And it is realistic from our own POV, we wander through the house enough time to get used to it, to feel the place and then like Suzy, be able to anticipate the moves and counter-attack the bad guys. The building allows her to count on the help of her neighbor Gloria and determine whom she can trust. Some users said why didn't she leave the place, well maybe because if there's one place to be blind, you're your home....
Not that it says much, it all comes to the point where she realizes she must destroy all the sources of light in the film (almost)... if she's got to face a ruthless killer, let's make it a fair fight... one wouldn't believe she could pull off but "The Miracle Worker" thought me a blind and deaf person could become a writer, I can buy that a blind woman can do it. Still, the film isn't interested in the what she does but how she does and this is where it gets is spot as one of the scariest and thrilling experiences ever.
Young knows how to dispose a few jump scares and taking the ultimate step by plunging the screen in full darkness. If only for that, this is an experience any movie lover should live.
The Miracle Worker (1962)
In the beginning, was the Verb...
"The Miracle Worker" has teased my curiosity for years: fifteenth film in AFI's Most Inspiring Movies, roles that allowed Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke to win their respective Oscars (Lead and Supporting roles) over two iconic villainesses: Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate", Mrs. Bancroft being praised for her performance in "What's My Line" (she used the language signs during the show)... but all these considerations don't amount to much when it comes to the film's subject.
It's hard enough to imagine being plunged in an eternity of darkness that the combination with deafness can only feel like a dirty trick played by God. In a bit of ironic coincidence, I'm right now deprived of my glasses and must come at one inch to the keyboard and can't even check the spelling on the screen, as near-sighted man, I can at least relate to Annie Sullivan's blurred eyesight... but my hearing is perfect... I guess hat one sense out of five is a fair bargain, but two is just impossible... unless you count that magical sixth sense that makes a "miracle" possible and allowed Annie Sullivan to pull a young blind-deaf girl off the abyss and become Helen Keller.
This is the premise of Arthur Penn's "Miracle Worker" adapted from William Gibson's play, a story that chronicles the first contacts between Annie and Helen and how, step by step, the young Helen learned to translate words into signs until the feat could be bridged with the real accomplishment; associating these words with the things they describe, water, ground, mother etc. Almost Biblically, Helen was taught the verb before the creation, saying before identifying as if it was the only measure of humanity, the edge over animals.
An animal is almost what Helen is when we first see her, she has a few signs but nothing a trained monkey couldn't do, she behaves like a wild untamed animal... and to put her off that bestial state, Annie has no other choice but to tame her, literally, use her muscle as well her brains to remind her that she's a human being, something she might not even be aware of... and also remind the parents that they shouldn't be too charitable. The mother (Inga Swenson) is so sensitive she puts her daughter in a bubble of love that alienates her from the real world and her father (Victor Jory) is too rational to expect any possible "miracle". Only the brother (Andrew Pine) can see the good in Annie's unorthodox methods.
So, making Helen more human and the parents less is the psychological struggle Annie must pull, the film is all about learning and the crucial way it extends to the parents. In a way, "The Miracle Worker" reminded me of these reality TV shows where a Nanny teaches the parents how to deal with bratty kids. By the way, Annie has the nerve to call Helen spoiled to emphasize the responsibility of her parents' behavior, it's not just part of God's great scheme. And by demonstrating her lack of empathy, Annie's temper and guts show more respect and consideration toward her pupil. The performance of Anne Bancroft is a mixture of sweetness and pugnacity that finds a perfect echo in Patty Duke's energy.
Considering Duke, she doesn't look too old for the part and doesn't let herself immersed by the role, so we can't get intuitions from her actions, she can feel there's an intruder who has an other way to communicate and somewhat she both refuses her help and accepts it. Helen swings between two opposite states where she tries to get into that breech and others where her handicap is too overwhelming to let anyone make it worse. In fact, everyone seems governed by a dual perception of things, a mix of pure human love and comprehension and a necessity to get things done the most painful way, this is where the conflict between Annie and Helen culminates in the breakfast scene, a sequence of eight minutes where the two wrestle, just to learn how to eat properly.
Helen would slap, bite, pinch, throw Annie in the face but Annie had no mercy as well, the sequence is so excucriating that when it ends, we're glad something came out of it. At that point, I knew the film had taken me and was thrilled by the learning. The next step was in that hunting room where Helen could get off her zone of comfort and learn word manners as well as words, and we'd get more relief from the physical stuff.
The film offers more latitude than the play, allowing the camera to go in the outside world so Helen could learn... the directing is superb in a sort of cinema-vérité (did I mention reality TV?) and the performances extraordinary though sometimes the parents derives toward sentimentality, a criticism that applies to the movie near the end. The film makes it so difficult to grab one word from Helen that its conclusion seems too hasty, when the second breakfast scene ended, I thought we'd get through a second part where Helen would start to 'write'. Yet the film gets satisfied with that conclusion as if the first step was enough to make the rest history. When you care for a documentary-like precision, there's no problem for adding a little
I didn't mind that absence actually but I don't think the film needed that "I love you" at the end, there was no way Helen would be capable to pull this... and a simple hug would have been enough, it doesn't take eyes or ears to show someone you love and I think the film was beyond that misstep. But the story is so extraordinary and gripping that there's no way anyone wouldn't recommend to watch it. It ends abruptly but what goes before is quite a cinematic experience!
Mad Max 2 (1981)
Fast, Furious and Nihilistic...
In 1979, George Miller made "Mad Max" on the cheap and the film became an international sensation, a cultural phenomenon with the iconic Pursuit Special roaming across the desert as Max' Batmobile and a vehicle for Mel Gibson's rising star. It worked too well not to be taken seriously; those were the New Hollywood days, the petrol crisis had struck again, "No Future" was more an existential motto than a slogan, so "Mad Max" could only find echo in the punkish new generation and critics who saw more than an action film.
They were right to a certain degree: "Mad Max" turned the Australian wilderness into a cemetery of civilization, marking the decline of a world too dependent on industry to survive out of gentleness and humanity, the world Chaplin warned us against in "The Dictator". But reading my review of the original again, I was wondering if I didn't get too over-analytical. For all we know, maybe the film was just a warm-up for something more spectacular, more extravagant and more cinematic, something less "New Hollywood" and more in-line with the rise of the blockbuster world.
Indeed, in 1981, Miller had the money and "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" showed such a remarkable kinship with "The Empire Strikes Back" I found it actually eerie. The opening plays like the long crawling intro of the "Star Wars" movies, a mini-prequel showing through historical footage a world we're familiar with and that was sacrificed at the altar of flag-brandishing selfishness, reducing the democratic world to a no-man's land with people left at the mercy of gangs of racers and motorcyclist, with a name this time: the marauders, the dark side.
The term mirrors the symbolic line between the good and the bad people established in the first film, those who want to settle and drifters. The paradox is that both needs the same petrol to move about, and when the settlers own a refinery that provide enough fuel to take them to the coast where they'll establish their "Great Northern Tribe", like pioneers following Horace Greely's advice, they naturally attract the greed of the marauders who need oil to fu(e)lfill their chosen lifestyle. Only this time, the settlers are together and ready to fight, still like pioneers.
The time of the cavalry, the Police Patrol is over and Max isn't even a vigilante anymore; after losing his wife and child, he's alone with his dog, a drifter, too and a scavenger, eating on dog food and looking for some oil in any wreck he'll find, a ramshackle car or a gyrocopter where he meets its goofy Pilot (Bruce Spence). Together they witness the brutal assault, torture and rape from the gangs whose clothes carry some strong sexual undertones, to say the least. In a shocking move, they don't help them, one of Max' repeated lines (which is saying a lot since he hardly talks) is "I'm here for the gas".
Max never believes in being a hero, nor that he wants to be one, in a land that looks like the old frontier world, half-mystical, half-disillusioned, and still caught, he channels an Eastoodian Han Solo in his attitude. But what draws the biggest parallel with "Star Wars" is the big bad guy, the colossal Lord of the marauders whose mask doesn't fool no one, Humungus, over-the-top and troubled, is so shamelessly and blatantly similar to Darth Vader he's actually effective. And the measure of a great villain isn't how bad he is but how capable of fairness he can be.
Humungus offers a deal to the settlers: leaving the refinery with its petrol and they'll get a safe passage, otherwise it's war and oil is its force. The deal seems fair within the vileness of the character but what stroke me the most is the way he appeased one of his "dragons" (a Mohawk punk named Wez who was among the rapists) when his boyfriend is killed by the Feral kid, using a cutting boomerang as a weapon. He reminds him that everyone's lost someone he loved, they should look forward.
Interestingly, even the settlers share the same vision, when offered to haul a semi-truck and make a diversion, Max refuses (he's only there for gas) and then the leader Papagallo (Michael Preston) confronts him to his past and the way he uses it as an alibi to escape the present or that bright future, set 3000 miles away. Violence or hope are the sides of the same sword, and the past like a boomerang can come back to haunt you or hurt you if it's too sharp. And heroes are still wanted.
But here I make the film too philosophical, the point is that everyone is quite the same, only the villains more depraved and savages than the other. The film even uses something as basic as uniforms (white vs. black, tunics vs. leather) to make the distinction, obviously Max is between the two worlds, and his gyrocopter-flying sidekick wears light hearted clothes maybe to anticipate his easier immersion within the settlers.
The film is full of colorful characters who stick to your mind almost instantly (did I mention "Star Wars"?) but it wouldn't be a "Mad Max" if it didn't feature car chases, the climactic one is a reference of that genre along with "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" with a fine nod to "Stagecoach" to stay on the Western theme, chases that aren't there for effects but are handled like vital moments of the plots, and vehicles aren't just props for the characters but 'settings' as well.
The chase with Max driving the truck, attacked by the marauders is one of the most thrilling and exhilarating climaxes I've ever seen, enough to elevate the film as one of the greatest action pictures of all time, with a few remains of meaningfulness from the first film and the way everyone pictures the series.
Lady Bird (2017)
Millennial Graffiti (or Where were you in '02?) ...
At seventeen, I dreaded that first puff thinking it would instantly turn me into an addict...
At seventeen, I was checking my height every day wishing for a growth spurt that never happened...
At seventeen, I wanted to lose "it" so badly I was losing my mind...
And don't get me started on the high school diploma...
So many things we yearn for at seventeen that the resulting confusion and the impossibility to stay focused might be the age's defining trait, a volatility in spirit that befits the nickname of the heroine Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan. More 'bird' than 'lady', she flickers from one ear who'd listen to a mouth who'd advise with one unshakable certitude in her mind: she wants to leave Sacramento, a city that became the epitome of static boredom.
Indeed, if there's one thing we resent at seventeen: it's boredom, even nerds want to have fun ... at seventeen, we're all little birds who want to learn about flowers and bees. Now, being a teacher in a Catholic secondary school, handling kids from eleven to fifteen every day, I was wondering whether the film wasn't infantilizing teens much, guilty of a nostalgia-driven naivety, but in fact Lady Bird's immaturity says a lot about how things have changed since 2002, when teens weren't young adults but plain teens.
In that palindrome of a year, the second after 1991, I turned 20. 1999 wasn't too far and at seventeen, I was wondering how I was going to celebrate the New Millennial. Eventually, I went with my best friend in a restaurant full of adults, I looked ridiculous with my white shirt and a black vest borrowed from my uncle, my buddy was a big stocky guy wearing a purple shirt and beige pants with side pockets, and boots, and as if it wasn't enough we had to wear cones... so we celebrated 2000 in a "Superbad" way and after that we went for a night walk in our equally boring hometown, I'll forever cherish even the lamest memories.
Sorry for the digression but in a film where a girl can suddenly jump off a car, unpredictability shouldn't be a big deal. So I was saying kids would laugh today at Lady Bird and her impressionability when it comes to the things of s-e-x, but it's not about what the film shows but what it doesn't, even I was caught off guard. The environment looked so familiar that I forgot it was a time without social networks, when wireless phones were only used for communication, mail still meant paper and that went for adult magazines too (I plead guilty for that one) and the one shot on a computer is the father (Tracy Letts) playing solitaire.
