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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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This approach doesn't diminish the value of these movies and often pays off as the film is not only praised for its inner qualities but also for the way the director took everyone by surprise by making a film that looks like nothing he's done before... or almost.
Which of these directors' "straight" movies is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Speaking of "speaking", these are 35 cinematic still frames, all making eloquent statements and eliciting strong emotional reactions. Which image evokes the strongest response for you?
Indeed, a "phrase catcher" is someone whose sole presence is enough to inspire the same (or almost the same) verbal reaction among a various group of people. It works quite the same as a catchphrase except that the character doesn't say it but has it said about him... or her... or them.
Which of these movie/TV phrase catchers is the most memorable?
After voting you might discuss the list here
To be included, the 'catchphrase' must come from different characters, at least two, throughout the movie or the TV series (so no "Shut the **** up, Donny") and shouldn't introduce or come after another catchphrase from the protagonist (so no "Hi, Dr. Nick!")
So, from the twelve actors and actresses who scored at least two Golden Globes' nominations for playing the same character in different movies, which one is your personal favorite?
GOLDEN GLOBES' WINS IN CAPITAL LETTERS
(Some interesting trivia: Bing Crosby is the only 'Elite Oscar' member not to be part of the 'Golden Globes' counterpart, Al Pacino and Peter Sellers are the only actors to date to have scored three nominations for playing the same movie character and Peter O'Toole is the only one to have won Golden Globes for the two performances although he didn't win any Oscar)
Celebrating the iconic actor on this "Golden Globes" week, which of Al Pacino's Golden Globe nominated roles contained his best performance?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which one is your favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here... and Happy New Year!
After voting, you might discuss the list here
(sorry if some pics aren't exactly well-adjusted for the poll format)
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Dom za vesanje (1988)
Romani, Open Cities... Filling Glasses and Bleeding Hearts..
A civilization is a tree whose branches expand to the world while deeply rooted in the motherland, the one place where we cease to be a stranger. But there are eternal strangers who never belong to the place they live in, we call them Nomads, Romani or Gypsies. They have a culture, a language, a music (and how!) and while there might not be a place, there will always be a "Time of the Gypsies".
On Youtube, an Internet user said about that scene where a devastated Perhan drowns his sorrow in booze and music: "I don't understand what he's singing but it's like I understand everything." That's exactly how emotionally affecting Emir Kusturica's movies are and his 1988 masterpiece that won the Cannes Prize for Best Directing is no exception. Kusturica's movies are culturally specific but universally cathartic. Universal to a certain extent... even if it's set somewhere in Yugoslavia, this is a film about the gypsies, perhaps the most misunderstood if not disdained people on Earth, connected to many infamous caricatures from stealing chicken to prostitution.
And it says a lot when the main character is the fruit of the passion between a Slovenian soldier and a gypsy mother who died after giving birth to his sister a few years later. Perhan, to name him... and to call a spade a spade, is a bastard, but Kusturica almost gives this word a touch of nobility, as if it captured the existential status of gypsies, they have traditions and pride but they don't know where they're from, they belong to the present, and their greatest tragedy is to keep on longing for a past so unknown and so far it is deemed to carry a shadow of mystery. Perhan is mysterious in his own way, a young and nerdy insecure boy with a talent for accordion, a turkey for a companion and a telekinetic power.
He was raised by his grandmother, the kind of stereotypical gypsy woman whom you'd give her palm and trust whatever she says about your future but there's nothing cliché about her, she's perhaps one of the most loving and endearing mother figures from any movie, she drinks, she smokes, forgives her depraved son and love her grandchildren. Ljubica Adzovic gives the kind of performances that always gets Oscar nods, it's a disgrace that she didn't win anything at Cannes, or maybe she's just too authentic for that. Still, she's as pivotal to the film as she is in Perhan's life. Perhan who falls in love with Azra but can't marry her because her mother wouldn't give her daughter's hand to a bastard. This prompts Perhan to become someone and he promises the mother that she'll soon kiss his feet.
Circumstances help him when the grandmother cures the son of a rich man named Ahmed (Bora Todorovic, the band leader in "Underground"). Ahmed promises to take Perhan under his protections and takes his sister to a hospital in Slovenia, so she can be cured from a severe leg condition. But the film isn't much about that story than it is about the young boy who encapsulates the exhilaration and tragedy of being a gypsy. As a bastard, he's twice an outcast and ostracized in his own community, forcing him to resort to crime in order to win quick cash and become respected. And with his glasses and nerdy smile, Dujmovic bears a striking resemblance with Dustin Hoffman in "Papillon" or "Straw Dogs" while as the film progresses, his hair grow and he looks more like Hoffman or a Pacino in their prime, with that intensity in the eyes and that oddly charismatic vulnerability.
The actor committed suicide in 1999, was it drugs? The Yugoslavian tragedy? Or some secret demons he took to the grave? Whatever it was, I suspect he carried that early enough so it could translate into this performance, one of the greatest performances from a relatively unknown actor, and perhaps the most intense performance in any Kusturica film. Dujmovic is the first reason to enjoy the film or perhaps the second after the music, I saw this film 25 years ago, and I remember I was mesmerized by the themes from Goran Bergovic. I never forgot the scene where they were all floating in the river, following some ancestral ritual and the one where Perhan got drunk after realizing he would also have a bastard as a son. These two emotional peaks illustrate gypsies' predestination for parties because there's so much melancholy and sadness one would rather try to forget them.
And yet the film doesn't sugarcoat the other aspects such as prostitution or human traffic, it exposes them with some sort of cynicism on the surface but in reality a way to show that once you don't have rules, you do with what you have at hands and you're the one to set your own limitations or code of honor. The film doesn't show gypsies enjoying begging or stealing or selling children, but it finds a way to show that pride is a variable parameter, a bit like in "The Godfather" when you disdain Mafia but you understand why it exists. And for a culture torn between the European accordion and Oriental tunes waltz (I come from North Africa, I can tell you their dances isn't different from ours), nothing surprises me anymore.
That's who the Gypsies are, people at the crossroads of the Western and Oriental world, a marriage never bound to happen but worthy of a celebration, the film opens and ends with Kusturica's iconic leitmotif of a wedding leading to a tragedy, and yet a rebirth, a symbol reprised in his "Underground". Kusturica has a unique talent to immerse you into the depths of a civilization, as if we were the objects Perhan could move with his simple wizardry, this might be an allegory of Kusturica power. It's all about moving us and making us move at the beat of a trumpet ... or fly like his smiling brides.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle...
In 1915, D.W. Griffith's gave birth to modern cinema with "The Birth of a Nation", a giant leap that proved the remaining skeptics that the 20th century wouldn't do without the reel, that there was a time for Chaplin's gesticulations and a time for serious storytelling.
Of course, Chaplin's contribution is more valuable because he understood the universality of cinema more than any other filmmaker, let alone Griffith who made his film culminate with the glorification of the KKK. ¨People from all over the world would rather relate to the little tramp than any Griffith's character, but as I said in my "Birth of a Nation" review, without that seminal film, there wouldn't even be movies to contradict it.
And D.W. Griffith was actually the first to do so by making a humanistic anthology named "Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages", a three-hour epic relating four separate stories set at different historical times, but all converging toward the same hymn to intolerance, or denunciation of intolerance's effect through four major storylines: the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of the Christ, the Bartholomew Day massacre and a contemporary tale with odd modern resonances. The four stories overlap throughout the film, punctuated with the same leitmotif of a mother "endless rocking the cradle", as to suggest the timeless and universal importance of the film.
The mother is played by an unrecognizable Lillian Gish but it's not exactly a film that invites you to admire acting, the project is so big, so ambitious on a simple intellectual level that it transcends every cinematic notion. It is really a unique case described as the only cinematic fugue (a word used for music), one of these films so dizzying in their grandeur that you want to focus on the achievements rather than the shortcomings, just like "Gone With the Wind" or more recently "Avatar". Each of the four stories would have been great and cinematically appealing in its own right, Griffith dares to tell the four of them using his trademark instinct for editing. Technically, it works.
And while I'm not surprised that he could pull such a stunt since he had already pushed the envelope in 1915, bmaking this "Intolerance" only one year after "The Birth of Nation" is baffling, especially since it was meant as an answer to the backlash he suffered from, it's obvious it wasn't pre-planned, so how he could make this in less than a year is extraordinary. I can't imagine how he got all these extras (three thousands), the recreations of ancient Babylon, of 16th century France, and still have time for a real story, but maybe that's revealing how eager he was to show that he wasn't the bigoted monster everyone accused him of, as if the scale of his sincerity had to be measured in terms of cinematic zeal. That the film flopped can even play as a sort of redemption in Griffith's professional arc.
But after the first hour, we kind of get the big picture and we understand that Griffith tells it like he means it. It works so well that the American Film Institute replaced the "Birth of a Nation" from the AFI Top 100 with "Intolerance" in the 10th anniversary update. But after watching the two of them, I believe they both belonged to the list as they're the two ideological sides of the same coin. But if one had to be kept, it would be the infamous rather than the famous, if only because the former is more 'enjoyable' in the sense that there's never a dull moment where you feel tempted to skip to another part. "Intolerance" had one titular key word: struggle, I struggled to get to the end, and even then, I had to watch it again because I couldn't stay focused. Indeed, what a challenging movie patience-wise!
This is a real orgy of set decorations that kind of loses its appeal near the second act, and while the first modern story is interesting because you can tell Griffith wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of our world's virtue posers, who try to make up for the very troubles they cause and use money for the most lamentable schemes, it might be too demanding to plug your mind to so many different stories. And when the climax starts with its collection of outbursts of violence, I felt grateful for finally rewarding my patience than enjoying the thrills themselves, especially since it doesn't hold up as well as the climactic sequence of "The Birth of a Nation". Or maybe we lost the attention span when it comes to silent movies, but there must be a reason the film flopped even at its time, maybe the abundance of notes and cardboards that makes the film look like a literary more than visual experience?
I guess "Intolerance" can be enjoyed sequence by sequence, by making as many halts as possible in that epic journey, but it's difficult to render a negative judgment for such a heavy loaded film. For my part, I'm glad I could finally watch and review all the movies from the American Film Institute's Top 100 and I appreciate its personal aspect in Griffith's career. Perhaps what the film does the best is to say more about the man than the director. His insistence on never giving names to his characters ("The Boy", "The Dear Guy"...) calling a mobster a "Musketeer" and all that vocabulary reveal his traditional and sentimental view of America, and maybe the rest of the world.
That's might be Griffith's more ironic trait, so modern on the field of technical film-making yet so old-fashioned in his vision, he's one hell of a storyteller and he handles the universal and historical approach of his film like a master, but when it comes to his personal vision, he struck me as the illustration of his own metaphor, like a good mother-figure endlessly rocking our cradle.
Otac na sluzbenom putu (1985)
More relevant than ever...
Reading some of his interviews, I'm not surprised that Emir Kusturica, one of the greatest European directors, despised political movies. Some directors use their movies to make a commentary, which is fine as long as the story allows the viewers to extract the 'political' substance by themselves.
Have you noticed that everything is political today? From the movies to their awards campaign, everything revolves around issues such as race, gender or resulting discrimination, and that trend might inspire some filmmakers to try to have a shot by making something 'relevant' instead of something that speak to them. Today, no one should ever be allowed to be personal about himself unless it's for some political statement likely to inspire claps, cheers and nods. There's nothing wrong with being unpopular but with all the media outrage frenzy of our twitter-driven era, you're only unpopular when you're ostracized, and your detractors can cut off your capacity to reach people.
That's why Kusturica could have never made movies for Hollywood, or under the studio system. That's why, out of all the directors who tell political stories, Kusturica can make the most politically rich movies without being prisoner of one ideological perception. His Golden Palm winning "Underground" could be regarded as a magnificent and epic retrospective of the history of ex-Yugoslavia, but the film is also a vibrant, exuberant and musically driven orgy of booze, sex and passion that says more about the soul of the Balkans than any other thing. Kusturica speaks from the heart and portray characters who generally care about regimes and ideologies in the realm of their personal greed or lust, they're strong but weak, big guys acting like children. So much for political engagement.
And it also seems that Kustrucia, more than any other else, knows one thing or two about human hubris. One of my regrets was to have discovered "Undeground" before Fellini's movies and couldn't spot the connection when I finally discovered the Maestro. Now, I can fix it and say that maybe Kusturica is the most Fellinian director but he's like Fellini with a social commentary, maybe the neo-realisitic Fellini and it shows even more in his first Golden Palm winner "When Father Was Away on Business" (Kusturica is one of the few directors to have won the Palm twice), the story whose euphemistic title doesn't prepare for how sad it is, how dramatic and yet comedic and catching at others. Forgive for the cliché, but "like life I guess".
The film takes place in Sarajevo, in 1950, at the midst of the Stalin Tito Split, the DVD bonus features provide many information, they are so helpful I'd recommend to check them first. In fact, there's an irony in the history of Yugoslavia, the people were proud to fight the Nazis, they didn't totally surrender to Stalin's hegemony, wanting to be treated as an equal, much to the Soviet Master's anger. The film contains many football games between the two countries and you can tell that Yugoslavians are taking their victories damn seriously. The film was made the same year than the Heysel tragedy, just to remind that the setting of the film never deprives from its timeless and universal value. Still, what a tragic irony that this pride was a double-edged sword leading Yugoslavian multiculturalism to cause its downfall.
The Split lead to the formation of a bureau named Informibrio and whose mission was to spot any potential agent of the Soviet or someone malcontent enough to become a troublemaker. It's a sort of Yugoslavian "HUAC" with the same paranoid implications. But Kusturica doesn't shout it clear and loud, he only starts his film with a man singing "Chiquita", that he picked a Mexican song instead of an American or Russian one implicitly tells you the kind of attitudes that can get you in trouble. But sometimes, it can be worse than singing. The pivotal moment occurs when Mesa, a communist functionary played by Miki Manojlovic (he was the unforgettable Marco in "Underground") criticizes a cartoon in newspaper "Politika".
