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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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For which of these 'events/trends' will you most remember the 2010s or do you think the 2010s should be most remembered for?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which top-rated one-word titled feature starting with "R" is your favorite?*
After brainstorming and deliberating, you can argue about your preferred choice here
*movies rated higher than 7.0 and only 18 entries in the list, guess why...
(in other words, don't even think of reading the intro, let alone answering the poll, if you haven't seen any of Inglourious Basterds (2009) or Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019))
Violence isn't the answer. But we might make a few exceptions with Quentin Tarantino.
In the two aforementioned films, QT proved that he could toy with history as much as his story, proposing two totally unexpected revisionist takes on real life which, no matter how bloodily violent they were, had an exhilarating feel. So which of the two violent and revisionist films' climaxes was the most satisfying?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
But let's take a step back 13 years ago... in 2006, and 13 years before, and before, traveling backwards every 13 years, the 13 connection will take you to nine different years with a set of 13 movies, 12 listed and one as the defining picture (a cult classic with 13 letters).
Which of these cinematic years do you think was the most culturally significant? (yes, the question has 13 words)
After voting, you may discuss the list here
After voting, you may discuss the list here
This is a list of movies which, for various reasons, can be considered representative of that decade, which one would say most (or best) defines it?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these series starting with "S" is your favorite?
After selecting your series, you might discuss the list in this place
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these performances (ranked chronologically) would you consider your favorite?
After the vote, you might discuss the list [link=]here[/link] (oh, and the * refers to a supporting role)
As usual, it's very likely that the actor/actress might not have turned 29 (or 30) before the actual date of the ceremony, but using the same convention as for the last four editions, the age 29 is simply the result of a simple subtraction of years.
"25th Anniversary" Poll (2015) "26th Anniversary" Poll (2016) "27th Anniversary" Poll (2017) "28th Anniversary" Poll (2018)
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
The 'Gardner' who took care of his garden...
...not like Voltaire's Candide but like a man with enough wisdom to know that you never get nothing with nothing, and enough candor to believe that everything is possible if you put your determination into it. Sounds corny? Not really.
You know a film has hit the right chord when at the ultimate moment, your brain is flooded by a triumphing sentiment of sheer satisfaction and you're not just empathetic toward the hero, but almost telepathic. When Chris Gardner, Will Smith in his most spectacular role, learns that he's hired by the stock broker company he's been dreaming of ever since a smiling Porsche driver told him it was his job; at that moment, I could pinpoint every single thought that went through his mind, I could literally taste the tears. Any lesser film, going for cheap sentiments, would have made this an average feel-good crowd-pleaser but Smith's humility and the way he manages to channel every emotion through his eyes was simply mind-blowing. I didn't expect I would connect to a character so rapidly and intensely and it happened to me back to back this week, with "The Pursuit of Happyness", and before, "Sideways".
Now, it's easy and convenient to label Gabriele Mucino's film as an average rags to riches story, Chris Gardner has become a guru for wannabe successful people. But this would be doing a great disservice to the lesson his life provides by reducing it to the fact that he became rich after being so poor, the soul of his victory lies in his struggle. What made him a rich man is the same spirit that was driving him when he was miserable and while I followed his bad streak all through the film-to call him unlucky is the understatement of the year- I was convinced that the guy had the right stuff, as a father, as a man. And in a time where Hollywood movies are full of stories with brutal fathers, what a change to have a good, decent, honest, hard-working, humble man who takes care of his son at the same moment where it's the mother who throws the towel. Thandie Newton gives a remarkable performance in the film's more ungrateful role, being selfish for lack of patience and irresponsible for lack of strength, she's her first victim.
The mother's character is even more interesting because it mirrors our own mentalities; some accuse the millennials to feel entitled and as a man approaching his forties, I guess I wouldn't have made the same decisions than Chris, if I had to go through an internship without being paid, I might have knocked to another door (and somewhat I did refuse tempting internships for better paying ones but in industries I didn't care of)... if I missed an important meeting, I might have blamed bad luck, but Chris seizes all the opportunities and never lets anything work as an obstacle. Watching the film, I tried to memorize which moments where the most pivotal and you could narrow them down to four or five, Chris giving the money to the CEO, while he needed it to have a roof for the day, an apology for the missed meeting, a cab ride where he could demonstrate his skill at the Rubik cube and get the interview, and finally, having the right punchline during that same interview when asked why they should hire a man coming with jeans and all soaked with white paint.
