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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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Indeed, one of the many delights of this game is in the way some blanks can be quite misleading, in an embarrassing way. This poll is about movie titles that would be too embarrassing to read if they missed some letters, or would inspire a rather unsuitable wrong guess.
Which of these cases of movie titles with blank letters would be the most humorously cringe-worthy?
Af-er vo-ing, yo- may disc-ss -he lis- here
(no need to tell which letters should be missing... you can figure them out by yourself... most of them at least)
But how about these movies that exude the romantic summer vibes we can relate to? These little or bigger films set during summertime, at home, on the road or to the seaside where we can feel the exhilarating rush of passion or that little breeze of delightful contentment with the one we suddenly love...
Following the release of François Ozon's new film Été 85 (2020), let's have a look at some memorable summer romances, which one is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
You know the drill by now: Funny, witty, ominous, inspirational, corny or cheesy, these lines have two things in common: they're famous (many are classic) and they all consist of fifteen words (contractions considered)!
Which of these 25 fifteen-word movie quotes do you think is the most memorable?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Now, some series have already been adapted to movies, among them Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987), Inspector Gadget (1983), Smurfs (1981) and Transformers (1984) and I concede that the results didn't always match our expectations. But maybe this is because the producers didn't pay attention shows with greater potential.
Personally, I've always wondered why I could never see Laurence Fishburne playing 'Bullet-Proof' in a movie adaptation of C.O.P.S. (1988) or how come an environmentalist cartoon like Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990) was never given a chance to enlighten the younger generations about the dangers that threaten our planet... but I digress, here's the question:
Which of these (forgotten?) 80's/90's animated series would make the most awesome live-action adaptation?
After voting you might discuss the list here
PS: Forgive the generational bias but still, I suspect even those who were born before the mid-70s and after the mid-90s (re-runs exist, don't they?) will be familiar with most of these titles.
Which of these assignments would be your worst-case scenario?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these Top 250 movies features the most upsetting child death?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these American Icons is your number one pick?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these villains who only appeared* during these palindromic years is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
*unless in a different form or played by an another actor
There's something rotten in the St Fiacre castle...
In Jean Delannoy's "Maigret and the St Fiacre Affair", second cinematic adaptation starring Jean Gabin as the iconic detective, we're taken from the shadowy and menacing streets of Montmartre by night to the more bucolic and colorful Provence, a change of scenery, but not of scenario.
St Fiacre is a fictional village basking in its monotonous routine, spared by the corruptive rollercoaster of modernity, a village where the local aristocrat or the priest are emblematic and influential figures and like the church or the city council, where every place goes by one: one grocery shop, one bank, one church, one nightclub. That's St Fiacre, hidden in the middle of France's hinterland, as ordinary as any small village in France, but not that insignificant a place in the heart of Maigret for this is where he spent his childhood, as the son of the castle steward.
Maigret in Saint Fiacre is like Uncle Scrooge revisiting the McDuck castle, without the family connection. Not a blue blood but a playful little lad whose blue eyes and blonde little face didn't get unnoticed by the then younger Countess. The woman, (Valentine Teissier) now a widow, requested Maigret to come visit her after receiving a threat letter, saying she will be dead before the end of Sunday's religious office. The tone of the letter is so definite that we know it will happen for the sake of a story and this is why the first scene plays like a soothing and comforting memory-recalling moment, a little slice of sunshine before the first breezes announcing the storm.
And so the older Jules is visiting the castle of his childhood that lost its past splendor, pretending to be a painting collector, a passable cover to identify the first cover. He notices the intriguing influence the priest (Michel Vitold) has on the chatelain, smelling something that goes beyond religious bigotry, he has a talk with Lucien (Robert Hirsch) the young secretary whose disastrous management indicates that he's either incompetent or malevolent; and there's also the gruff and disagreeable chauffeur (Jacques Marais), perhaps the closest to a comic relief with Dr. Bouchardon (Paul Frankeur), an old friend of good old Jules.
That little palette of personalities paints the first shades of doubt and defiance in the meticulous mind of Maigret and the atmosphere is quite heavy-loaded during that first night where he loses track of the number of guests and visits the Countess has (for medicine or something else). We can feel the Grim Reaper hovering around the head of the poor woman and it is so ominous that her death is actually a deliverance, the tone is set and the investigation can start.
And so the news spread very quickly, taking us to the next aisle of the characters gallery: the spoiled son, Maurice (Michel Auclair) a young and idle annuitant, a playboy who enjoys the status and the money and holds a grudge against Lucien. The circle widens to other players such as Gautier the new steward (Camille Guérini) and his son Emile (Serge Rousseau), a promising and cooperative bank clerk. Yes, it's that kind of movies where the performances of the supporting cast are as integral to the enjoyment as the lead. And as the interactions go on, we smell a potential suspect in everyone but there's never a clear hint given.
For instance, the three younger men are found in the same nightclub when Gabin goes for one of his introspective walks, the only place that could justify that one would leave the castle late provides three suspects. Another hint involves the real weapon of the crime, but anyone is in position to have pulled that kind of triggered. The film shows again Maigret at his finest, testing people, not only spotting their flaws and weaknesses but determine which weakness would make for the strongest motive.
Unlike the previous "Maigret Sets a Trap" where the suspects were given, this time we're taken in a waltz of interpretations and false tracks, in situations where everyone is partially responsible for the death of the Countess but as the representative of the Law, Maigret states very clearly that he's looking for instant guilt, not responsibility. And so the film takes us to a final climax where every suspect is reunited in the same dinner table and with the crime weapon, Maigret decides to trick the killer à la Columbo (forgive the anachronism).
It's not the twist that works but the way Maigret seems to handle the investigation as a pro although he was affected by the murder, but because it's personal, he knows he must lay his cards carefully or the suspect might slip under his net, he's toying with his instinct and his determination to find the killer. One strikes as the most potential suspect but he's too weak or too convenient a killer to be such a Macchiavellian mastermind.
And Gabin's performance is a masterstroke of sobriety, of contempt toward these corrupt little people hiding behind his down-to-earth façade. He realizes the same mediocrity and deterioration of moral values and principles in these last remains of the old order. But Gabin downplays his anger to better implode it once the killer is revealed. And ironically, his final rant is perhaps the second relief in the film, not only justice will be done, but he can finally drops the investigator's mask and let the man express his rage and avenge the honor and life of the Countess who meant so much.
365 dni (2020)
What Massimo wants, Massimo gets...
The extraordinary bodies of Michele Morrone and Anna Maria Sieklucka are perhaps the only forces that drive the ludicrous and somewhat silly "365 Days", the Polish production that generated such a hot buzz it ended in the Top 10 Netflix to-watch films.
I confess my male crush: the man, Massimo, is a towering and tanned Latin hunk with finely-traced abs and looks like he's always posing for a Giorgio Armani ad, the woman, Laura, has the kind of gorgeous face and tantalizing body that provoke an immediate urge for possession. Only a fool would have a woman like Laura and make no effort to keep her... only a fool woman wouldn't surrender to Massimo's charm.
But only a fool script would have a man like Massimo kidnap a woman like Laura and sequestrate her in a heavenly remote island and give her 365 days to love him... in fact, only a fool script would have Massimo say "you have 365 days" whoever says "365 days?" isn't saying "one year" a simpler formulation? What if it's a bissextile year (like 2020), are you willing to sacrifice the possibility to have her love you at the last minute? Or is "365 days" only a figure of speech and Massimo knew damn well it wouldn't take so long? Anyway, when he said "365 days" I could swear I head the voice from "CinemaSins" saying "Title Drop".
So Massimo takes Laura in his dungeon of wealth, luxuriance and... weird sexual practices, he promises not to hurt her, to let her go shopping but she's his prisoner before becoming his lover. All we know about the two is that Massimo is some kind of Mafia member who instantly fell in love with Laura and Laura is a tough businesswoman with a husband who doesn't know how lucky he is. Massimo had his father killed in front of him and Laura is in need. Massimo as a man of possession and Laura as a woman in desire of possession.
The expositional part goes even further, it also shows Massimo forcing a flight attendant to make him happy, she's reluctant at first but at the end, she's smiling. What we have in that scene is the film in microcosm, Massimo is the new Leo, what we want, he gets, and apparently, the director is stingy on shocking moments that would normally be followed by instant uproars and calls for censorhip in these post-Weinstein days. Seems that the confinement context helped a little. The problem with "365 Days" is that the film tries too hard to make a sensation: so many scenes are filled with useless pop music that we're not left one instant with an opportunity to get into the depths of these characters, basically, they're all characterized by their needs.
It's a sort of psychological arm-wrestling that would be fine if the film wasn't just going up and down between moments where both go along and others where violence ensues. The film intelligently avoids the point of no return, Massimo never treats Laura like the fligth attendant but then again, it doesn't play fair with its own premise. If days are numbered, how come we never know how many days have passed? How come Laura seems quickly aroused by Massimo? Why couldn't she go through the different stages: fear, anger, hunger strikes, you know the drift.
The reason is because the film's sole purpose is to show sex scenes as heated and torrid as the sun we were missing during the confinement, I guess people were in need of that. The film doesn't care much for the feelings as long as they can be expressed within the spectrum of sexual desire: anger is physical need, defiance is sexual tension, gentlness is a preliminary, joy is orgasm etc. What's left at the end is something silly but also unpleasant in the sense that we never exactly understand why Laura surrenders to Massimo: is it Stockholm syndrome? Is it his looks? Or is it because he's stinking rich?
But I dare not torture myself with such questions because ultimately, it unveils the biggest flaw of the film which is the premise. Was Laura that hard to get to begin with? Couldn't Massimo just attract her attention? Court her? Didn't he have enough to offer instead of entrapping her in his gilded cage? Did it have to be so damn complicated? Laura was already an unsatisfied wife... The 'kidnapping' part doesn't work because it's a wrong premise but because it's treated like a gimmick, a word to put on the summary and allow the film to have its little edge other over soft core productions, this is what it's all about, and when it culminates with the long-awaited sex scene, I was aroused but didn't feel rewarde I thought "it was about time".
If you take off the sex material and the awful pop music, there's nothing left from the film... it's dry empty... but near the end the film got more interesting, Laura was given back her freedom and went to her home and met Massimo again, she confronted him, threw her anger at him and then I was following the scene with full attention, finally, a scene with depth, with true emotions, something totally unrelated to body fluids but no it had to switch to a sort of angry sex scene with (you get it) an awful pop music... that's when I abandoned any hope for this film.
I take "365 Days" at face value as a little more elaborate soft core film with a silly script, and two gorgeous bodies... a wannabe "Fifty Shades of Grey", which isn't saying much.
Razzia sur la chnouf (1955)
Solid noir film but a big reveal that weakens the film more than transcends it...
Henri Decoin's "Razzia sur la Chnouf", translated as "raid on the drugs" or more simply known as "Razzia" has one merit: it's certainly the first French movie to show all the inner workings of drug traffic like a "French Connection" of its time: getting the stuff, cutting it, supplying, delivering etc. For that, the film succeeds in its immersion into a world that was still fresh in a genre more concerned in heists and bank robberies. The problem with "Razzia" isn't muchion its theme than its treatment: the film depends on a plot twist that weakens its effect more than transcend it.
Jean Gabin plays Henri Ferré aka the Nantais, a man preceded by his reputation as a powerful drug operator who's just come back from America after a successful mission. His arrival in Paris doesn't go unnoticed by the Police so we have an idea on his pedigree. He meets his correspondent Paul Liski (Marcel Dalio) in a comfy Parisian hotel where he's entrusted with the mission of supervising the operations in Paris: from the fabrication to the distribution and dealing with the little shortcomings that affect the chain of supply that decrease the profitability. Two subordinates assist him in his work, among them Roger le Catalan, played by Lino Ventura, still a newcomer in 1955 but quite a forceful presence.
In its penchant for filmic exactitude, the adaptation of Auguste Le Breton's novel doesn't sugarcoat the effects of drugs and we have a few glimpses on the ravages it causes, including a rather disturbing visit in a local jazz-club. But the most spectacular effect can be contained within the performance of Lila Kedrova as a heroin-addict, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the first portrayal of addiction in French cinema. She brings a dimension of pathos rather unexpected in the kind of movies where women are reduced to either treacherous molls or disillusioned experienced insiders. And watching the character of Lea, it's even harder to accept Gabin as a man linked to drugs, his aura is more of a Vito Corleone-like figure who wouldn't want to get mixed in such a dirty business.
But there's something about Gabin that would make us accept even the worst endeavor given that he shoots someone who's had it coming or with the right amount of buffers between his personal ruling and the dirtiest side of his business. In "Razzia", he doesn't kill for a good portion of the story and if the drug business is covered with a documentary-like realism, Henri is shown more as a pragmatic boss than a psychopath with brutish impulses. While Roger doesn't hesitate to brutalize the wife of the chemist in charge of cutting the heroin, Henri's manners are worthy of a not-so-bad antihero as the film contains a sweet and tender subplot with Magali Noël as Lilia, the counter-girl in The Troquet, the restaurant used as a cover for all the operations.
The problem with "Razzia" is that it makes such an effort to make Gabin look as a gangster with a noble heart so when the big reveal comes, he comes the closest to a treacherous figure, what could have worked in "White Heat" because the lead was the bad guy doesn't quite work here. The film is almost victim of Gabin's performance and magnetism, begging us to appreciate him as a leader with flaws only to show him as a clean-cut cop. Of course, he's the hero and main protagonist but the problems of film-noir is that it invites us to embrace the world of criminals and so the twist at the end left me with puzzlement.
The film is still a solid noir with a few exquisite scenes and bits of dialogues in pure French slang delight but maybe Gabin is such a straight and no-nonsense figure that it's better to lay the cards first to let us know if we have gangster Gabin or cop Gabin, of course Gabin's performance was consistent with his status as a cop but the audience was left outside and speaking for myself, I felt a little cheated.