I love how subtle these indications are (though the references to September 11's aftermath get a bit repetitive), Greta Gerwig doesn't overuse the context but builds around it the emotional bonding between Christine and her world. With her strong personality, she would definitely be on Instagram today and posting videos where she rants about her Mom, I didn't notice how lucky we were to escape from that, we were immature in a time that allowed us to grow up. And "Lady Bird" is quite the coming-of-age story.
And it's tricky to make a good coming-of-age story because you've got to draw an audience into liking a character who might not have anything to do with you, generation-wise.
Here's another digression: coincidentally, the film I saw before was "I Never Sang For my Father", a movie made a decade before Gerwig would be born, but I found in the tense relationship between Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas some eerie parallels with the mother-and-daughter issues between Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, showing that some things just never change. Both films depicted that failure to communicate, the same obsession for the mother to keep her daughter close to her (the father didn't want his 40-year old son to remarry and go to California), it was out of protective instinct because parents know life better as the ones who make ends meet, so they don't allow children to make the same mistakes, they forget one thing, mistakes are part of the learning... that's the parents' mistake.
There's a beautiful moment where Christine tries on new clothes for the prom and one thing leading to another, she asks her mother why can't she have a nice word for once, the mother tries to get away with a "I love you". But what follows is such an intelligent aversion of that cliché I daren't to spoil it, the film might be one of the best written of recent years, it doesn't try to sound "hip" all the time like "Juno" but unveils a real wisdom and acute knowledge of people's vulnerability, no one is to compliment or to blame, and Lady Bird isn't a pretentious nickname (nor the films is) but a pious hope.
So many things have been said about Gerwig's nomination for directing but this has been diluted in a year of gender-driven polemics while the film flies over these considerations with the lightness of a hummingbird, and the writing didn't get the credit it deserved. The actors all excel but with such beautiful lines, you can't miss, I was impressed by how realistic and down-to-earth the film was, made by someone young enough to relate to Lady Bird and old enough to take some perspective and admit that parents weren't wrong.
"Lady Bird" follows a simple chronological storyline, filled with romantic subplots (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet play the opposite love interests), interactions with friends (including Beanie Feldstein as the BFF) but just when the film swims in familiar waters, Gerwig avoid the usual traps: drugs, violence, social comments etc. and proves that the best way to keep an edge is not to try to be edgy all the time... this is a sweet movie whose ending resonated deeply in my Millennial heart.
I Never Sang for My Father (1970)
Death is a certitude leaving uncertainty for the living ...
This is not a spoiler, the son's voice says: "Death ends a life but doesn't end a relationship". Gilbert Cates' "I Never Sang for my Father" opens with these words and a black-and-white photograph of an elderly father and his middle-aged son, both with uncertain smiles. looking in the same direction with expressions that say a lot about their characters and make us suspect they diverge in many aspects. And yet they do have the same focus in their lives: the father himself.
His name is Tom Garrisson (Melvyn Douglas), an eighty-year old man whose existence consists of contemplating his success; making sure he's surrounded by people who'd listen to his wags-to-riches stories: how he beat the odds, took care of his siblings and grandfather after his mother's premature death, kicked out his father at her funeral and then visited him at the hospital and sent him oranges shortly before he died. In fact, when the movie ends, we could write a twenty-page summary of Tom's life and not much of his wife (Dorothy Stickney) or his children Gene and Alice (Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, who ironically also starred together as a 'beta-couple' in "Bonnie and Clyde").
Beta is the word and I wasn't even surprised that Hackman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite him having more screen time than Douglas, the film builds a pedestal upon Tom's feet to make everyone else exist from his perspective. We know that Alice was thrown out of the house because she married a man of 'different background' and Gene always lived in his father's shadow, trying to please him the best he could, to earn his admiration at the expenses of accomplishments that would make him proud of himself. Gene is recovering from his wife's death, he fell in love with a gynecologist and is determined to live with her in California, which means far from his parents. "It will kill your mother", warns Tom, but the mother takes it in all stride while what actually kills her is a heart attack that leaves Gene with a dilemma: should he leave his father alone, jeopardizing their relationship for his own independence?
Even the mother's death is handled like a detail, only significant in the great scheme of their tumultuous relationships Gene needs to exist outside his father's shadow but he can't avoid communicating his sentiments to him. But does he know how he feels? Does he hate Tom because he's been constantly towering over him, or because he didn't let him become a man in the Freudian sense ("killing the father") this hatred is what Gene hates the most and vents it on himself. He can't resign to hurt his father who once was a school boarding governor, a mayor, an important figure and who finished alone and forgotten. Gene is the only person who can tie him up to his glorious past forever. The fascinating paradox of Tom, magnificently portrayed by Oscar-nominated Douglas, is that he keeps on pretending he doesn't need anybody to handle his life but he needs his son Gene to tell him that.
Alice was relieved from that burden; by being disowned, she earned a freedom that allowed her to be her own destiny's master. Her feelings are clear, she doesn't like her father but that's a defensive reaction because he never loved anyone but himself. She's not totally right but not totally wrong either, the truth might be that Tom is such a self-confident man that he's only capable to love people who enter his comfort zone and pledge allegiance to him. Yet Gene believes there's more than a control freak in his father, that the father-and-son relationship is complex and he can't believe a man who accomplished such great things couldn't be capable to accomplish an even bigger feat which is simply to soften his heart. Gene tries and the film chronicles his attempt to win his father's respect without losing their love, it's all within the fragile balance between these two feelings.
"I Never Sang For My Father" belongs to that breed of difficult, adult, heavy-loaded and poignant dramas that rely on the difficulties to reach someone's soul, Douglas gives an extraordinary performance as a man who can't accept any weakness to invade his fortress of certitudes and can only betray some vulnerability with a few hesitations, memory holes (we gather he's in the early stages of Alzheimer disease), blinking eyes and some heartbreaking displays of sadness, and Gene Hackman is almost adorable as his son, a big man, adult and all, who turns out to act like a little child, scared by his old man's shadow, a man who blames his father for not letting him become a fully developed adult and who's struggling to communicate that resentment while still saying in subtext that he loves him, communication or lack of is the soul of this melancholic generational drama where Douglas injects life and can be desperately comical and Hackman gives it humanity and gentleness.
The script, written by Robert Anderson from his own play, also earned a nomination and is remarkable by his stark and sober realism, I only wished the film didn't indulge to a few unsubtle moments such as a musical interlude, a sex aftermath that drags a bit too long for the sake of expositional dialogue and a sinister visit to retirement house that seems to be borrowed from a "face of death" film, the ridiculously ominous muic and the editing insisted too much on the horrors of old age. It was like the film ended on a note that echoed the famous lines De Gaulle after watching Petain's downfall during his trial "old age is shipwreck" but the real shipwreck that is portrayed in the film isn't old age, which is part of life, but its effect on relationships... and that even death, as the opening monologue says, doesn't end.
A powerful sports drama with a motivational score like only the 80s could produce...
"We love it when giants fall. It's part of our collective social consciousness. We build up heroes and once they reach a certain plateau of success over a period of time, we tire of them. We love underdogs and want to see an upset"
This is from Stephen Denny's "Killing Giants", a fascinating book drawing many parallels between business competition and the sports world, insisting that while anyone can be small size-wise, there's no such a thing as a small player, it's even the most enviable position as you've got to beat the odds as well as the opponent. That's why cinema too loves underdogs, it's the stuff dreams are made on.
David Anspaugh's "Hoosiers" is one of these sports movies, distilling from real-life a story that underlines the term "underdog" so much the film might only be accused of insisting too much on the "small" thing; small town, small high school, relatively small basketball players, to the point that "Rudy", the second feature film from Anspaugh makes a perfect companion piece to "Hoosiers". And like "Rudy", the main cast doesn't actually play the game, the team is "only" the instrumental device meant to bring pride to the Indiana farmers, the Hoosiers people. Their shot at the championship is theirs for feeling significant and happy and accepting the banal normality of their life. Sport is an instrument of social cohesion and it's the film's credit to evoke the passion from the outsider's perspective.
Here's another example: few weeks ago, the Moroccan team was eliminated from the African Nations Cups in the worst possible way: a missed penalty shot at the 93rd minute that would have meant victory. Those make-it-or-break-it moments define the fascination for sport, a metaphor for life where one tactical choice, one move, a boost of insurance or a moment of hesitation make the difference, one can get off a game as a hero or a pariah, the verdict of the crowd is part of the game too. As Moroccans, we all felt shaken and betrayed not much because our country lost but because we were prevented from an opportunity to be happy. And the vox populi blamed the coach for having picked the wrong player. This is a situation Norman Dale could have related to.
Some aspects of the Hickory team's story have been fictionalized and I read that the real coach wasn't exactly a middle-aged man but it doesn't matter, the film does add a few cinematic conventions but finds a nice way to make Hickory's ascension to the title tie the plot together, with the overarching idea that everyone deserves a second chance, it's all a matter of seizing the opportunity once it comes. For once, it's not about the players, they're good already, the closest to a real underdog is a vertically-challenged boy who must deal with mockeries and his own insecurity, and Jimmy, an enigmatic young prodigy who's mourning the death of the previous coach and refuses to play anymore. We expect his entrance to be pivotal in the plot and it is, but in a way that honor the script's restrained tone, not going for cheap emotionality despite the temptations. This is not the eighties' "Rocky's".
The film doesn't play either the circumstances that pushed Dale outside the basket court like a sort of trauma or big reveal, Gene Hackman with his unbeatable instinct to play normal guys, plays it smoothly as someone who doesn't want to get into trouble and tries to deal with the defiance of the townsfolk who disapprove his methods (some are on his side though). The philosophy of Norman is that whoever wants to play gets in the court, he respects Jimmy's choice and never tries to overstep the boundaries of his authority and doesn't want in return his authority to be defied. He's a man of discipline but not an iron-hand either. And because he believes in second chances, he gives one to Shooter, a former star and player's father, played by Dennis Hopper (Oscar-nominated for the role).
Hopper gives a remarkably desperate energy that cuts straight in your heart, a man for which basketball meant something and is transmitting not only the passion but the expertise, that's the kind of nuances so smart and well-pointed that I regretted the film's needless romance with Barbara Hershey or a few missed moments with the players, who're getting with the coach the chance to be on the top of the world, and even once in a lifetime makes it all worth it. That was the philosophy of "Rudy" as well, something that transcended the banal goal of victory and make sport the real star of the film. Basket-ball couldn't have a better homage, the tactical moves aren't just artistic licenses and we get enthralled by the final game and the way the winning points are won at the last minute, you might think it's unbelievable but sports is full of such unbelievable stories.
In his "Killing Giants" book, Denny provides an interesting example example among many others involves a 1941 boxing game where Joe Louis won by knocking down his opponent, a cocky Irishman named Bill Conn who wanted the knock-out although he had the game already, he seized the final opportunity to get him with an uppercut and the heavyweight title in the process proving that it's not over till it's over. Basket-ball allows more latitude to the players but also works under the same conditions, and right now I still don't know which score stuck the most to my mind, the final 43 to 40 or Jerry Goldsmith's inspirational theme that makes me want to take my trainers and go run ten miles, right now I have that music playing in my mind!
Lilies of the Field (1963)
The year Martin Luther King had "a dream", Sidney Poitier built one...
It's of common notoriety that Sidney Poitier was the first Black actor to receive an Academy Award in Best Leading Role, but I wonder how many self-proclaimed movie lovers know the title of the movie that earned him the ultimate honor after such a "long journey" as he claimed while holding tears when he received the statuette.
The title is "Lilies of the Fields", a not-so little gem that seems always capable to draw a smile in your face even when the narrative falters a little and when Sidney Poitier, yes, the great Sidney Poitier indulges to some grimaces or hazardous comedic attempts. One thing I got from "Lilies of the Field" is that there is a strong comedic potential in Poitier, an actor who's been almost typecast as a suit-wearing charismatic man superior to everyone, but unsubtle humor isn't his strongest suit and the film is never stronger as when it focuses on the battle of prides between two strong-willed characters.