Chris' determination is a rollercoaster but the film never falls in the trap of sanctification, it's all dealt with rationality. Chris' efforts are due to his fatherless childhood, he must always be present for his son Christopher (Jaden Smith), whatever he does is for his son. He needs money so badly for a roof that he learns how to save money, how to be efficient at his job to get out before the others, how to respect timing, when he gives the money to the CEO, his teary eyes for such a small gesture gives you an idea of how precious money is and somewhat it's that state of sheer poverty that also consolidated his moral strength. It was a matter of survival and Chris fulfilled the seminal role of a father, which is to be both benevolent, protective, disciplining with his child, and ensuring a sane link between the family and the external world. Chris can also be severe with his son, and as the story goes, his easy going nature fades when he's confronted to overwhelming obstacles.
But somewhat, since we know the outcome, we're not surprised, the determination is almost foreseen with the X-ray machine running gag, that big medical "gizmo" he must sell to earn a few weeks of living is a real hot potato that is almost unsellable, until it becomes a matter of life and death when he has no income, the more difficult it gets, the more precious these objects are, and being stolen one is something he can't afford and if one doesn't work, well he must fight the way to make it work. As he said in the interview, he might not have the answer but he has what it takes to find it and he's convincing.
Many people would have dismissed one tenth of what he went through his life, thinking they "deserve better" while Chris certainly deserved more than anyone to succeed only he faced the adversity and the fog of crap he went through, he triumphed with peril and his story doesn't glorify him but his perseverance, it's not about believing in your dreams because Chris didn't know he was going to be rich, but it's about being decent, and responsible and going till the end, Chris has many breakdowns but he never gives up, he's a class A father and as a struggling father myself, I think I just found myself an inspiration.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Who said women were bad drivers?
This is not sexism but only a joke in response to the radical feminism that seemed to be fueling every major franchise reboot today... with the exception of "Rocky".
Let's start positively: "Fury Road" provides the most spectacular chases of all the tetralogy but the film is only "The General" with bigger stunts though what made Buster Keaton's film appreciable is that he risked his neck. And I still have a fondness for "Road Warrior" over-the-top climax and the "Plane, Train and Automobiles" sequence concluding "Thunderdome"... speaking of which, we're talking of a 30-year time span between the last movies and that he could pull effect both practical and effective to an audience raised by the digital revolution is perhaps the best stunt of all. Now, forgive my sophism but it takes more than action to make action movies work and "Fury Road" was so stuck to the steering wheel it took its driver for granted.
The first might be the slowest or the least thrilling of the four but that's how we were introduced to Max Rockatansky, his skills, his humility, his tormenting hesitation between settling down and sticking with the family or hitting the road to fight the filth of the Earth. The whole exposition culminated with the tragic loss of his wife and baby child. In the next films, Max had won its status as a pop-culture hero, he resented that word but that was part of his persona. "Fury Road" doesn't embarrass itself with such technicalities, if makes Furiosa an immediate heroine, a Joan of Arc without any character's arc.
The character had potential but she was as semi-developed character as as if we had met Sarah Connor in "Terminator 2" or Ellen Ripley in "Aliens". These heroines were fascinating not only for their backstory as non-warrior characters but for the fact that they weren't handled like flashbacks but as true plot drivers. Furiosa is strong and bad-ass already and God forbids Mel Gibson would be an aging Mad Max playing her mentor (too controversial), or for her to show any semblance of vulnerability (too taboo).
And as the emotionless, shaved-headed heroine (à la Joan of Arc indeed) she displays traits that play like ersatz of masculinity, cliché even by guy-movies standard. Tough, hardly talking, always right, Furiosa doesn't even shed a tear when one of the "breeders" die or when she discovers the sad truth about the Green Place. I simply don't get what is so appealing in overly confident characters. Think of many icons, Michael Corleone didn't want to be a mobster, Travis Bickle started as Mr. Nice Guy, Rocky was a bum, characters who are perfect from the start might kick ass but they're ultimately boring, and a 120-format with 10% minutes for dialogues made of 90% of grunting doesn't help.
Still, one can appreciate the post-apocalyptic elements, violence, regression, the rarefaction of oil and water, but the first films covered all these speculative aspects. "Fury Road" just takes one step forward, after settlers vs. gangs, then marauders vs. migrants, then new glimpses of civilization, it's fair to imagine a neo-fascist world ruled by men and relegating women to their primitive functions: breeding and nurturing. There's something visionary in the way the film switches from the usual horizontal struggle (nomads vs. settlers) to vertical domination, but it also implies that in order to survive, women must display the same skills as men, elevating driving and fighting as Darwinian assets.