The Little Man who was too big even for a biopic...
Chaplin the man was such a defining figure of the last century that "Chaplin" the film was doomed from the start, this is not a comment on Richard Attenborough's directing but on the cinematic format itself. How do you capture the cultural significance of the Little Tramp, the historical magnitude of the Great Dictator, the essence of the comedic genius or the much darker sides of a man with troubling infatuations in a two-and-half hour runtime.
From what I read the original footage was four-hour long and Attenborough stated that the cuts had damaged the film and I'm sure he's right. I can't imagine how many precious bits could have enriched the experience or emphasized the weight of some names in the life of Chaplin, or Chaplin's own weight in the life of America. Unfortunately, for all its good intentions, "Chaplin" is a frustratingly lackluster recalling of episodes in Chaplin's life, key moments that never seem to open any door. The film is told in straight-forward Wikipedia style with roles that have the briefness of cameos, no matter how big the star is.
The film opens with the poor childhood in Victorian London where Charlie was raised by a depressed mother (played by Geraldine Chaplin). That first act already indicates what doesn't go right in the film, it's always on the rush. Childhood is obviously a pivotal moment: we see the mother being booed by the audience and it's her own son that makes up for her failed performance and makes his first steps in the music-hall. We get it: talented kid, troubled mother. When she's sent to the mental asylum, the film offers its first inspired moment where little Chaplin is chased Keystone-style by officers to be put in a workhouse. The childhood part isn't badly made but the Dickensian feel of Charlie's beginnings deserved a little more, Chaplin's most celebrated movies were about poverty, you can't dissociate it from Chaplin. Poverty is only a parenthesis in that film.
Even a gangster epic like "Once Upon a Time in America" couldn't have worked emotionally and narratively if it wasn't for the beautiful 'youth' sequence, if only Attenborough took inspiration from Leone, we could have felt the absence of a father or the loss of his mother as sources of inspiration for "The Kid", something about a lost childhood or an artistry born too early that affected artists like Michael Jackson. Since the childhood part doesn't exceed fifteen minutes, we lose the connection with Chaplin's "Kid", which explains why the film is barely present... until the finale. A film like "Chaplin" doesn't trust its audience, it provides the fictional character of Haydn (an autobiographer played by Anthony Hopkins) whose only purpose is to allow Chaplin to verbalize his thoughts. Even the character of Sidney Chaplin, the brother who always disagrees, seems to exist for the same reasons.
And since the film is in a hurry to cover all the episodes of Charlie's life, we get to the first contract signed with Mac Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) after Chaplin reprised his drunk act. This is probably the finest part of the film where Robert Downey Jr. morphs into the Little Tramp and I just love how the film first treat the birth of the iconic costume as if the Gods of cinema were guiding his hands only to reveal that it was in the heat of the moment. Later, we see the little Tramp being funny and flirting with Mabel Normand (Marisa Tomei) and before we know it, Chaplin is leaving to make his own movies after a feud with Mabel (whose influence on Chaplin is left uncovered). I suspect there were more scenes of the Mac Sennett era but it couldn't get in the way of Chaplin's career, quite the irony!
Fair enough, so we follow the directing of "The Immigrant" where the scene where an emigration officer is kicked stirs the earliest suspicions of Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), the chapter of his life that covers his best hits "The Circus", "The Gold Rush" are used to show his rise to stardom, his earliest relationship and scandals, and the film is densely populated, Kevin Kline is Douglas Fairbanks, Penelop Ann Mirren is Edna Purviance, Milla Jovovich one of Chaplin's conquests but for a movie dedicated to a film-maker, the film work is left totally off-side and the film feels more like a chronological exposé on Chaplin.
The real problem is that by doing this, we never get insights other than what a real documentary would have provided, and maybe figures like Chaplin, too big to be just called artists, are what documentary were made for. Or maybe we should have gotten a director's cut that followed Attenborough's initial idea, I'm still perplex though whether an additional hour and half would have saved the film anyway, maybe focusing on one part of his life could have been more inspired.
Anyway, a few positive notes: the film plunges us in the atmosphere of the silent film era, the costume design, the mood, John Barry's score is sweet, melancholic and captures the heart of Chaplin's film and Robert Downey Jr. does justice to the legacy of Chaplin though I prefer his performance during the comedic moments, I wonder whether the real Chaplin was that somber and introspective. Downey plays it sometimes as if he himself didn't exactly know what to think about him.
The film concludes with a great montage of Chaplin's best scenes (à la "Cinema Paradisio") and this was certainly one of the film's best moments. I realized at that point that maybe they were intended for the big ending and in a way, the scenes were perfectly picked, the Kid part especially, I could feel the pain in his eyes looking at the screen, but such emotional moments were deeply needed, in fact, maybe having real footage is the best way to understand Chaplin.
Maigret tend un piège (1958)
M like Maigret...
It's a hot summer in Paris while a mysterious killer is plaguing the serene joie de vivre of Montmartre district making victims out of women who have in common (besides the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong moment of the night) to be young and plump brunettes. The film opens with a murder that recalls the beginning of the mother of all psychological thrillers: "M" and there's more that justifies the comparison.
Jean Delannoy's "Maigret Sets a Trap" is a fine example of a police procedural film that gets three things right: first, it perfectly conveys the atmosphere of an impending danger whose motivations -we rapidly suspect- are rooted in the mire of human psyche, secondly, the villain isn't just an antagonist but the subject of a character study that unveils the sleaziest and most sordid expressions of hubris and finally, the film lies on the broad shoulders of a great and iconic protagonist in the person of Jules Maigret, the 'French' Sherlock Holmes, created by Belgian writer George Simenon.
A few words about Maigret: the Chief Inspector is a robust-looking, well-built man with a reassuring physique and a sort of detached attitude that allows him to be more perceptive of little details surrounding him, he's a man who takes his time, follows his instinct, and tries to identify hints about the assassin's profile as insistently as if they were tangible evidence. He's a man who can nonchalantly wonders across a busy street to test the waters and gather clues from the mere sight of playful kids or noisy vendors. He's not alone in this job, he has various subordinates (one is played by Lino Venture) whose mission can consist of walking in the screen and fishing potential suspects out of shoals of onlookers.
I make his approach methodical but it isn't, Maigret built enough experience not to let himself distracted by bureaucracy, he can enter a house without a warrant considering it's up to the suspect to know the rules. He handles information as if they're no big deal, encouraging the suspect to go on without arousing any suspicion on his side, "may I see your wardrobe?" "did you have a key?" innocent questions whose purpose is to grab facts that can eventually be contradicted by subtle cross-examinations. There's something fascinating in the way Maigret handles the investigation, even when we suspect he's not fooled by the criminal's identity, let alone his psychological profile, he still acts with the potential killer as a simple civil servant concerned by red tape issues.
There's no doubt in my mind that Gabin was born to play Maigret, the actor, in the second part of his career, had the quiet strength of the experienced man, who knows when to speak, when to listen and when to let his authoritarian voice erupt in a few occasions. Gabin was perfect to play characters who didn't need to rise their voice to obtain what they wanted and knew when to use it to finally get the confession, a man in total control of the situation even when it could get out of control. Gabin trusts his competence and knows that his instinct would only half fool him and half the way to the killer goes through the fatal weakness he'll be able to spot. He can tell from an anonymous letter that there's a big ego behind the assassin, one that would bite on the right bait.
Basically, the film is composed of three acts: Maigret sets the trap that fulfills its purpose in extremis, then there's the investigation where Maigret asks questions between Montmartre and Les Rosiers and the film's climax consists of interrogation scenes that are as riveting and absorbing as the classic "Garde à Vue" by Claude Miller: Maigret in his office, Maigret outside and Maigret in the interrogation room. And at that point of the review I must mention that, in her earliest roles, Annie Girardot delivers a great subdued performance as a bourgeois woman bored by her effeminate husband Jean Desailly, equally superb as the Mama's boy who's been so pampered by her mother he developed a strong aversion to the female persuasion. Both actors would be nominated for the BAFTA Awards.
There's a great study of French manhood in that early urban setting of the 50s that might echo the post-war atmosphere film noir. France was a country that was both defeated at the end of the war and yet had its honor saved by the great De Gaulle, a country whose citizens accepted the patronizing and infantilizing tone of Pétain telling them to surrender to Germany for their own good and yet where a handful of fighters decided to maintain the fight. It's one of France's tragic ironies to have invented the world 'Resistance' and be forever associated with 'surrendering'. In that confrontation between Maigret and the suspect, there's the collision of these two sides of French manhood, the old-school and principled citizen and the wimp who accepts defeat and yet doesn't have the guts to assume it. This is why you can't totally disconnect the film from a certain view of France and the way social classes can condition ethical choices, that the killer is highly educated says a lot about a certain defiance toward the upper class man.
There's more in "Maigret" than a formulaic police movie: behind the investigation, there's a study on mores of its time, it's a rather disenchanting and heavy-loaded portrait of a moral decadence and the way men have lost their way, and when the film ends with that sudden rain, we feel as relieved as Maigret who chooses to walk alone on the street as if he felt even the police couldn't triumph over all the filth and evil that eat away the people and maybe a good rain will watch some of it.
The first opus of the "Maigret" saga is a gem of French popular cinema... with an assumed populist undertone.
The boy with the golden-heart, the mother with the steel character...
'Persona' is the Latin word for 'mask', conveying the paradox that what we are hides something about us more than it shows: this couldn't have been truer for anyone but Roy Dennis aka Rocky.
"Mask" is loosely based on the real-life story of a young boy affected by a face deformity coined by a complicated medical term while "I look like a lion" is the way he'd put it. But the film isn't much about the handicap than the way a teenager learns to deal with it at a time where boys his age think of having fun, discovering the world and meeting girls. The film is directed by Peter Bogdanovich and stars Eric Stolz and Cher as the central protagonists in performances so touching and authentic that I was wondering why the film only got a nomination for Best Make-up (that it won). "Mask", if anything, is a heart-warming, moving and absorbing story about a boy and his mother.
Now I don't want to reduce Rocky Dennis to his handicap, but it is only too visible to sugarcoat it or pretend it doesn't exist, and that's what elevates his romance in the summer camp with the only person who could genuinely fall in love with him: a blind girl, played by a young Laura Dern. The romance gives its full meaning to the mother's words "you're the most beautiful person inside". Any mother would say that but from the interactions between Rocky and Helen, we know it's true and also because we know the mother isn't the right-way rubbing type. On that level, Cher doesn't go for the melodrama made-for-TV tearjerkers as Eleonor aka "Rusty" Dennis, she has her personal issues and an addiction with drugs that cause a few tantrums, in fact, she has a life of her own.
Her character-establishing moment is a 'Mama Bear' rant right after the school principal objects to the admission of Rocky Dennis in junior high school suggesting one that would meet his 'special' needs'. In one brief but punchy little monologue, she says she knows her rights, insisting that her son is a good student and she has a good lawyer. But notice that the scene doesn't end here, the point isn't to inspire comments like "yeah, way to go" "take that, principal". The scene goes on with Rocky gently telling him that that he knows he looks weird but it'll be all right, and politely says goodbye. So, we know the stuff Rusty is made of and we realize that Rocky is not your typical rebellious teenager who'd answer to rejection in fatalistic misanthropia. And you can tell the principal sensed that immediately.
And that simple moment sets a pattern that governs most encounters and interactions, people get quickly used to Rocky's looks. Some don't and they get 'rewarded' by Rusty's hangout friends, a group of bike-riding and rock-and-roll loving bikers, among them Gar, played by a charismatic Sam Elliott, the closest to a father figure to Rocky, and to a husband to Rusty. It gives a sweet irony that people who are regarded as hoodlums give Rocky that affection he needs, as it could only come from social outsiders. But the film is beyond the social comment and the leather-and-bike element is just to show the environment where he grew up, far from the suburban comfy lifestyle but certainly the protective shield he needed,
We first see Rusty's friends kicking out one of her lovers after he couldn't hide his shock when he discovered Rocky's face. Later, the biggest biker (who never speaks ... until the emotional outcome) hears some students leaving a few wisecracks on Rocky's back and give them the walk of scare. Later, Gar gives a death glare to a carny who didn't want to give Rocky his ticket for the bumper cars. These moments show that for all the defense mechanisms Rocky built over the years like 'pretending to be an alien, self-derision, making his students laugh, there are people over there who won't miss an opportunity to reduce him to his face, and the worst part is that it doesn't just come from immature bullies but well-educated citizens.
Indeed, one of the saddest moments of the film occurs when Rocky meets Helen's parents and has a direct taste of the rejection his condition immediately inspires, especially from upper people. Later, where he's got one joke too many, he grabs a student by the collar, pushes him on his locker saying "I will take my masks off if you tell yours", even his good nature can't endure more than what it can take. "Mask" doesn't preach a hymn for tolerance but invites us to appreciate people beneath their façade. It's a film that deeply resonated in my mind as a kid because I used to be scared by abnormality, burnt faces, handicaps, I couldn't stand images of suffering and watching "Mask" was quite a challenge.
After the first five minutes I stopped watching Rocky as the face but as the kid who collects baseball cards, listen to rock music, studies well in school and plans a road trip in Europe. But I remember the TV teaser that only showed pictures and his voice in voice-over, I didn't know what the film was about and I think that Ebert and Siskel were right in criticizing the attitudes of the studios that advertised the film without showing the face, making it an object of curiosity à la "Elephant Man", they almost defeated the purpose of the film: to see the mask first only to realize that personality is what matters.
Because that's the power of the story, once you get to know Rocky, his face ceases to get in the way of your personal appreciation, he's just a brilliant, smart, easy-going, good-mannered and sweet kid with one hell of a mother.
Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)
A new thrill running down French cinema...
In his pre-war career, Jean Gabin was the greatest French actor of his generation, the living incarnation of a youthful but not immature ardor, a tough and no-nonsense approach to life, a hardened tenacity à la French, all combined with a "Lady Killer" face. With directors such as Duvivier and Carné, he became the figurehead of the poetic realism genre, perhaps French cinema's finest hour, from 1935 to 1939.