Mesa just state something like "they're really going too far", and the comment wouldn't have taken him too far if it wasn't for his mistress to hear him. Hurt after because he can' divorce from his wife, lshe denounces him to his brother-in-law and it's a matter of a few days to get him arrested and go "far away on business". Then starts a series of life episode involving his patient and enduring wife Mirjana Karanovic (also starring in "Underground") and the two boys, a geeky photography buff played by the late Davor Dujmovic, and a chubby kid Mario De Bartolli, he's the narrator and the film is punctuated with many episodes involving his sleepwalking.
"When Father Was Away on Business" is both a family drama and a touching coming-of-age story that never overplays the pathos or the lyricism. Sarajevo is a town where four religions meet, Kusturica makes the same point by showing a Muslim family, practicing circumcision rituals, an orthodox funeral and people of different backgrounds drinking and dancing together. As if he was sleepwalking during his own journey, Kusturica says the most without saying much, knowing that you're never as touched by a politican story when you can't touch its political content. The film could have been set anywhere, anytime, it doesn't say much about the regime, only the ongoing paranoia when every word can cause your downfall.
And before you consider yourself luck not to have to endure this, remember that, at the midst of the metoo movement, an actor like Damon suffered severe backlash for a comment he made. And how many actors now are "away on business" because of an accusation or a suspicion. Sorry to make these interfere with the movie but while I expected a 1980's drama that would have aged a little, I didn't expect a film to be so relevant.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Tell me about Sex... and I tell you who you are...
"sex, lies and videotape" is exactly about what it says, but frankly, the film could have been titled "all about sex" since the lies are all about sex, and don't get me started on the content of these videotapes. Steven Soderbergh Golden Palm winner, and game changer on the field of independent film-making, is certainly one of the most intelligent and insightful depiction of sex as a 'relationship issue' as any other movie, that it does so without being graphic at all is a credit to its maturity and straight-forwardness.
And "Sex is overrated" is one of the many golden nuggets the Oscar-nominated script contains, even more fascinating since the line is echoed by an admittance of impotence, a weakness seldom confessed by men, but which creates the strangest though slightly anticipated bond between Graham (James Spader) and Ann (Andie McDowell). She's an introverted and complex woman, he's an old college friend of her husband John (Peter Gallagher), who just came to town. At first, Ann is angry and shares her bitterness with her therapist, expecting to be the passive observer of boring dinners where the two reminisce about girl and football.
But while John is your typical cocky and womanizing lawyer with suspenders in his shirt and tricks under his sleeve, Graham has no job, no house, he's a long-haired young looking man, oddly detached from the casual responsibilities but weirdly interested in people. Graham asks the most private questions to Ann at their very first encounter. She detects his awkwardness but we suspect she's glad that he's not like John. They talk about marriage and she says she enjoys the security of it, for all his defaults, John is a good provider, but there's something shy and self-conscious in the way she says it that reminded me of Liv Ullman's in "Scenes of a Marriage".
In Bergman's masterpiece, I never forgot that line about marriage only working if "fidelity went without saying", as if the colossal edifice had to be rooted on blind obviousness. But every film that involved dysfunctional couples proved that no matter how supposedly strong they were, marriages failed because of things taken for granted, things that went without saying. And the first signal that the relationship between Ann is John isn't just that John is having an affair with Ann's own sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) but that even Ann instantly opens herself to Graham.
Remember that exchange between Homer Simpson and the new neighbor, Ruth Powers, when he's tiptoeing around to ask a private question, and she eases the task by saying that she would like to be fixed up with someone, because she has "normal appetites". Homer gets the message but still makes sure she's not talking about food... twice. Sex isn't the easiest subject to handle but once it's done, it becomes the key to open the Pandora box of a marriage,. But the film doesn't explore the theme of infidelity rather than the way 'sex' is used to as a mean to convey or conceal the sources of your own insecurities, it doesn't reduce people to sexual attitudes as much as it expands the value of sex as an existential catalysis.
Ann is an over-anxious person whose mind is obsessed by situations she can't have the control on, she's full of empathy and therefore can't express any desire unless it's directed toward someone else, she's not frigid but she's not attracted enough to John to satisfy him. John and Cynthia are more 'common' lovers, John is lawyer, a running gag informs that it's the first lowest form before liars, he screws people and dominates his wife by having sex with another woman, it's part of his persona. So is Cynthia whose ego is flattered as if she was finally getting the satisfaction of indirectly owning her sister, like the family slut winning over the goody-goody sister.
Still, this is not a film that invites us to condemn people, it only tells the magnitude of sexuality as what is says about our inners struggles, our desires, our weaknesses, things that warm, block or drive us. And the most fascinating character in this quartet is Graham. At first, he says he's impotent but by saying he can't have sex, he's allowed to record sexual confessions of women on videotapes which gives him considerably more power, status-wise. Ann manages to confront him in a scene that is a masterpiece of writing, pushing Graham in the corner of his odd fantasies and unable to answer for his lust... and admit that there's something indeed pathetic about him, but not to the point of not needing help. He might be his first 'victim'.
Steven Soderbergh's writing is one of great subtlety and realism, it only sins in the portrayal of the husband John, he strikes as a two-dimensional character compared to the three others, and the way he gets his comeuppance doesn't do justice to the originality of the movie, there's one 'detail' you could see coming and it didn't quite work but apart from small little flaws, this is a remarkable portrayal of adults caught in tormenting relationships and trying to find their way to slip through the net. It is also served by fine performances especially from James Spader who won the Prize at Cannes Festival, and Laura San Giacomo. This film should have had the same resonance as Mike Nichols' "Closer" in 2004 with two acting nods for Spader and San Giacomo, they're the best thing about the film.
Now, I'm not the fondest on remakes but I suspect the content of the script is so relevant and universal it would fit the digital era as well, I can imagine a "sex, lies and Internet" tailor-made for the 2010's, where lovers, chatters, deceived husbands would drown their sorrow by sharing their insecurities to the first listening 'ear'.
Swing Time (1936)
Swing Time, Swell Time...
That's funny, I was very much aware of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' legendary status in Hollywood's canon ever since I was a kid, probably at a time when I hadn't reached 5% of my current cinematic knowledge. But it took till my mid-thirties to watch one of these many cinematic partnerships. I guess it's never too late to discover a gem of Hollywood Golden Age.
But to be quite honest, I didn't pick "Swing Time" because it's the most celebrated Astaire-Rogers film (or is it "Top Hat"?), I picked it because of its inclusion in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies (the latest edition). I had never heard about it so when I saw the title on the list, I was like "OK, but why not "Top Hat"?". Not that I've seen it either, but the film was listed in AFI's Musicals List and "Cheek to Cheek" among the Top 100 most iconic songs, not to mention that the dance sequence was a staple of Hollywood, used in many contemporary movies to define the Golden Age.
But no, they picked "Swing Time" and I guess they had their reasons, and from what I read in the reviews, including Roger Ebert's (I always do that when it comes to movies I know a little about, so you can imagine for those I have zero awareness), George Stevens' 1936 romantic comedy is the best Astaire-Rogers movie, which means that it contains their best dance routines. I second that. The dance sequences not only please and impress the eyes but I loved the way they were fitting in the story. In lesser musicals, they generally work as fillers, interludes, but here, they deliver more than scenes.
And now it's time I deliver a little about the film. There's John aka "Lucky" a gambler who misses his wedding ceremony when he's conned by his friends into betting that he wouldn't miss it. The film starts with the usual set-up of a marriage we suspect will never happen. Lucky is summoned by his father-in-law-to be but slip through the net by telling he'll win enough money from to prove his good intentions. The way things revolve around winning money seems very contrived and repetitive but necessary to kick Lucky and his friend Pop (scene stealing Victor Moore) out of the town.
Lucky comes to New York, he's broke (he lost his money on the marriage bet) and tries to con Penny, a modest dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) he crosses on street, one thing leading to another, he tells her he needs dance lessons, and I suspect it was more difficult for Astaire to feign lousy steps than any routine he had to play. But Rogers has quite a modern approach to her role, she's both invested and detached, a bit like Meg Ryan at her prime without distracting good looks, she's a real match for Astaire as you never doubt they're not having fun together. The first dance starts when Lucky wants to prove Penny's boss how good a teacher she is, and then the magic starts.
There's an energy, a lightness, a glee of being and a cheerful complicity that never leaves any dance floor where these four feet operate together, and it's always catching with you. Although the film follows the formula of the screwball comedy to the letter, Astaire and Rogers seem to take it differently from the usual players (Grant, Gable, Russell...) where it's all about rapid-fire dialogues and outsmarting contests, the film is funny and you also enjoy the company of both Moore and Helen Broderick as Penny's friend, but you can tell the two actors are only talking circles when the real deal is the dance.
The film is rich in romantic ballads "The Way You Look Tonight" which became Astaire's signature song and the "Never Gonna Dance" near the end that inspired the climactic dance sequence. So dancing is the real star, along with Astaire and Rogers, forming a sort of holy trinity whose aura inhabit the film without ever overriding it. All these dances never last more than five minutes, even Astaire's 'blackface' tap dance in the middle is long enough to let you enjoy the humorous details with the three silhouettes dancing behind Astaire, but short enough to never let the excitement fade.
So whether for jazz, tap dance or waltz, every emotion is beautifully conveyed by these magical steps. I'm no analyst or expert to judge them on a technical level but I found them so lively, so dynamic, so emotionally rich that it was just as if they were telling a story within the story and more than that, they were more than interludes. Actually, they were so good that they inevitably highlighted the little flaws, essentially, the script which was too predictable or formulaic. Like a critic of the time said "if only the story was as good as the dancing".
Indeed, the dancing was so magical and integral to the film's appeal that it's quite ironic one of its most defining song is "Never Gonna Dance". I'm glad they didn't pick this as the title, although "Swing Time" doesn't do justice to the music either, the film does far more than swinging. Maybe they should have taken the French title, pretty poetic and beautiful, it simply says "Over the Wings of Dancing" and that's true with Astaire and Rogers, you could think they would literally fly over the dancefloor.
A bitter but necessary slice of cinematic reality...
In fact, it's a 10 minus one point for the nausea it made me feel.
I don't think I'll ever watch it again, the Golden Palm winner of 2003 is probably one of the most affecting and disturbing cinematic viewings I've ever experiences. I don't think I ever felt that way since I saw "In Cold Blood", but "In Cold Blood" had me trembling and crying during the climactic massacre, in "Elephant", just the anticipation of what was going to happen made me feel uncomfortable, and when the shootout started, I just waited for the nightmare to end. I applaud the tactful approach of Gus Van Sant to have made the film so short, eighty minutes are enough...
... or are they?
Even these eighty minutes felt like three hours once I knew where this was leading to, my belly was hurting literally. Gus Van Sant follows the lives of many high school students but without the usual fuss about it, once you get used to someone, the camera abandons its subject for another one. The point isn't even to put a spotlight, just to show as many people as possible, a bespectacled outcast, a photography buff, three anorexic girls who act like divas and debate about the time one of them spends with her boyfriends, a group taking part to a debate session, and the blonde kid with the yellow T-shirt and the drunk father.
At first, you're trying to find a reason why these boys and girls are being shown, surely they must have a significance to the story, surely one of them will do something, it can't be just gratuitous exposition... but there's something in the way Gus Van Sant handles the camera, it's like just 'happening' to be there, just random, as if it was floating in the air. Indeed, there's a sense of melancholic atmosphere, as if the day was meant to be just another boring autumn day with no fuss to make about it, and that no one ever expected it to be "special", just another autumn day in Portland, Ore, carried by Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". While being conventionally 'normal', there is some disturbing foreshadowing when they all talk about plans for the next two hours, perhaps the only hints of subtle screenwriting.
And then we see the two killers-to-be, again no over-exposition apart from the fact that they've planned everything and now they are going to die. The film prepares us to what will be a bloodbath and in my heart, I was just hoping that Van Sant would stop the film before it ends, I didn't want the violence to happen, to know it would happen was enough, but I was like "OK, I got the point, they're all going to die, why do you need to show it", but as painful as it was to witness the killings, it was necessary, because the real test of the film is how violence would be portrayed. I think one of the triumphs of a movie is to make violence so ugly you don't want it to happen, but "Elephant" makes it even uglier when it happens.
It is ugly because it's cold and random and arbitrary, the antithesis of cinema where everything is governed by a narrative, where even violence should have a point. In Van Sant's film, there's absolutely no style whatsoever, some deaths are shown on-screen, some off-screen, some are suggested, even the killers are focused like in a paintball game, as if the point was to make the bloodiest mess, but without a sense of enjoyment, they do it because someway, they feel they had to do it or wanted to do it. But again, Van Sant doesn't try to make a statement about violence, just to show how it happens, how it can come at any point, any moment. We all believe we have a destiny, one can dream to be a photographer or a star or just to get the hell out of school, but these beliefs don't amount to much in a world where being at the wrong place at the wrong moment equals death.
The film was inspired by the Columbine shooting of 1999 but I think the film is relevant regardless of any context. Today, people can walk on the street and be randomly stabbed to death or ran over by a truck, one of the defining traits of violence is its banality, mundanity, the fact that it can pop up at any moment. Still, there's something extremely disturbing in the way the film portrays these shootings, it tries to give them an ideological value from the killers' POV but I don't think it's a matter of ideology, once you start to believe that there's a belief behind or a religion or an ideology, you lose the real scope. It's like watching "Schindler's List" and ending with the relief that these things wouldn't happen because Nazism belonged to the past.