"Lilies of the Field" is a story that could have been pitched in one sentence: a Black man, a jack-of-all-trades with a name as banal as Homer Smith is hired to do manual work for a group of East-German nuns near the Mexican border, eventually, he's asked to build a chapel for the people (mostly Mexicans) who can only rely on a ridiculous van posing as church. Now, is it relevant to mention that the nuns are German? Of course, because there's an undeniable comedic premise in the contrast between these women and their environment, they're in such a deeper part of America that you'd feel in Mexico.
But here is a trickier question, is it relevant to mention that it's about a Black man or wouldn't the movie work just the same had it been about a white man? This makes the whole difference; in fact especially in the context of 1963, it means a lot, the movie doesn't deal with racism as much as it deals with the cultural barriers that undermined America during the "I have a dream" year, and yet highlights the fact that the nuns didn't care about Homer's skin. And yet they cared about his strength and only paid him by offering him a shelter and food. It's not slavery for one reason that is not so obvious: the film is told from Homer Smith's perspective and since he doesn't feel it's slavery, then it's not.
Homer's no fool however and knows it's a blatant case of abuse of power and as the film relieves us from the 'racial' tension, we're thrilled by the psychological arm-wrestling between the Mother Superior Maria (Lilia Skala) and Homer. It's not a movie in black and white (literally, symbolically or in reference to the nuns' outfits) but a movie that prepares us for racism to better fool us. In fact, the only brief glimpse of racism is when Homer is called "Boy!" by a construction businessman (played by director Ralph Nelson) who later comes to respect him. I loved that touch because it didn't feel forced and because even Homer didn't need to retort badly, he taught a lesson by the strength of his hands. And I liked it because the film didn't need to have any villains and it didn't try.
The merit of Poitier is to play a man who's employed for his strength and accepts it because it's something he's not ashamed about, he doesn't feel used because he appreciates the authority he's earned with the other nuns, that allowed him to earn their sympathy and buy them nice food once he managed to get a part-time job as a freelance contractor. Regularly, he teaches them English lessons and American psalms whose most defining song is the unforgettable "Amen!", the thing that stuck to my head after ten years without watching the film again. The performance of Poitier is integral to the enjoyment but Lila Skala is a great match, she obviously appreciates his help but all through the film, only sees him as an instrument of God's will and is never capable to be appreciate to his own work.
In a way, her pride drives Homer's own pride and when she asks to build a chapel, you can feel the dilemma: if he obeys that little tyrant, he also realizes his dream to be an architect. Homer's own ego is being tempted. And it's all the more interesting because in his own way, and like many characters played by Poitier, Homer seems to have a few prejudices of his own and when he's being offered some help by the Mexican workers, he dismisses them because he wanted to build the church alone, he's not Catholic but he has strong beliefs as well, but strong doesn't mean relevant in the great scheme of things. He eventually gets humbled by the well-meaning helpers who turns the construction site into a real Babel tower.
And the film is full of supporting characters with the same selfish tendencies: a Mexican shop owner helps building the chapel because he takes it as life insurance, a sort of Pascal's wager. There's an Irish priest who wished to be assigned in a better place and realize the faultiness of his attitude. Homer learned to appreciate people's help and not be blinded by his own ego and in the end, even the Mother Superior learns a lesson or two about the value of human help, she might have prayed God, but it was people who helped her.
The film seems rather simple and straightforward but it shows a group of imperfect people bound together by strong beliefs and ideals that no matter how debatable they can be, inspired the best of them. When the film ends with that "Amen!" I didn't see it necessarily as an endorsement for a specific faith but as recognition of the way faith can bring people from different horizons together and allow them to accomplish little miracles. Amen!
Darkest Hour (2017)
Approved by the Academy...
The year is 1940, war is raging all over Europe. Poland is occupied, Holland and Belgium surrendered and France is undergoing the Nazi rollercoaster. All democracies are defeated.... All of them? No, an isle commanded by a stubborn Prime Minster won't stop to put up resistance. Yes, I'm an Asterix fan, in case you haven't noticed... and not much a fan of Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour", a movie whose very merit draws an interesting parallel with Churchill himself, a man whose heroism could only be unveiled by a dramatic opportunity, a matter of timing. Churchill was overdue a biopic and Gary Oldman an Oscar, and that's that.
There's nothing more satisfying than a movie tailor-made to win Oscars and that fail... it's fun to see them stumble and fall and remind a few producers that having movies based on true stories, involving a real-life larger-than-it figure, slightly more eccentric than the average schmuck, with actors who've proved to be bankable, isn't a guarantee for gold. In the same vein, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing the Academy biting the bait. By no means, am I implying that "The Darkest Hour" is a bad film, but is it anything new after "The King's Speech" or "Lincoln". Again, we have a historical figure facing a moral dilemma in the midst of a war on which the future of a country hinges, countless discussions between Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Hallifax (Stephen Dilane) to decide if one should discuss peace and two patriotic and rousing speeches that seal the country's fate. On the paper, it's terrific but on the screen, it doesn't demand more than what a simple play could have provided.
Indeed, having Gary Oldman, the actor who made a specialty out of playing original and/or slightly disturbed characters, play the most iconic British figure was an offer fans and movie lovers couldn't refuse but how on Earth did the film, good but never great, garner six nominations including Best Picture. The film isn't a war movie but a huis-clos centering on the month of May 1940 where Europe surrendered to the Blitzkrieg and the British isle became the next target. The conflict is simple: should Britain listen to the terms of Hitler or fight... we all know surrendering won't be an option (so much for the suspense) but the thrills rely on the way Churchill is never totally approved even after his nomination at the head of the country, it's as if he was embodying the country's own insulation. In a way, it's a good premise for a film but I suspect its existence was to be more of a vehicle for Oldman than any attempt to inspire a new interest on the British Bulldog.
If you're going to have a movie about Churchill, why not go straight ahead with it, and call it the "Darkest Hours", why making it on the cheap and not have anything about the Blitz attacks and the magnificent way the Royal Air Force counterattacked... the film only exists to show the way Churchill win the battle of opinions, while real battles are either won and lost, having glimpses of hesitation at times and be the histrionic chap we expect. On that level, Oldman never disappoints but don't count on me to consider his performance deserving, here's why: Churchill is a living icon, he's hot-heated, hot-tempered, gross and vulgar in a sophisticated way, all you've got to do is chomp on your cigar and chew the scenery anyone would get away with it. A character like Churchill provides so many constraints that it's easier for an actor to depend on them and then let the inspiration take a life of its own. That's why I believe it's easier to play characters like Stephen Hawkins than the role that earned Casey Affleck his much deserved Oscar the year before.
Speaking of Hawkins, I called "The Theory of Everything" one of the most Oscar-baity films I've seen and "The Darkest Hour" reminded me of it, I didn't expect there would be a connection. Screenwriter Anthony MCarten seems to adore crowd-pleasing tear-jerking Oscar darlings, he's not a bad writer but I'm afraid he's diluting his talents in heavy-handed projects that might sometimes end with failed melodramas and he won't make quite a name for himself following that trend, though he did better with "Bohemian Rhapsody", a film with a greater scope than Wright's war drama. Now, I didn't want to enter that turf about bait or not bait but when I got to the tube scene, I couldn't help but feel that the film was trying too hard, much to hard to pay tribute to a certain vision of London that would appeal to a 2010's audience and give Churchill a sort of sacred halo à la Gandhi (a man he despised by the way) watching that scene, I thought the real Churchill would roll over his grave.
There were enough good biopics lately and it's unfair to make critics on the basis of comparisons but I wish we could have more movies like "Patton" or "Lawrence of Arabia" making biopic rhyming with epic, and not limiting itself to a timeline where FDR is inexistent and De Gaulle not a name yet, there's a lot of talk in "The Darkest Hour", I just wished the film could walk the walk. Rumor has it they're planning a sequel, maybe it's a recognition of how limited for such a grand figure the original was.
The Founder (2016)
Founding a business is good but building the foundations of its durability better...
I often go to McDonald's, especially with my daughter, it's not much a product of the world's mass-market globalization but the way globalization has influenced our lives and standardized the approach to fast-food, people need to eat quick and well, and restaurants are kept for birthdays of Valentine's dates, job meetings or anniversary celebrations.
It was during summer 1993 when the first McDonald's restaurant opened in Morocco, in Casablanca on the seaside. For a kid my age, it felt like going to Disney World (quite an omen knowing that a few months after, I would visit the actual place). I remember it as if it was yesterday, everything looked clean and impeccable, the hamburgers on the pictures were shiny and the names resonated like something that would come off the TV set. Then, I had my first bite on the cheeseburger, it felt like having a 'taste of America'... and it didn't taste bad.
The rest is history, one couldn't count how many 'Golden Arches' are in every big city of Morocco, many kids were born with it and didn't have the privilege to taste that crispy apple pie whose cream would burn you tongue if you didn't wait long enough (I guess that's why the dessert was removed); for these children anyway, McDonalds' (which we call "McDo" like the French do) is part of their everyday line, anything but something to feel privileged about. "McDo" became part of the urban landscape and not just in countries with churches and American flags, but before going global, it had to prove its worth locally, and boy, did it deliver!
I'm not praising the place as much as I praise the concept, one that proved to be in symbiosis of modern societies' expectations, to the point that the mark of modernity in an emerging country can be measured by the number of international franchises it got, McDonald's being generally among those that started them all. And I can't believe my grandmother was refused to open a McDonald's franchise back in 1981, the local bureaucracy couldn't share her visionary flair... something that echoed the journey of Ray Kroc, the titular "Founder" in John Lee Hancock's underrated biopic.
First of all, what strikes in Ray's name is his lack of fame compared to the empire he built, we all expect McDonald's to be the creation of a guy named likewise who envisioned the fast-food chain like Bugsy did with Las Vegas or Zuckerberg Facebook, a man of guts and vision... and yet whoever made McDonald's possible wasn't meant to be praised like Steve Jobs would be, not because he didn't deserve it but because McDonald's is the result of a long process that preceded him, one that involved many protagonists until he gave that little boost it needed to definitely take off, a business masterstroke that might have looked great on the paper, not enough to convince producers to make a film out of it.
It starts the Great Depression convinced the two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald to invest in food business because hey, "people gotta eat", and then they decided to have their little trademark: the Speedee-System, why bother with dishes, with fancy plates when 90% of the food goes into burgers, fries and sodas, they didn't invent the wheel, they just applied Ford theories in food business, but there's nothing like an idea "coming from nowhere". Anyway, we get through an exhilarating ten-minute sequence where it's both about the content than the form. I loved the way the two brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carrol Lynch) kept switching the lines like a story they've been telling countless times and you can see it from the listener how spellbinding it is.
In fact, Kroc only came because they were one of the umpteenth clients he visited to sell some ice-cram multi-mixer but when Kroc learned about McDonald's, it was obvious they couldn't keep the concept for themselves. He convinces them to start making franchises and progressively, the man becomes the third parent to McDonald's... until he gets full custody, literally. I didn't expect much and I got a taste of what made the concept successful, more than any documentary, analytics would leave anyone cold, but the film treats its subject like a great story.
The film doesn't glorify the brand, nor the name but the persistence that drove a man who didn't have the original idea, who didn't have an exceptional talent, but who could spot a good idea and talents when they hit him and didn't miss the opportunity. The film is straightforward and linear but is remarkably effective ... and Michael Keaton is just so good, I kept wondering where the hell was that film during the Oscar talks, I know it's not "progressive" to praise business values, nor that the film handles any timely subjects, but it's culturally significant and smart in a punchy way.