But war broke up and Gabin took part to the war effort along the Allies (the right side). When he was back, his hair became grayer, and he looked much older than his actual age. And then started a long slump in his career where he lost his way in forgettable dramas and tear-jerkers. Meanwhile, audiences were thrilled by Jean Marais and laughing with Fernandel. It took Jacques Becker to finally understand the new appeal of Gabin and by adapting Antoine Simonin's level, started his second career as the aging leader (after the romantic antihero and before the white-haired patriarch). The film was "Touchez pas au Grisbi" (Don't Touch the Loot).
And Max is the perfect alter-ego to Gabin, an world-weary hoodlum who just committed his greatest crime before retirement, stealing eight golden ingots from Orly with his friend and partner Riton (René Dary); That Gabin is still a Ladies' Man, attracting voluptuous burlesque dancers and sexy secretaries, tough enough to distribute a few slaps here and principled enough not to abandon his friend. Still, the film doesn't overplay these traits. Max is blasé about his sex-appeal, not quite obsessed with women, only his job and his friends matter.
The film features a long sequence when we seem him opening a bottle, pouring a good wine to him and Riton, cracking a toast, smearing the pâté as meticulously as if they were cracking a safe. And then we see him putting on his pajamas and brushing his teeth. It's not meant to make him look ordinary but to insist that he doesn't let himself distracted by girls, unlike Riton, his total opposite. Riton blabbed to his girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) about the heist, an information she gave to her new boyfriend Angelo (Lino Ventura), and last time I saw such an epic slap, it was between Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in "The Getaway". Anyway, Riton is the square one, the softie, not even able to see when he's lured into a trap and in a way, there's something of the slipping Gabin in that Riton, his streak of failing melodramas might have killed his career if Becker didn't find him a tailor-made role.
But Becker did more than putting Gabin's career in the right track, he started a new one and not the least. Lino Ventura was a wrestling matches organizer when he was offered the role of the heavy Angelo. He never pictured himself as an actor and turned down the offer first. He hadn't made up his mind when he came to meet Jean Gabin in the set, it took Becker's son to take him to Gabin's dressing room. When the two men met, Gabin said "How are you?" Ventura said "fine" and Gabin concluded with "well, see you later". That was it. That's all it took for Ventura to accept the role that would instantly put him in the bandwagon of male icon, Gabin's straightforward humility was the perfect trigger to Ventura's motivation. He understood that he was dealing with pros and no-nonsense guys, not stars.
Like Gabin, Ventura never faked, he was a natural, and that showed on the screen. The two men were often rival in the movies but good friends in real life, sharing their passion for good restaurants and values such as friendship and family. So before its own making "Touchez pas au Grisbi" was already blessed by the charisma of two actors and the predestination classic. At a time filled with colorful costume dramas and big-budgeted swashbucklers to counter-attack the rise of TV, Becker opted for a minimalist subject but with a great casting. The format of "Grisbi" is linear and simple, the plot is so accessible that it's secondary, the real thrills is to rediscover Gabin inhabiting a new and see him with deal with people who are as smart and professional as he is.
Angelo is actually a perfect foil for Max while the good friend Riton Is so inept Max contemplated the idea of abandoning him. But Gabin could play greedy thugs but not without honor, and no one would have imagined him being something else. Same with Ventura. And "Grisbi" would open the way to noir classics as "Razzia" "Rififi" or Melville's "Bob le Flambeur", featuring stories mostly set at night when honest people are sleeping, movies centering on men with values and guts, and women whose main purpose is to drive the plot and not in the right direction as the catalysts of men's weaknesses. The female ally was often an aging woman herself, but these movies never held youth in high esteem, we didn't see many kids, young criminals were the most gullible and young women not trustworthy.,
These movies reminded me of that Godfather quote "women and children can be careless, but not men" and perhaps in this line lies the big shift between the old school popular cinema of the 50s 60s and the New Wave that featured many movie centering on youth and women: "400 Blows", "Jules and Jim" with Brigitte Bardot as the new sensation. Belmondo and Delon would later co-star with Gabin and Ventura and then portray in solo, cops or gangsters, like the old men, to prove that macho heroes could still surf the New Wave, and over it.
So, behind his minimalist but efficient approach to the crime genre, "Touchez pas au Grisbi" is a triple milestone in French cinema: restoring Jean Gabin's career, starting Lino Ventura's one and bringing a second breath to French noir cinema.
Yedinci Kogustaki Mucize (2019)
The Turkish marvel we didn't see coming in our confined days...
One movie was quite the buzz on these long days of confinement and you know which one I'm talking about. You might not be familiar with a director named Mehmet Ada Öztekin or actor Aras Bulut Iynemli, but you've probably heard of a Turkish movie that moved people to tears and through a viral word-of-mouth, ended up reaching you. It's called "7. Kogustaki Mucize but for a better readability, we'll call it "Miracle in Cell. 7". It's a remake of the South-Korean movie of the same name; but while the original was a comedy-drama, "Miracle" (as we'll call it) is straight drama, sometimes even melodrama but I'm not going to take it as a criticism. Some movies manipulate their audiences, "Miracle" is just good at making you feel sad.
Speaking for myself, I became aware of this movie existence one month ago, from friends and relatives. I heard that the film was extremely emotional, the story was about a mentally-ill father wrongly accused for a murder and whose imprisonment put him away from his beloved daughter. Yes, it's the kind of film that had everything to put even the most hardened or cynical of us into tears, but being confined was tough enough to need another reminder of the cruelty of life. Recently, I asked my students to write reviews about movies that impacted them and three of them wrote about "Miracle" and I couldn't rate them if I didn't see the film. Watching it wasn't just a matter of curiosity but a professional necessity.
And so I watched it and I'd better warn those who didn't: it's a difficult film. Memo is what we would call the "village idiot", he might be mentally challenged but his heart if full of an undying love for his bright and lovely daughter Ova. The mother died when giving her birth. It seems obvious that Memo's grandmother raised Ova while taking care of him. When asked by Ova why his father behaves like that, her answer says it all "he's the same age than you" and that's the point: Memo is a child trapped in the body of a man, he's innocent in the purest meaning of the word, he can't harm, wouldn't harm. And that very handicap put him in situations where he can be perceived as a threat by "normal" people. When he wants to take the Heidi backpack from a girl, it's not against her but for the love of Ova.
On that level, the performance of Iynemil as Memo is incredible but painful to watch, we can always see he's ill but never dangerous except for himself. And it's difficult enough to see a man suffering for something he didn't do but even more difficult to realize that he'll never be able to claim his innocence. Who'd believe him anyway? So Memo is twice a victim, of his handicap and his bad luck. And that's the tragic irony of Memo: his handicap indirectly causes the accident but it's not even taken into consideration when he's accused of a murder. Memo is insane but can't even plead insanity. And as if karma wasn't cruel enough, the girl he "supposedly" killed is the daughter of a commander. This is Turkey in the early 80s, and one can imagine the hell a man accused of killing a child would go through in a Turkish prison (or any prison) but the commander wants Memo executed and orders that no harm should be done against him until his execution.
But the film is less about Memo (who can't do much in his position) than the people around him: Ova, her teacher, the grandmother and the prisoners from cell 7 who become like Memo's new family. And as times goes by, the cellmates start to wonder whether such a man, a father of a child, would really kill a little girl. Meanwhile, Ova is doing her investigation in order to find the only possible witness to the accident, to prove her father's innocence. Many things happen so we never get the impression of watching a quiet drama, there are many surprises and twists hidden beneath that simple plot. There even comes a point where the commander commits an action that shows he would rather have Memo executed than acquitted. It could be for political reasons or maybe he would better accept his daughter's death if someone was punished. As the plot progresses, we see men who only think in terms of crimes and punishments and had better not judge Memo so quickly and criminals who rediscover the humanity they thought had vanished and believe in redemption.
Maybe that's the ultimate message of "Miracle" if there's ever one, we should learn to respect a handicap and we're not good until we can see it, maybe "being good" is about the capability to see the good in everyone, it's called empathy or humanity.That's how Memo was from the start, seeing the good in every person and situation, he could be sad or angry but he would never harm anyone because he could still differentiate between the good and the evil. But the film is also a simply wonderful love story between a father and his daughter and the way their complicity (whose leitmotif was that "Lingo! Lingo!" game) illuminated the hearts of people and inspired their generosity.
Shall I say something about the ending? I'd rather not spoil it because the story has so many depths and secrets that maybe one viewing won't be enough to get the whole picture (especially if we're watching the original version with subtitles). Anyway, after the opening scene, you wouldn't expect a happy ending but I won't tell you if the ending is sad or happy or both, I will just tell you that it's a very satisfying ending and you won't forget this movie once you see it.
Out for Justice (1991)
Gino vs. Richie, they belong to the same world, they don't share the same philosophy...
Can you think of one movie with a totally (and I mean totally) despicable, worthless, rotten to the bone and unredeemable villain? Annie Wilkes? Burke from "Aliens"? You're not there yet. Imagine a bad guy who's so twisted, psychopathic, unpredictable, violent, hateful, ugly that there's not a single spot of likability or colorfulness left; in fact, someone who's not even so-evil or so-bad he's good. There is a movie with such a bad guy, his name is Richie Madano, he's played by the so-underrated William Forsythe, the film is "Out for Justice", it's directed by John Flynn, it stars Steven Seagal (as Gino, the cop) and it's extremely brutal.
To call Richie a thug or a bully would be like calling Amon Goeth a delinquent. Physically, the man's got the look of a dandy who's been puffed up to resemble a walrus, inside, he's a product of the underworld of the underground with a bunch of goons sticking around him like hyenas behind Scar, maybe because leaving him would be like signing your own death warrant. Indeed, he's so high on cocaine or any drugs that he lost every common sense even by criminal standards and keeping a low profile isn't exactly his strongest suit as shown by his character-establishing moment, two actually.
First, he executes in cold blood a cop in broad daylight in front of his wife and kids, spits on his corpse and after that that kills an innocent woman who had the misfortune to be blocked by his car, wrong place at the wrong moment. And for some reason, the second murder shocked me even more: as gruesome as the former was, it had a "reason" if you can call it so, something of a rage that grew inside Richie and lead him to the trigger, but when that woman started beeping and he gave her that look from his car, I knew I had to deal with another type of villain, the unpredictable type, the kind of guy who makes you look at your shoes when you cross his eyes in a train. He doesn't need a reason to kill, only a circumstance, he shoots first and spits on the consequences.
And the merit of such a villain is to free the film from any kind of twist that could get in the way between him and the hero. There's no plot actually, only two characters, the film is basically Richie making an enemy out of Gino, Gino looking for Richie and Gino killing Richie, but what is essential to appreciate the film is the way the two men are totally opposite and yet connected one to another, displaying the same hardened determination to pursue a goal that goes beyond rationality. In fact, Richie's a dead man already and he knows it, only he wishes to die in a blaze of glory, venting out all his anger toward his enemies and those who have the misfortune to have one word too many or to cross his path, he's got nothing to lose and that makes him even more dangerous.
Gino who grew up in the same neighborhood, followed a totally different path and decided to be a cop. Why? Because he knows a man like him would do a great disservice to the community if he didn't use his strength or his skills to protect the little creatures. There's a little subplot with a puppy he found on the street and we see Gino taking care of him. Richie might have flattened him first and reversed the car with a manic laugh. Richie and Gino. These two men represent a collision of morality against savagery: strength against brutality, chaos and order. When Rickie kills a man, it's ugly and detestable, when Gino neutralizes one, it's neat, clean and deserved. Both are equally lethal and both belong to a world where violence has its codes.
Interestingly, if Richie rejects the rules of the mob (he kills a cop in front and his kids) and might even be a threat for his parents and sister (Gina Gershon), Gino also despises the mob, tells what he thinks to the local boss, comforts Richie's parents and his methods aren't all procedural. Gino has his rules too, and in a way Richie is the perfect archenemy. And yet the climactic fight consists on a gruesome one-sided massacre in the most ordinary and anticlimactic place: a kitchen. And there's something grotesque in the way Richie tries to turn common culinary objects into weapons, thinking he stands a chance against Gino who respond to every attack with enough blows to beat Richie's face into pulp. The climax is the right culmination of the cat-and-mouse chase that prevailed: it takes place in a private place, making the beating not just personal but almost intimate. When Gino tells Richie he should have kept his gun, Richie says he likes pain which sounds like an odd invitation when taken out of context.
It's the collision between two guys who belong to the same world but don't share the same philosophy, the beast and the superhuman, the savage and the noble. Through a simple action flick formula mostly set at night, "Out for Justice" illustrates the striking contrast between these two universes, showing people who are totally helpless in that rotten world and in need of invincible heroes like Steven Seagal. Seagal is never as good as when the villains are bad, they were fun in "Under Siege" but extremely disturbing in "Out for Justice" maybe because it shows one thing: heroes today must have the skills of their enemies to overpower them and yet remain deeply good inside. That's Gino, a man who can plug a corkscrew on a face and save a little puppy.
"Out for Justice" is a solid B-movie but with philosophical undertones that reminded me of Cronenberg's "History of Violence".
Under Siege (1992)
On the menu: mercenaries, hostages, torpedoes, missiles... and the Chef's surprise!
If I could single out one moment that makes Andrew Davis' "Under Siege" such an underrated classic, I'd take Gary Busey dressed in drag, removing his wig and asking Tommy Lee Jones "do I look like someone who needs psychological evaluation?", which line finds a priceless echo in Jones' reaction: his eyes hiding behind shady sunglasses, after three seconds of a magistral poker face, he delivers a totally deadpan "not at all". This is the film's villainous duo and since a movie is as good as the bad guy, that's telling how delightful the film is. That it inspired an enthusiastic review from Roger Ebert (who enjoyed it more than "Die Hard") and made Gene Siskel's Top 10 movies of the year should tell you that this is not your average action flick.