The point is that, for as long as there will be men, there will be men killing and enjoying killing other men, and they will be as civilized as that Nazi playing the piano during a ghetto massacre or the young killer playing Beethoven in "Elephant". Sure we have to find the reasons and yes, everything must be done to anticipate these things and avoid them but Van Sant tries to be as neutral as possible, he knows even NRA supporters would weep at the end of "Elephant", so he won't rationalize these shootings as if one was the consequence of this or the cause of that, he won't show these kids enjoying a violent movie before, he will just show you how easy it is to get a weapon and go commit a massacre. Everyone is up to his own interpretation. That's why the film is important.
"Elephant" doesn't try to be a social commentary and it works as a challenge to people who think they've been desensitized with movies. Honestly, I didn't know what to think about these movies that make violence look cool or too stylized to be taken seriously, I don't think violence happens because it happens in movies but I've read that after watching "American Sniper" many Americans felt the urge to go shoot some Arabs on the street, I don't think a film like "Elephant" would provoke the same reaction, for me it worked like the 'Ludovico treatment' in "A Clockwork Orange", I was disgusted by guns, violence and any act of killing. Every once in a while, we need a movie to show what real violence is: ugly and definite. It's like a booster shot, although with 'downer' effects.
And the film is a masterstroke of casting and directing, by taking unknown actors, Van Sant emphasizes the realness of the story but he does more, by focusing on various slices of life, the film challenges our own cinematic habits, inherited from hundreds and hundreds of cinematic viewings, we're so used to see ugly ducklings become pretty or outcasts committing suicide, kids becoming heroes, or villains getting their comeuppance that "Elephant" will provide a necessary yet bitter slice of reality. Don't expect any of these conventions, I won't spoil the film's most brilliant moment, let's just say it involves a guy named Benny.
The minute Benny emphasizes what is so intelligent and remarkable about "Elephant", and also so disturbing, again, a painful experience, but necessary like a medicine.
Entre les murs (2008)
A 'school-case' of cinema vérité...
By chronicling the daily struggles of a French teacher to communicate with his students, "The Class" communicates the inner complexities of the school system not only in France but in any suburban, impoverished area of any Western city, or it's even more universal than that.
There is an irony in that psychological arm-wrestling engaged all through the year, the teachers mean good and want to deliver the best, but the students are intelligent enough to question the value of the teaching. Of course, they're not always right, but their way of being wrong can engage in more fruitful discussions than if everybody nodded in unison. It's not about being another brick in the wall, like the song says, but a free spirit behind these walls.
And that's the real delight of "The Class", it follows François Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, real-life teacher and author of the original book. He's not a rookie, this is not your typical teacher in a tough class, he knows many students and there seems to be mutual respect despite the usual heckling. But when the bedlam starts, you're suddenly drawn into exchanges where even Marin nods and accepts that these kids have a point, like the uselessness of complicated and sophisticated tenses in real life.
The film rises above all the clichés and preconceived notions about the 'suburbs' without sugarcoating them. The melting pot isn't devoid of individual prejudices, against gays, Blacks, Arabs or even white people. By never resorting to self-censorship, "The Class" is a rare opportunity for a real confrontation between the ideals of education and the reality. I've been there too, support at school for fourth and fifth graders, but I've learned very quickly that you can't win them with good intentions. You can't cheat, you must be close enough to earn their respect, not their friendship as it's the perfect ticket for insolence and insubordination, that's the dosage. And over the course of the year, well-meaning and imperfect Marin is confronted to the resistance, verbal, non-verbal or physical from students such as Khoumba, a girl of African background who feels harassed by the teacher, another kid who dares to ask the teacher if he's gay, and perhaps the most memorable student: Esmeralda a tough cookie who calls a spade a spade. There is also a Gothic kid who's not ashamed to display his 'difference', a Chinese teen who works harder than anyone and the gallery never seems forced or cliché, no archetypes but some realities cinema seldom dealt with.
While not a documentary, the film is certainly closer to that genre than any fiction but the merit of the director, Laurent Cantet is to have taken non professional kids and made them act so natural, it's one thing to direct a movie like "Avatar" but for "The Class", the directing doesn't get enough credit and works on an Oscar worthy level. If I could find a name to define it, it would be dynamic, in the classroom scenes, it's always like the camera is swinging ping pong style between François and the kids as if it impersonated the way the professor's mind works, like a radar: any voice heard, any intervention deserves to be given its proper attention.
"Behind the Walls" is the French title and I think it could have been better to keep it like this, because the walls of the class while being generally associated to "entrapment", unleash the best out of these kids and become an area of verbal liberty. Many subplots involve the tough life of these kids outside the class, and indirectly pinpoint the liberating aspect of these walls. The tragedy is that many students don't value it and in one scene, another teacher lets some steam off and can't stand anymore the way they all reject the hand that tries to teach them, he seems to be at the verge of a breakdown and everyone lets him talk. We see him again a few months later, as if nothing happened. Even a teacher needs to "let it go".
And this lack of flawlessness is wonderfully conveyed in the case that would lead to the film's climactic 'battle', involving a word the teacher said to qualify the class representatives, provoking a fight in the classroom and disciplinary committee for the troublemaker. It leads to the moment where François is confronted by the students not in the classroom but the schoolyard, and that was a nice twist. Out of his zone of comfort, Marin is almost verbally lynched by the student who want to give him a taste of his own medicine, and while some are sincere, you can tell that for Esmeralda, it's like a poetic justice, to be able to toy with the teacher's emotions and win the verbal contest.
I could relate to that because kids can be sneaky, when they know they don't have the upper hand, they use their solidarity and a truncated version of facts. The film starts with a teacher teaching them how to communicate, well at the end he's taught a lesson, if he told girls that during the counsel, they behaved liked bitches, he might as well have called them whores, same effect. The word itself will be used later in a more humorous way, but it shows that language has a weight, a pending gravitas, an equilibrium that can be destroyed at any time. That's how tough it is to teach students.
Unanimously winning the Golden Palm in 2008, "The Class" is a real example on how cinema can serve a cause by just being itself, just filming. There's no dramatization, no need of plotting, just a bunch of kids who improvised enough to accentuate the realism, only following guidelines of themes to talk about, and the rest is just one of the realistic documentary-like movies ever made, a real success, a unique film, a school-case of cinema vérité in every sense of the word.
Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)
The Tears of Cherbourg...
Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", Golden Palm winner of 1964, is a deliberately simple and straight-forward story sublimated by the music, I guess that's a way to put it simply.
Still, I was never in a rush to watch this film, forgive my bias but the premise of one hour and half of all-singing made me expect some syrupy nothing-specialness à la "New Wave" sauce that I couldn't take seriously. I thought I would endure the film more than experience it. And to be fair, it's hard to get used to the all singing 'gimmick' (for lack of a better word) at first and the opening make you wonder if it's not unconsciously intended as a sort of spoof but the film finds a way to set its tone, making the singing a sort of natural background, allowing you to focus more on the story.
First, there are the first notes of Michel Legrand's penetrative score (the "I Will Wait For You" theme) that started to resonate during the opening credits. I knew I heard that tune before and then it hit me, "Jurassic Bark", poor Seymour waiting for Fry... "I Will Wait For You", one of the saddest melodies ever, that was meant to be used for the saddest TV moment ever. Now, knowing that it came from Michel Legrand and that it would be the defining theme of the film made me realize that in terms of emotions, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" 'meant business', and within the right context and served by the right lyrics, the score reached unsuspected levels of poignancy.
Secondly, when the film starts in a jazzy upbeat mood, there's an exchange between Guy, the mechanic played by Nino Castelnuovo and his friend about their plans for Friday night. The friend says he doesn't like operas, all the singing gets on his nerves, he prefers movies. What can you say after that? Such a line so early in the film can't be innocent, this is Jacques Demy's anticipating the natural resistance of some viewers, toward what can be perceived as a gimmick. Demy basically tells us that even movies can work like operas and that maybe this film can help us to consider singing as a language as adequate to film-making as facial expressions in a silent movie.
In fact, it's not exactly singing buy lip-syncing with other professional singer's voices (which is a wise choice because I can't imagine these melodies with amateur singers) but progressively, the musicality becomes such a natural aspect of the movie that any line said without any melodic intonation surprisingly rings false. The music becomes part of the background, and in total osmosis with the art-direction, the costumes, the photography. If you pay attention to the way some women's dresses always fit the patterns or colors behind, you're tempted to interpret that as a foreshadowing of their chameleonic nature, their superhuman capability to adapt to any situation or predicament in their lives.
The visual delights also lay on the depiction of Cherbourg which, depending on the season, the weather or the general mood, can be either cheerful or depressing. One day, the two lovers dance a mambo behind the red walls of a nightclub, it's red, passionate, lively, and the day after, they're in a depressing and neutrally grey train station saying goodbye to each other. Even a cute and cozy little umbrella shop can become a cold and depressing washing-machines' stores. The film is as competent in conveying emotions through visual than musical delights, but the raw core is still the romance between Guy and Geneviève played by a beautiful and young Catherine Deneuve, without it, this would have been one of these 'all flash and no substance' film. (Spoilers in Next Paragraph)
The story isn't a revolution, two young enamored people make plans for the future then comes the call of duty, they have one last night together, promise to wait for each other ignoring that the "harm is done" already and then there's the absence, the separation, and throughout her pregnancy, Geneviève is courted by a providential rich man named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) which she finally marries, so her baby can have a father. When he's back, Guy is wounded physically before being hurt emotionally, he sinks in bitterness and alcohol before being rescued by his friend Madeleine, they marry and have a child. Finally, a few years after, the former lovers meet in an Esso station and the film concludes with the right notes of realism, foreshadowed by Genevieve's mother (Anne Vernon) who said that times fix everything and only in movies, people die from love.
If I wasn't so emotionally overwhelmed by that ending and how daring it was to contradict the then-romantic tropes, I would have kept thinking of a certain movie that almost won Best Picture last year. I just wish I saw Demy's "Umbrellas" before Damien Chazelle's "La La Land". Now I know where he got the inspiration, it's all to his credit to revive the magic of this classic for a contemporary tale, but now I see the ending less as a masterstroke of originality than a well made homage to Jacques Demy. The last time I had a similar regret is when I discovered Fellini after Kusturica's "Undeground", another Golden Palm winner.
So, what I loved about "The Umbrellas of Cherboug" is how misleading it actually is, these jazzy musical interludes, the playful way characters recite their lines by singing, you wouldn't believe this film would be so dark and so realistically bold, dealing with pregnancy, financial problems, not much war traumas than the disillusion of homecoming soldiers and of course, broken hearts. It's like a strawberry-flavor candy with a lemon bittersweet taste in the end. The film is well-made, well-edited, and well-written. Of course, the singing can get on people's heads but hey, the film is one hour and twenty something minutes long, it's not too much patience demanding.
And the final minutes will reward your patience anyway, listening to it, I know why Michel's name is Legrand.
"Up" Series Lite...
"Boyhood" has been pending on my watch list for quite a long time, yet I resisted that movie.
The word that came to mind whenever I was reading the summary and the praiseful comments was "gimmick". All these "12 years in the making", a boy's life spanning the time of the film's release (the opposite actually) and the whole philosophical contemplation about the daringness of the project left me cold. Retrospectively, I was wrong... but I'm glad I was, because I waited so long I could experience first one of the greatest movies of all time: Michael Apted's "Up" series.
Not twelve years but five decades in the making, not one but fourteen persons, British men and women followed since the age of seven and with a glimpse on their lives every seven years, the last edition was 2012's "56 Up". I binge-watched the documentary for two weeks and it was almost a metaphysical experience, there was no plot and no character's arc, not pre-written anyway. It was just life itself with the usual share of twists, surprises, deaths, marriages, separations, strikes of luck, and people just growing, getting more or less optimistic or blasé, depending on their respective experiences, making the whole series more thrilling, riveting and inspirational than any fictional creation.
I was surprised by how ludicrously lacking the name "Apted" the comments on "Boyhood" were, I don't know how much of an inspiration it was to Richard Linklater, maybe he didn't have "Up" in mind, but once you finish the documentary, "Boyhood" can only strike as a feeble attempt to duplicate "Up" from the perspective of a little boy (played by a natural Ellan Coltrane); his sister (Linklater's daughter Lorelei) and his divorced parents played by Rosanna Arquette and Ethan Hawke. So, in the process we also follow the evolution of two adults from their younger years of wandering and wondering to their term-coming forties.
The film ends with a young boy who still hasn't figured yet what to do exactly with his life and seems to take it as it comes whereas the adults, especially the mother, question their accomplishments. This is a credit to the film's intelligence, it doesn't try to put an artificial narrative, it doesn't have a specific arc, it just consists on hazardously assembling the pieces of a puzzle whose big and final picture is the meaning of life. Needless to say that the only satisfying note the film ends with is that every player of this twelve-year slice of life hasn't ended in depression, drugs and other cliché situation. On that level, "Boyhood" hit the right chords.