At first sight, it's your typical business-driven success stories with a few dilemmas that force the protagonist to cut a few corners but the dynamics are good, the interactions with the brothers full of subtle comedy, and Michael Keaton is just the perfect actor for such roles. There are a few clichéd moments (Laura Dern has the thankless role as the abandoned wife) and the film works better when it gets to business. Even the title is provocative because one of the first 'a-ha' moments you get in the beginning is that Kroc didn't create McDonalds. Still, at the end, and that's why the film works, we accept him as the Founder, who bought an idea so big the creaors (relegated as passive observers all through the film) couldn't handle it... it's one thing to create, but it's another to build the foundations of durability of that creation.
Some would compare the film to Fincher's "Social Network" and they'd be right, I wish the comparison could have extended to the Oscar reception.
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Poetic Justice Served by Clint Eastwood...
A heat haze reigns over the high plains, making them look like the valleys of the shadow of death. Emerging from the mistiness a lone rider seems to make one with the shadow, coming to our direction. It's not an entrance as much as an appearance, and in the small town of Lago, not the most welcomed one. From the simple by-standers to the business owners, gazes of bewilderment and barely concealed fears converge to his direction, stares that say "who is he?" "where does he come from?" "what is he doing here?". As usual, Clint Eastwood looks like he doesn't give a d***, and we -viewers- know we'll be lucky if one of the three questions does get an answer.
That's the attitude Eastwood built his legend on, as the emerging Western icon after John Wayne but closer to a Bogart-like figure, Eastwood had that edge over Wayne, he didn't a story, his 'presence' could make a film. Eastwood emerged with the late 60s and his "Man-With-No-Name" character immediately appealed to a young generation of movie goers longing for outcasts who could reflect their own defiance toward the petty preoccupations of a conservative society, minus the insecurity. Eastwood played rebellious characters but with coolness oozing from his apparent detachment, he made his charisma seemed so effortless that he stole Wayne's thunder.
Speaking of Wayne, that he criticized "High Plain Drifters" in an open letter to Eastwood proves the latter's point, he might have played a "right-wing fantasy" in "Dirty Harry" but when you're criticized by Wayne in 1973, you're not in conflict with the Western icon but with the out-of-touch director of "Green Berets". Eastwood was old-fashioned but in a revolutionary way. And this is why his figure as the lonesome stranger coming from nowhere but for nothing became an enduring trademark of his own, one that stuck to him until his Oscar-winning "Unforgiven". And twenty years later, Eastwood knew the secret ingredient he had to instill in his movies: making his Stranger's character as quiet and stingy in words as his Leone's counterpart and as effective in words and action as his Don Siegel's Harry.
Some critics saw in the film an attempt to imitate the master but that's an unfair trial because what Eastwood imitates (not without a few ounces of self-awareness) is the character he created and whom he plagiarizes with insistence, because that's the way you build your own style. As a director, he's rather minimalist and linear, with a few flashbacks cleverly inserted to give a needed boost to the plot, until a climax that looks like nothing seen before, not in old Westerns, not in Leone's: surrealism with a meaning. In "Pale Rider", a similar confrontation would be handled in a less showy manner but "High Plain Drifters" redeems its lack of subtlety by the boldness of his protagonist and his personal motives that give a weird of plausibility in his actions, it might even be Eastwood's way to renovate the Western genre, whipping the dust off with a mystical savagery.
That's Eastwood's touch, to infuse spirituality in seemingly ordinary stories, with mysterious but not unreal protagonists, men with a way with the gun and the ladies and yet accessible to the common folks, never too detached, never too straightforward... there's an element of humor and balance that keep his heroes rooted to reality while their aura evokes supernatural elements. Now, it would ruin the experience to reveal what "High Plain Drifters" is about but let's say it involves a town that is so full of coward people that it makes Hadleyville people look like the Magnificent Seven The film opens with the Stranger being killing three thugs who were literally begging for it, as a result, the town asks him for protection against three outlaws who are coming to attack them. He accepts, but not without a price.
As the plot moves on, a few hints are given, the sound of a whip alerts the Stranger, a woman bumps into him in a way to 'make acquaintance' What he does after is condemnable and ugly but what the scene denounces is the apathy and lack of reaction of the men not without reminding of "Dirty Harry" and whose correlation with the Stranger's mission is revealed later. Meanwhile, the film oscillates between moments of ominous quietness, brutality and humor, especially when the town is ready to accept any of the Stranger's wishes including the nomination of the town's midget (Billy Curtis) mayor as sheriff and mayor. The Strangers throws customers out of the hotel, making an enemy out of the owner, and a friend out of his wife (Verna Bloom). Later, some treacheries are revealed among the "good" people of Lago, which broadens even more the notions of good and evil, an issue that became persistent in Eatwood's body of work as soon he started making movies.
"High Plain Drifters" denounces the evilness lying in every human being who acts wrongly but also the lack of reaction of the seemingly good citizen, the more violent scenes involves a nasty public lynching by whipping where we see people staring at a good man being tortured, with a silence that truly gives consent. We never really get to know what ties the flashback with the Stranger, however we know there's a record to settle and that some incidents are so dramatic that it takes a certain dose of poetic justice to fix it, a vision of what is right that doesn't necessarily indulge in being good, that might not be the vision of everyone of the West, but it was Eastwood's and it fit the mood of the 70s and we're disillusioned enough to embrace his poetry almost five decades later.
John Wayne was in position to criticize him but time certainly did justice to the director who did justice in his own movies... when he gets back to the heat haze, we know justice was done and it's satisfying enough.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
The (live-action) role Robin Williams was born to play...
"President Johnson says the situation in Vietnam will worsen before it improves"
This is the last item of news we catch while we follow Adrian Cronauer's departure from Nam. We've laughed a lot with his crazy and hilarious antics but Lyndon Johnson provided the final punchline to the worst possible joke in a movie full of them: war itself.
Calling war a joke is a cliché but it does seem that both humor and war (or politics) rely on absurdity, one taking the edge in the way it takes itself seriously. Whenever we read news about today's political leaders, aren't we all asking the same question after all: "are they serious?". A man said that the talent of a politician is to never answer the question, art is not to let them be asked, a comedian works differently: his talent is to ask the right questions, art is to pretend he doesn't even try. Comedians play, politicians dodge, that's the irreconcilable difference between the two worlds, intelligently explored in Barry Levinson comedy-drama "Good Morning, Vietnam" starring Robin Williams in the closest role to his real personality (and one of his best) as Radio Armed Services DJ Adrian Cronauer.
Even the catchphrase "Good Morning, Vietnam" plays like a wake-up call to the troops, making Cronauer a sensation in 1965 and the target of a few petty officers disapproving his irreverent and raunchy humor. The film focuses on that internal battle with censorship a little more than the actual Vietnam war but to make an even more insightful statement about war, as if the script written by Mitch Markowitz illustrated that iconic statement from Clemenceau that war is too serious a matter to be left to military men. And maybe war is so tragic that extracting any humorous substance from it is the greatest tribute to the human spirit and Cronauer, the man who kept morals high in the infancy of the war with his puns, impressions and redundant "Good Morning, Vietnaaaaam" accomplished the closest thing to a heroic deed. He didn't save lives but saved them from boredom and alienation.
Some people are just born to tell jokes, we forgive them for offending sensitivities because they do it with 'style' and they're so funny they never make it sound like something mean. And the movie draws that line between fun and mean-spiritedness from the way the troops and everyone around Cronauer reacts to his jokes, sometimes, his popularity is overplayed but Robin Williams is such a presence that he gives an extra aura of sympathy to Cronauer. In contrast, there's butt-monkey Lieutenant Hauk (Bruno Kirby) who doesn't get his vulgarity (he'd rather put Polka than Rock'n'Roll) and the fittingly called Dickerson (J.T. Walsh) who doesn't see from in a favorable light this man coming to stir anarchy, forgetting that even in WW2 vets had Tex Avery cartoons, Private Snafu's adventures and other stuff moral would usually reprimand.
The film is full of fine supporting performances, including Cronauer's assistant Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker in his young nerdy years coming back from "Platoon"), General Taylor (Noble Willingham) a comprehensive man who sees as a priority that his boys have a good time and is perhaps Cronauer's number one fan. And the film proves he's got a good taste, offering the most latitude for Robin Williams to showcase his talent with all the flamboyance and instinct for improvisation he's capable of: a pacing problem with a record, a reference to "The Wizard of Oz", anything leads to humor. This is certainly his greatest role with "Aladdin in the sense that it encapsulates all his talent and energy without distracting from the mood of the film, he makes us laugh first so we can appreciate the serious moments.
And as viewers, we're more interested to see complexities behind that jovial facade, and see how eventually humor was like a self-defense to cover some deep insecurities. And even that would have been too predictable, the film starts with a man everyone likes immediately but who doesn't have enough perspective on himself. He's slightly cynical, turns everything into a joke, and somewhat we never know what matters to him, he might be as "annoying" (for lack of a better word) as Robin Williams could be during interviews. Progressively, the film unveils his depths, he has a crush on a Vietnamese girl (Chintara Sukapatana), learns to get along with her brother (Tung Thanh Tran), he teaches Vietnamese people the American slang, befriends a restaurant owner and slowly, the mundane gets over the professional and we start to see the war (and the comedian) from a different perspective, allowing us to appreciate the drama besides the comedy.
And the film features many montages mixing music of the era and the war as a backdrop, switching between the fun with Williams dancing to "I Feel Good", to the more famous "A Wonderful World" one of the film's most memorable moments. I'm not sure the film is always that effective when it states the obvious things such as war being hell or Cronauer good guy, but there's something so genuinely appealing in Williams' acting that we're able to see the sadness behind his smiles without ever feeling manipulated. Still, no matter how high Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam" aimed in terms of hilarity, it reminds us at the end that humor takes its noblest meaning when it operates within an area that doesn't leave much for laughs; humor is like a dish served on a ugly plate.
And perhaps the comedians are men capable to see the worst in humanity before they conjure it with their fun and humor, and maybe the best comedians are deeply the saddest and yet the most capable to give us happiness, like Williams did, like Cronauer did... improving things a little before the situation worsened.
The 'other' 1993 movie where "life found a way"...
It was called the "Miracle of the Andes" and any outsider would agree.
However, if triumphing over two months of cold and starvation, punctuated with a deadly avalanche, was nothing short of a miracle, even for people raised in the Catholic faith, that simplification might also satisfy a natural craving for sensationalism while harming the memory of those who died. So a film like Frank Marshall's "Alive" or any documentary retelling the harrowing (and sometimes horrifying) journey of the Vol 571 survivors is, at least in intentions, an extraordinary tribute to human solidarity and determination when facing a cruel adversity.
Released in 1993, the film retells the story of the survivors stranded in the Andean mountains for 70 days in 1972. It opens with an aged one (played by John Malkovich) showing a few pictures caught days before the crash where they're all young, wearing rugby uniforms, their faces illuminated by the sun. What the narrator says is a piece of wisdom inherited from the journey and shared with us outsiders: we can't tell what we would do until we're put in the situation. Besides, it's not just a matter of surrendering to death or fight for life, the question raised by the first ten minutes is even simpler: "would we be among the lucky ones?" so the plane crash sequence isn't just generous in spectacular special effects but in various occasions to contemplate these scary thoughts while watching someone plunging to his death.
The plane sequence is a masterstroke, starting with the set-up: we see young and healthy kids from privileged backgrounds, wearing blazers or spring clothes and all acting like spoiled brats under adult's indulgent eyes, one plays his guitar, another with the microphone, some exchange views about rugby and girls; joy is everywhere and spirits are high, much higher than the plane that finds itself engulfed in a storm and the "air pocket" get so persistent the passengers stop taking them in all stride. Some don't even have time to realize it's no joke, as the tail breaks, they're sucked off the air, then the plane slides down a snow drift, and passengers pray and scream.
Suddenly, the plane stops and the deceleration pushes everything forward, those in the front weren't much luckier than those in the back as they're crushed instantly by the seats piling up on them, and a few kids are literally projected to the cockpit wall. There's absolutely no correlation whatsoever between the seats and the odds, one can unharmed while his neighbor passed away, one would get a black eye and his friend would later die from internal injuries. That's the big lottery of life, who's going to make it and who won't have to bother. "Why you and not me?".