It's time to mention Steven Seagal. The film belongs to the early 90s when he hadn't sunk into B-territory yet but the bad guys are so good that the film didn't even need a good hero, which is the ideal situation for Steven Seagal. In 41 minutes of screen-time, he gives one of his best shots as Casey Ryback, the ship's cook (but former Navy SEAL) who saves the day. After Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, there have always been remaining sloths for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal but these actors, especially Seagal, never got the credit they deserved. Watching "Under Siege", I felt the urge to rewatch "Out for Justice" and now, I believe the Seagal of the 90s deserves more respect.
He might not have something as iconic as Arnie's accent, or Sly's slurred speech, or the Average Joe appeal of Willis, but there's something about Seagal. It might be his Aikido skills that are as instantly identifiable as Van Damme's swift moves and splits, it might be his high stature, his pony tail, his seeming invincibility or all these factors put together. Seagal looks like the guy you simply can't beat so it's never a matter of outfighting him but on him never reaching you, once he comes, it's over. The trick isn't how hard it'll be to beat him but how ingenuously he'll beat the hell out of every one who dares to fight. With the inventiveness of a McGyver, he can turn every banal object into a deadly weapon (a rope, a poll ball in an apron or a credit card) and without a scratch. Bruce Willis was McClane, Seagal is the Mr. Clean of action films.
Of course a review of "Under Siege" had a few references to "Die Hard" coming, the film was literally taglined "Die Hard on a battleship" and it's a good summary as far as advertizing goes, but the great thing about director Andrew Davis is that he never totally sets the story apart from the 'die hard' format and yet never makes it obvious that he was duplicating a model. It's not any battleship but the USS Missouri, the one that avenged Pearl Harbor, the hostages are military and the villains mercenaries and the 'pebble in the shoe" isn't an average guy, definitely not the standard of hero created by McClane, Ryback has all the makings of a one-man army, making hims closer to Arnie's Matrix, so much that his sidekick, former playmate Jordan Tate (played by Erika Eleniak) said it best "the safest place in this boat is three feet behind you". And that a former Playmate ends up in the celebration set in one of the most iconic battleships of America is one of these delightful oddities that make the film.
So "Under Siege" borrows from many serious thrillers such as "The Hunt for Red October", with an attention to every detail that reveals Davis' professionalism, but dares to shows a commander dressed as a woman or mercenaries passing as a rock band or waiters. This is a script with a capability to be enjoyable even during the life and death situations, avoiding the nightmarish feel of "Die Hard 2" for instance. You never trivialize what happens but you never forget that you're being entertained. To give you an idea, it's not about whatever Jones and his crew want to do with their torpedoes, but the way they deal with the big shots in the war room, the way Jones handle his contractors and chews the scenery enough to make you doubt about his sanity. Obviously he has fun playing the bad guy and that's the perfect angle, "Under Siege" respects the codes of action movies but it has a sharp delightful edge that makes it more than a version of "Die Hard", much more.
So I liked many things, I loved the bad guys, I loved Jones, he was so good that he paired with Davis again in 1993 with "The Fugitive" and won the Oscar for his performance. I also loved the way Eleniak started from being the laod to a worthwhile adjuvant. I liked that just when I thought the film was venturing in the same territory than "Die Hard" when the officials doubted Ryback's intentions, he proved them wrong and the Admiral believed every word he said. I loved that moment where in the middle of a gunfight, Jordan asked if they wanted to leave a message. And I loved when Busey (once again) decided to drown his own crew trapped in the forecastle saying "they never liked me anyway", that line was good enough but it had to be followed by a hilarious "I bet they love you know".
And I could tell Jones' cracking up was genuine.
There's something about "Emmanuelle"...and Emmanuelle...
Recently, I found a new interest in a kind of movies I thought was locked in the most obscure basements of my memories, belonging to a time where Internet didn't reign, nor pornography, but that's saying the same. Those were erotic movies, they didn't show much but what they hid was enough to arouse our beginning masculine senses, the female body was a total mystery for most of us and these movies handled it with the delicacy of a precious and thoughtful gift that had to preserve some of its mystery.
And I learned to be part of that show-a-little-and-enjoy-a-lot little game and appreciate the silly magic of these mindless stories set in ridiculously grandiose places, where love scenes were choreographed in slow motion under the smooth sound of a saxophone, allowing butlers or maids to break their routine through a session of window shopping. The love scenes could take place on the canopy of some Henry VIII room, in the vicinity of a vast swimming pool or under a chestnut tree not too far from the vineyard, the setting counted.
When the same thing happened over and over, the softcore film had to delight the eyes on another level than eroticism, if you don't admire nature of furniture at some point, something is missing. And it's not that "Emmanuelle" is a great erotic film because it set all these patterns but it's a classic because its French 'new look' treated a minor genre as if it was a major one.And "Emmanuelle" has everything: the candid heroin with an unexplainable thirst for sexual discovery, boredom and ennui making sex the only possible palliative, the exotic luxuriant setting adding to the luxurious places and a sweet little tone that poetically captures the spirit of the heroine if you have the chance to understand French.
There's something about the way the film looks, the way it sounds and the way director Just Jaeckin elevate it as close to a character study as an erotic film can get and whether its take on eroticism should make us laugh or cringe or think, it does, there comes a point where you cease to look at it as "just an erotic film". And it has to do with the the magnetic and enigmatic performance of Sylvia Kristel (who sadly left us in 2012), Emmanuelle is a young woman married to a French diplomat based in Bangkok. The husband is an enthusiast of free love and allows Emmanuelle to have other encounters. Despite her free-pass, Emmanuelle never cheated on him and yet when she's on the plane taking her to her man, she serves herself on a silver platter to two passengers.
Interestingly, the plane scene is put as a flashback after we saw her making love with her husband. This is a woman who knows about love but handles sex as a mystery, when she teases these two travelers, is she testing her sex-appeal or is she too much aware of it? That she literally donates her body to the first newcomer makes tempting to classify as an easy woman but in reality, she's too conscious of the complexity of sexual attraction, she enjoys the tension implied by the desire rather than the ephemeral pleasure and the stream of emptiness that comes after. Desire should be more than a quest for pleasure.
And that might explain the choice of the director to shoot the marital sex scene under the veil of a mosquito net directing our attention to the interplay between the two Thai servants and culminating with certainly the film's first shock. That moment gets us prepared, announcing the kind of dirty stuff contained in that vast spectrum of sexual games, and our hypocrisy toward them. Since there's an inner transgressive quality in sex, how does that combine itself with good behavior? And can eroticism be a philosophy of the body that set itself apart from ethics or another philosophy, hedonism to name it? Maybe there's more than pleasure in that erotic initiation.
And baking under the sun and melancholy, Emmanuelle wanders from one place to another, being verbally hazed by bourgeois housewives bragging about their sexual exploits, expecting to find a mentor. Her curiosity is raised by the youngest one who enjoys teasing older men with a lollipop then she has a sensual relationship with her squash partner, the blasé Ariane. Her initiation goes on with Bee, a beautiful blonde, who unlike the others, has a job: she's an archaeologist, and maybe because she's got a life of her own, she doesn't beat around the bush and after an idyllic episode, lets Emmanuelle go. She doesn't love her but like her enough not to hurt her. The "Bee" sequence proves the bias of the director, he doesn't show them having sex because he cares for passionate sex and believes that this passion had to be driven by transgression.
And this is where Alain Cuny's character makes his entrance as the pygmalion. At that point, I won't spoil the rest of the film, I will only say that the final act of "Emmanuelle" marks the climax of the heroine's coming of age and seals the film's legacy. She learns (the hard way) the layers of eroticism according to her mentor and some are petty shocking. However, no matter how far it goes, we had to time to relate to Emmanuelle and to accept that she would go that far for the sake of discovery, one that goes beyond the judgmental barriers because of its transgressive nature. It is a character study after all, but where love itself and sex are treated as characters.
And "Emmanuelle" treats its material with dazzling imagery, beautifying our ugliest impulses, and making a real landmark of the erotic film, one that spanned many sequels and that made this one the most successful film of 1974. It's beautiful to look at this film, sometimes disturbing, but it always finds a way to be fascinating.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Technically good but Carpenter's "heart" wasn't in it...
"After a freak accident, a yuppie turns invisible and runs from a treacherous CIA official, while trying to cope with his new life."
The yuppie is Nick Holloway, played by Chevy Chase. Now, this is the plot summary you can find IMDb, and I'm asking you: if you had to pick one part, which one do you think is the most interesting? The new life of course.
There haven't been many movies about invisible people and yet it's been one of men's biggest fantaisies. Personally, I have always been fascinated by stories of invisibility and my first encounter with that kind was from a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. I was mesmerized by the atmosphere and the way the cartoon remained consistent and logical in its treatment of invisibility. I enjoyed the sight of the truffles being eaten by an invisible Jerry, vanishing in two or three "crunches" and I especially loved how Tom could finally spot Jerry by watching his shadow. And then a few years later when I studied the basic laws of optic, I realized it didn't made sense: if you're invisible, your body shouldn't prevent light from going trhough it, so any invisible man shouldn't have a shadow. And if Jerry was invisible, we should have seen the chewed truffle in his body.
Yes I sound like a geek obsessed with technicality, but that's the merit of sci-fi: it starts with a ludicrous premise but it plays with it straight, and what "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" does marvelously is to confront these "technical" aspects of invisibility. When I first saw it, I immediately thought of Tom and Jerry and I realized everything made sense in that film: yes, we should see the food going through Nick's stomach, or inhaled cigarettes smokes filling his lungs. It's for moments of brilliance like these that I wished Carpenter could have gone further with the 'invisibility' material. Take another scene where Nickis listening to a private conversation involving him and his reaction proves that saying true: whoever could listen to what is said in his back would feel totally miserable and worthless in the face of the Earth.
I loved the way invisibility could be in that movie more than a plot device but the mark of a true existential dilemma. Unfortunately, the premise is lost in a plot involving a CIA bad guy, played by Sam Neill and trying to get a hold on the most precious human weapon they could have. I don't think even in 1992, the man being chased down by government officials was fresh material and it's a pity that a film that had so much to offer in terms of "heart" and special effects had to surrender to the kind of stuff we've seen in other movies. Granted it makes sense that bad CIA guys would look for a man who had just turned invisible but the problem with such a plot is that we have to go through the same scenes we've seen over and over: foot chases, disguised threats, kidnappings, interrogations.
Carpenter doesn't handle these moments badly but it's obviously not his zone of comfort and we can feel it. Besides, the parts where we see Nick questioning the meaning of his existence are so well done that I wish the film would have extended its premise to that aspect instead or at least leave enough room to install the love story. On that level, there's something about Daryl Hannah and unusual romances ("Splash", "Roxanne" and this one), maybe because Hannah carries the beauty and aura of a totally inaccessible blonde beauty but something in her eyes, in her shyness, reveals a more profund vulnerability and a wish to end up with a decent guy instead of some jock who'd treat her like a brainless bimbo. I liked her a lot in the film but she appears way too late, the romance didn't have time to be properly built up and it's a shame because the chemistry between Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah is palpable.
And in the scene where she puts on some make up and we finally see his face without the teeth and the eyeballs, the imagery has both an eerie and hypnotic feel. Obviously, it was meant as a gratifying moment like the reunion in "Ghost" and I felt satisfied but the emotion came mostly from finally seeing Nick being seen, but not necessarily by the woman he loved. Maybe that scene would have worked better if Chase was really invisible (it's not like he was Patrick Swayze's Ghost) but I understand it served a purpose to show him, for the plot and of course for the gags. I also understand there had to be a third part filling for the villainous role, but movies like "The incredible Shrinking Man" proved that there was enough trouble with some conditions not to give us more.
I guess it's a problem of angle taken by Carpenter, he makes a Sci-fi movie and a romance à la "Starman" and turns it into something à la "Enemy of State" or these thrillers where the hero must get that floppy disc to prove he wasn't the KGB spy... and the problem is that it doesn't leave much comedy, making you wonder why Chevy Chase was cast in the first place. He was actually good in the film, but Hannah played the 'straight love interest' with so many funny guys, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Dudley Moore that "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" should have invested a little more on the comedy too. Anything but the CIA plot.
And now that I think about it, shouldn't an invisible man be incapable to see since light doesn't go through his eyeballs? The film actually followed the same logic than "Tom and Jerry" by ignoring the transparency. I guess the real tragedy of the story if that if we were invisible, we'd be blind, that's a technicality we'd rather close our eyes on.
It's not much that "Incontrolable" is a bad film, but it's a film begging us to laugh for a premise it carelessly cheats with.
Not to make a whole lecture on the intellectual processes of a comedy but "Incontrolable" misses an important rule: laughs don't depend much on funny actions but rather the reactions they cause. Remember the classic French comedy "The Visitors", the gags worked because everyone behaved normally, the sequel failed because characters became caricatures. Now, in "The 11 Commandments" (starring Michaël and his gang of immature friends) the pranks weren't all funny but the delight was to carefully observe reactions from normal people. When they started throwing ketchup at each other in a supermarket I didn't care but when the guards ran after them and slipped on the floor, it was basic and primitive but I laughed.
The point of comedy is to start with an absurd premise and extend its logic to the limit of hilarity, as long as the chain of events remains logical. When "Incontrolable" begins, we have a film that seems inhabited by normal people, George Pal is a wannabe writer whose constant rejections pushed him into a depressive and socially vegetative state. His girlfriend (Helene de Fougerolles) left him, his diet consists of kebab and junk food, fitting the lifestyle of the fallen celibate and misunderstood artist whose only chance is to linger on a dream of celebrity. It's all clichés but Youn plays his character as if he belonged to a drama and it's the right tone. I felt sorry for him, especially since I had my share of dreams crushed on the rocky ground of reality.