So I'll play the devil's advocate: one of the main criticisms the film received is that the story wouldn't have been one tenth as interesting on a classic format. True, but if you take one year to make a film, you'll be more likely to spice it up a bit with conventional twists. Linklater fulfilled the dream of a lifetime, making sure his players would be available whenever he needed them, it wasn't the safest bet, so he couldn't possibly make this film with a specific plot in mind, that would have undermined the whole edifice and deprived it from that air of fresh unpredictability. Besides, Linklater knows what the audience wants, to see little Mason evolving, as superficial as it is, it was the film's reason to exist. And we see that little kid growing up, embracing life and its share of injustices and predicaments, authority figures with conflicting advice, an absent father and a mother moving from places to places. Mason and his sister didn't have the perfect life, they grew up without roots so that might explain why at the end they turn out to be so free-spirited. We don't know if it's an artistic take from Linklater but the way the format of the film and the story overlap and influence the experience reminds me of other movies where the form defines the content like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or Hitchcok's "Rope", not that the film plays in the same league though. "Boyhood" is good filmmaking and never really throws the concept to our faces which is good, to a certain extent. I suppose Linklater didn't want to punctuate his movies with "two years later" but sometimes, the lack of chronological indicators can be confusing and you can't really tell the change. The film seems to follow a flow as natural as life but the inclusion of some bits rather than others is questionable and make you wonder whether the real focus was "boyhood" or any part of life. Mason starts as an insecure kid, then a girl approaches him with a nice comment on his haircut, later, he's bullied and before you know it, he's got many girlfriends.
Despite being the center of our attention, Mason is sometimes harder to reach than the meaning of life. And the same goes with other characters, first stepfather starts as a disciplined man and then he turns out to be an alcoholic, one is an Afghanistan veteran and then becomes your typical bigot, Patricia Arquette is your struggling mother and all of a sudden, becomes an Academic teacher, what for the next twelve years? President of the USA? I don't think that was the kind of underlying messages the film called for especially when the sister started as a pre(co)cious girl with a lot of potential but then turned into your average superficial teenager. I did enjoy though Ethan Hawke's parts, I think he was one of the best things about the film.
In the "Up" series, each protagonist had twenty minutes of screen-time in each episode, so you can all compact their lives in a "Boyhood" runtime, the film had an interesting promise but overall, it's very uneven as if it was victim of its own device.
The Tale of all Tales...
In the ears and minds of any movie lover, the word "Ben-Hur" resonates like the quintessential Hollywood classic oozing respectability in every inch of celluloid but the same respect we owe to an old relic. In our cynical modern world, who would enjoy a pompous-looking big-budget swords-and-sandals religious epic when you have Tarantino and Appatow?
I saw "Ben-Hur" for the first time in fourth grade, it was part of our history course and being an Asterix buff, I loved watching real-life legionaries, galley slavery not to mention the chariot race, the film also enlightened me on Christianity and on Judaism (when my only religious reference was monotheism number three) and scared the hell out of me with leper. It worked on a cinematic level as much as educational, I guess even in its TV-sized crappy 80's VHS look, we kids enjoyed "Ben-Hur" especially the rivalry between Judah (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd).
I never watched "Ben-Hur" after that but nor did I have any doubt over its status as a colossal masterpiece. Watching it again a few years ago and then a few days ago, I was surprised by how engraved in my memory "Ben-Hur" was, and how the moments that stood out were still having the same effect. When Ben-Hur and Messala meet after many years, I'm always anticipating that first breech in the fortress of their friendship when the young Roman tribune will have one word too many about Ben-Hur's people, taking for granted their friendship and Judah's nobility as marks of submission. The second encounter is even more thrilling because it's like watching a shaking edifice waiting to collapse.
It was a nice call from the director Wyler to mark the feud between the two ex-friends at the second encounter, hence putting more gravitas around their relationship, that screenwriter Gore Vidal tried to impregnate with homoerotic subtext. The story is known by movie buffs, Vidal wanted to make the interactions look as the two rivals were former lovers, the subtext works even more when you look at Stephen Boyd's "enamored" eyes toward Charlton Heston. But 'Chuck' never knew the trick and was annoyed about it, I guess I prefer the way their hatred epitomize the conflict between Romans and Jews sealing as one of the most memorable rivalries in history of cinema, with the most heart-pounding climactic face-to-face (or should I say wheel-to-wheel).
I had positive feelings about "Gladiator" but "Ben-Hur" is the masterpiece that dwarfs any contemporary masterpiece, a sweeping revenge story that doesn't rely at all on fake CGI and special effects. It took William Wyler's expertise built up in three decades of experience to make "Ben-Hur" equal the reference of the time that was Cecil B. De Mille's 1925 version. As a matter of fact, "Ben-Hur" has been blockbuster material from the start, ever since Lewis Wallace's best-seller of the late century, it was played on theaters and not with modest budgets. A revenge story, with galley combats, a chariot race and an oblique take on the greatest story ever told, with a hero going from idealism to anger, from revenge to love, all wrapped up in a subtle religious conversion, "Ben-Hur" was an instant classic Hollywood couldn't ignore.
If 1925 had the race and the thrills, the 1959 one had a bigger scope, bigger budget, the colors, the talking and all the determination of a big studio like MGM to prove a 50's audience that TV wasn't yet the pinnacle of spectacular entertainmnet. When I hear my Dad talking about going to the movies, like "Ben-Hur", "Spartacus", "Guns of Navarone" or "Taras Boulba" you would think he went there, inside the screen. And right now, I can't imagine the eyes of people staring at the screen during the chariot race, there comes a moment where you stop watching the moment as a plot element, but as a real race, and it never, never suspends your disbelief, it's like at any new viewing, Messalah can finally win.
There are so many classic moments that filled the three-hour-and-half journey that you're never in a state of non-anticipation, when the new inquisitor's parade starts, you keep an eye on that loose roof tile, the one that started the whole chain of events. In the desert, you wait for the 'greatest cameo ever made', in the galleys, the big fight and Ben-Hur rescuing Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and it goes on and on. I must reckon after the chariot race, the film gets a tad too long, but only because you can't just sweep off such a rich epic with a five-minute resolution, and Charlton Heston, in his greatest role, contributed a lot to the everlasting appeal of the film, I don't think he gets the credit he deserved, he brings to his Judah Ben-Hur a dimension of emotional vulnerability that could have been laughable from a lesser actor.
Other cast members include Oscar-winning Hugh Griffin enjoying his role as Arab sheikh and Judah's mentor, Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell as Judah's mother and sister... the film is served by a solid cast, editing, directing, having swept off all the major Oscar by breaking the record of 11 wins, only to be matched in 1997 with "Titanic" and "The Return of the King" and oddly enough, these titles could somewhat apply to "Ben-Hur".
I haven't seen the 'original' and I'm in no hurry for the remake, but I don't get I'll be in a minority if I say that this is the ultimate version. I didn't see it many times in my life but it's always present in my memories as if it wasn't about the number of times you watch it but the intensity of each experience. And let's not forget the name of the director: William Wyler who outdid himself by making his masterpiece, which is saying a lot, given his previous streaks.
"Ben-Hur": A Christ Tale, a tale of vengeance, in fact a tale of all tales...
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Sometimes too "faithful" to the original, sometimes not enough...
To give the movie its deserved credit, Richard Attenborough is a wonderful successor to the iconic Kris Kingle as played by Edmund Gwenn in George Seaton's seminal Christmas classic "Miracle on 34th Street" and Mara Wilson is just as good as the little girl who doesn't believe in Santa but wishes she could and only asks for a proof. In fact, she embodies our very attitude toward the film, we love the original, we want to embrace this one with the same enthusiasm, so we're waiting for the script to charm us.
And it's only fair to have high anticipations, the film was made in 1994 when commercialism was as preeminent as five decades later, and written by John Hughes who could give a subtle dimension of satire and benign cynicism, all these elements could have given an edge to the 1994 remake. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really manages to deliver: when it's good, it's just as good as the original, the rest of the time, it's just a pale copy that fails to capture the the taste of its era. This film could have been made in the 80's or the 70's as well because the story is timeless, but not in the 'appealing' meaning of the word.
It's incredible but "Miracle on 34th Street" manages to feel more dated than its glorious predecessor, the 1947 version starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara and young Natalie Wood. Maybe the remake was liable to feel dated because the 1947 classic was already ahead of its time for its take on Christmas consumerism, its portrayal of a divorced mother and a precocious girl (tired tropes today), so any attempt to duplicate the charm of the movie was likely to fail... unless it tried to modernize the original premise a little bit.
The problem with Les Mayfield's movie and John Hughes' screenplay is that the two men seem to be in awe with the original and never really dare to make the original structure shatter, not a bit. As a result, we have quite exactly the same movie, and the changes operated in this one never feel as improvements but rather inspire the opposite feeling. For instance, the climactic trial scene with the bags of mail delivered on the courtroom is only replaced by a parallel drawn between the existence of Santa Claus and the faith in God which, as smart as it is, is anticlimactic and leaves many things in wanting.
We all know the story is heading toward a heart-warming and magical conclusion but there's just something curiously depressing in the turn of events that lead the gentle Kris Kingle in jail and the way his aura immediately fades while the set-up of his downfall is quite obvious. There was a moment where I expectedKingle to tell that the man he assaulted had just literally accused him of the worst possible crime and had the punch coming, but the scene dangerously flirts with the idiotic plot where the lines that can get you off the hook aren't said, for no other reason that they're waiting for the right moment.
I feel a bit guilty to be so judgmental, again there's that snow beard in Richard Attenborough and that glee in his eyes that makes many scenes with him very touching, I loved his interaction with the deaf girl (a smart remake of the Dutch scene), his chemistry with Mara Wilson hit the right chord, and that little girl is a genuinely good actress conveying the right mix of smartness and innocence (a bit like a real-life Lisa Simpson). But the film reminded me of that scene where Kingle and Bryan, the lawyer enamored with Susan's mother, and played by Dylan McDermott, discuss about the mother (Elizabeth Perkins) and say there's something quite sad about her.
There's something sad in the film as well, sometimes, Elizabeth Perkins overplay that feeling and make any scene she's in a killjoy, even her romance with Dylan, while integral to the original happy ending, are only inserted in the movie as an 'obligation' but it's obvious these moments slow down the script more than anything. There are a few good characters in the film, the judge played by a scene-stealing Robert Prosky, the so underrated J.T. Walsh as the prosecutor but the film loses its way in many unnecessary plot points, and escalate to a trial where we feel cheated because we didn't have our bags of mail, after all, there was no Internet yet in 1994, it could work.
The film is still an enchanting moment that can please any child of any age, but it lacks that little sharpness, the taste of modernity it needed, and luck, too. Macy's didn't want its name associated with the film so they had to come up with a fictional company had to invent a and make the rival an evil businessman, missing the opportunity of the 'marketing policy' subplot that made the first film so ahead of its time. It's like Mayfield and Hughes didn't trust their own material, they had so charming protagonists who could carry the film alone, who needed villains? Especially when the "system" or the world's cynicism was good enough an antagonist.
A good film nonetheless, but so one-dimensional in its treatment it feels dated by the original film's standards.
Un homme à la hauteur (2016)
A dishonest movie cheating with its own premise!
I'm boycotting this film. I've seen the trailer, a few scenes and on the surface, the movie looks nothing but a delightful little romantic comedy, starring two French matinee idols Virginie Elfira and Jean Dujardin. But for the first time, after 1238 reviews and trailers, I review a movie I didn't see, because I despise its take on the very points it pretends to make. In other words, I'm boycotting it.
Here's a quote from Verne Troyer who played Mini-Me in the "Austin Powers" movie: "I think when average-size people start taking roles that were meant for dwarfs, that's a little frustrating because there aren't that many roles out there for height-challenged actors."
The last part of the quote is the key, there aren't many roles out there for height-challenged actors. Many years ago, you couldn't have little actors playing big roles unless your name was Danny De Vito or Bob Hoskins and they were hardly leading roles in the romantic definition of the word, same story in France, little guys could only play sidekicks or funny comic reliefs as the obligatory whipping boys of the bigger guys.
But Laurent Tirard can't get away with that excuse, in 2016, one of the greatest TV stars was Peter Dinklage and he proved that you could play a badass dude even below the 5ft limit. Tirard wanted to make a statement about love being blind and even a beautiful tall blonde girl like Virginie Elfira could fall in love with a man of 4ft and half. I can only cheer to that, finally a movie tackling the issue of height.
Yes, height is a serious issue for men, standing at 5ft7, I have endured some rejections because of my height and I could eavesdrop many girls' conversations always converging toward the same depiction of the ideal guy: tall and handsome (notice how tall always comes before handsome). I have always wished height would be handled as a serious issue in a movie, and here came the perfect film for that, and the intentions of the script are certainly laudable, but then... I saw the trailer and realized they took the most bankable actor to play the little man. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Cinema is a tough racket, many are called and a few are chosen. In the case of little men, a few are even called. Seriously, how many young men under 5ft would dream about any ungrateful role in a big production if that meant a ticket to glory, and here comes a movie where it's the leading role. Finally, height has a point, where a little man is given the opportunity to shine and deliver a heart-warming message about love and tolerance. Surely, there must have been a handsome young man with a deficit in centimeters, how about having the guts to give one of these guys a chance... for the first time?
But not only Tirard went for the easy choice; picking the "it" actor in France but he also insulted the matter of height by turning it into a publicity stunt à la "Honey, I shrunk Dujardin", it's not about going to see the love story between a small man and a tall girl, but to have fun watching Dujardin being "downsized". Tirard turned the serious matter of height into a goddamn movie gimmick, which adds the insult to injury. Tirard would rather complicate the whole filmmaking process by having to shot with a green screen rather than casting a short man and letting it roll.
I guess the box office success is worth the risk of awkward and obviously staged interactions and of course, some will say that the casting made sense in terms of financial issues, that spectators are most likely to come to watch a Dujardin movie rather than an unknown man. Well, if Tirard couldn't care less about preventing a small man from a role tailor-made for him, he could have casted many other famous short guys in French showbiz and there are some, with notable talent. But the real problem is that the film is supposed to deliver a message which is that size doesn't matter.
Except that Tirard, by shrinking a tall guy instead of genuinely casting a small one, proved that size indeed mattered. It might be motivated by economical and aesthetical factors, but you wouldn't believe how many times, heightism is also due to these very causes, so Tirard doesn't taste the very soup he's selling to us, and I don't want any of it.