So the questioning of God's will and the omnipresence of religious undertones (something Ebert and Siskel complained about) is actually capital to understand the way the passengers' frames of mind will evolve. It wasn't just a psychological wrestling with the elements but also with a certain vision of God and destiny, a long apprenticeship divided into three chronological phases.
First, the survivors realize that they must form a sort of micro-society and the team captain, confident that the rescuers will come, organizes the rationing: a daily square of chocolate and a sip of wine. The dead are taken out and will never be absent from the site nor their friends' thoughts, seat covers are used as blankets and the first aids are given. Interestingly, it's only after being able to sleep the first night that they feel the exhilaration of being alive. Surviving the night and its freezing effect is one of the key challenges with food, and each day is a new triumph.
But there's a catch in their motivation, it works within the certitude that these solutions are temporary. A few days go, the badly wounded die and the others learn that the searches have been abandoned, a final blow on the captain who feels responsible for giving false hopes and gets depressed. Meanwhile, new leaders emerge: Nando Parrado (Ethan Hawke) who spent the first days dazed and unconscious, wakes up before his sister dies, he takes her to the snow and takes off the coat she wouldn't need anymore, he decides that he must survive even if it means breaking the ultimate taboo, his friend Roberto Canessa (John Hamilton) also knows there's only one alternative to food.
Get busy living or get busy dying; without meat, bodies will fade to a certain death, so it's a whole new dimension of thoughts and perceptions, one that asks for a discussion and a total agreement. The film deals with the desecration soberly, no red flesh is shown, first a few muscle fibers are taken and distributed to the group, like a mystical communion, that chapter is handled rather tactfully until the necessity of meat is validated during the final phase, when an avalanche proves them that the snow and mountain weren't as lifeless and indifferent as they thought, and they were at the mercy of a living entity that could take their lives at any moment. Later, some "meat" would be shown as the only way for the "scouts" to go as far as possible to find a village, the dead offer their muscles, so to speak.
Life will find a way.
A film like "Alive" is more a humbling than a mystical experience, it's a story that transcends our beliefs in our capabilities. And if the film isn't totally flawless, it's simply because some stories, like "Papillon" for instance, are just so larger-than-life than even a film wouldn't do them justice, but speaking for myself, I had seen that film only once on a Sunday night of 1996 before watching it again on Netflix, and I was surprised by how vivid my memory was, and many details stuck to my memory. And at the end, I was cheering as intensely as I did 23 years ago.
Elmer Gantry (1960)
Religion, can't 'live' with it, can't live without it...
I just spend two days at my best friends' home for his father's funerals, and during the obligatory moments of life contemplation, we were wondering what was awaiting us all. I guess it's hard to imagine that your beloved one has faded into nothingness, so religion brings you a certain psychological comfort in knowing that there's such a thing as a soul and that, depending on a man's life, it gets the treatment it deserves. Yes, sir-ree, it might feel simplistic but at least it's fair and square.
I think this logic might explain why revivalism is so fervent in America, most of the small-town folks wouldn't fancy an alternative to an after-world where the good isn't rewarded and the evil punished, God fabricated men in its own image so it's only fair that men built a society that works in the same way than God, even if God can act in mysterious ways... let's face it, even the most sophisticated ones of us wouldn't figure out a universe where religion, as complex as it is, wouldn't be easy to "pitch", no matter how tempting agnosticism could be.
This is why promoting revivalism in the hearts of Americans isn't the most difficult thing to operate, it all comes down to telling people that they're going to burn in hell if they sin and to save their souls if they repent, people are ready to hear that if the words come from the right mouths, it's like a good cop/bad cop routine. In Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry", adapted from the novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis, the good cop is Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer, a saintly revivalist who talks in sweet and delicate prose, and handles her followers and her endeavor like a businessman would do, and there's the bad cop, but one hell of a smooth-talker named Elmer Gantry.
In the original novel, he was an ordained Minister, in the film, in order to appease the Hays Code, he's an ex-Bible salesman who learned the voices of Gospel from scratch and is capable to infuse Bible passages in every monologue, with a grin that would convince the devil himself to sing Halleluiah. To call Gantry charismatic is an understatement, the casting of Burt Lancaster is perfect if only for providing him that irresistible smile, one so charming that it can get away with the scariest threats or allow an improvised line about love to become his catchphrase and play like a running gag all through the film.
What works even better in Lancaster's performance is that his intents are rarely clear and a big cloud of mystery floats around his solid shoulders. His character-establishing moment occurs when he convinces a bunch of drunkards to give charity money to old Christian ladies during a Xmas celebration. With his smile, he manages to skim money off a few piles without even asking, working like the gangster who'd get anything with a smile rather than a threat. Before, he was telling naughty jokes and after, he would have sex with Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), a hooker who couldn't resist his words, a move that would backfire at him later. Gantry is irresistible indeed, but he's a swindler and I'd say about him what I say about Fellini's "Bidone", before you find them sympathetic, keep in mind it's part of their job.
So Gantry drifts from a place to another until he meets Sister Shara and has an epiphany. He cons her into believing he can attract the crowds with a "saved salesman" speech, Gantry brings crowds indeed and makes arrangements with Zenith church leaders, convincing her that religion must be a spectacle and must bring money in order to survive, and then we get to a second act where it's all about the spectacular improvisation of Lancaster and the professional talent of Simmons, religion turns out to be a big circus, where even the enthusiasm of the audience is part of the show. Lancaster and Jones won the Oscar but Jean Simmons was sure robbed of a nomination and even Arthur Kennedy as the no-nonense big-city reporter Lefferts had a few interesting sequences as the man of reason in the midst of that huge cacophony.
Yes, because there's a lot of noise in the film and this is why it never ceases to be entertaining, so many speeches like a "Network" of the 60s, the noise of religious frenzy, of media craving for sensationalism, of cheering and booing, of "Glory Glory Halleluiah", the film was directed the same year than "Inherit the Wind" but the handling of religion and religious figures is in such a hyperbolic way we might suffer from dizziness, especially when romantic feelings get mixed up and the film culminates with a third act where the ugliness implodes on everyone, what goes around...
This all leads to the inevitable confrontation between good ol' truth and ol' time religion... but the film (like "Inherit the Wind") tries to give the two sides a fair trial, even avoiding to make a total scam out of Gantry and keep him sympathetic even when he's truly guilty of manipulation. But isn't it all about manipulation after all? Media, businessmen, corporations, public opinion, religion, are all institutions guided by noble intentions but that couldn't keep on going without money. Some things exist because they have to... and because they need to exist must count on the shadiest ambassadors, ironically, Gantry was the most human of all, especially with his weakness for a good drink.
The film explores all the facets and allows each side to be given a fair treatment but it also shines by its punchy script, gutsy approach and an unforgettable performance by Burt Lancaster aka "The Grin", a hard-drinking fellow who embodied an aspect of religion that can echo Homer's statement about alcohol as the cause and the solution to all men's problem. Cheers!
The Shape of Water (2017)
And the Academy bit the bait...
As a Best Picture winner, "The Shape of Water" is a most interesting choice, but I wonder if the Academy voted for the sci-fi spy thriller and its interspecies romance between the mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and the mysterious fish-man or the art-house movie channeling Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Alexandre Desplat whimsical Oscar-winning score à la "Up". I liked the content but there was something too bait-y on the surface to make me fully admire its merit.
Speaking of the Oscars, let me start with my first gut-reaction: I wish Michael Shannon was nominated instead of Richard Jenkins, he played the kind of villains that make the difference in a movie, I enjoyed every minute of his screen presence, as Head of Security Strickland, he was creepy, intimidating (he also made a terrific entrance) but there was something in his attitude that betrayed a deep, almost childish, desire to be a perfect citizen, a good soldier, who'd never disappoint his superiors... I figured he represented the infantilizing of American manhood through hardcore and blind patriotism, a way to show that no matter how strong and almighty men felt these days, they were still submissive.
Women are depicted as submissive but not as a choice, simply out of practicality in a still male-dominated America (those were the early 60s) but then they reveal themselves to be more dependable than men, it's interesting that the Octavia Spencer's character Zelda never betrays her friend, it's her husband, the guy who'd asked her to open the door who reveals himself as a coward. What I don't get though is whether Zelda was really going to let Strickland rip everything apart and not say a word, we'll never know, the film finds the perfect shortcut, the bad guy gets to Eliza but it's not Zelda's fault. It didn't make sense by the way that the husband wouldn't even let Zelda warn her friend... so I think the film had a little record to settle with men in general.
There are basically three good characters of male persuasion in the film: the fish-man, who's said to have everything at the right place though it doesn't look like he's got it, there's Jenkins' character Giles who's a misunderstood artist and attracted to men, which makes him twice an outcast and there's Michael Stuhlbarg's Hoffstetter, a good physician but trustworthy to a limit as his real name's Dimitri. It's interesting that the only three good men live in a sort of duplicity, deliberate or not, they're never what they claim to be and what they are inside, they're forced to hide it. Women are straight-forward but good men are driven into pretending to be what they're not, as if the reality of men was one of ugly nature. And when you have a film that handles an Alien species, it's comprehensible that "Man" belongs to the antagonistic side but women are certainly not part of that "Man" equation. Interesting.
One could even argue that Jenkins' character didn't want to help his friend Eliza first, until he realized how 'different' he was. In the scene where he gently pats the restaurant guy's hand and realizes that he crossed the line, you can see the young man making a 180° turn and going from a smiling guy to a dirty bigot, homophobic and much more racist since he tells the Black couple to get out, that's the reality of men, whether American or Russian, it doesn't make any difference. So obviously Del Toro is also putting a few baits for the feminist wave, and the janitor job is eloquent: it's literally the women who clean the men's "dirty work". Still, for all his efforts, he still got that comment from Portman when she nominated all the *male* directors in the Golden Globes ceremony, apparently, it didn't please Del Toro, but he should be good sport; If "The Shape of Water" tried to mix fantasy and sci-fi material with the current "man vs. woman" issues, it's only fair that these considerations interfered with the Awards race.
Now, did I like the film?
I liked Strickland because he drove the action, so yes, I liked the narrative. I thought the nomination of Jenkins was unnecessary but Octavia Spencer's was outrageous, I swear she plays the same role whenever she's nominated, and when your friend is a mute woman, it's not difficult to be a scene stealer, Sally Hawkins was impressive not much because of her silent performances but the way she dedicated herself to that role. Let's face it, she's not a natural beauty but she really made herself more beautiful than any other pretty face of Hollywood by being a gentle, nice and most of all, decent woman.
Now, my real problem is with Del Toro, no pun intended, I thought he was trying to swim in too many waters at the same time: he makes a beautiful romance and it works, a cat-and-mouse thriller, it works, but when the film gets too cutesy and poetic, I'm afraid he loses his guidance. As I mentioned it in the intro, yes, his film reminded me of Jeunet's world, from "Delicatessen" to "Amelie", yes, they give a specific texture to the universe of Eliza, old fashioned and kitschy looking, but a little less could have been more. What happened to Del Toro reminds me of Gilliam when he gets carried away by his own extravaganza... in "The Shape of Water", when Eliza gets naked in the water, it's simple, sensual and powerful... when she imagines the Broadway musical, it's just too much.
At the end, it's like Del Toro having the same childish desire to seek approbation from his peers that he tries to make an art-house movie out of what could have been a terrific thriller and a great romance. I didn't mind the "social commentary" aspect but for that, I found the "Billboards" film to be more powerful and more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar.
Wonder Wheel (2017)
When the Wonder Wheel suddenly stops ... and it gets cold out there...
My goodness, for once that Woody Allen decided to set his story in Coney Island, one of the happiest places of New York: it's just to embark us to one of the most depressing rides ever. If you expect something cheerful from that movie, you've got another thing coming. It's not even worse than a rape drama set in Disney World, Woody Allen is a terrific writer but he must have left his sense of humor or biting irony when he concocted that drama.