It takes a little time before fantasy makes its intrusion in George's life and when it does, I had so much time to relate to George that I almost wished the story had went for another direction, the result couldn't have been worse anyway. So George is suddenly possessed by a "voice". It belongs to the late Med Hondo who's for French audiences forever associated to Eddie Murphy and Shrek's donkey. The voice controls George's body, forcing him to accomplish the worst possible stuff against his will: it goes from folding his legs to throwing mustard on his buddy and it goes on and on. At that point, the film could have followed many interesting directions: maybe the voice could have pushed George to do things he didn't use to, to awaken his inner persona, to raise his voice... but it all falls apart after thirty minutes when you realize the premise is just an excuse to see Youn acting crazy.
It was fresh and original in "La Beuze" ("The Dope") because the film was a subtle parody of stoner comedies, it made sense in "The 11 Commandments" because the film was a French "Jackass" but here is Youn's first attempt at playing solo in a movie and it's a massive flop because of a lazy script full of cheap gags. The principal problem is that the film wraps its main character in a situation that itself should be a source of gags but then it goes the easy way by populating the film with characters so eccentric and caricatural they cancel out Youn's own weirdness. I wanted to believe that the film was going somewhere but when the vertically-challenged policeman popped in, I lost it. And when George kicked him as if he was Kyle with his brother Ike, I knew my time was being wasted and yet I wanted to see how far in the bad taste it would go.
I wasn't disappointed. Seriously, how desperate is a movie that indulges its script to kicking short people to generate a few laughs? The tone was not only bad but mean-spirited and even that could have been okay if the characters behaved reasonably and logically. In one scene, George lifts a woman's skirt, she screams, the next shot, she's in the same hotel lodge behaving as if nothing happened. How about a jealous husband? How about just a simple slap? In what world can a man do that and get away with it for the sake of laughs? I'm not polarizing my judgment on details because these are not details, the whole movie stops to rely on George's situation and becomes a pot of messiness where everything is thrown for the sake of a gag. The culmination is a funeral ceremony with African people and all of sudden, George starts singing a Gospel song and the crowd joins him in the rhythm, priest included. Is that a parody? The script didn't bother to come with an inspired speech before the song.
I guess it's useless to get on the whole story, the visit to the straight and stuck-up family lead by a conservative father (Thierry Lhermitte) had almost restored my hopes, I could even accept the crazy grandma but then the swimmig pool part reminded me that the film wasn't here to make any sense, it's as if the writer was possessed by a voice that whispered to him the kind of stuff a young audience would want. At one point, it went so downhill I was wondering if there wasn't a meta-referential statement about the decline of screenwriting, George wants to write a masterpiece but they only accept mediocre scripts with names on it. But that's what to mean? That Youn is a name and he can get away with the worst? If that was the intended move, I applauded the guts, but I'm not sure this is a movie Youn would proudly show in his resume.
The Upside (2017)
The story didn't change, but our times did...
When IMDb came out with the news about Amazon remaking the French box-office hit and universally acclaimed "Untouchables", the response it immediately elicited was "what for?". Now that the film's done, the answer still carries the same tone of puzzlement.
Now I'm not the kind to cringe over the idea of Americanizing a French film, many remakes proved to be, if not successful, interesting retakes on pre-known stories with new outlines or insights. But then again, "Untouchables" was so recent, so big, and so popular (being the most successful French film in worldwide box-office) that I couldn't think of a single reason that could justify the remake, but maybe the interest lies precisely in its status as a remake and the fact that it stars two talents such as Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart (with Nicole Kidman as the third-billed name). Speaking for myself, it was good enough a reason to grab my interest.
But from the start the film was doomed, its production was delayed due to the Weinstein scandal (the film was produced by Miramax at the time it ceased to be an Awards-magnet) and it took two years to be finally released. It was an honorable box-office success but met with mostly negative critics. To be quite honest, I don't find any aspect to criticize nor that I have any reason to praise the film, the two actors inhabit their characters with confidence and humility and their chemistry comes out as believable and never overplayed. Cranston delivers a fine performance as Phlip LaCasse from New York's upper class and Kevin Hart, while not having the towering charisma or the catchy smile of Omar Sy, has a presence of his own as the man from the Bronx. Neither of the two actors go for easy pathos of laugh, like their French counterparts.
Script-wise, the story is a carbon-copy of the original, minus some elements: Philip is the same widower, victim of a paragliding accident but has no daughter. However, Dell is divorced and has a son whose constant frowning insists a bit too much that he wasn't exactly a Chris Gardner. Dell's flirting with one of Phillip's caretakers doesn't end with the 'obvious' twist (as if there hadn't to be a reason not to succumb to his charm, unlike for Sy) while the other romantic subplot involving the epistolary relationship ends in a negative note unlike the original. Apart from that, we've got the obsession with the Opera, the painting, the dancing and the shaving sequence though the reference to Chaplin seemed to imply the change of mentalities from 2011 to 2019.
The "Chaplin" moustache isn't just a detail, I wanted to blame the film for sugarcoating the gag but then I realized that maybe times have changed from 2011 to 2019, and the contextualization isn't a detail either. Indeed, it's rather interesting to see that the critics the film met didn't accuse the performances but elements such as the predictability of the plot: how could Opera soothe a street-smart thug? (well, didn't a simple exchange about basketball in the laundry room changed Ed Norton in "American History X"?), the critics also pinpointed the use of clichés regarding the depiction of minorities but I was wondering whether these faults were also brought up against the original. In all fairness, the late Roger Ebert did and I could get his point though I disagreed.
In fact, I think the film is an easy scapegoat, and its biggest fault wasn't much to be a remake but to allow a material that got away with many handicaps thanks to its status as a foreign production to be immediately put under the firing squad of political correctness. What was tolerable a few years earlier became in the post-"Moonlight" days pure manipulative melodrama. In an ironic way, "Untouchables" did carry its own title and was immune to critics while "The Upside" down could be flipped all over the place. It goes even further as the film was criticized for not starring a real handicapped person, a criticism the original escaped from. And while I can understand the reaction, is the blame to be put on Cranston?
Right now, I'm puzzled because I did enjoy the film to the degree that it kept reminding me of the original while still being a new experience, and I believe the two lead actors did justice to their roles. So, I'm tempted to say that the film reveals the real hypocrisy of our times and the way what was still acceptable in the early 2010s became taboo, and the way American cinema can be more criticized for the kind of stuff most foreign productions get away with . At least Ebert had the guts to go against the stream with the first "Untouchables" but it seems like critics are choosing the wrong target because "The Upside" is such a copy of the first that any critic directed at it is a critic against the original. And I'm not exactly dismissing the 'handicap' argument because that might have allowed the film to open a new breach but the film was so doomed from the start that critics might have call it hypocritical or publicity stunt.
It's sad because on its own, it's a solid drama served with good performances, nothing changed much in the story, but our times have changed, and political correctness doesn't make them better. So, in a way, the remake does belong to another era and reveals the upside of our own mentalities. So I guess the film served a purpose after all.
La beuze (2003)
Not a bad trip at all...
"La Beuze" is a French production emulating "The Blues Brothers", Cheech-and-Chong comedies, "Scarface", "Wayne's World" and 70s Blaxploitation flicks. On this cult referential level, the film aims so high (no pun intended) that even its shortcomings manage to bring a fair dose of laughter, revealing a consistent plot (while not a first prize of originality). It's a credit to Michael Youn and his sidekick Vincent Desagnat not to have gone for what could have easily been a vehicle for their TV antics but instead a story that went somewhere... even if it wasn't that special.
I used up a whole paragraph about Youn's debuts on TV in my review of "The 11 Commandments" so I'll get right to the point with "La Beuze", the film directed by Desagnat's father and written by a team whose merit isn't to feature Youn. This is not a comment on his talent (he's a fairly good comedic actor and he sure has an instinct for jokes) but it's interesting that the directing and writing were left to professionals. Many comedians taking their skills for granted decide to cover every artistic department, which generally ends with disastrous results, not necessarily box office flops but movies all flash and no substance forgotten as soon as they're seen.
To give you an example: there's a film from the same year titled "Who Shot Pamela Rose?" and written by comedic duo Kad and Olivier. They proved to be hilarious for the parody format à la SNL, but I said about their film: "nothing tries to elevate it above its TV skit format, it's an unambitious project that tried to capitalize on two comedians' popularity instead of their talent, which they have." "La Beuze" doesn't fall into that trap and deserves to be commended for that, it even succeeds by making a parody of every common trope of the stoner comedy (and the references are numerous) but not by relying the entire script on it.
Take the cop played by Lionel Abelanski who's obviously a nod to Dirty Harry. The film gratifies us with as many scenes as it takes to relate to him, even a flashback. Now that flashback explaining his personal record with drugs might not work for everyone, but highlight a certain effort from writers to bring elements of three-dimensionality outside the leading pair. The catch is that the more subtle and interesting some characters are, the more underdeveloped others look: Zoe Felix plays the trophy girl whose purpose is to look sexy and taunt our heroes but the script wastes the opportunity of a twist about her. Former rapper Kool Shen makes a brief and memorable cameo.
Anyway, "La Beuze" is mostly about Alphonse Brown and his buddy Scotch Bitman, names that have been designed to be easily remembered. Brown is back from jail after covering one of his dim-witted friend's mistakes and we learn that he believes he's the son of James Brown and like Tony Montana, he's got hands made for gold. It doesn't matter whether the kinship is true but the film starts almost immediately with its hit song whose refrain is "his name is Alphone Brown". The song that establishes the birth of a new style of music, named "Frunkmp" '(a mix of Rap and Funk) became a top-charter in 2003. It's downright silly and stupid but the clip adds a small air of credibility in Youn's attempt to pass as a singer; at the very least he's an entertainer.
So this Brown is quite an interesting character and Youn knows it enough not to play it in an over-the-top way, and when he tries too hard with girls or fails to impress the local drug lords, I didn't feel sorry for him as much as I was reminded me of these lyrics from "Pretty Fly" - written right for a character like Alphonse- "He may not have a clue and he may not have style, but everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial". And that's Brown and seeing him transitioning from that lunatic to a guy with the ambition of Tony Montana except is oddly delightful.
So what we get with "La Beuze" is two buddies who've discovered the best 'beuze' in the world (needless to say what this word means) and try to find the most lucrative demand. Alphonse even obeys the golden rule of not getting high on his own supply (lollipops will help) but he eventually underestimates the greed of the enemy and ends up chased by the police, the descendant of the Nazi officer who made up that very 'beuze' by way of a secret weapon against the Allies, a West Indies drug lord, and an All-Black rugby player who keep popping up when the film needs its fantasy or musical interlude.
It's a crazy plot and that the film doesn't end with a reference to "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and a Mexican stand-off à la "True Romance" is rather admirable, just when you think it's going the easy way, it finds the one that surprises you. And that's because, unlike his character, Youn who does have a clue (of the audience he's targeting) and he sure has style while not trying to pass a new comic genius. The film takes itself not too seriously but seriously enough to satisfy the fans and appease the skeptics. And it doesn't promote any illegal consumption, the closest thing to a promotion is the wannabe hit clips from the beginning and the ending.
And the craziest thing about the film is that they never feel out of context, they reminded me of the product placement scene in "Wayne's World", efficient and consistent with the plot, to the point it can be deemed as a French "Wayne's World". Anyway, the film works because it aims so high (no pun intended) that it never totally fails...
Natural Born Killers (1994)
I have no doubt about Stone's intent but sometimes, the film's too showy for its own good...
"Natural Born Killers" provides the kind of intellectual challenge no critic, amateur or pro, can refuse. It has so much to tell, so much to show and (oh yeah) so much to comment on that it's almost impossible to cover every ground without missing a few spots. So any attempt to condensate a reaction into a 1000-word review, either to praise it or to tear it into pieces, will be partial and unsatisfying, which is already a credit to Oliver Stone's thought-provoking script. I honestly don't know how much of Tarantino's original draft survived the adaptation but since he disowned the story, it's only "fair" to treat Stone as the sole author.
And yet even Stone complained that the released version was butchered and the parts that landed on the cutting room floor could have enhanced his personal statement against media frenzy. So while I'm aware that one missing minute can deconstruct the meaning, I'll still base my review on the shown rather than the intended; starting with the obvious: the film is about Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallaury Knox (Juliette Lewis), a couple of killers. They love each other fiercely, madly, insanely with the same level of demonic passion inhabiting them during their killing spree across America's Midwest.
But they're no Bonnie and Clyde and certainly no modern Robin Hoods. They kill and they enjoy killing, it's almost an artistic endeavor with their "works" carrying the same signature: killing first and leaving one witness to tell the cops, then the media, then the people. They have no redeemable value whatsoever but they have "style" and their screen chemistry is so palpable that it seems to catch the eye of the camera. Or are the lenses so enamored with them they make them look so stylish... or cool? To any scholar protesting against Hollywood glorification of violence, a film like "Natural Born Killers" is the perfect target.
How dare Stone edit gruesome and merciless killings as if they were to MTV clips! What a nerve intercutting them with images borrowed from random images: excerpts from ads, from Stone's scripted films like "Midnight Express" or "Scarface", animal documentaries, World War II footage or sometimes the same image shot in every possible format (black and white, amateur, seen from TV, 8 or 16mm and so forth) even the vertiginous editing of "JFK" feels boringly linear in comparison with "Natural Born Killers".
Aesthetically, the film is so visually extravagant that it feels like Stone felt intoxicated with the whole madness surrounding him, recalling three key characters who know one thing or two about maniacs: Tom Sizemore as the man who arrest them, Tommy Lee Jones the man who keeps them behind bars and Robert Downey Jr. who's dedicated a whole TV show to them. Apparently, you can't deal with maniacs without embracing their insanity but unlike cops and wardens, journalists are agents of transmission, they have more responsibility and their handling of criminals contribute to our desensitization, trivialization or our "sensationalization" of the worst, for the sake of entertainment.