The film is a gutless production that doesn't believe in its own premise, and twice an insult to short people, because it pretends to care about them.
Stranger Things (2016)
A slice of the 80's, spiced up with a 2010's flavor!
I was first aware of "Stranger Things" after the buzz surrounding the clip of the kids reacting to the Golden Globe nominations in 2016, it was a cute moment that (retrospectively) captured the charm of the show.
Then there was David Harbour's speech at the SAG ceremony with Winona Ryder (still in character?) making the weirdest faces. Winning the ensemble award was a signal confirmed by the show progressively becoming the phenomenon of the year before being temporarily dethroned by Netflix' other youth-oriented but more socially-loaded "13 Reasons Why". Still, despite all these encouragements to curiosity, if it was up to me, I'm not sure I would have watched the series. I'm not the series' buff.
But my wife is... and I registered to Netflix, her attention span is a better match for the series' format and thankfully, I never had to complain about her choices. And yesterday, we had just finished our nine-hours of "Stranger" binge-watching, over a span of ten days. And well, the show is good, quite good, Actually, it's "2010's" good and "1980's" good.
You can't ignore the 80's thing, the series surfs across all the canvas of its flashy Pop Culture but with such a gusto and brilliance you could really believe this is a 80's classic. The only thing that slightly betrays the series is how the kaleidoscope of 80's is so persistent at times you can't dodge the feeling of a certain self-awareness from the authors, the Duffer brothers, there are at times an 'overuse' of reminders that we're not in the 2010's, but I guess this isn't an artistic license, it is a necessity.
In fact, it's just as if the Duffer brothers didn't draw their inspiration upon the well of the decade nostalgia, the series would've been another soul-less rip-off of "Lost" or "American Horror Story". And let's not forget that the show wouldn't have worked the same if the kids had cell-phones or behaved like today's generation Z. Maybe there's a generational commentary after all, reminding me of Marge Simpson's question "do kids still go on bike rides?" a time where dungeons and dragons were played with cards, where a kid wanted to be a Ghostbuster and not having the most likes on Facebook.
Netflix came up with two shows that said a lot about how kids have changed in three decades, but "Stranger Things" doesn't go for social relevance, not directly anyway, the real deal is within the story and never ceases to amaze you by the level of creativity and inventiveness injected into each episode. Sure, there are many archetypes that don't just belong to the 80's, you have the mysterious girl, a chosen one with hidden powers, you have the supernatural occurrences for starters, a group of kids with various personalities. But just when you're thinking "oh, I've seen that before", there's a new twist popping out on the screen or something that either thickens the plots or deepens the relationships, stuff which, while looking vaguely familiar, feels weirdly new and fresh with that 2010's/1980's feeling?
Take the group of kids, you have the straight one (Finn Wolfhard), the goofy one (Gaten Matarazzo), the seemingly token black kid (Caleb McLaughlin) but there's never a moment where you feel they're here to play archetypes. The presence of Sean Astin reminded me that even in "The Goonies", you could feel the Spielbergian over-the-top touch, too many gadgets, too much cockiness, these kids in "Stranger Kids" feel closer to a certain reality, we would believe kids would act that way in the 80's, just like we would believe in the everyday and homely realism of the folks leaving in the neighborhood.
For such a fantasy and sci-fi driven series, to feel that real is quite an achievement, but the soul of its success relied on one hit-or-miss character: Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. You see, I've never been a fan of all these girl power tropes, but Brown plays such a nuanced character that she practically defines the perfect sense of balance in the Duffer brothers' vision, at times, she's bad ass, other times, vulnerable but never in a "Hit Girl" way. You really feel for her and the chemistry with every other character makes the whole thing work.
"Lost" was a bit like that before it drowned itself in a maze of intricacies. I wish "Strangers Things" will keep on this trajectory, after two seasons and so many thrills, I wish it won't just get too wrapped up in its obsession to duplicate every element of the 80's. And while served by a good cast of known faces like Wynona Ryder, Harbour and Astin, the series is a vehicle for great emerging talents and I guess I wouldn't be wrong in assuming that Brown will be Oscar nominated before reaching her 20's. She's that good.
So "Stranger Things" is the typical case of a new and original recipe made of traditional ingredients, it's a salad of familiar elements, but it's digestible, and at times delicious... and it makes you realize how fast time flies, remember in the 80's, there was a wave of nostalgia over the 60's ("Dirty Dancing", "Stand By Me"...) when baby boomers were looking at the good old times. Imagine that in "Stranger Things", the oldest main actors were born in the 70's and now we're looking at the 80's as the good old days, and watching the show, I remembered the TV of my childhood. Even the theme has that ominous V-like tempo and the series that crappy VHS look.
Still, the special effects that had the wisdom not to be too 80's. Again, that sense of balance... the Duffer brothers know how to play it like in the 80's, and when not to... and the mark of the best directors is to make the strangest things out of familiar elements. And the best.
Desperately Seeking Johnny...
(Dedicated to Johnny Hallyday 1943-2017)
"Jean Philippe" is what I call a 'what if' movie, what if you lived the same day over and over? What if you were paid one million dollars to let your wife sleep with a stranger? What if you could be someone else? Movies that take one simple sentence to be summed up and with the kind of premise any viewer with a minimum luggage of curiosity would give a chance to.
The "What if" question here is more likely to appeal to a French audience: what if Jean Philippe Smet better known as Johnny Halliday, even better known as "Johnny", didn't exist? Well, if there was one French artist who was the perfect candidate to that question, it certainly is Johnny, the most iconic of all, the emblematic figure of the baby-boom generation, from a teenager idol channeling Elvis and James Dean to a biker's idol. He's probably the singer with the most vocal and passionate fans, some who followed him from the start, some who got the Johnny virus transmitted by the family.
Luchini plays one of these fans, but to say that he transmitted the virus to his wife and daughter, named Laura like Johnny's, wouldn't reflect the reality. But to call Fabrice (that's his name) a fan would be the understatement of the year, Johnny isn't just an idol, he's a full-time dedication, a budget too, any disc, prop or object loosely related to the idol is good enough for the "Johnny room", a sort of sanctuary full of discs, relics, and the collectibles they make a fortune out in "Pawn Stars". And the passion naturally transcends the limits of the room, Fabrice listens to Johnny, talks Johnny and breaths Johnny every minute of the day, and there was no better actor than Luchini to convey that level of "mental" passion.
Indeed, the actor is famous for going into long eloquent tirades, and get passionate about the most banal stuff. His verbal delirium outbursts are perhaps his most famous trademarks, a blessing for impersonators, and when it mixes with the passion for Johnny, the tone is set the most effectively. In the pivotal scene, e he can't stop singing Johnny's hit songs at night in a peaceful neighborhood, and gets immediately punched in the face. When he wakes up, something changed in the "air". Anyone wouldn't have noticed it after a few days, but it takes a Johnny hardcore fan to immediately spot a world where his idol doesn't exist.
Luchini is the first reason the film works. It's not just the premise, if Johnny doesn't exist, well, that hardly changes the face of earth, one must find a way to make the consequences of his inexistence cinematically tangible, so the fan's perspective is the right one. And It's fun to have people saying "who's Johnny?" and test Fabrice's suspension of disbelief, but a succession of baffled reactions doesn't drive a film for too long and the screenwriter knew it. Fabrice tries to understand why Johnny seems to have vanished from existence after that knockout punch and then realizes he's in a world where Hallyday didn't exist, but not in the sense that Jean-Philippe Smet wouldn't exist as well.
And this is where the film reveals its subtler touch, it's not about Halliday not existing but about Jean Philippe Smet not making it in stardom, for some reason, Fabrice intuitively guesses that Jean Phillipe does exist and that has somewhat influenced his own life (starting with his daughter's name). Fabrice searches for Johnny, learns why he didn't make it and does his best to launch his career. The underlying message seems that it's never too late to be what we were meant to be and it's a positive one although a bit predictable. It's also fun to see Fabrice trying to gain the trust of Jean Philippe, played with the perfect dose of realism and sympathy by the rocker.
Seeing Johnny being himself while totally oblivious to the kind of phenomenon he would have been adds a dimension of poignancy and sensitiveness in the character, as if he might have wished to live a simpler life or have a taste of it. The film is never as good as when it tones down the whole celebration of Johnny and becomes a more intimate introspection into the real-life counterpart Jean Philippe. It is later revealed why Jean Philippe didn't become Johnny but in reality, no failed audition or accident could have prevented him from becoming what he was born to be: a legend and the film is so aware of its awareness it follows it rather than dares to contradict it, wouldn't it have been more interesting to draw Fabrice toward's Johnny's idea of himself than having Jean-Philippe becoming Johnny.
It's like the film had to have that great finale but while the climactic performance of Johnny is a great moment, it is played in a kind of rush followed by ten final minutes that feel like false notes, as if the whole thing was just "a joke". But despite the clumsy ending, watching the film in the context of Johnny's passing kind of erases this little flaw and elevates the film as the best cinematic tribute to the singer. Johnny was such a prevalent figure he became one of those people you couldn't imagine dying one day, so it took everyone by surprise when, on a sad December morning, France was an orphan of its greatest legend.
No one could imagine him dead, but who said he was dead? His legacy would live forever and while not physically present, he'll still be here. And that's one of the aspect of Johnny's charisma the film demonstrates quite well, thanks to Luchini's exuberant but sensitive performance, even in a world when he's not present, we felt his presence when he was desperately telling people he existed. Johnny could exist on his own, through one fan, let alone millions and millions.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A poignant, realistic and inspirational take on the "war veteran" trope...
When Al Stephenson asks his children "You've changed, what happened?", "just four years of normal growth" says his daughter Peggy, kisses and joy ensues while this line is cooking in our head. Yes, one simple absence is liable to create shifts of misunderstanding even with your beloved ones. I have always said that besides love and respect, understanding was the underrated cement of relationships, "The Best years of Our Lives" explore that issue through the intertwined post-war lives of three WW2 veterans.
Fredric March is Al, a forty-something banker who comes back unwounded but fails to recognize his home, Peggy (Teresa Wright) grew up and gained such maturity she became a mother's substitute and his son has long abandoned the war's patriotic scope for more sensitive questions about the use of the Nuclear force. The housewife (Myrna Loy) is overwhelmed by Al's come-back but you can feel the tension, when the heat is over, Al feels entrapped and needs to celebrate his comeback anywhere but out of the house.
That "Going for a drink" excuse was subtly foreshadowed by the similar reluctance of Homer Parrish to meet his folks. Homer is perhaps the heart of the story, a sailor who lost his hands in duty but took it all in stride, minimizing the loss and being thanking the Navy for having taught him the use of his hooks. We're impressed by his ability to light a match and sign his name but as Al points out, they never taught him to take his fiancée in his arms and stroke her hair, though a better line could have been "they didn't teach the family to handle them".
Homer's no fool, he notices her mother's sobbing gasp at the sight of the hooks and knows he's going to handle awkward guilt-driven demonstrations of love. As a result, he doesn't even talk about the marriage with his fiancée (Cathy O'Donnell) fearing she couldn't handle it, or maybe wishing she wouldn't. The irony of Homer, played with genuine intensity by Harold Russell, is that he doesn't want to be seen as a freak but is reminded of his handicap because he looks in people's eyes like in a mirror, or does he see his own reflection?
And then there's Fred, Dana Andrews, he comes from a poorer neighborhood and his wife (Virginia Mayo) seemed to have left the house. She's obviously a "tramp" and soon the pride and exaltation of having a dashing husband in his uniform leads to the disillusion of unemployment. Once a respected and brave captain, Fred becomes a soda jerk, a loser in the eyes of society and his wife, for what it's worth. Fred finds the needed comfort in Peggy, she can see that he's unhappy in marriage, likewise in society.
Now that the most prevalent war veteran figure is the Vietnam vet who saw his best friend being blown to pieces in Nam, here's 1946 Best Picture, directed by ace director William Wyler, and reminding us that post-war isn't just all about PTSD, shell shock and dark memories, there are physical and emotional scars, but perhaps the toughest part of the job is to try to adjust yourself to a world that changed, before you realize you're the one who changed. "Mudbound" handled that issue in 2017, and quite well.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" centers on these three men's lives and their families in the generic town of Boone City. Each man represents a side effect of the war. Although it would be tempting to treat their arcs separately, I like the way the three of them tie the plot together and rather than speaking different statements about a subject, make a positive message converging toward its heart-warming conclusion, after almost three hours of a journey into the everyday lives of normal citizens.
And this is what impressed me the most in Wyler's tone, he doesn't go for any sensational effect, or overuse of pathos, there's no forced drama or twists, the film is long because it has a certain desire to build solid and realistic bonds. In any other movie, the romance between Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews would look phony and contrived but the first day is as long as the wedding in "The Godfather", you feel the realness of every interaction, and both Andrews or Wright seem to succumb to a relationship they wanted to resist first.
The performances are so good I couldn't believe only March (who was splendid) and Russell were nominated, they won though, and Russell even won a second Oscar for his inspiration for WW veterans. But if you consider the whole cast, Myrna Low, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright deserved nominations as well, but I guess they weren't because sometimes, the talent of an actor is enhanced by the directing, and the film owes a lot to William Wyler. It can ever be regarded as a school case of masterful directing.
Indeed, what we take for great acting is sometimes a wonderful attention to details and characters behaving independently. In the Parrish' reunion scene, check how the father and then the mother has their first glimpses on Homer's hooks and try to ignore it. Another masterstroke is the phone booth scene, consisting on Homer playing piano with his Uncle (Hoagy Carmichael), Harry listening to them and Fred making a crucial phone call at that moment. Three actions compacted in one scene, meanwhile, many long moments dedicated to seemingly mundane trivialities, eating breakfast, dancing, drinking, working at the office.