In fact, the word "drama" is too irrelevant when we're put in that suffocating place where no one seems to have a proper definition of the word "love" and everyone acts either selfishly or irresponsibly without even the kind of motives we would understand. The only person with pure motives (so to speak) is Carolina, played by Juno Temple, who's more likable by default than by her own personal merit. She's a young girl who married a gangster and now gets back to her father's place at Coney Island because she's got a price on her head. First of all, talk about an upsetting set-up, there's something quite disturbing in the sight of that frail young woman and the idea that she could be murdered.
Even Scorsese or Tarantino wouldn't have used such a premise, so why Allen, of all directors, would decide to deal with mobsters in a straight tone instead of his usual parody style? Anyway, she goes to her father's. Humpty's a loud-mouthed but well-meaning man who could never forgive her for marrying a racketeer, but now that her life is endangered, he has no choice. James Belushi gives the kind of performances that could have been noticed by the Academy if the rest of the film was of the same caliber, unfortunately it's not, because the focus of the story isn't on the father and daughter but the wife (and stepmother) Ginny, played by Winslet. She's woman who sacrificed her dreams to marry Humpty's and can't stand the presence of his daughter. A triangular love involving the handsome lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) won't make their relationships easier.
Infidelity, mobsters, colorful setting, period drama... "Wonder Wheel" looks like typical Allen material on the surface but believe me, this is Woody Allen at his least inspired and most infuriating. Nothing ever happens in this film that would make you believe that life is worth living, it's all about deception, disillusion and... the bottle... any sparkle of joy is only put there to ignite a fire of anger for later scenes, here's a nod to that stupid pyromaniac kid who didn't do much apart from exasperating me even more, what was with these interludes anyway when we see the kid burning things, does it carry some deep meaning? Well maybe it does after all, I'll get back to it.
But one word about Kate Winslet's Ginny, she really got on my nerves but to her defense, the script didn't help, it was an ungrateful role from the start. Okay, it's one thing to play an unhappy woman, but how about giving us something to tie our empathy to... the husband is rude but seems rather responsible and at least tries to make her smile or enjoy herself. She could be a good mom but she's obviously incapable to raise her son, mourning her dreams to be a movie star and acting as if destiny had a debt with her... something's obviously eating her but the film inserts that in a narrative that includes killers and forces her to act in an irreversible and unforgivable way, it's too ugly to even try to understand her... and the film instead of being as good as its villain, became as miserable as its antiheroine.
The problem with characters who are either pathetic or unlikable is that they must drain something from the deepest parts of their personalities to create even a tiny bond with the viewer, Ginny is obviously a victim, a woman who wanted to believe that she was the special one when Mickey (Timberlake) charmed her but the way she expresses her concerns make her sound like such a whiny human being and annoying killjoy that we understand any person who doesn't want to hang out with her. During her birthday, she acts as if there's a whole conspiracy against her happiness while she's the one digging her own hole. She's too annoying to be likable loser and too malevolent to be a charismatic villain, the only way she can get away with it is to turn crazy, but it could be an act.
So the film ends up in a rather sorry note that made me ask, what was the purpose of that story? For a movie whose title evokes a wheel, how about a decent character's arc, how about a sense of completion at the end, how about a little light of positivity? The only uplifting thing in the film is the title and I "wonder" if Allen was already affected by the scandals when he made this, because there's something unusually bitter in his writing, as if he didn't care anymore, like this kid who spends his time burning stuff, was he echoing Allen's own view about his art, something that was fun while it lasted and that doesn't deserve any consideration whatsoever, Allen who never cared about his masterpieces such as "Manhattan" or "Annie Hall" might not even care about the backstabbing he got after the MeToo scandals.
Anyway, the fact that being a movie fan turns Kate's character into a poor man's "Baby Jane" proves that the days of the "Purple Rose of Cairo" are over, cinema isn't escapism anymore, it's like a road to existential lunacy... I hope Woody's career will end on a more cheerful note, if a film titled "Wonder Wheel" could be so depressing, I'm allowed expect fireworks from "A Rainy Day in New York".
Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (2010)
Still scratching my head...
After so many Golden Palm winners that blew my mind and enriched my personal knowledge of foreign cinema, here's a cinematic oddity that comes directly from Thailand and which I wish I could enjoy a little more than I did.
"Uncle Boonmee or the Man Who Could Recall his Past Lives" isn't for any taste and I wish I was able to have the very distinctive taste that can allow such a movie to be appreciated at fair value. Maybe I was in the wrong mood, maybe my mind was too demanding for something meaningful to happen that I failed to grasp the poetry of the film. But even that word 'poetry' loses its weight when it comes to movies, I take it as the kind of extra ingredient that can make a difference but not the recipe. For all his great intentions and now I have to copy-paste his name the director Apichatpong Weerasethakul took that word too much for granted and served us a film that can raise an interest on Thailand's spirituality, the underworld where ghosts and living creatures can coexist and interact, but there's a fine line between raising an interest and making something passably interesting.
Interesting the film is in fact, to the degree that you're able to plug your mind in a world that challenges the notion of time, space and human perceptions and totally forget that movies are meant to tell a specific story. Uncle Boonmee is no hero or protagonist, he's a man with renal failure, at the verge of death and who, during some trip in a remote farm, makes various encounters, including one of his deceased wife and another of his dead son who can be described as a man in a black monkey suit with red eyes pointing like Hal 9000. I accepted these unfamiliar visions and let myself transported by their uniqueness, wondering where they were going to lead us to.
I know expecting a meaning can be a foolish way to embrace such a film, but then again, if I feel myself incapable to insert any logic even in what seems to be a streak of beautiful vignettes, my mind might be wandering like some soul caught between life and death, and supposing this was the intended effect, I didn't feel any satisfied or at the very least emotionally gratified when the movie concluded, either it had something beautiful to convey and I failed to get it, either I was in such a hurry to be impressed that I saw the film without seeing it. That said, to my defense, the film doesn't have to offer the kind of dazzling imagery I could use to plead its cause, it's not "2001" or "The Tree of Life", movies with redeeming cinematic qualities for the puzzled minds.
There are so many long moments where we follow people exploring a cave, people watching TV, and even a monk taking a shower, that I was wondering what kind of artistic licenses can command a director to stretch time to the limit of boredom, here it is, the ugly world is out. I was bored... I was so bored that I even followed the advice of another IMDb user and rewatched the film by fast-forwarding it, even at 1.5 speed, the effect was all the same... the shell was still empty and I couldn't find any pearl. I get the symbolism or I guess I got it... I was puzzled and slightly fascinated by the interlude with the princess and her reflection, and the intercourse with the catfish, it seemed to suggest a sort of symbiosis between the human world and Mother Nature and that might be the closest thing to a common thread.
But then again, I can only speculate about the intentions of the narrator and the way he inserted the history of Thailand and the communist past allowed me to give him a benefit of the doubt and blame my failure to enjoy the film on a lack of interest in the initial subject. That's all I can say about "Uncle Boonmee", for such an imaginative and surely creative film, I'm afraid it didn't inspire me that much.... and the Wikipedia page doesn't even help.
I guarantee one thing: the song won't come off your mind easily...
He's American. She's Eurasian. He's married. She's a widow. He's a correspondent, a man asked to watch and tell. She's a doctor, a woman asked to care and cure. He's a universalist though he's proud of his American heritage and she's not a Communist though she values her Chinese side. What else? Well, the 'he' and 'she' meet in Hong-Kong in 1949 and if you expect their differences to act like obstacles, then you haven't watched many romances in your life... or you simply didn't pay much attention to the title, if it doesn't set the tone, I don't know what it does.
I'll say about Henry King's "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" what I said about Clint Eastwood's "The Rookie", this is the kind of film that knows what to deliver to audiences that know what to expect. Remarkable in its conventionality, nothing can put the romance off the trail, nor its ambition to paint a vivid and exquisite portrait of a love that transcends the frontiers and promotes international understanding between Dr. Han Suyin, a Chinese-British woman played by Jennifer Jones and Mark Elliott, the American Joe portrayed by the so dependable William Holden, at the top of his sexiness in 1955.
There is even a moment where the two lovers have a romantic escapade in a beach and one might feel the tide of thoughts leading him toward "From Here to Eternity", but "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" swims in far different waters, not wasting anything for the sordid or the controversial, this is love in its purest and most civilized form, despite its efforts to paint a clash of civilizations or an internal conflict in the heart of Suyin. It never goes beyond the state of mildly expressed disagreements or "should I? should I not?" dilemmas, apart from that, Suyin loves Mark and he loves Suyin, what more do you need?
The city of Hong Kong offers the touch of exoticness without which the film would have lacked its savor, we see a hospital where Suyin's dedication is more than appreciated, her Chinese side emphasizes the devotion to her people, but her British side makes her a subject of interest or concern for the local Western citizens and a few gossipers. Suyin is literally speaking a woman of the world, two feet in worlds that couldn't have been more distinct, culturally and politically. However, when she catches the eye of handsome correspondent Mar Elliott, neither sides matter, he's sensitive to her beauty, to her own sensitivity, and never cares much about her origins.
Mark is so enamored that the only bit of adversity he can be responsible of is his status as a married man, much more to a woman who refuses to free him. Meanwhile, Suyin must deal with the obligations, the traditions, the reputation and her status as a foreigner, but while these elements are often mentioned, the film doesn't insist too much on them even when they're pointed out as threats. The story is dictated to us in a way that never distracts us from the romance and its ever-present score, last time I felt such an ubiquitous theme, it was "Lara's" in "Doctor Zhivago". The music, from Alfred Newman, is so present that I was happy it could provide lyrics at the end.
Overall, I must applaud the daringness with which King uses a material that could come off as a corny and yet employ two talented actors who make the chemistry believable. Jones is such a delight to watch and to see her smile and have her girlish side awakened (forget about Chinese or British side) when she's out of breath after climbing up that tree or giggling it like a schoolgirl after receiving a letter, and seeing Holden play the game, expose his beautiful torso, feigning amusement with the Chinese superstitions is the kind of delights you expect from these great Cinemascope movies and "Love" (to call it that way) never disappoints although it never surprises.
The film has local colors rather than colorfulness, too much elaborate dialogue to be believable and is as conventional in its narrative as it is busy with convention within the narrative, so maybe in its obsession to play in the safe side, it forgets to spice up its plot at the end and to allow the characters to bloom from the range of civilized interactions that kept the flame but never let the feelings exploded, the film lacked the burning passion so to speak.
And I wouldn't go as far as saying that Jennifer Jones was miscast, she could pass as Eurasian after all, but maybe something needed to make them a mismatched couple, I'm too much a fan of Holden to see it differently but maybe another actor might have emphasized the "tortured" aspect of that relationship, he'd play the same playboy role in another Best picture nominee of that year "Picnic" but I think Holden I one of these actors who got better with age. Jones was perhaps the first reason to enjoy the film, with the lovely sight of Hong Kong and maybe -maybe- that "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" song, I guarantee you one thing, it won't come off your mind easily.
Ikimono no kiroku (1955)
A meaningful but rather depressing experience... à la "Requiem for a Dream"...
Nervously fanning his face, bending his back and frowning his eyes, Kiichi Nakajima doesn't live in fear as much as he let fear live inside his body until it took a toll on his mind and on his family. The chronicles an inevitable tragedy, of a man who was too scared to live in peace, too proud to let his mind in peace, too stubborn to avoid an internal war with his family.
The old man, played by a 35-year old Toshiro Mifune, is the kind of aging patriarch who should inspire respect and obedience in a Japanese society resurrecting from the ashes of war and only starting to embrace modernity. But Nakajima is incapable to envision any future in this Japan, and neither the present nor the past can be of any help. Nakajima is scared of the Atomic age and is convinced that a Nuclear War is going to annihilate Japan, his fear resonates like an eschatological obsession, he doesn't fear the scenario, he's convinced of his imminence. I guess it's as if the graphic meltdown sequence of "Barefoot Gen" was playing in his mind like a broken record.