It was a French TV Channel CEO who said: "our mission is to provide Coca Cola enough brain availability". In the middle of a shocking interview, Stone gratifies us with the Christmas polar bear ad that illustrates the statement, reminding us of the way images of death and hunger are sometimes mixed with indecent calls for consumerism. The power of TV is to be an attention-seeker, a meaning-giver and a fascination-builder, camera provides -if not a meaning- an access to posterity, the Knoxs know it just as Manson, Whitman the perpetrators of high-school or mass shootings knew. In his diatribe against media, Stone doesn't go for nuance and strikes very hard, galvanized by the very power of imagery he condemns. The catch is that his attempt to question the 'natural' aspect of violence isn't as strong and insightful as the cultural one.
Mickey Knox believes that within the demon that inhabits us, there's a call for murder, like for the wolf or the rattlesnake. In the end, it's debatable whether civilization is the poison that endorses violence (totalitarian regimes are examples) or the antidote. After all, the rattlesnake is used by an old Native to explain the nature of deadly animals but it's also the symbol of the medical world. Nature, like the media according to Stone, seems like the easy scapegoat for the Knox couple, they never take full responsibility for their actions, they're just true to the purest and deepest expression of human form and that's where I feel the film sins a little.
To put it simply, the film's showy when it accuses the media, too subtle when it comes to accuse the Knoxs. It's indeed convenient that Mickey invokes the laws of nature when he insisted on having a wedding ceremony, a staple of human civilization. Take also one of the most applauded scenes in the film: the sitcom parody where Rodney Dangerfield steals the show as the abusive father who sowed the first seeds of violence through his behavior. Didn't Mickey deliver meat with clothes all covered with beef blood. How evocative of Mother Nature are meat factories?
The sitcom part is here to highlight the way media are literally brainwashing the audience and sugarcoating the material but the blood in Mickey's is also indicative of his own hypocrisy. But that's a detail easily overlooked in a film where the whole media-driven civilization is being accused. And that's the problem with the film: there's always. a fine line of what the film shows and what it tells. Stone shows the way society becomes a catalyst for violence, the media helping, the problem is that all his editing and stylish directing ironically uses the same tricks than TV, and creating such a maze of a film that the responsibility of Knoxs and the fallacious nature of their so-called obedience to the laws of Nature, is easily missed.
School Ties (1992)
In a normal world, David Greene would be the perfect guy...
In a normal world, a young athlete like David Greene (Brendan Fraser) would have no problems reaching the top of any school popularity pyramid. First, he's an outstanding quaterback, enough to be handed an almost free-ticket to Harvard. Secondly, his blue-collar background taught him respect and humility, virtues he applies to his own social interactions. And not to make things worse, he's handsome enough to catch girls' eyes and educated enough to please their mothers. Quoting a man impressed by David's talent: "a strong arm and a sense of humor, not a bad combination".
In a normal world, David Greene's future would be a sure-win on every level. Only this isn't a normal world, we're in America in the late 50s, in Saint-Mathews, a prestigious preparatory school where students are generally identified by pedigrees rather than names, being the fourth or fifth generations of prestigious families. They're rich, spoiled, living incarnations of the elite social reproduction and WASP mentalities, they might have accepted David coming from a town named Cranston in Pennsylvania but not that he's Jewish. These kids carry in their cultural heritage so many prejudices that David's forced to lie about his identity, covered by the headmaster (Robert Donat), and for a little -peaceful- while, he enjoys what his life should've been like in a normal world.
So for almost half the film, David is not just totally accepted by his friends but he's immediately reached the height of popularity, stealing in the process the so-cherished quaterback position from Charlie Dillon and his girlfriend. Dillon (Matt Damon) embodies the existential dilemma of the kid who's a 'pure product' of his family, who must follow the steps of his big brother, whose life must pass the 'Harvard' case and in a way, lives a situation that's not enviable: if he succeeds, it's not much his merit than his connections but failure's not an option. Dillon knows he's not in total control of his life and can't determine whether he's got friends because they genuinely like him or because it's the smart move career-wise. Inevitably Dillon envies David because he knows the guys like him for what he is, and if it wasn't for the reveal about his origins, Dillon might have swallowed his pride and let the Alpha guy steal his thunder, his position and his girl. But then there would be no movie. What's interesting though is that the "big reveal", while being about David, isn't ON him. As Dillon says "the joke's on us".
Indeed the merit of Robert Mandel's "School Ties" is not to make us feel sorry for David but for his schoolmates. Some harbor the worst kind of anti-semitic behaviour, some are just unconsciously uttering the same crap they heard in their own circles, some are just having their scapegoats to nourish their sense of belonging and some are too shaken by David's normality to ever consider contradicting their beliefs. It's interesting that the "friends" cover a wide spectrum of reactions culminating with the nazi sign incident and starting maybe with the roommate, played by Chris O'Donnell (he was in another prep school movie that year "Scent of a Woman") who blames David from hiding his religion. Naturally David asks him why he didn't tell him either, but the argument doesn't hold up since he's a Methodist, answering his own question by implying that David's origin is the issue.
"School Ties" is a thought-provoking film, raising many interrogations about America's upper classes in the same way that Elia Kazan's "Gentleman's Agreement" did with Peck pretending to be a Jew (changing his name 'Greene' to Greenberg) and realizing the extent of post-war Antisemitism, rather ironic that the same America fought Nazism while holding the same ugly prejudices. It also shows the twisted application of meritocracy where doors are opened to you on the basis on your talent while mentalities are very much closed. David's handed Harvard on a silver plate and accept to cope with the possibility of antisemitism in the same way that he's being instrumentalized for his football skills, David's dealt like a trade and it takes the whole journey in the stinky WASP underworld to embrace it with dignity. David sees how the system works and plays by the rules.
The performance of Fraser is crucial because he doesn't overplay the heroic side and the script doesn't make him a sort of martyr: he can be as vulnerable and immature as his friends. What elevates him though above the others is the consistency of his character, he's the moral pillar, whatever opinion he's got on someone is based on facts and not on prejudices. After everyone rejects him, he's willing to believe his sweetheart still love him, giving her the benefit of doubt. In a way, the climax involving the cheating incident only puts the others in the same ethical choice: when it comes down to decide who cheated between Dillon and David, will they base their choice on facts or on their own biases? But by the time the test happens, the film had already succeeded to unveil the ugly side of these pertisgious schools, something I could relate to being in the top business school in France and I could see that there was an inclination for people to bond according to their origins or connections and that was the early 2000s.
The film doesn't try to preach a hymn for tolerance because there's no need to, we know who's the good guy and the bad guys are those struggling to overcome their prejudices, some do it and redeem themselves and some will always be pricks. The final exchange between Damon and Fraser perfectly ties the story and I could remember it almost 25 years after watching "School Ties" for the first time, as long as the "Cowards!" moment... it's very telling that I remembered these two scenes more than any other, because they feature the two words that best sum up bigotry.
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
I laughed a lot ... I face-palmed a lot more...
At least the title is honest. "Dumb and Dumber" says what it says about the film, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) are grown-ups with the brains of sixth graders and are so incomparably stupid that there's no need to scratch your head to determine who's supposed to be dumber. Still, I'm partial to Harry being the lesser one because unlike Carrey, Daniels adds a subtle level of likability while Carrey is channelling the obnoxiousness of his Ace Ventura and the troll-attitude of the Mask. However, that Harry seems the most sensitive doesn't say much, he didn't invent hot water either.
What the title also indicates is that there's no need to look for a plot, just plug yourself in the mind of an immature teenager and let the magic of stupid laughs operate. It takes time until we're embarked in that cross-country road trip to Aspen, and their stupidity gets more tolerable. So we get the usual halts in shabby motels, gas stations, altercations with blasé waitresses and hunky truck drivers, a stolen briefcase that reveals its secret at the right moment, later, we have a trip in one of Aspen's finest hotel, a dead owl, and one of the delights of the film is the way the bad guys (especially Mike Starr as Mental) believe they must be pros because no one can be that dumb.
What the Farrelly brothers do is take very familiar material and use it as a clothesline to hang on it the dumbest stuff they could find. It's not much a plot than a pot where every improvisation is thrown into, an excuse for the lamest possible gag, reminding you of that kid who went as far as asking the prettiest girl in class to pull his finger and make his buddies laugh (even if it meant losing any possible chance with girls). It takes some guts to be that dumb and an extra level to base an entire movie premise on two irremediably stupid characters but that was a risk the brothers (in their film debut) were willing to take.
Maybe it was a safe calculation after all, if you've got the best comedian of his generation who already proved to be bankable, how about letting him going in total control and see where it goes and if 60% of the gags must work, then throw as many gags as you can. They say quality matters more than quantity but not when you have that quantity : Harry and his mountain sheperd clad dog, Lloyd playing a lousy casanova as a limo driver, urinations on beer bottles, pranks involving mustard on burgers, fart jokes, toilet jokes, Bruce Lee imitations and so forth.
There are so also many moments of gratuitous and unbearable noises that I felt like Mental being trapped between Harry and Lloyd, and started wondering who was the bad guy. These moments, as funny as they were, made me genuinely appreciate the quieter parts where they seemed to pull themselves together and stop acting like prankish children. But these moments never lasted long and I think it's fair to say that there's not one minute going in the film without at least three gags and three stupid things done, and at the very least, you get a grimace from Carrey's rubber-made face.
But then again, Harry and Lloyd reach such heights of manic stupidity that I started to appreciate Jeff Daniels a little more not because I prefer him, but because Carrey is such an induspated talent who had nothing to prove after his "Mask" and "Ace Ventura" that it's a remarkable achievement to steal his thunder. Some of the funniest moments involve Daniels and I don't think he got the credit he deserves. And that might be the reason he tried to bring some sensitivity to the plot, as if it was the only way to compete with Carrey, being stupid in a touching way. And let's face it, the film is designed as a platform to let the machine Carrey go in total free style mode with as much imprvosation as he can afford but being touching wasn't his strongest suit, not yet, wait for "Liar, Liar" and "The Truman Show", for that.
Indeed, it was still 1994 and Carrey's acting needed more polishing or better scripts. The problem with the 'stupid' angle is that it's so overplayed that I found myself facepalming more than laughing, chuckling more than laughing and some bits are so hilarious that other appear as totally uninspired. I wasn't too sure that Lauren Holly needed her skirt to be lifted by Jim Carrey. I'm not sure that the second appearance of Sea Bass was the Karmic comeback we expected. I'm not sure the urination gag had the best outcome. And I think the ending with the top models left me cringing more than laughing. The film relied too much on Carrey being carried away and Daniels following him that it didn't suspect that a little less could have been a little more, that a few reliefs were needed and that some of the best gags didn't involve any of the dumb and the dumber one.
Ebert said he almost got hospitalized with the dead bird gag, I felt the same with the phone booth 'falcon' punch.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
A great courtroom comedy movie, in fact a great courtroom movie period
Two students are accused of murdering a store clerk in a small Alabama town. Being stereotypical New Yorkers, they react with all the worst clichés about the South, fearing some lynching driven by an ancestral hatred against Yankees, making them even more stereotypical. One of them (Ralph Macchio) calls his Brooklyn lawyer cousin Vincent Gambini aka Vinny for help. Vinny (Joe Pesci) comes to the rescue along with his sexy and beautiful fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei).
So we get the flashy city slickers dealing with the humbler but no less peculiar mentalities of a small Southern town. There's more, Vinny's also a small-time lawyer who passed the bar exam in extremis after a sixth attempt and kept chasing ambulances after. Vinny must make his bones and learn from scratch in a case where his cousin's life is at stakes, the judge doesn't seem to like him, so the pressure is big... and as patient and helpful as Lisa tries to be, she doesn't help when she kindly reminds him that she's also submitted to pressures of her own (on a biological level).
A new viewer might get the feeling that the botched investigation and the trial are just excuses to generate stereotype-ridden laughs based on the fish-out-the-water element. But as you let the film grow on you, you realize it's actually the other way round.
I actually believe the comedy is the starting point of a rigorous and insightful exploration of the subtleties of the legal system in general and Alabama in particular. It might be an open-and-shut case for an experienced lawyer but then there would be no movie; no, it's crucial to have a lawyer who still has to learn the ropes so we learn with him. When Mona Lisa tells him that he's got nothing to brag about getting files from the prosecutor since it's the latter's job, there would be a vice of form otherwise. It's funny but at least that won't be forgotten, not by Vinny, not by us. And that's one example.
"My Cousin Vinny" shows how to deal with an expert witness, how to make a cross examination, how to create a reasonable doubt, how to psychologically handle witnesses and experts, but you know that comes rather late in the film and I guess watching the first part fills the first-time viewer with an urge to see Vinny taking off his amateur clothes and Mona Lisa Vito eventually shine and outshine everyone. But before, we've got to come through the two kids indirectly confessing their crime, thinking they've been caught for a non-paid tuna can, we get a series of running gags involving Vinny's impossibility to get a good nightsleep, his procedural interplays with Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) who takes his job so seriously he holds him in contempt because he can't even say "guilty" or "not guilty" and many other subplots.
So what we get in the first part is pure comedy routine. Yes, it's funny but in a predictable way. But director Jonathan Lynn who had a law degree insisted that the film would be the most accurate in its depiction of trial strategy, with its share of attacks and counter-attacks. He knows what he's doing and prepares us for a big finale. So we laugh with Joe Pesci being his usual loud and annoyingly raucous guy, Gwynne the 'straight man' whose facial reactions make for one good third of the laughs and we even get the lousy yet hilarious gag of a stuttering lawyer, (which still serves to make a point: never ask a witness a question if you're not prepared for the answer). By the time we get to the climax, the film at least reassures us that it didn't care much for stereotypes, they're downplayed to nihil, Vinny stops being a clown and accomplishes his job fairly decently, with growing confidence, using his street smarts and proving that he has the makings of a great lawyer. Pesci is truly given one of his best roles for three reasons: he's the lead for once, he's as loud and foul-mouthed as his usual roles, but he's smart and he's a good guy who wants to do his job. And yet, that's not even the film's secret weapon, in a nutshell, it's a bombshell.