Wyler knows what deserves several minutes and what can be handled in one and each character is given enough time and substance you know why? Because the story is all about people trying to reinvent themselves, for that, we need to know a little about their background, about what they are, and what they want to be, the film looks simple, but it's far more complex, intellectually engaging. Not to mention 100% relevant today.
Pluto's Judgement Day (1935)
1935 was a terrific year for Disney cartoons, featuring possibly my all-time favrotie triplet: the haunting and mysterious "Who Killed Cock Robin", the colorful and exhilarating "Band Concert" and the nightmarish and disturbing "Pluto's Judgment Day".
It's worth noting that none of them won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, ironically the winner that year was Three Orphan Kittens", a boringly cutesy cartoon not devoid of racist undertones, less for the depiction of a Black housekeeper than her cold-hearted attempt to throw the kittens outside at cold winter before faceless Shirley-Temple-like little girl played white savior... thinking of that cringing ending, I feel an urge to get back to the good stuff. If each short of this 1935 trifecta delivers on a different emotional level, the one that stands out is "Pluto's Judgment's Day", it even brought nightmares to cartoonist Matt Groening (and I thought I was the only one!) inspiring an episode of "Itchy and Scratchy". It also probably inspired the classic Tom and Jerry's episode "Heavenly Puss" based on the same narrative, but this one is perhaps worthy of the superlative of scariest. And unlike "Kittens", cats here play their trademark antagonistic role introduced by Mickey's nemesis Pete, but Pete is Winnie the Pooh in comparison to these 'Judgment Day' cats.
They say the first ten minutes of a movie are vital; I guess in a short, it applies for the opening credit and the first thirty seconds. The Mickey Mouse cardboard used to scare the hell out of me, less for its look (though Mickey isn't really appealing on close-up) but for its startling effect, especially with the sound of an ominous organ. The tone is followed by a thrilling riff announcing danger and the barking of Pluto leaving you wondering whether he's the one in danger or not. The title cardboard is a spotlight containing "Pluto's Judgment Day".
In one image, you have everything: danger, Pluto, religion and doom, if that doesn't set the tone of the cartoon, I don't know what it does. And then it starts, Pluto is chasing a little white kitten over the countryside and while the audience of 1935 is used to animals chasing each other (and so we are), this one looks pretty intense, Pluto is so willing to get to that cat that you're wondering what awaits the poor creature if he catches it. The chase ensues and takes the two from a pool of mud to Mickey's house and ends with the latter's intervention.
Pluto gets summoned by his master like he's never been. Mickey calls the dog a bully and wishes him good luck for the judgment's day. We'll never see Mickey as angry and bigoted with Pluto, but looking at his hurt reaction, he still needed to be taught a lesson. Indeed, little did Mickey know that his speech had planted the seeds of the on-going nightmare and one of the most frightening Disney experiences.
And saying it's a nightmare isn't a spoiler because the cartoon makes it clear that it is one, when the gray cat talks Pluto into following him you can see a sort of ghostly Pluto leaving the body and even the door stays closed. This is a neat trick from Disney animators, they're warning us that what we're seeing right now isn't 'real' in the story's context but the magic of animation doesn't make it any less real for us.
So Pluto chases another cat (again) in a forest where trees look like cats in frightening gargoyle-like poses and as a child, it was the signal for me to cover my eyes because I couldn't watch the big cat's head as the cave's entrance. Then came perhaps the most intense and vivid illustration of a nightmare regardless of its morale or context. When I saw the short for the first time, I didn't exactly know why Pluto was being harassed and bullied, but it made me focus more on his ordeal: being chained, trapped in a sort of ominous ceremony, having to face that scary-looking red-clad prosecutor, that hostile crowd, and the imagery was so powerful that the nightmare became mine.
Disney really has a way to make you empathize with a character what's with Pluto's reactions to all the accusing fingers pointed at him varying from symbolic shrinking, constant trembling and heartbreaking sobbing. The film is also served by a powerful soundtrack and watching the cartoon many years later, the 'Uncle Tom' song immediately re-emerged from the abysses of my memories as soon as the three black kittens started singing. A pity that this part would be edited today for censorship, some classics ought to be untouchable.
"Pluto's Judgment Day" has always became an instant part of my childhood, it was so intense and I was so little I could never get it off my mind and I guess that's what Disney intended to do, to make a strong impression. It wasn't enough that Pluto had to go through this "parody of a trial" but the sentence had to be thrown to our faces and we had to see an army of trident's armed cats pushing him the bonfire. If you watch on Youtube the clip, just pause at the first image of Pluto after the verdict and you'll have perhaps one of the scariest moments of Disney's history, no wonder it gave Groening the creeps.
The fire climax fed my intuitive perception of hell and it's only fair that after that last sadistic showcase, Pluto had to wake up and the film to end on an abruptly gentler tone, but that's like the best rollercoaster rides, you're not given time to recover from the thrills that it's over already. Sure we're glad for Pluto that his judgment's day has been postponed (and we wish him a fairer trial next) but the experience will be pretty tough to eradicate from memory. And that's why, eight decades after, this cartoon has still the same emotional impact!
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Marx Brothers signs their MGM Contract... with Zanity Clause... albeit setting a precedent announcing their lesser movies...
"Half the laughs and twice the money" that was Irwin Thalberg's equation when he hired the Marx Brothers for their new MGM contract and it sure paid off if the first movie was the 1935 classic, "A Night at the Opera", one of their best, if not the second best after "Duck Soup", or third after "Animal Crackers". This is basically "Duck Soup" with a plot, with more heart and less cynicism and let's admit it, a few sappy and musical moments... but so few, I didn't think they spoiled the enjoyment.
Before the MGM, Paramount consecrated the Marx Brothers as the new sound of comedic talent, proof that humor needed the talkies, and after Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, there was room for a chatterbox like Groucho Marx, a wise guy like Chico, and a honking maniac (who knew how to handle silent humor) like Harpo. But it's all in the persona of Groucho Marx, his wisecracking that would later inspire Bugs Bunny, the way he constantly teases a bewildered Margaret Dumont who easily loses the track of his machine-gun firing insults or the sense of natural anarchy and mayhem caused by the three siblings.
Intelligence, subversion, chaos, that was the Marx Brothers before Thalberg felt the need to tone it down in order to match the more politically correct requirement of the audience. Yes, those were the Code's days and "Duck Soup" was perhaps too subversive and politically loaded for its own good. So the point was to change the formula and not rely too much on their unpredictable behavior but use a plot as a clothesline where to hang their antics and weird behavior... make them more sympathetic, Harpo would become like a child figure rather than his Benny Hill precursor persona and the brothers will always serve the interest of a young romantic couple, against a generally one-dimensional bad guy.
That was the formula of the MGM period, being "foils" that didn't fool us, it worked to a certain degree, but in "A Night in the Opera", despite the sappy romantic interludes and musical "fillers", the film is still in the same vein of zaniness than "Duck Soup". I did the counting, there are exactly five minutes of the "Alone" meowing, I mean, singing, ten minutes of "Cosi Cosa" and Chico and Harpo playing their trademark instruments, and the romantic moments between Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle or the bad guy, don't exceed twenty minutes. So basically, in a runtime of ninety minutes, you have seventy minutes of fun, and sequences as classic one another.
Think about it, the restaurant scene with Dumont, the contract scene with Chico, the iconic room filling sequence where each new guest inspired a new hilarious comment from Marx, that "you have everything" 'no one ever complained" exchange that got past the censor, and the great spectacular finale at the opera. 1935 was the year Donald trolled the band concert by playing "Turkey in the Straw" during the William Tell Overture, but I'm not sure if it beats "the Baseball Music" playing at the Scala. But recollecting the great moments of "A Night at the Opera" isn't interesting, the problem is that the film marks both a new era for the siblings but a sort of beginning of the end.
If we except "A Day At the Races", the other movies don't play the same league for the simple reason that the formula could only depend on the inspiration in the comedic moments and the more films they made, the less gags and the sappier the romance went. Even in "A Night at the Opera", you're tempted to skip the parts while "Duck Soup" is perfect from beginning to end. The Brothers were so ahead of their time they had to serve as foils for plot elements that ruined their films and totally forgettable. Imagine if they could have done similar movies even unsuccessful, the treasure it would have been.
It was French comedic actor Louis de Funès who said at the peak of his career that he wouldn't accept anymore to be directed, advised yes, but director not. According to him, a comic actor alone could understand the range of his talent and many comedians didn't get their deserved success because they followed the instructions of directors who knew nothing. It was his perception (and agreeable) that the comics were perhaps the only auteur in acting and any interference could ruin the intended effects. I don't think this really applies in the case of "A Night at the Opera", even Groucho Marx admitted it was a wise choice.
But as good as it is, the film sets a precedent and provides the ludicrous idea that a Marx Brothers movie could be a vehicle for a banal romance, meant to promote two MGM stars. With a reasonable timing and good 'interludes', maybe, but who would believe the audience came to watch anyone but the Marx Brothers?
The last Hurrah of Disney Renaissance...
1999 was a cinematic year marked by the seal of originality and self-questioning that fitted the upcoming New Millennium timing, it is also the year where animated movies like "Toy Story 2" and the "South Park" movie came out and they were so in-line within the modern mood of their era, that they might overshadow "Tarzan" despite not being as visually breathtaking.
Indeed, for all its spectacular jungle canvas and spellbinding animation (the animators really outdid themselves), not to mention its heartfelt story not devoid of a few existential undertones, "Tarzan" might be too 'classic' for its own good. The film is often noticed for being the last of the Disney Renaissance era, and it is true that if we forget the sorry streak of straight to video sequels of the early 2000's, Disney had definitely surrendered to the CGI wave after that. But "Tarzan" was made a bit too late, when the pulse of animation was beating in 3D and when the torch of traditional animation had already passed to Hayao Miyazaki. "Chihiro's Travel" is light years ahead of "Tarzan".
I liked Tarzan a lot despite my criticism, I loved the relationship he had with his environment and the character of Kala, his adoptive mother voiced by Glenn Close, who is certainly one of the most memorable mother figures of Disney canons. There must be something about Close's voice as she was also remarkable as Homer Simpson's mother. The character of Jane is also a nice twist on the usual love interest figure and Minnie Driver delivers a fine performance as a girl always in good mood, curious about everything and whose awkwardness with Tarzan is both touching and funny.
I loved the lighthearted tone of the encounter between Tarzan and Jane, the way they both try to communicate (we get it that the English spoken with animals is just the usual artistic license and that it's meant to be a series of articulate grunts and adequate body language) and how a well-meaning Tarzan tries to fit between the two worlds. Voiced by Tony Goldwyn, Tarzan is certainly deeper than most Disney protagonists, torn between the love and friendship of some and the defiance of other, most notably, Kala's mate, voice by Lance Henrikssen, who refuses to recognize him as a son.
We do root for Tarzan, he's certainly an engaging hero but just when ou try to except something really worthy of this character, the film just never feels like delivering something reasonably new and fresh, if we except the splendid special effects, but from the trailer, viewers already knew about the surfing across the trees sequences, perhaps one of Disney's greatest moments. The problem is that the relationships, as original as they are, fail to blow the mind of an audience who's seen "The Jungle Book", "Beauty and the Beast" or even "Pocahontas".
The blame might also be on the weakness of the main villain (Brian Blessed) and the too distractingly old and goofy father (Nigel Hawthorne), I couldn't believe he would be Jane's father but Disney has a tendency to make little goofy midgets fathering beautiful and tall women, at least Tarzan looked like his real parents. Both the bad guy and the professor were rather dependable and maybe the story could have worked better without them, but I guess the purpose of the film was to culminate with a men vs. animal confrontation with Tarzan as the common denominator, but they could have found a more original climactic action sequence.
The songs are touching and poignant like Phil Collins' songs but in a year where the "South Park" movie provided at least three Oscar-worthy songs, I won't forgive the Academy for having taken the easy choice. So I won't develop that chapter and will conclude by saying that "Tarzan" is certainly the last hurrah of Disney Renaissance and a great animated film in the sense that the animation is great and the story engaging but not to the point you'd want to watch it a second time.
I'm a father and since today is Christmas, I just remembered I often bought Disney DVDs to my daughter and "Tarzan" is one of the rarest ones, there must be a reason, don't you think?
Get Out (2017)
An instant classic that won't "get out" of your head easily!
What a fresh wind of creativity exuding from that "little" movie.
By little, there's no disrespect meant of course, only highlighting the fact that this is a directorial debut from Jordan Peele with an actor who was relatively unknown Mr. Daniel Keluuya, and yet what we've got here is a game-changer, one of these "little" movies popping out of nowhere but leaving in your mind the constant impression that they will be standing in cinematic memories for a long, time. That's how 'good' "Get Out" is.
I won't insist enough on its originality, if we were in 2007, I would have gone straight to the point but we're in 2017, a year where creativity seems to have declining for good, Disney recycle its classic with the cheap excuse of money-grabbing live-action only milking on previously built successes and big directors take the easy way of remaking, rebooting, and proposing sequels, with no super vision and a lot of supervision. A time where the "Star Wars" series became a soap space opera and for all the noises these movies make, all is desperately quiet in the cinematic Western front.
Now, Jordan Peele's film is made of "old stuff" but only in the way it totally deconstructs all the usual infuriating tropes of the horror genre and features, for once a protagonist who's smart enough to figure out when things go suspicious and a "sidekick" who incarnates our own point of view and never goes for a face-palm inducting direction. If LilRel Howery manages to slip through the image of funny sidekick, Keluuya is simply just too good for words, and his performance covers such a wide range of emotions, I doubt the Academy will overlook him.