Fear is said to be a feeling anchored in the future and directly or indirectly connected with the fear of death, and it is true, the catch is that Nakajima is an old foundry owner, which means he's resourceful enough to look for a solution. Indeed, within his not-so irrational obsession, he found a 'rational' idea, which is to move all the family to Brazil, a country that would escape the Nuclear Holocaust. It's all a matter of convincing his family and the scope of his plan is too big and the stakes are so high that he doesn't care about exposing his mistresses and illegitimate children to the rest of the family. That's how desperate he is to save those he loves.
His sanity is inevitably questioned and the film opens with the convocation of a voluntary Domestic Court Counselor to arbitrate the case, Dr. Harada, a dentist, is played by Takashi Shimura, and watching him playing a younger person that Mifune gives the film an touch of cinematic weirdness despite the gravity of its theme. Anyway, Harada is a sane man who seems to take up the cudgels of Nakajima, he is aware that his obsessional fear might cloud his judgment but he believes the old man has a point, who would have thought two cities could be vaporized in one minute before August 1945? Who can tell such things couldn't happen again?
The family drama is so heavy-loaded that I found myself digressing from my reading of the film, as I was watching it, I was wondering whether it was an existential or political statement from Kurosawa. I was thinking, how would Nakajima or his family react to the Cuba Crisis of 62? Kennedy and Khrushchev handled it like civilized men, but what if it was Trump and Putin instead? To what degree should we trust democracy and remain confident that the leaders will do exactly as reason commands. I'm glad Trump didn't start any war yet after three years but I'm not sure I like the way he's constantly eyeing on Iran, not that I trust Iran's regime either.
Kurosawa was probably recovering from the WW2 demons and the relevance of Nakajima's fear is relayed by Harada. But the man is still an outsider, and the film mostly deals with the way Nakajima's shenanigans interferes with his family's interest and blurs all the cards of social conventions. The man who should be respected and trusted has forced his son (Minoru Chiaki) to sue him and force his mother, a traditional woman, to testify against her own husband, one of the collateral damages is to see that woman breaking marital duties for her children's sake. Brothers and sisters argue over their father's decisions, forcing the latter to resort to threats and even beatings. The scenes are depressing and doesn't leave much for optimism.
Indeed, what is going is a dialogue of the deaf, one that can only push the old man to take extreme measures to get money and buy the property in Brazil. He asks his mistresses for money, asks another one to mortgage her bar, the story reminded me of "Requiem for a Dream" where we follow the descent into madness of a woman driven by obsession and the climax of Nakajima' desperate maneuvers is simply devastating, because it doesn't make one person or one family unhappy, it destroys lives far beyond the intentions of Nakajima, confronting him to his own contradictions: how about his workers? How about the man from Brazil who'll live in Japan? How about the world?
"I Live in Fear" is a powerful anti-Nuclear movie in the way it depicted it through its most mundane form a fear rooted in everyone's mind, a mind so obsessed that any lightning would make him crawl on the floor and cover a little baby... maybe this says a lot about the way the world was going crazy after the war, the problem is that the family only wished to live in peace and ignore the risks because they couldn't do nothing, the gap was so blatant from the start the project was doomed to fail and the ending was inevitable. As an intelligent movie, it's a nice work, but it's rather depressing movie.
Maybe 'fear' is too ugly a condition to make for great entertainment, I could relate to Nakajima as someone who's afraid of flying to the point it created awkward situations with my family and made me miss great opportunities to travel in exotic places. That's one of the craziest things about fear, it's linked to the fear of death and yet it prevents you from living your life, more than any other thing, you move and act out of fear but at the end, your life was empty, static or wasted.
Tsubaki Sanjûrô (1962)
Kurosawa's revisionist take on his Samurai movies... mocking his own style... but still with style!
Kurosawa didn't like "The Magnificent Seven" as he found ludicrous the idea of mercenaries fighting bandits, no matter how noble Brynner and his peers were portrayed, they were closer to the Yakuza than the Samurais.
And maybe "Yojinbo" was the cinematic way to express these mixed feelings, as Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) was both a samurai and a mercenary, a true Japanese antihero. But while "Yojinbo" was set in a desolated town somewhere in the pre-Meiji Japan, its sequel "Sanjuro" takes place in a well-guarded town where the ancient feudal order was bound to prevail, only in the surface. "Yojinbo" had the antihero established, "Sanjuro" was Kurosawa's revisionist 'Western'.
And the revision starts with the directing. "Yojinbo" consisted mostly of exterior shots and a fair share of action, "Sanjuro" opens like a play: nine young men are exposing the situation, apparently, their uncle, the chamberlain refused to deliver the local lord their petition against corruption so they assumed he was the one pulling the strings. So they went to the superintendent Kikui, and his lieutenant Moruto (Tatsuday Nakada) promised to handle the situation. The scene is too solemn to work even by Kurosawa's standards; the Sensei is up to something.
When the young men are done talking, a voice emerges from the dark and Sanjuro appears, still the same nonchalant reluctant warrior who scratches his beard and yawns. He smells something fishy in the story and warns them against any hasty move. Sanjuro becomes their "director"' as the camera instinctively follows him whenever he moves, with the young men, it was all static like in a play, they're acting in the false sense of the word but cinema resurrects with Sanjuro, both a director and a heckler to these guys' shortsightedness. Sanjuro proves his worth very quickly when he spots the Superintendent's men's ambush under the commandment of Moruto.
The way they could hide is worthy of "Life of Brian" and when the nine guys emerge from the floor after the bad guys left plays almost like the seven dwarves' pointing their noses out of their beds. That's the mark of great sequels, keep the same protagonist, change the setting and if you can change the tone and keep it consistent, you've got a classic in your hand. Basically, those who act like straight men are the real clowns whereas Sanjuro is the real deal, which isn't saying too much, the closer to an honorable character is in fact Moruto, so close to Sanjuro's, he's his counterpart.
Now we don't need all the details, except that it results with the uncle's kidnapping and the main mission is to rescue him. The complexity isn't in the plot but in the way Sanjuro uses his tactical skills to anticipate the enemy's moves and come up with the right strategy: taking a prisoner, getting the servants drunk to free the chamberlain's wife and daughter, get the information of the uncle's whereabouts. It's all played like a chess game between the two enemies, which means there's not much room for action. Indeed, one of the most overused lines is "Stop! Wait!" there' a pattern whenever the nine guys decide to kick as, Sanjuro is never too far and kick theirs.
The film is full of such missed showdowns and misleading sight of horses galloping, It's like a constant anticlimax, as if Kurosawa didn't want to indulge to his old tricks, Sanjuro himself doesn't want to fight much because he doesn't have worthy enemies, guards are either too cowardly or clumsy. When just because of his protégés' carelessness, he ends up killing a whole army, he slaps them as if he displayed Kurosawa's own attitude toward violence. If we think the quick fight scenes reward our patience, then we missed the whole philosophy of Sanjuro, a piece of wisdom that came from an old and wise woman: the idea that the best swords stay in their sheath, this is not a condemnation of violence but of its needlessness.
In a film that makes you long for a spectacular confrontation between the two conflicting forces, who could anticipate that it would all depend on a bunch of camellias' dropped into a stream, it's so simple, so Japanese in its poetry and it says something interesting about Kurosawa, he can criticize his own style but he still does it with style. There's an awkward moment where a plan works and the young men engage in a happy dance and when realizing they must keep quiet, the music turns to jazz and it's hilarious in a cartoonish way. These kids represent the future while both Sanjuro and Moruto are a dying breed of men.
Even the uncle at his release is glad Sanjuro refused his offer because he wouldn't know what to do with this kind of men, maybe Kurosawa himself didn't know what to do with Samurais and might have had a problem with their perception from an immature perspective. The film ends with a duel though, as if we were owed one, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it, the alter-ego wants a fight to be in peace with himself. Sanjuro refuses. Values are reversed, the 'evil' one wants to die honorably, and the good one would rather call it a day, but like in "Yojinbo", he can't escape his duty, and the fight is brief, gory, shocking, classic and controversial "from within".
And it wonderfully comes full circle with the beginning where Sanjuro was the spectator to the men's stupidity. The men cheer for Sanjuro who shouts back at them, they didn't get the point... and that might be Kurosawa's personal message about violence. Unfairly accused of betraying his culture by some Japanese press, the man was born in a Samurai family knew too well the dangerous appeal of misunderstood violence, and chose the perfect way to condemn it through a mix of gentle poetry and grotesque comedy, making the violent climax even more spectacular.
A bizarre masterpiece, a masterpiece nonetheless!
Toy Story 4 (2019)
There was a time where Disney movies were telling stories, now it's all about sending messages...
I know time is up to dust off a few gender-driven stereotypes. For that, "Frozen" was a landmark. But there's a fine line between creating new characters and promoting their differences and deconstructing old characters that belong to a whole other storyline in order to promote a difference, that's when I get the feeling that Disney is dangerously toying with its own legacy.
To make myself more specific, I would have no problem with a film centering on a gender exclusive romance and maybe that will be "Frozen II" novelty, but I would have a problem if they made a sequel to "The Fox and the Hound" in order to suggest that there was more than a friendship between Todd and Copper. Watching "Toy Story 4", I felt betrayed by the way the whole relationship between toys and owners, that took a trilogy to be built, was demystified in one single film to shine a light on Disney's 'new order'.
All the previous "Toy Story" movies had a specific story. The first was exploring the psychology of toys within their relationships with their owners. Anyone could relate to that, kids who own toys and adults who used to. It also sealed the friendship between Woody and Buzz, as two of Andy's favorites, not rivals. The second film established the issue of growing up through the Jessie situation and the impeding doom of hormone-driven rejection. Still, Andy and Woody realized that they were not articles among others or valuable items to be worshiped, having ANDY written on their feet was their value and it was perfect while it lasted.
The trilogy ended with the perfect tone (and note), Andy, now grown-up, realizes that the sentimental value of his toys depend on their current utilization as much as their past, so he gives all the toys, including Woody, to Bonnie. For the first time, there's a voluntary separation between the partners, it's an end of era but also a new start. And the toys' "circle of life" has always been about children having toys not toys having children, the song wasn't "I've got a friend in you" after all. In that fourth opus, there's such an obsession with that notion of "having children" that it felt like they were procreating them. I'm not exaggerating, it's used so many times it became a whole overarching theme.
But I didn't have a problem with that because the film started with a rather touching scene. Feeling rejected by Bonnie, Woody follows her in her first day at school and helps her create a new toy, "Forky", I just loved the way the "Spork" came alive on the sole basis that he was considered a toy, and the way Woody felt responsible in a fatherly that wasn't totally out of place in the film's context. Because the motive was still Bonnie: he didn't want her to lose her new toy, Woody was still thinking of his owner, and that's the way all toys behaved, not because that's the way it should be, but because that's the way it was established as soon as the series began.
This is why I just hated the way Woody admitted at the end that he did that because he had nothing else to do, as if toys were supposed to have an existence of their own, and being a lost toy was an option. Woody cared for Bonnie and Forky and it was out of character to describe this as a weakness. But the film constantly shows Woody as a weak character, both morally and physically, and for that, the studios came up with the right contrast: Bo Peep who is of course the incarnation of the Disney heroine, she's brave, bad-ass, perfect, not one ounce of vulnerability and nothing is impossible to her. Meanwhile, Jessie was relegated to a tertiary character while she could have been the female lead after all.
The character of Gabby Gabby was a great addition though, acting like a Disney villain (especially with her scary minions-automatons) but displaying a hidden depth that broke my heart. That Gabby had the potential, but Bo was such a caricature that I could hear the marketing strategy behind her creation "let her awesomeness put Woody to shame" and she did a great job at that. Naturally, she's proud of not "having children" which seems to associate parenting with a form of commitment a girl should be proud to reject. Quite hypocritical from a studio whose main audiences aren't seniors.