The film suggest matriarchy and self-determination as salutary options, after all the plot is about 'selected' women being freed by one of them. So basically, the alternative from being locked away by men is to be their own master. The problem is that unlike the previous films where children were present among settlers, "Fury Road" is rather pessimistic, implying that couples won't exist. And since the feminist take doesn't disregard the necessity to have children (for the survival of mankind), one must consider how they will have them if not by exploiting or using men as well. This feminism ironically depends on power perceptions inherited from men. Is it such a coincidence that all the fugitives are beautiful and the obese milk providers are left to their condition?
The film contains some epic-looking images and thrilling sequences but with a rather thin and manipulative plot served by very one-dimensional characters, and that goes for Furiosa too. She shares so many skills and personality traits with Max that I kept wondering what was Max' role exactly, except to be a foil for Furiosa, exactly what happened between Han Solo and Rey when she told him she could handle herself. And the film ends with the same acknowledgement from the original hero, foreshadowed by the name of Charlize Theron put above Tom Hardy in the opening shot.
This is not a hierarchy to trivialize, once again, we have a film where every man is flawed, weak and ironically, this is something I won't complain about because the War boys were touching in their twisted away and I liked Immortan Joe for even that scary dude had a weak spot. But "Fury Road" works exactly like "The Force Awakens", the new "Ghostbusters" movie, "Toy Story 4" or even "Blade Runner 2049", it recycles plots with that radical anti-male perspective, it's like the sole purpose of these reboots is to cure classics from misogyny they didn't have.
Because even the first "Mad Max" films had strong female characters, the old lady in the first, Max' wife that he failed to save, and Tina Turner who spares his life at the end of "Thunderdome", another thing they had in common: they were fun to watch, I wish one character could make us smile or chuckle at least once.
A product of its preachy and pedant era, the film takes itself too seriously and this is why it's my least favorite.
Sequel, Security and Non-Sequitur..
"I want a parody or a comedy to make me chill, not to make me realize how one-sided and twisted the world is."
That's from my review of "Hot Shots!", a film I used to enjoy as a teenager but that didn't exactly grow on me as I expected. From Charlie Sheen's wooden performance to rather racist undertones (all right, 90s American movies weren't exactly Arab-friendly but still...) the film didn't make for a pleasant experience when I saw it again three years ago and as an alibi, I brandished the other 1991 movie from the ZAZ team: the sequel to "The Naked Gun", well, that one I loved and man, if you look for a good no-brainer so dumb it reaches a level of genius and with so many gags you won't be able to keep track on them, just be my guest.
In fact the review could end here, just watch the film, it is really funny.
But let's dig a bit deeper, 1991 was for the Zucker brothers like 1974 for Mel Brooks when he made both "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles", perhaps the peak of their inspiration and these two 1991 films, would be followed by two less-successful sequels, so maybe we got to a sort of culmination point here after which the late (and much beloved) Leslie Nielsen wouldn't be given much interesting roles, no matter how hard they'll try. So "The Naked Gun 22½ : the Smell of Fear" is a momentum of parody humor to contemplate and appreciate in its own context, before the Farrelly brothers and before Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers make their entrance.
The reason I'm going all "history of movies" about this is because it's useless to enumerate the gags that pop up every half millisecond during the film, some are so dumb we can't believe we laugh at them, some are so predictable we're happy when they happen, when they don't, it's generally because something funnier is happening. For instance, a big explosion left many chalk outlines in the crime setting and while it's hilarious enough to see one on the ceiling, the gag is exploited like a pocket until it runs out of gold, a similar overlong gag is used in the "Blue Note" bar where everything exists for the sole purpose of making the customers more depressed than ever, from the songs to the pictures hanging on the wall. And finally, one of these gags actually have a substantial contribution to the plot, I'll only say it involves wild animals.
Naturally, we have the obvious dialogues when one comically misses the point, Frank taking answers too literally such as whn Ed (George Kennedy) says "sex, Frank?" or a woman with a generous cleavage asking if "this is a bust?", what do you expect, the gags will lose half of their comical juice if they're taken out of context or if we started explaining why they're funny. I guess the film works because we just love Lt. Frank Drebin, it's fun to see a man goofing up a bit, being stupider than we are, being alone (since Jane left him) making jokes we can understand and occasionally, giving a bad time to the White House occupants.
While "Hot Shots" seemed to target a certain Gulf country, it's an interesting counterbalancing effect to have a plot involving a government decision to implement ecological energy not to the enthusiasm of "big oils" (no pun intended) of industrial lobbies who'll look forward to preventing any chance of an endorsement from a respected analyst (Richard Griffith). These guys are good villains because in real life, they're the ones who pull the strings and make war happen. Above them all, the big bad guy is played by Robert Goulet, he's got the suaveness that makes you hate him instantly stealing the heart of Jane and having no contempt for the future of our planet. Not that Frank cares but he loves Jane enough to care.