It's been three paragraphs and I can't get to the story yet, don't take it as pompousness, this is the very indicator of my enthusiasm, I don't need to tell the story because it's so good I would rather invite anyone to go see what's so good in it. Let's just say that it opens like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" where Chris Washington is going to meet the rich family of his white girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) in a secluded house, the Armitages who can't stop delivering glorifying compliments on Obama or Jesse Owens yet hire black housekeepers who look so "Uncle Tom" it's painful to watch.
But the parts meant to raise our suspicion (I won't get too wordy on them) shine because of their roles within the plot and the reaction of Keluuya. At first, he's not really in his element and tries to fit in, but his performance is so nuanced and subtle that sometimes you can feel the crispation in his smile, the unease in his eyes, and the way he always reaches for an eye contact with Allison, with the fragility of a child begging for a parent's reassuring sign. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener plays the Armitage couple and they're good at feigning emotions so that our suspicion is never pushed to that level where we expect the worst, Peele engages us in a harrowing journey where each step seems to take us downer toward a descent into hell but no matter what, we're never one step ahead of Chris.
The plot thickens with the first display of racism from the son, played by Caleb Landry Jones, and a mysterious group of hosts coming for a garden party and where each white man indulges to one of these patronizingly racist comments and turning slowly the film to an experience à la "Rosemary's Baby" where you can tell there's some conspiracy going on but people are so occasionally friendly, we're tempted, like Chris, to keep on a cool facade. Of course, once Chris gets why he'd better get out, there's no way to get out and the film turns into one of the best horror movie experiences of recent years. I would go as far as saying that the film is an instant classic.
The action and the thrills escalate driven by the usual horror elements, the deserted houses, the jump scares, a séance of hypnosis that alone should guarantee an Oscar nomination for Keluuya, but the film never recycles plot devices, it reinvents their use in a way that respects our intelligence. Indeed, "Get Out" is meant for viewers who've seen enough horror movies not to be tricked to better trick us. The film has an edge, a level of intelligence that is so bold and daring it can almost flirt with reverse parody, and maybe for that level of self-awareness, it has been nominated in the "Comedy" category for the Golden Globes". Still, there's nothing comedic in the performances, although the film makes you smile a lot.
So yes, this is a "little" movie that stands above all today's creations in a way I didn't think was possible. Let me explain this: I've often said that today, you could only make big budget blockbuster movies if you had a name or an independent movie that tries to be socially relevant, you know, that deals with racism, politics, environment, men and women, homosexuality etc. It would be a lie to say that "Get Out" isn't relevant, it's perhaps one of the most intelligent recent movies to deal with racism especially in the way it highlights the mix of fascination and revulsion where the worst forms of racism are rooted... if it wasn't for that fascination, the plot wouldn't exist.
"Get Out" is disturbing, but subversive brilliant and the social commentary is only one of the facets of its greatness, the film also works on the thrills and the way the action unfolds from one reveal to another until the climactic and satisfying conclusion... and that's only after a first viewing, I just realized that I failed to notice many hints and plot points and I guess it'll take me more viewings to get each time more of "Get out"'s brilliance.
"It's not easy to be a son"...
... said Michael Corleone to Fredo. I guess it's no easier to be a father. Right now, I'm contending with the two statuses and each one has its share of joys and pains... and frustrations driven in what-ifs thoughts either conjugated in the past or the future.
"The Meyerowitz Stories" could be any families' stories. Three estranged siblings, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel reunited when their father is victim of a cerebral accident. The father, brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman, is a sculptor whose art, while not totally unnoticed, is still undiscovered by the public eye.
Harvey is the kind of man who'd cast a big shadow on everyone, let alone his children as even his odd or wrong statements sound like intuitive gospel. The film was written AND directed by Noah Baumbach (a Wes Anderson collaborator) and his greatest merit is to let us discover fascinating characters while nothing much happens (until the "big thing" does).
The writing of the build-up lets a few expository dialogues slip (sometimes in a dangerously convenient way) but the acting is so competent that you felt riveted by the simple exchanges going on. Of course, there's some déjà-vu with the eccentric, intellectual, Jewish, artistic upper class of New York, but just when you try to spot some Woody Allen, Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson patterns, the film finds a captivating way to reinvent himself and go for another direction. It's as unpredictable as life, if I might be allowed one cliché.
And each sibling represents a direction. Danny (Sandler), the older, was promised to an artistic career but we find him unemployed and divorced. There are many shades of regrets in his life but he never really blames his Dad, perhaps because of his symmetrical situation. And from his father-and-daughter piano duet, we discover about Eliza (Grace Van Patten) that she's an artistic genius (she enters a film school) and among many other things, that she has Daddy's hands and toes. That part struck a sensitive chord because I can say the same about my daughter. I don't know if she's a genius, but she inherited my passion for drawing and (unfortunately) my chubby fingers.
There's also Matthew (Stiller), brother from another marriage, successful business-wise, yet not so happy on the marriage department. Only till the third act that we get to know the sister a little more, and there's a clever twist about her seemingly awkwardness. The film is actually edited like a series of little portraits and if there's a moment where you feel this is going nowhere, just let it go, there's an emotional culmination that makes all the awkwardness worth it. The film deals with highly intellectual people but ironically, its message is more about emotions.
I guess what it says is that parental love can be a road to hell paved with good intentions, dreams of success that can kill the real dreams. There's a sense of Freudian inevitability that time will come for saying such things as "I love you", "forgive me" or "I forgive you", and one of the many truths exuding from the film is that someone's death invites you to come to terms, but not just with the dying one. I have a dying grandmother right now, should I expect her death to finally make her children make peace and realize the time they wasted?
Death is still the real trigger of emotions, and the hospital part is particularly moving, even more because it does it with a good dose of comedy. When a doctor leaves your beloved one in his misery and mentions his next vacation to China, it's typically the kind of situation where one says: "I wouldn't laugh if it wasn't so sad!" That's sums up how good a "dramedy" it is. And it is also one of Adam Sandler's greatest performances. Dustin Hoffman is obviously the scene-stealer but he never quite outshines Sandler, and that comes from a fan.
Now, the film isn't perfect but I would point out its flaws like this: there are moments that feel genuinely true to life, people talk without listening to each other, people say the most awkward things but they do have a meaning in their respective context, and in these small moments where Sandler was interacting with a woman he liked, the body language was so convincing that the dialogue became superfluous. It's these little moments that enhanced the film, and some great lines, I kept nodding when Sandler said "I wish I could have a good reason to be angry at Dad" but Harvey did nothing wrong, just little bad things piling up... same for the film.
It could have done without these too abrupt cuts, also Danny's severe disapproval of Eliza's drinking but open-mindedness over the sexual content of her films. Her films were creative but were they that good? Was it supposed to show that a girl could only break through by daring to show her boobs? Couldn't have she done something that actually echoed her life, her being a Meyerowitz. I get it that her success was a way to show that someone got the right combo (genes and education) but apart from the middle sister, the female characters weren't as substantial to the film's appeal. Even Emma Thompson's role was rather tertiary, and I almost didn't recognize her.
The last act drags a bit too long, and things could have been tied up together more quickly. Indeed, when there's such a powerful climax, you don't need fifteen more minutes (just like the title didn't need that slightly pretentious parenthesis). Apart from that, it was great to see Hoffman as Stiller's dad again and Sandler proving that he's definitely not an actor to be underestimated... when he's given the right role.
The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
This Emperor Has Clothes, and Moves, and Style...
When you've been reviewing movies for a little while, you start to develop a few verbal symptoms, one of them is to adopt a sort of historian pose. I'll refrain from my usual impulses but just for a bit of contextualization, let's drop some information you're probably aware of. We know the "Disney Renaissance" is said to have started in 1989 with "Little Mermaid" and ended ten years later with "Tarzan". 1999 was also the year of the last Pixar acclaimed movie: "Toy Story 2" before Disney would strike again in 2003 with "Finding Nemo".
What we've got in between is a forgettable trend of direct-to-VHS (or DVD) sequels that spoiled the 'classic' status of movies we tended for classics, and a few movies that have sunk into oblivion in the sense that they are not as celebrated as others involving a cute clown-fish, a cooking rat and a flying house. Speaking for myself, I started to be a student in 2000 and I didn't really care about the new Disney movies, I didn't care for "Dinosaurs", "Atlantis" and I certainly didn't care for "Emperor's New Groove" and it's not like the film didn't have publicity. After 17 years, I can only say "Mea Culpa". I was misinformed.
I finally saw the film and I must say I've never laughed as much as I did since I saw the "South Park" movie, the movie made me laugh to tears, and I mean tears. "Kuzco" is one hilarious movie that should be more known on the sole basis of this achievement. But that's why I needed to contextualize the film, it was perhaps made at the worst possible timing, where a new generation of animators was still trying to find the right path, a revolutionary time that saw the change from VHS to DVD, from hand-drawn to computer-generated imagery. More than that, it was a time where Disney had probably used up all the classic fairy tale material, that forged its legend for seventy decades.
And in "Kuzco", there's no room for grandstanding themes, underdog heroes and heroines, Aesopian arcs and honorable quests, the hero or let's just call him a protagonist is a wise-cracking emperor so wrapped up in the confidence over his power that he ends up being transformed into a llama. But even that pitch might give you the wrong idea, I could also tell you that the Incan emperor has an ego the size of his gigantic palace and would never tolerate anyone ruining his projects and that his journey will allow him to discover the 'good' side of his personality, but even that would be too moralizing for a movie that is mostly made for laughs, and that's why I loved it.
I won't spoil the gags but this is a guy who throws an old man from the window because he "ruined his groove" or is about to kick a man with two kids and a pregnant village just to build a residential home, named Kuzcotopia. He's not even good by 'antiheroic' standards. And when the "evil" counselor Izma is fired because she's abusing from her position, you're still wondering why you should deem her as the villain. But you know what, let's take all these trademark concepts, these "hero", "villain", "quest", "journey", "sidekick" and throw them in the trashcan of our preconceived notions. This is a bowl of fresh air, finally an animated Disney movie designed as nothing else but a cartoon, it's exactly like "Aladdin" and "Hercules" without the fancy looking, sappy and romantic elements.
To tell you how much I enjoyed the film, let's say that I had the feeling I was watching my good old Cartoon Network programs, "Cow and Chicken", "Johnny Bravo", even the old Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons. In fact, there are even moments where the film channel some Chuck Jones vibes and the sights remind of the Road Runner. By being the less Disney-esque of all the Disney films, "Kuzco" is an oddity that elevates itself above all the other movies, and that might include the classics. Indirectly, it even mirrors the boring pompousness of other well-polished, well- designed, well-crafted movies, that made it at the Top 10 box office at the the end of the year. "Kuzco" didn't ("Dinosaurs" did) but it makes its discovery all the more enjoyable.
And I liked it, I loved it. It's a harmless, lighthearted, fun movie, I could say "little" but no, it's a masterpiece of laughs. And it's full of great and fun characters, four were enough to make the film, Kuzco the Emperor turned-llama and wise-ass-turned-good- guy, voiced by David Spade, the big and good-hearted Pacha who helps him in exchange of his promise to spare the village, but who actually can't prevent himself from doing a good thing, he's a Good Man played by the namesake John, and by the size, it was guessable. There's finally Yzma who's like a zanier version of Cruella De Vil (EarthaKitt) and her sidekick Kronk (Patrick Warburton) a mountain of a man but with a soft side, I mean can you make more gentle than someone who cooking and can speak the squirrel?
I love a movie where you don't expect a villain to fall to death (well, there's a falling but it's an excuse for a hilarious twist), where action is more than an excuse for a succession of gags and laughs, where the 'serious' moments don't last too long, the film is a package of gags with the right running time, less than eighty minutes, but enough to leave you with a smile in your face. This is a film I would recommend to anybody, it's great and deserves more recognition.
And take it from someone who hates to use the word "underrated' but to call it underrated is an overstatement. It's groovy, but more than anything, it's funny.
Mitterrand the man, the dying man, the dying breed of men...
I'm not a page to be torn easily confessed a frail but smiling Mitterrand (Michel Bouquet) sitting on a bench park with his biographer Antoine (JalilLespert). The man was so close to death he could foresee his legacy. He knows he'll be remembered as the last great French leader... after De Gaulle of course.
There has always been an inferiority complex with De Gaulle driven by the public perception, because Mitterrand held himself in high esteem. Yet he knew he was dwarfed by De Gaulle whose "June 18's call" could never be equaled. There was an old French sketch explaining why Mitterrand wrote so many books in his life: because he needed to stand on their pile to match De Gaulle's height (ten inches taller). Another famous parody program portrayed him as a Kermit lookalike and his nickname was "God". It says a lot about his reputation, even more that Mitterrand was amused by the caricature.
And that's the general perception of Mitterrand inherited from his lifetime but maintained beyond the grave: an icy literate man capable of amiability with people he respected... and an eternal enigma. This image is prevalent all through the film and the César-winning performance of Michel Bouquet is a wonderful examination of a spirit resisting while the body's giving up. Mitterrand is a lucid man and he knows very well that the world changed and all the petty little inconveniences of his reign will not tarnish his legacy. People care for the big picture, on that level, he's got De Gaulle's aura. Still, the film doesn't deal with auras, but actions too.
It doesn't question Mitterrand's affair with women, his secret daughter and all the scandals that will flourish after his death, the film is an intimate portrait of a man who answers the questions of another man. If the questions involve some points that preoccupy the general opinion, they are still asked on a private level. There's no journalist, no footage of his TV apparitions (or a very few) and it all comes down to one question: how close was Mitterrand to some Vichy officials, Bousquet being the most notorious one. And even if his Resistance involvement isn't debatable, did that happen in 42 or 43? That's the main point of friction between Antoine and Mitterrand.