Now, maybe I'm overanalyzing, but when you also have two toys who insist on "having children" since they've been "waiting for three years" and they're males, it's of course a nod to the right for adoption, which draws the obvious parallel between belonging to children and having children. Which says in subtext, women shouldn't make raising families a priority but it's clearly one for those who've been denied this right. The message isn't wrong but just off-topic in the context of a series where a/ toys have always been the possessed ones not the possessors, b/ when the possession was a mark of friendship and nothing else and c/ when viewers could relate to owners, even from the toys' perspective. By over-humanizing them to make them timely relevant, something of the series' charm was lost.
My view is rather conservative but only in the sense that I wished the spirit of "Toy Story" to be conserved the way it was in the first three films, I enjoy a progressive film like anyone, but I wish Disney could do that with new characters, not with series whose arcs were perfectly closed. But I think I see where they're coming from, they're probably preparing a spin-off prequel that will center on Bo Peep, so maybe "Toy Story 4" is only a vehicle for her. Ironic that in the film, it's a skunk.
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Fiction can make fun of reality, that's the revenge of reason over barbarity...
"To Be or Not To Be" doesn't trivialize the barbarity of the Nazi regime as much as it ennobles art and gives an aura of metaphysical importance to laughter, as the main characteristic of the reasonable person. It's precisely because Ernst Lubitsch could laugh at the Nazism that one shouldn't underestimate the sadness and terror that devoured his soul. One could say the same about Chaplin's "Great Dictator", more focused on the inner heroism of the little people while Lubitsch' movie is a love letter to artists, and the work of a true one.
Lubitsch grew up in Berlin and became an acting sensation after World War I before becoming one of the most promising directors of Hollywood. A precocious talent with a sense of sophistication that would be known as the 'Lubitsch touch', he was probably under the influence of that boost of creativity and flamboyance that made Berlin an artistic Mecca in the early 30s (like in Bob Fosse's "Cabaret"). His film opens on Warsaw, a more suitable place for free art once Germany surrendered to swastikas. And as if he anticipated the criticism over his subject, the story features a play named "The Gestapo" and satirizing the Nazis. During a rehearsal, the man playing Hitler (Irish actor Tom Dugan) delivers a hilarious and unexpected "Heil myself". The line gets cut by the director who makes it a matter of ethics not to make Nazis funny, much to the actor's reluctance.
Basically, Lubitsch asks us the question: should we sacrifice a good line for the sake of seeming decency? How many times haven't we felt the necessity to cross the barrier of good taste because it was so tempting. So the line is censored because of the risk of offending Hitler and when the Germans come on a day of September 1939, the play is cancelled once and for all. The situation resonates like Churchill's parable about war and dishonour, fearing the Nazis is the dishonourable attitude, even when meant to play safe, you're never safe with them, so let's just use your best weapon, guns or gags it doesn't matter. While I was wondering if Lubitsch would have been as loose on the Nazis if he knew about the Camps, I was hiding a chuckle because the line "so they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" kept springing to my mind. Should I feel guilty?
No less than for any movie that dared to turn the subject into laughing matter, from Donald Duck's "Der Fuerher's Face" to "La Vita e Bella". It's because Nazis were human that their crimes were horrific, it's because they were human that they should be mocked. Art is the triumph of the intellect over the brutal force, the sensitivity over cynicism, it can be sophisticated and fancy but it can't really do without powerful sentiments, this is why the film makes a good use of Shakespeare's lines (borrowed from "Hamlet" and "The Merchant of Venice") and even more why it focuses on a married couple, the greatest actress of Poland Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and her hammy husband Joseph (Jack Benny). The film opens with a sort of vaudevillian mood where Maria exploits her husband's "Hamlet" soliloquy to bring the handsome aviator Sobinski (Robert Starck) to her room, the running gag is not overused so Marie doesn't appear too cheap and Joseph too dumb.
There's a fine balance between the romance and the screwball situations and they all get along with the intricacies of a plot that involves a sinister but seductive spy named Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges), who proposes Maria to become an agent. Meanwhile, the troop must absolutely capture the man, confiscate the documents that contain names of Polish Resistant members and get rid of the spy, and this is where their Nazi costumes get quite handy. So we see Jack benny and all his friends impersonating Nazi officers and even Selitski with variable effects, sometimes with the right timing, sometimes a delay force them to rewrite the script. In a sort of meta-referential nod to his own art, Lubitsch directs actors playing directors, actors and writers, proving that sometimes a good act can be a matter of life and death. Hammy too much and your cover is blown if not your head. Maria proves to be a more restrained actress so she can dodge the Nazis' flair, same can't be said about Joseph and Benny's antics endanger the film's credibility in their exaggerated audacity, the man pushes his luck so often it's a wonder how he did survive.
The film also suffers from a series of contrivances that happen all too conveniently near the end leading to a rushed climax only redeemed by the hilarious ending. Still, the real black spot in the film's legacy is of course the haunting of Carole Lombard's memory. The actress died in a plane crash a few weeks after the film's release, the USA had just entered the war and she was collecting bonds during a tour across America. In a way, she was a victim of that war though she lived far from the ruins and ashes of Poland, her death cut one of the most promising careers short and made Gable so inconsolable he joined the war too... I avoided that film for a long time because of that story, it had saddened me a lot even more because I happen to be afraid of flying.
I couldn't believe how many times she referred to flights during the film, the simple fact that she loved an aviator gives it an eerie feeling, it's just as if the film was doomed to be clouded by tragedy, individual and universal. However, and that might be the secret of "To Be or Not to Be", It's all fiction, it's not reality, the film was criticized when the war was still raging and now it's a classic, once reality is as dead as fiction, what remains is the essence of art.as
Blue Cat Blues (1956)
My Ode to "Blue Cat's Blues"...
Sitting alone on the railroad tracks -
Devils of misery devouring his eyes -
A train is coming for a deadly climax...
Of a lesson to all of us smitten guys!
This is Tom's story called the Blue Cat's Blues - When you throw your heart, you're bound to lose - The game is rigged and someone loaded the dice! You should always listen to your friends' advice!
Jerry the mouse tried to warn his buddy - He saw the poor Tom losing his head - He felt his ground of love turning all muddy - When she loved another one instead.
His name was Butch and he was stinking rich - He was Tom's rival and she was clearly his -itch! For every gift Tom would give - Butch would prove to be far more combative!
Tom gave a flower, Butch a wreath as big as her - Tom gave a sample, Butch a truck of perfume - Tom brought a diamond the size of a booger - While Butch's one was shining all over the room!
The car was the last attempt to win her affection - 112% of annual interest rate! Butch's endless coupe drove all over Tom's ambition - You got to wonder what he tried to compensate!
This is Tom's story called the Blue Cat's Blues - When you throw your heart, you're bound to lose! Cause love is sure no heart matter - When you deal with a damn gold-digger!
Tom understood that he could never get her - In alcohol, his dreams he all buried - Jerry could save him from the plunge into the gutter - But then a car drove by, a sign saying "Just married"!
A dynamite stick could turn him black - A rollercoaster did all the flattening - He could go to Heaven but he was always back - Each episode was like a new beginning.
This time Tom got the roughest deal! Something for a cartoon that felt so real - He loved a girl that didn't love him back - And this time maybe Tom too... might not even come back!
This is Tom's story called the Blue Cat's Blues - When you throw your heart, you're bound to lose - And Jerry threw his heart to his own girlfriend - But it was the same story in the end!
This is Tom's story but Jerry's as well - Lovesick schmucks in a nutshell - Sitting the two of them on the railroad tracks - Until the train comes with the deadly climax!
And as the whistle get louder and louder - We know the story won't get any better - The iris-out delivers us from the pain - And who knows? We might see our friends again!!!
The Thin Man (1934)
Let's have a drink with Nick and Nora Charles!
The first time we meet Nick Charles, he's tutoring waiters about the art of cocktail mixing; each one's got its rhythm: a Manhattan plays like a foxtrot, a Martini a waltz. Once the martini is done, Nick takes a long sip. Later his wife Nora joins him and asks him how many Martinis he had. "Six" he says, she orders five more to catch up with him. If that exchange doesn't set the tone of alcohol-soaked complicity between William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, I don't know what it does.
Alcohol is perhaps a more pivotal element than any clue, murder or hunch during the investigation, it connects Nora and Nick in a way that never borders on alcoholism but on a rather hedonistic view of life that can only draw smiles on our faces and was probably irresistible at the peak of the Great Depression. Nick is the ex-San Francisco detective who retired after marrying a rich heiress and took over her father's business, and she's a happy socialite. They're both rich, happy, thy have fun, friends and never miss an opportunity to bring the two at a party. Their lifestyle is shown in full transparency and I guess the reason why it works so well is because the film plays it straight, but with an edgy charm.
When asked to comment about the case, one of Nick's terrific one-liners is "it puts me away from my drinking", in fact, whenever the two are there, a bottle or a glass is never too far, just like a gun in a crime picture or a horse in a Western. In fact, one should pay much attention to get every little gag or silent detail involving alcohol, it's like the film is slightly inebriated, you know, that agreeable feeling after you've fueled yourself with a few glasses but not too many. "The Thin Man" floats above its own sense of debauched poetry, one that allows a man and a woman to talk their hearts out and be constantly playful with each other. Whether for Loy's cute nose grimaces or Powell's hammy shocked faces he throws here and there, there's never a doubt that these two are husband and wife.
The film actually treats the relationship between Nick and Nora like the cocktail wisdom: a matter of chemistry, alcohol is not the only ingredient, you've got to count on some spicy interactions and sweet tenderness, it's also a matter choreography, the music comes from the dialogue naturally. Adapted from the novel "The Maltese Falcon" author Dashiel Hammiett, it was adapted on screen by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a married a couple, you can't fake this stuff, the film was a winner from the start. Director W.S. Van Dyke himself said they shoot the film in 16 days and each "frame had that sweet smell of success", you can't fake that either. It's remarkable that such a quality film (Best Picture nominee after all) only took half a month, but it says something about the simplicity to reach quality when you get the right casting.
80% of the job is done with the right cast, said Gene Siskel and we can all agree that the film owes a great deal to the Oscar-nominated performance of William Powell as the suave and serious man who doesn't take himself too seriously, Myrna Loy as his partner in love, occasional assistant and principal competitor when it comes to their drinking habit and Asta the fox-terrier who's like Snowy to Tintin, the scene-stealer. But Powell leads the show splendidly with the swiftness of a Fred Astaire on a ballroom and his Ginger Rogers (all right I borrowed the comparison from Roger Ebert's review, I stole it, happy?) and also the ringmaster's skills of an Hercule Poirot.
The film has the makings of the mystery that involves so many protagonists you lose track, the girl played by Maureen O'Sullivan who's the white sheep of a family full of crooks, mistresses and cheaters, her father who mysteriously disappeared after they found his secretary dead, a lawyer and an accountant who don't strike like straight arrows, a bunch of thugs and muscle men, cops, reporters, spinning headlines, one of them inspiring the legendary "tabloids" quote. The story is well-written and gets easier to follow after a second viewing but it's accessory compared to the style, so original that it spanned a series of sequels and was the trope-codifier of the male/female crime solving duo.
Still, Van Dyke must have quite a way with series starters as he served the same with "Tarzan: the Ape Man", also starring Maureen O'Sullivan. Speaking of serving, I couldn't stop laughing at the "Waiter, serve the nuts, I mean serve the guests the nuts" during the climactic dinner sequence (a nod to these Agatha Christie's moments when all the suspects are rounded up), that line alone explains why the film, which is a decent mystery and a great romance, earned only one spot in the AFI's Top 100 Laughs.
Finally, "The Thin Man" is the kind of late experiences that reveals my limitations as a movie lover, I can't believe it took me so long to discover that gem. I guess I expected a screwball comedy but the film is far better than that, no one tries to outsmart the other, love is already there, it's not something to be earned, not even to be proved, the film has a way to say that things are much fun with marriage, and we're tempted to agree.
And you know why? Because although it's a pre-Code film, it could still get away with everything since they're married (there's a line about the Sullivan's act that shows how self-aware the writers were) and the last shot of the film (that might have inspired "North by Northwest") is just perfect, because it has everything the film's greatness relied on: drinks, wits and quips, marital fun... not to mention, Asta.