Anyone who didn't see the film knows it earned Marisa Tomei an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and "supporting" is the word considering her man. But the way she saves the day at the end through her car expertise (pointed out early enough so it doesn't come down as a Deus Ex Machina) is brilliant, intelligent, insightful, funny and even romantic (Pesci and Tomei had quite a chemistry). And it's beautiful acting from Marisa Tomei whose reaction shots were already gold during the trial but look at her after she answers the trick question leaving the prosecutor, as deflated as a tire, the look she gives the judge was enough for the Oscar.
The film was the third of 25 legal films voted the best by the American Bar Association, which says a lot about its accuracy. According to experts, it not only shows what they teach you in school but what they don't, which is where Vinny is the best, being wise, charming, funny but sharp and cutting when it comes to counterattack feeble testimonies, using mathematical precision and pure logic to turn eyewitnesses' own arguments against them, and teach the jury not to judge on appearances.
And if there's anything to learn from that movie is not to judge on appearances. Indeed, behind seemingly hostile Southerners, there are decents folks doing their jobs and eager to cooperate, behind a loudmouthed crook-like New Yorker, there can be a great lawyer, behind a sexy gal dressed like Fran Fine, there's a car expert. And maybe behind a great courtoom comedy, there is one of the best films about... cars.
Les 11 commandements (2004)
Yes, it's the "French Jackass" but so what?
Naturally, Michaël Youn didn't invent the concept, that belonged to the "Jackass" series but those were the "Big Brother" and reality TV days and in a time where every successful idea was duplicated in every country in the world, no one should cast a stone at Youn and his team for lack of originality. And Youn didn't wait for "Jackass" to be exported in France to become a troublemaking icon, a TV cuckoo to wake up all the early birds from 2000 to 2002. Long before the Youtube days, Youn was the host of a TV show called "Morning Live", a show where no holds were barred and where he and his friends and sidekicks Vincent Desagnat and Benjamin Morgaine did basically anything for the sake of laughs, from the cheapest gags to the most elaborate.
What's left from this show besides that it launched his career is a daily stunt with a megaphone, using various places such as a lavatory, a car shop and even his girlfriend's bedroom to deliver a loud "Morning Live, from 7 to 9, the show that awakens your neighbors!" he made a spectacular entrance in France by delivering on a breakfast plate a bit of silliness, much needed in these post September 11 days. There was a guy back then named Remi Gaillard who was as good if not better (as in more sophisticated) as Youn but Gaillard didn't have Youtube to back him up, not yet. Youn could still count on TV and earned enough notoriety and money to a successful film in 2003 called "La Beuze".
Cancelling his idea of a sequel because of the political context, he figured he could use a budget to adapt the Jackass concept and there came "The 11 Commandments", a film so old that the now blacklisted and controversial Dieudonné stars there as the God of Prank. The film is simple: playing their real selves, Youn, Desagnat, Morgaine and a few newcomers must accomplish tasks à la Hercule and the film follows an episodic storyline punctuated with more or less inspired interludes. One of them includes a race with the guys disguised as phallic organs, Desagnat being the tallest one has naturally the black-colored one, the rest includes random quickies, sketches and song parodies.
Random is the word, the film's merit is that within the chaotic assemblage, there are moments that confine to genius and some that fall flat, maybe that's the essence of Youn's humor, he takes risk, and even when you don't laugh, there's still room for admiration. I wasn't sure I laughed at the bit where foot and tennis balls were thrown at them (cameos from Djibril Cissé and Amelie Mauresmo), I'm not sure I laughed at the way they turned a whole house into a living swimming pool or the part in the supermarket where they started playing with floor and ketchup though the sight of security officer slipping made me laugh hard. So I guess it's not much the stunt that works than its punchline, it's fun to see the serious man slipping because he didn't want to and he's the guy making his job.
It's the banana peel principle I guess. There's another moment where a simple pizza delivery brings dozens of people to the house, turning an extra menu into a whole improvised party inside some guy's room, I didn't laugh a bit, not until everyone left the house and the fat deliveryman stayed and asked the customer if he needed any hot sauce, that was pure genius and made the part all worth it. For a film that makes a comment about the way to make people laugh (the God parts are quite inspired), it's only justice that I get analytical. So, the result is uneven for one restaurant task where they turn until losing their balance to throw food all over the place (not funny), another one consists of playing " Cotton Eye Joe" in a library (funny), for a moment where they put on blue pills to show their endowments in a beach (funny), you have the pepper moment (not so funny). The arrest contest is braver than funny but it provides an interesting insight on the stuff that challenges the cops' patience and what doesn't.
But my favorite moment is still the one where they all sing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in front of a Lyon audience (the pun is obvious) and saying they come from Saint-Etienne (which would be like saying you're a Barcelonan band in Bernabeu), that moment isn't hilarious but it's smart and well-thought, and makes the experience worthwhile. Of course, the whole film is a joke but I admire the way even they lost control, leading to that strange escalation during the endings credits sequence as if the project went beyond their heads. "The 11 Commandments" is like nothing else in French cinema, it's juvenile, childish, prankish, crass but there's smartness lying underneath and signs that maybe Youn does "Jackass" but secretly admire "Monty Python" (the animation is clearly an ode to Terry Gilliam's style).
Now, if you easily cringe at the sight of people going for troubles with the cops, indulging to distasteful pranks, wasting food, this movie might not be for you, and you might spend most of the time filled with unease and disgust. But then again, if you're that kind of person, the film might offer you a new and twisted area of perception, here is a bunch of crazy grown-ups with the maturity of high-school teenagers doing the kind of stuff you'd never dare to even think about it... and isn't it the essence of movies to show you stuff you wouldn't see anywhere else? Or wouldn't do?
Biloxi Blues (1988)
"Once you start compromising your thoughts, you're a candidate for mediocrity"
A long time ago, before I became that self-proclaimed movie lover whose favorite actors were Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and put "The Godfather" on the highest pedestal of the cinematic Pantheon... there were names I was familiar with because they used to appear in movies I could watch as a kid: Eddie Murphy, Dudley Moore, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and among them was Matthew Broderick. In the span of four months, I had seen "The Freshman", "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", "Project X" and "Biloxi Blues" so the cute actor with a boyish look was a familiar face.
And I remember my young self, between 10 and 11, watching alone that "Biloxi Blues" film, I remember the "Ho" scene made me burst out laughing, the way Sergent Toomey kept picking on Eugene and Epstein, in fact, the whole lighthearted atmosphere of the film, I enjoyed every bit of it. And a few months later, I would watch "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and I noticed that it was also about a kid named Eugene Morris Jerome, I suspected it wasn't a coincidence and that was enough to stick to my memory.
I saw the film almost a decade later and again in my student days, where many of us were too far from their families and so we spent weekends together in the deserted campus. I was the guy who showed movies and I remember the smile the film drew in my friends' faces. They enjoyed it for the same reasons: nothing much happened but what happened was fun, memorable and enjoyable.
And so in these depressing confinement days, I saw it again and after that, I felt the urge to read Roger Ebert's review, boy, was he disappointed! And was I disappointed by his disappointment!
The late critic blamed the film for being your basic trainings movie with the obligatory archetypes: the big bully, his follower, the nerdy guy and the intellectual who happens to be the narrator (both of the same religious obedience), the nice guy, the dirty conversations and arguments in the dorm, the loony drill sergeant (though he admitted Walken played him in a more low-key manner), the loss of virginity episode, the little romance and so forth. He complained that the film kept on lingering on some conviction the film didn't need further action on the basis that it was based on Neil Simon's memoirs, and that even the most intense scene (the climax) was ruined by its outcome.
Reading this review, I was tempted to change my initial feelings, to reconsider my thoughts. I was young when I first saw it, I hadn't seen many classics when I showed it to my buddies, maybe I was letting the nostalgic value clouding my opinion. And so I thought of giving a 6 or 7 to Mike Nichols' adaptation, conceding that nothing much happens, that the bullies are only good at being upset at Eugene's involuntary shenigans, that Eugene is so close to the viewers that he looks like a stranger in that platoon, that the comedy kind of undermines the credibility of the film. And maybe that there's something that looks too stagey or phony in it.
But then I remembered that quote from Arnold Epstein, who's quite a fascinating character once you get to know him, I can quote it by heart because it stuck to me ever since the second viewing: "once you start compromising your thoughts, you're a candidate for mediocrity". And that's about it.
I can't change my mind because I still enjoy the film, I love its funny moments and it does have funny moments. As Tooney, Walken is a geyser of one-liners such as the "Cucaracha" bit and the "you'll need three promotions to be an....". Recently I read a few reviews of Ferrara's movies and I said that Walken had that genuine aura where you never knew whether you should smile back at him and shake his hands or just run away, and here in "Biloxi Blues", he plays his usual creepy self but in total line with the comedic requirements of the role. A Golden Globe worthy performance. Yes, he's that good.
Broderick kind of plays his usual bewildered kid as in "The Freshman" though in a more cynical way, he's a young New Yorker a little puzzled by the on-goings beside him and whose passiveness fits his status as the man who sees and writes, as if he foreshadowed his destiny as a behind-the-scene man. So all naturally, his thunder is stolen by all the other privates, on the top of them Corey Parker as Epstein (it's interesting that he's the one at the top in the train, though for biological malfunctions).
This is not a great film but good enough and with a fine balance of serious and comedic moments and a few gentle interactions with Penelop Ann Miller, her chemistry with Broderick isn't too forced and it just occurred to me that they were together again in "The Freshman" (there's even Jeffrey "Ed Rooney" Jones in the film).
So I stick to my guns and reinforce my love for "Biloxi Blues", certainly less ambitious than "Saving Private Ryan" but an interesting way to show us that the Greatest Generation were made of people as silly and vulnerable and obsessed by sex than us, which is subtly pinpointed in the final monologue where Eugene says he cherishes these moments because they were all young and that's all that mattered.
Maybe I cherish the film for the same reason, there's something about it that takes me back to a time where we could enjoy a film that didn't have to rely on too much vulgarity or crazy twists to entertain.
I'm puzzled that Ebert didn't like it and that he wasn't moved one second by the last voice-over narration. Well, I don't know. Maybe he was in a bad day. Or maybe he was right. But a candidate for mediocrity, I won't be!
China Girl (1987)
Big Love Trouble in Little Italy and Chinatown...
It's a story told so many times it belongs to our cultural DNA, the heartbreaking tale of star-crossed lovers, featuring more or less the same archetypes: tribal rivalries, protective siblings, forbidden rendezvous, declarations of undying love and ultimately a tragic ending... it's a story told in bloody letters and that found its deepest resonance in the deaths of Juliet and her Romeo. But it wasn't the first romance of its kind as men always knew the meaning and value of love, and of hatred (as both go along anyway).
The story never gets old because it's about enduring values for every culture and civilization: love and family, both seal the idea that our hearts can't evolve in autopilot mode, we either belong to our inner circle or the person we love, never to ourselves and this might be the source of some antagonism. Out of love, one is willing to free himself from the clan to belong to the outsider, contradicting the traditional vision of love as a tool to perpetuate the tradition, to ensure transmission, a mean to a non-end. One who is alone is always weaker.
And it's not surprising that Abel Ferrara, of all the directors, used the "Romeo and Juliet" or "West Side Story" canvas to make his "China Girl", he does care for the romance and handles it with sweet sensitivity but to better insist on the clan systems that make it impossible and doomed. The love story is between a young Italian-American played by Richard Panebianco (he was 16 during the film) and Tye, a beautiful Chinese girl played by Sari Chang. The romance works but even more as the subplot of something a little more in line with Ferrara's universe, a gang war between kids from Little Italy and Chinatown, a fight for territory, enhancing the necessity of sticking together, making the lone wolf the weakest link, and codifying love under the rule of "blood".
"China Girl" isn't a remake of the Jets vs. the Sharks antagonism despite the similarities (even the hero's name is Tony), but a violent commentary on urban youth and its natural inclination for violence driven by pride, the more you love your own, the less you care for the other and sometimes, the stronger you despise him. The film opens with a misleading scene showing a Cantonese restaurant being built under the sorry eyes of an Italian neighborhood. In the pizzeria right from the other side, James Russo (he's Tony's brother and has connections with the local mob boss played by Robert Miano), we see the war coming between two cultures. But the film toys with archetypes to better subvert them, revealing depths that are a credit to Ferrara's intelligence.
Indeed, the real antagonism isn't intercultural but intergenerational, while the young ones try to make ends meet by spreading their influence or forcing local shops to pay tributes in exchange of protection, their elders try to maintain peace. We see in a crucial face-off between the local Mafioso and the Chinese "Godfather" (played by James Hong) that the young punks only bring disturbance, interfering with their own interests. In a way, the young generation is lead to its own, paradoxically acting against their elders' values while duplicating them. It's ironic that Tye's brother (Russell Wong) wants to protect her from seeing an Italian while his uncle is treating with one.
These quiet drama moments show that this is not your usual urban warfare though the racist undertones are much real, the catalyst is a cultural self-preservative instinct that predominates in the hearts of young people and make them act violently and desperately. That's the real tragedy: that violence might be targeting the other but is somewhat directed toward yourself.
Ferrara has often been labeled as a poor man's Scorsese and it's tempting to spot the similarities between his urban landscape and exploration of tribal violence with films like "Mean Streets" (the film even features the obligatory Virgin Mary procession in that iconic street) but Ferrara injects his own iconoclast perception. His film doesn't really condemn violence (without endorsing it) as much as it highlights its deep roots in social units. In his "Funeral" film, brothers were all united in the imminence of their downfall, in "Bad Lieutenant" a cop was contaminated by the moral corruption he faced every day. And even "Body Snatchers" showed that the trouble can come from within and that perhaps there's no possible deliverance as long as we "belong" to a group.