And so Jane, Priscilla Presley is here, so is Kennedy, Jacqueline Brookes as the Commissioner and O.J. Simpson before he wasn't a case.... And if you think Nordberg had a hard time, wait till you see the sequel (well, actually, I think he had it pretty bad in the first). What else to say? this film doesn't aim the Oscar for Best Screenplay, it's not on the level of the predecessor or "Top Secret!" or "Airplane!" but it's got Leslie Nielsen, countless gags and the good old police siren during the opening credits.
Feeling the "Payne" again...
"Sideways" hit such a sensitive chord that I'm not sure I'll be able to articulate my thoughts in a rational way. I've identified myself to movie characters before but not as promptly and wholeheartedly as I did with Miles, played by Paul Giamatti. Officially, he's a teacher and wine expert (in other words, an oenologist), in reality an insecure, perpetually malcontent alcoholic, only with the right mixture of self-inflicted pathos and witty self-awareness to earn our sympathy, like a good Muscat hiding its sweet and fruity taste under its plain white texture. But this is not just about Miles, Alexander Payne has a unique talent to create characters with texture and densities, which makes it fitting for a film that deals with wine.
To make that foolish comparison short, I'm a recently divorced teacher, at 37 exactly the same age Giamatti was when he played Miles, I'm a wannabe writer, I started writing a few short stories wondering whether I'm looking for compliments to play like micro-bits of satisfaction of the true ego-flattering publication. Also I can't still get over the separation and the sight of happy people remind me of how unhappy I am so I keep myself busy to forget about how lonely I am. There's more to it, I've consumed alcohol more than usual recently using it as a social crutch to feign confidence or as a waste dump for my sorrow. Miles seems to use oenology to get cheaply drunk and be fun and outgoing while obviously his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) doesn't need it.
Miles represent a kind of person who're so embittered by the taste of recent events that they're in a constant quest for occasional pleasures who, combined together, make up for a semblance of happiness, if not stability. Miles is at a point of his life where he knows the higher he climbs the harder he'll fall, so fearing the fall, he doesn't even try and when he does, he anticipates it so strongly he won't even be disappointed. For any prospect of winning, there are higher odds of losing, and that's what a loser is, not someone who fails, but someone who's constantly hiding beneath the spectrum of failure, someone whose aura is overwhelmed by perfectly justifiable failure, those people we label as losers have always good reasons to believe they are.
Miles has a best friend, Jack, they were college roommates and Jack is everything he's not, a good-looking womanizer with a strong masculine voice (he does "warning" voices in commercial) and to those who believe their friendship is unlikely, I said on the contrary. Men like Jack love budding along with men like Miles whose passive personality work like perfect foils, and people like Miles need someone to give them a boost, to share how let down they are even when they don't expect anything. Jack is also a marginal in a way, he didn't become the star he wanted but he takes life in all stride, and finds in the last week before his marriage an opportunity to loosen up a little, in fact to get laid, for Miles, it's an opportunity to taste wine, in fact to get drunk.
"Sideways" takes off when they go for a road trip into Californian wine country, Miles' character's establishing moment consists of getting late after a hung over morning and stealing money from his benevolent mother, this is a man who had reached so many lows that one won't make a difference. Knowing that something is wrong won't stop him which is what he has in common with Jack who flirts with a young wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Miles has more serious feelings for a waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen), a wine expert not too insensitive to his intellect and finesse of taste, which can pass for charm assets in a guy like Miles. Yet she's also recovering from a divorce and her occasional distance can give the wrong idea to Miles. They both talk passionately and gently about wine, and when Maya seems not ready for a kiss, she still wants to read Miles' draft (meanwhile Jack and Stephanie are having fun).
After "About Schmidt", Alexander Payne signs another road trip with people with a bad break in their lives and forgiven for two reasons: they're their own victims and they make us laugh.
Jack's character adds more layers to the story, putting Miles in situation he tries to avoid instead of crawling in fetal position and whining about his failures. Ironically, this is how Jack gets confronted to his own demons, earning him a fatal blow in the nose, and the bandage he keeps for the rest of the movie (like in "Chinatown") plus a last misadventure convinces him about the path he must take for his life. Through action, Jack finds meaning, following his advice to strike the iron while hot, while Miles keeps on waiting for opportunities that never come, the right celebration to open a 1961 'cheval blanc', waiting for the book publication to have a chance with Maya, waiting for this and that and ending with disappointment. This is how spectacular Giammatti was, I could always guess what was going through his head, when his ex announced that she was pregnant, I immediately anticipated his reaction Payne creates such dense and rich characters with personalities that they seem to have a life of their own even outside the film.