But that's also the leitmotif of the film, the little pebble (so to speak) in the shoe of Mitterrand's regal self-absorption, the last fuzzy aspects of his life on which Moreau demand clarifications, encouraged by a former Resistant. But this is Mitterrand's matter of discord, he hates talking about the war, which he refers to as a demon following him for fifty years. Maybe it's because he knows that he'd never be De Gaulle's match precisely because of that involvement or because he loves France so much he hates to see it associated with Vichy. We trust that he loves France more than himself, and that's the second reason.
If you watch a clip of one of his last interviews, when asked by a journalist whether France will make amends for what happened during World War II, Mitterrand dryly retorts that France has no excuses to make because France wasn't Vichy. In the film, he reminds Antoine that he built monuments in commemoration of the Jewish victims and was the first to say "we shall never forget", but people have conveniently forgotten his quote and constantly label him as a former collaborator. Now, why is the film so insistent on that part rather than Algeria or Rwanda?
Perhaps because Robert Guédiguian's film is driven by the same lucidity, that history is known by historians and people only remember the broad lines: De Gaulle was the man who restored France's honor, put an end to the Algerian War and created the Fifth Republic, Mitterrand was the last iconic President, the one who brought the left to power and who built Europe. His government reforms started in 1983 put a blow on the "socialist" dream, he "killed off" the communist party and the fall of the Berlin Wall opened a breech for liberalism, but Mitterrand knew his reputation wouldn't suffer from it, and that might explain his overall serenity and satisfaction, he's leaving the world "clean".
Is his conscience as clean? I think it comes to the question whether Deguedjian's film makes Mitterrand sympathetic or not. In fact, any man in his age would be sympathetic, mirroring that "Chinatown" quote about politicians becoming respectable when they last long enough, they have a sort of wisdom that only the passing of year can forge. Mitterrand know he's made mistakes, knows he won't be De Gaulle, but he's always been sincere and he's perhaps the closest man to De Gaulle a President will ever be. It's not megalomania but realism, he knows Europe will never bring patriots in power, only financiers.
It's strange how prophetically these lines resonate today, the film was made in 2005 but when he talked about finance, I was immediately reminded of Emmanuel Macron, a former banker from Rothschild (of all the banks) and now President of France. About France's involvement in Second World War, Macron firmly established that it was France's responsibility (Chirac nuanced by saying the French government), so you can tell there's more than a generation gap, it's a whole perception of France that has been affected by history. Some said 1989 was the end of history, maybe it was the end of history in its perception like a national journey.
Maybe that's what makes Mitterrand so close to De Gaulle, both had a certain idea of France. And given how low politics and media sunk, it's true Mitterrand was a class of his own and the film is a character study fitting his personality, it's cold, detached, intelligent, lucid and it has its heart-warming moment. If not objective, it is sincere about its material.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
Cyrano, classic hero and modern anti-hero...
By coincidence, I recently saw Jean Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast' and I immediately found deep connections between the Beast's torments and Cyrano de Bergerac. Listening to the interview of director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, I was glad he pointed out the same parallel. Both stories all about characters who believe something in their looks would make a difference in terms of love. And that's why the universal resonance of these stories never faded, don't we wish we had smaller noses, ears, more hair, to be taller or thinner.
Cyrano is a strong and skilled man capable to defeat a whole army, except for one enemy: himself. His story is one of an impossible romance between a man convinced on his ugliness and a woman, Roxanne who's in love with a handsome man, Christian, but can only be aroused by the power of words. And Christian has inferiority complex as well: for all his good looks, he lacks inspiration with women and needs Cyrano's help to seduce Roxanne with words. This is not a love triangle, except if you consider the Count of Guiche (Jacques Weber) as the boorish rival. This is the story of two men forming a sort of ideal man, combining looks and wits, a double romance.
And the romance is a double miracle: it established a trend that is still modern by our own standards: love in disguise, love with words, love in fact "virtual", it has the power, it exists, but only exists through twisted albeit sincere forms of idealization (and self- deprecation). The play was written by Edmond de Rostand but is still relevant in our technology-driven era. It is also a miracle because it stole the thunder of the ultimate romance "Romeo and Juliet" providing a new iconic balcony scene with an irresistible twist, inspiring the American remake with Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah
But there's more in Rostand's play, there are fights against the Spanish army, there is male rivalry, there is people's need to exist and be listened for some self-perceived value, whether Christian who doesn't want to unveil his ignorance or a poor baker who leads his business to bankrupt because he's more preoccupied by his artistic talent than his pies. This is also a tale about people who lost every sense of reality because they have one little obsession of their own, and things escalate to the point that none of us knows a happy ending and yet the film isn't a tragedy nor a down. It is universal, sad, happy, thrilling, romantic and right again, modern.
And the film is served by thrilling fights (not all of them actually involving swords), great costume designs and a sort of respectable credibility in every department of film-making that makes no doubt about the its classic status. It is the kind of swashbuckling experiences that makes you feel obliged to list the name of every participant, I'll stick with director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who also adapted the story with Jean-Claude Carrère. Rappeneau confessed he couldn't say no to an adaptation as it was the first play he saw as a kid and it was a way to come full circle with him.
It took, some actors including Depardieu had to train with the alexandrines the rehearsal dragged so long Rappeneau was convinced it was TV material in the best case, but a great editing and the first rushes prove that they were into something greater than their expectations. And ultimately, the film was a critical and commercial success, swapping every possible César (except for Vincent Perez and Anne Brochet) and ended up being an instant classic. While every element is worth the cheers, the reason why "Cyrano de Bergerac" is such a masterpiece, stands in two words: Gérard Depardieu, the greatest French actor of his generation.
As soon as he enters the show, he steals it, you only hear his voice, and it so flamboyant, so resonant that you don't even see his nose, and it is a big nose. This is man who's not just larger than life, he's proud, malicious and uses his nose as the prop of his aura, or as he calls his panache, a white plume, a nose and a sword and you have your Cyrano. Only Depardieu could have played such a man, the actor with such a bulbous nose he almost didn't need a prosthesis, and with a panache like no actor ever had. Watch any interview of him on Youtube and prove me wrong.
Cyrano was a Depardieu of his time, with one nose being becomes the vehicle of his own insecurities, of his fragility, one whole tirade about the nose speak less words than the moment he throws the mirror after seeing his face in. The nose tirade in fact, one of the most memorable parts of the film, shows that he would actually tolerate an insult about his nose, but one that would do justice to it, not something bland. If a nose could cause so much pain, at least it must inspire wit.
This is Depardieu's movie and whenever he's not there, something is missing. But we feel his presence even when he's not on screen, like during the balcony kiss between Christian and Roxanne, you can feel his presence. Like a nose, we don't feel it, we use it less than the other organs of the face, but it's the most prominent part of it.
"The World Ain't No Sunshine and Rainbows" Wait till you meet Poppy!
A while back, I suggested a poll on IMDb about the best fictional life therapist one could ever dream of, characters like Ferris Bueller, R.P. McMurphy, Amelie and Baloo grabbed the most votes. Last time I checked, Poppy was number 17 and after watching "Happy-Go-Lucky", she had to get my vote. I suspect if the film was one tenth as known as all the classics she 'competed' with, she would have been in the Top 5. I can't think of a more positive movie character, no I can't.
The film opens with the kind of whimsical tune you expect from feel-good movies and we see Poppy (Sally Hawkins) joyfully riding her bicycle across London. She stops near a library and tries to make some small talk with the taciturn owner, a few jokes here and there, but not a smile in return. Yet it doesn't feel awkward, Poppy seems inside a magical bubble that makes her immune to the word 'embarrassment'. That scene says a lot about her character but that's not her character establishing moment.
The real signal is when she goes back and can't find her bike, it's been stolen. Any normal person would have dropped a few F or S bombs, a sigh, or raised hands in disbelief. Poppy has none of that, she wishes she could have said 'goodbye' to her bike. What does she do next? She takes driving lessons. What she did is simple yet it would pass over the majority of people: she turned a mini-crisis into a big opportunity, she didn't see the half-full glass, she drunk it and it tasted good. And in the process, she set up the structuring conflict of the film, with her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) another "school of thought" as far as optimism is concerned.
When a little rainbow of a woman bringing sunshine wherever she goes meets an intellectual malcontent and conspiracy freak, you can only expect friction. And I kept waiting for it. All through Mike Leigh's film, I kept waiting for the 'snapping' moment or the revelation about Poppy's hidden wound. I mean, a girl who feels the need to go crazy and funny, to find excuses for joking and teasing and giggling all the time, must have something to hide? Am I too cynical? No, our world is. Mike Leigh made an intelligent film in the sense that he anticipated our own defensive reaction toward Poppy. She's too empathetic to inspire our empathy, at first.
That's the problem, we've been raised on so many 'three dimensional' characters that we're sure there is a catch, that a breaking point will be reached. But as the story advances, we realize that she's not a grown-up child, she's not living in a fantasy, she's not a clown, she's a mature, adult woman, with a fantastic capability for humor, laughs and a sincere desire to bring the goodness in everyone. On that level, Sally Hawkins delivers the kind of performance so often snubbed by the Oscars while it takes more acting skills to play such a heart-warming and optimistic character than some depressed or struggling character.
There comes a moment where we admire Poppy, for the way she listens to a child, to a bum no one ever paid attention to, the way she reacts to her instructor's tantrums. We don't question her attitude but ours. That's a woman who takes everything in all stride and no matter how shaken she is, she listens and talks. There is one powerful moment with her pregnant sister, she doubts about her happiness, she encourages her to make plans, to be more adult, but Poppy says she's happy the way she is, and she's not in a hurry to have kids. The discussion escalates to the point that the sister is taking offense of Poppy's reaction, she's like unhappy about her happiness and that says a lot about people's need to feel good the wrong way.
The sister leaves the room but what I loved is that Poppy didn't even feel guilty. When you've got nothing to blame on yourself, why would you? The film culminates with the confrontation with Scott, the man blames Poppy for being a sort of self-centered selfish attention whore who's harmful to people. Marsan reveals that he wanted to 'possess' her in a way and he represents the most extreme side of the sister's attitude: he is so unhappy in his life that he established unhappiness as a norm, and Poppy is the weirdo by his own wicked standards. The climax shows that happiness, optimism are free assets but in fact luxuries a few people can afford, and it is served by great performances from both Hawkins and Marsan.
Poppy can because she takes life as it comes, she takes driving courses, flamenco lessons, and doesn't take life seriously, except for the serious things like jobs and people. And life proves her right, it is very ironic that the very day after her sister's critics, she had a date and the relationship seemed promising. And you can tell her roommate (Alexis Zegerman) is almost sad because she knows she'll never have a better company than her Poppy. There's a reason why they've been sharing the same apartment for ten years. Hawkins' smile was so communicative I couldn't have resisted either, I'm among these constantly unhappy persons but Mike Leigh's film was an epiphany. This man knows how to handle human emotions, after this film and "Secrets& Lies", it's now a certitude.
To put it differently, if you want to show someone what emotional intelligence is about, all you've got to do is show him this film. It's as simple as that, this is a powerful movie about happiness and it doesn't even try to play some emotional twist, why should someone like Poppy ever change? We should, not her.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
The man who could never keep a low profile (literally)...
Michael Gordon's "Cyrano de Bergerac" was a pleasant experience as long as it was carried by the flamboyant eloquence and thunderous voice of actor Jose Ferrer, which means a good portion of the film. But Edmond Rostand's iconic play isn't just the tale of a poet and a fighter, it is also an iconic romance, the story of a magnificent love triangle, where the looks of a man, and the wits of another create the perfect suitor for the heart of Roxane who's not a bland heroine either.
But Jose Ferrer, who won the Oscar for that role (and it was the only nomination) was good, too good, so good he made any role thankless. Young but witless Christian (William Prince) and the beautiful Roxane (Mala Powers) are unfortunately no match for Ferrer who owns the show whenever he appears. It's all natural when it comes to Cyrano who is a larger-than-life character (let alone the scenery) but the irony of the story lies on the way Cyrano must keep a low profile, to allow the romance between Roxanne and Christian to blossom.
Cyrano provides the good lines to Christian and consoles himself by the way she's truly conquered by the power of her love, it's as if she still loved a part of her doomed cousin. This is love by proxy, but the power is left intact and you can tell from the emotional involvement of Cyrano that he's accept his fate as half a doom, half a blessing. But Jose Ferrer is such a presence that the film's level of excitement inevitable fades where he's not there. His "nose" is so big it overshadows any other flaws. And reality joined fiction at the Oscar ceremony.
Ferrer wasn't even present at the ceremony but his voice was enough, you could tell it was Cyrano winning, and it's only fair that the other iconic performance of Cyrano de Bergerac, by Gérard Depardieu, won a similar award. Cyrano de Bergerac is just a daydream of any actor but not any actor can pull such powerful, over-the-top yet exhilarating performances. Ferrer does a magnificent job but even his performance can't make up for the rather, bland theatrical look, more apparent at the beginning, but the blurry black and white cinematography gives it the look of the TV movies we watched in little side.
The sword fights choreographs are actually very convincing and you could really hear the crossing of irons, but there are moments though that betrayed some low budget aspect and it doesn't really help to enhance the enjoyment of the story. One could think that the French version, considered now as the classic one did the film a disservice, in fact, it didn't, one could watch it with more forgiving eyes.
And it's a fair adaptation of Rostand's play but it needed a bigger budget and maybe a French version after all. The last line about the "panache" has been translated by "white plum", and I humbly believed it was a mistake, Cyrano has always been about a sword, a big nose, and a panache. But not in the meaning of a white plume.