It's a vicious circle where violence isn't exactly an evil but an inevitable path to cross, maybe a rite of passage making you either a bad person or a victim, no other way around. The real paradox is that for all their diverging traits, kids dress the same, are equally violent or brotherly, they dance to the same pop music, go to the same night clubs. There's something also very conformist in youth and perhaps that's why the film indulges to so many 80s clichés. With the atmosphere of an 80s clip, the film has the films conveys the vibes of that era making it a decade-defining film but there's more than style that dictates Ferrara's touch. The director doesn't make his film a hymn against racism because both Tony and Tye don't see the differences, they have the same age, the same aspirations and they met at the same night-club and enjoyed the same music.
The tragedy isn't that their love causes trouble because they belong to different communities but because there aren't many differences to begin with. That's the illusion of youth, it pretends to rebel against an order while forming an even more violent one, it's all about peer pressure and love impulses, in the name of differences and tacit laws that are futile and ultimately dangerous. Ferrara does turns a classic romantic material into a real hymn for anarchy... one that would make Marco Polo roll over his grave.
Life is so fragile, that's what makes it so precious... something we're becoming more aware of in 2020...
I think the possibility of being totally absorbed by the plot of "Outbreak" depends on two factors: a/ how strongly you respond to the menace of a rapidly-spreading airborne virus and b/ how the director injects suspense and excitement in an anxiety-driven subject. At the end, either the director avoids clichés and entertains the viewer or the viewer ignores the clichés and is entertained.
Well, let's set it straight: "Outbreak" isn't devoid of clichés, it has the full package of chases, investigations, dramatic countdowns and ethical conflicts a decent 90s thriller could offer, but they're treated in such an adult and mature way that I was willing to ignore them. Not to mention the full cast that includes so many A-listers as Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Donald Sutherland with honorable mention to Kevin Spacey who delivers his unsung performance the same year he played John Doe and Verbal Kint (and if that movie doesn't scream mid-90s, I don't know what it does). Let's get back to the "absorption" factor.
I'm guilty of the "a" factor. I was an AIDS kid, like many children and pre-teens of the early 90s, I was flooded with disturbing images and school-warnings against the propagation of AIDS and I still remember sleepless nights where I feared catching the virus from a mosquito or an infected toothbrush. That's how impacted I was; and now that we're living a worldwide pandemic with Covid-19 and that I've been confined for ten long days, I was tempted to give a second look to Wolfgang Petersen's "Outbreak". And as you can imagine, the movie worked for me and I suspect the film takes an eerier (almost prophetic) value in that scary Coronavirus outbreak.
Wolfgang Petersen directed the haunting and suffocating "Das Boot" and also the underrated thriller "In the Line of Fire". You can see his ability to bring tension and claustrophobia in several moments dealing with the first encounters with the 'Motoba' virus that turns a small town in California into a "dead zone", but the similitude with "Fire" is even more striking. Indeed, we follow the evolution of the virus and the deadly journey of its multiplying germs from one cough to a face and in the same time we see specialists in charge of finding the host and looking for a remedy with their sole clue being the 'patient zero", Patrick Dempsey as the poor schmuck who smuggled an African monkey into the wrong wildlife, exposing America to a virus thought so deadly it wouldn't have time to spread.
And then we're taken to a two-line road filling our hearts with anticipation for the moment where both converge. The difference is that the enemy isn't a lone "soldier", actually a serial killer invisible and carried by hundreds of innocents while heroes look for clues armed with microscopes and diagrams. There's no actual villain in the film if we except Donald Sutherland as the bureaucratic and no-nonsense Army representative who'd rather have the city wiped out. The film even starts with a chilling sequence set in 1967 where an entire village infected with the virus, carrying many dying American soldiers call for an external help and get as a reward a bomb whose effect is to vaporize the whole area killing soldiers, civilians, sane and infected people, doctors and the virus in the process.
The General played by Sutherland wouldn't take a chance but the film is about a man willing to take it: Hoffman as Colonel (and virus expert) Daniels. His ex-wife played by Rene Russo works in the same field so it's predictable that the disease will get them closer but the film never falls in the melodramatic trap, and when familiar characters get infected, we feel the gravitas and we don't see it as a plot device. Actually Petersen finds an interesting way to make some anonymous characters memorable so that when we realize their fate, we get the human tragedy. It's only manipulative to the degree that you would accuse a TV report about Coronavirus but would you?
I guess the film mirrors its own magnificent scene when a House Representative, remarkably played by J.T. Walsh, warns his staff about the necessity to stand behind the President but treat the victims as human beings, not statistics. It's an effective storytelling device that gives a poignant resonance to the most banal interactions, such as lovers' kiss, a handshake, a medical malfunction or a gaffe. To see that these benign things can lead anyone to a body bag tells you how fragile life is, which makes it so precious. At these times where we're all affected directly or indirectly by the coronavirus, the opening quote that says "the greatest menace to mankind is the virus" doesn't elicit a response as movie viewers but as concerned people.
And what "Outbreak" does is combining the dramatic implications of the virus with an action-packed and investigation-driven movie with as much realism as he could use in "In the Line of Fire". Of course, it's very doubtful that the eradication of a similar virus would take so little time, it's a strike of luck that no one in the plane who carried the first carrier didn't get infected (otherwise, there would be no film) and the helicopter chases seem far-fetched... but so what? When you get so many skilled actors in one film, when the film gratifies us with superb interactions between conflicted people, especially Morgan Freeman who brings great nuance as the man whose heart is in disagreement with his duties, why should we care for contrivances?
"Outbreak" is a thrill-riot from beginning to end, that resonates even more deeply now that the world faces a major epidemic and I couldn't finish without dedicating this review to all the members of the Medical profession, ordinary heroes who dedicate their lives for the others, at the risk of their own.
Young (Machine) Guns...
"Mobsters" takes me back to these early days when my opinion on movies didn't depend on an authority: all that mattered was the enjoyment, the fun I had watching the film alone, with friends or family and in 90% of the cases, my father.
These days there was no IMDb and no Internet, classics and average flicks were watched with the same impartiality. I think my father and I had enjoyed "Young Guns" with the same enthusiasm as a Sergio Leone's classic and I'm not too guilty to declare that we enjoyed "Mobsters" as if it was "Goodfellas". Yes, it sounds silly with some perspective but that was a time when a viewer's mindset wasn't dictated by factors such as critics, ratings or reputation, we let a film grow on us or not.
I mentioned "Young Guns" because in many aspects, "Mobsters" resembles this film, it's an exaltation of youth and friendship based on real-life events with memorable shootings and disturbing outbursts of violence. And I think I enjoyed the film for two of these three aspects, I liked the bond between the protagonists, I loved to know that the four would end up being the most emblematic gangsters after Capone, I loved that the film built my knowledge of an era I always was fascinated with. In my review of "Bugsy", I said: "Bugsy Siegel appeared in two 1991 mob movies, "Bugsy" and "Mobsters", I'm glad I discovered the "lesser" one first, it plugged in my memory names such as Arnold Rothstein, Benjamin Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky and made my experience of the better film much easier."
Again with some perspective and maturity, I can spot the weaknesses in the film and understand the factors that didn't make it the classic it intended to be (if it ever did), but just because a "Once Upon a Time in America" it ain't (it might not even be in the same league as "The Untouchables") the film has a lot to offer, if only a take on four iconic gangsters at the prime of their physical strength, with an interesting performance from Patrick Dempsey as Meyer Lansky, the man who understood from the start the merit of keeping it low-key and in the shadow. I could believe that that Dempsey would grow up to be the Ben Kingsley's counterpart in "Bugsy", and I appreciate a subtle touch in the poster: he's the only one not to carry a gun. And if Christian Slater isn't exactly transcending as Lucky Luciano, he's not as bad as his Razzie-nomination suggests and his interaction with Dempsey and the clash of their two gangster policies is often fascinating.
These are the men who believed that a new order was to be established, that the time of old Dons channelling Julius Caesar or Il Duce or Commedia Dell' Arte was over and that they had to seal a friendship between Jews and Italians and I guess Irish mob too, the kind of order that prevailed in "The Godfather" before the Turk showed up. "Mobsters", with a sort of delightful obscenity, depicts the two representatives of the old order as despicably as it gets. Michael Gambon is Faranzano, the histrionic bigot who thinks of himself as an Emperor and plays the Don with grandiloquent self-importance while Masseria is a sort of Fanucci with the appetite of a boar. And if Gambon plays it with laughable solemnity, it's fun to see Quinn chewing the scenery as frenetically as a mouthful of carbonara penne. It's really a contest of which "big bad guy" will make himself more detestable and it kind of derails the film from its apparatus of seriousness.
Of course then every attempt to take the film seriously vanishes with Mad Dog Coll (Nicholas Sadler) who's so brutal and sadistic that he makes us forget all the strategic intelligence displayed by Luciano and Lanski. The plot is tricky enough with its set of false alliances, true betrayals and chess-game maneuvers and then we have this little punk causing even more mayhem, showing off, throwing knives, cutting tongues and biting noses as if he belonged to a horror film. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film but because of the two Dons and that Mad Dog, I did with a guilty pleasure.
Indeed, it's sometimes frustrating that a film could fail to deliver as a gangster epic drama and yet have so many palettes of emotions to show, such a great costume and art design, some interesting scenes such as the introduction of Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), the way the four heroes pick their leader, the scenes between Dempsey and Slater, the ending and even the romance with Lara Flynn Boyle. Maybe the plot was too complicated for its own good or downright savage in its displays of violence but there came a point where it could get as caricatural as "Harlem Nights", a film that I actually enjoyed, except that it meant to be over-the-top.
So "Mobsters" could be a hidden or underrated gem of the 90s but so many iconic gangster movies were made back then that it was lost under the Scorsesian and Tarantinian shadow. Speaking of these guys, I looked at the director's page: Michael Karbelnikoff, and discovered he only made 3 films and he started as a commercial director. And it's true the film has the feel of a commercial, it's all flash and its attempt to add some substance is ruined by too many hammy performances. You could tell Quinn had fun playing the old Don, Gambon too, and don't get me started on Sadler. The irony of "Mobsters" is that it got one thing right:; the heroes casting and they didn't have much occasions to show how good they were. Talk of a wasted opportunity!
Wacky Horror Picture Show...
A wacky Tim Burton at a time when his muse Johnny Depp was still the thug-arresting hearthrob of "21 Jump Street", a sweet Geena Davis, a boyish Alec Baldwin and practical Gremlins-like special effects... well, if "Beetlejuice" doesn't scream 80s, I don't know what it does. This is a little gem of horror mixed with comedy that might delight every member of the family though I suspect kids who've grown up after the 2000s might find the film a bit too silly and childish... a complain they'd share with eminent critics of that era such as Ebert and Siskel. Both deplored that the titular character brought too much obnoxiousness to an already loaded story and they got rapidly tired of his antics, but didn't they think the same of "Ace Ventura"?
I think "Beetlejuice" is a film that might disorient the first-time viewer because of its constant swinging between fantasy and horror and naughty comedy, but I suspect this is the kind of experience that grows on you if you give it a chance. Michael Keaton as "Beetlejuice" might be a tad too prankish and annoying but thankfully he only appears midway through the film and meanwhile, the main characters had already won our hearts. I agree that the relationship between Baldwin and Davis brings a certain sweetness to the film sometimes at the expenses of the plot. I couldn't really accept that such lovely persons would indulge to scare the new occupants on their residence just because of some disturbance... especially since they aren't played by the least likable actors either.
Jeffrey Jones aka Emperor Joseph aka Ferris' archenemy Rooney is a serene father who wants to contemplate birds and enjoy his nest of serenity, Catherine O'Hara, aka Kevin's mom is the lady of the house eccentric sculptor who won't have any intruders disrupt her oasis of artistic creativity and finally, Winona Ryder is the emo malcontent adolescent who grows an interest on the former residents, if not a liking.
In fact, if we except the nasty decorator Otho, the character who comes the closest to an antagonist is Beetlejuice himself, though his main purpose is to get the house rid of the family by operating let's say an exorcism from the other side. The premise is interesting but the film is filled with so many enchanting special effects and funny scenes that a new character popping up near the end wasn't a necessity. As hard as it is to imagine the film without Beetlejuice, it's funny that the film's most memorable moments don't feature him. But I won't get too nitpicky, Keaton is obviously playing a career-defining role and I suspect if it wasn't for his performance, he might not have caught the attention of Burton for his next project (a clue: it's another special effect movie with a one-word title starting with "B").
Keaton is certainly as wacky and crazy as his cartoon adaptation but his performance is too straight-forward and doesn't call for subtlety, a pity for a film that contains so many inspiring moments such as the afterlife bureaucracy and the memorable case-worker played by a chain-smoking and scene-stealing Sylvia Sidney.
At the peak of its creativity, "Beetlejuice" is a fantastic and spectacular fantasy entertainment filled with hilarious moments: a great twist at the end of the opening credits, a hilarious choregraphy with the "Banana-Boat Song" and a funny waiting room sequence involving a silly-looking creature with a shrunk head. The film won an Oscar for Best Make-up but oddly enough, it didn't garner any Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedic Actor to Keaton. I must admit his performance never really bothered me except for one moment that carried a lot of gravitas (when the couple's ghosts started to age and their bodies turning into skeletons), the scene hit a really sensitive chord and it did so well that I really wanted someone to get rid of Beetlejuice instead of the humans. For that scene in particular I would agree with Ebert's criticism.
But with some perspective, "Beetlejuice" is a fun product of its time, with a right balance of humor (mostly visual), heart and special effects, and these aspects work so much that the cynicism brought by the titular character might feel like the real intrusion. There are moments where the house looks overcrowded and the humor overdone but "Beetlejuice" is still one of these little classics of the 80s, and time did justice to the little films of that glorious and extravagant decade.