Church and Madsen would be Oscar-nominated but It's quite an irony that Giamatti wasn't, echoing his own character, but following the lesson of "Sideways", he left a performance for ages, a credit to his talent. And "Sideways" is a wonderful movie inviting us to stop looking down on losers because it's all a matter of perspective, people succeed and fail, but it's all about the effect you have on the others, taking defeat gracefully can be a victory by itself, just like you can make a flawless dramedy out of flawed people.
The Cider House Rules (1999)
An uneven pacing and a Maguire's performance prevented the film from being the masterpiece it should have been...
There's something so soothing and comforting in Michael Caine's voice and so few movies set in an orphanage that when Lasse Hallström's "The Cider House Rules" began, I found myself immediately absorbed by St. Clouds serene atmosphere, to the point I was about to turn off the lights and really go to sleep when Dr. Larch uttered his unforgettable "Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England". This is how powerful Caine's Oscar-winning performance is. This is a man who dedicated his life for his "children", providing them the love and caring they didn't and couldn't get, making them feel precious, not important but precious.
I'm making the film sappier than what it is, the kids actually joke about the "good night" catchphrase, their cuteness isn't overplayed although the sight of a pre-Dewey Erik Per Sullivan playing a severely ill child broke my heart, but the film has life in it, in fact, the film is about life, so much about life that it also handles the difficult subject of abortion, but I'll get back to it. It's important to mention the prologue because it is really a winner part. We're taken into this orphanage, we see the good hearts who populate them, the two loving nurses (Jane Alexander and Kathy Baker), the kids who grew there (Kieran Culkin is particularly moving) and of course Homer Wells, who was rejected by his first adoptive family because he didn't cry, and was taken back by Larch because the second family made his cry too much. According to Larch, he was born to stay an orphan and grow up in St. Clouds.
Being an orphan is a tough existential ordeal to begin life with, many children give their best smile to visiting couples because it's one thing to be loved by the doctor and the nurses, but kids crave from a more exclusive form of love, since they didn't even have it in the first place. It's so difficult being an orphan that some rational minds would put it in equation with the film's main subject: abortion, which Larch practice, with the young Homer as his assistant. Larch doesn't play God as much as acts like his assistant, fixing men's mistakes and preventing the losses of two lives instead of two, and the film reminds of the pains and struggles of couples or lonely women going through 'illegitimate' pregnancies in the 1940s. It doesn't advocate it but offers a fine balance of views, especially with Homer being reluctant to such practices, despite his competence and his routine consisting of throwing a jar's content in a furnace.
The film has the tact to take a firm stance on the issue without trivializing it, and it's a credit to John Irving's adaptation of his own novel. But there's something of a catch in all these well-handled aspects, there's a moment where Homer meets a couple played by Paul Rudd, as a young army Captain, dashingly handsome in his pre-"Friends" years, and a no-less beautiful Charlize Theron, they come for the obvious reason but their presence triggers a sudden desire for Homer to leave the orphanage. I understood the motive, a man his age would want to see the world and not having it framed by the chaperoning of a father-figure who wants to pass the torch. However, I didn't want the film to leave the place, it was such a perfect expositional start with so many endearing characters that the rest could only depend on Maguire's screen-presence, and while the actor did a decent job, his character wasn't engaging enough.
Maguire founds a strange note to play his Homer, he has a sort of monotonous or laconic voice (was he trying to channel Forrest Gump or Sling Blade?) but then it appears that's the way he is, which is fine, but then it makes harder to believe that such a boy would have that magnetism operating with a character like Theron's. There's a romantic subplot that anyone would see coming, but while Theron plays the perfect touch of sweetness, Maguire makes it difficult to believe he deserves it despite his obvious boyish charm. I could understand why Larch would have that affectionate patience with him, he's the child he never had, but even Rudd's character is so nice to him I was under the impression he regarded him as a harmless child-like man. It's interesting to have a character like this in the lead but somewhat it didn't fit with the mood the movie put me into at first, with Caine's narration.
To put it simply, I'm not sure I enjoyed the "apple picking" and "cider house" part as much as I was supposed to. That part introduces us to interesting characters, especially the veteran picker Mr. Rose, played by Delroy Lindo and his daughter Rose (Erykah Badu). Obviously the part was intended as the meat of the film, dealing with these so-called rules no one paid attention to, the romance growing between Maguire and Theron but I found these part hard to connect to each other. Even the climactic abortion in the third act, playing as a catalyst for Wells' final life decision (again the 'life' issue), wasn't handled in a satisfying way, it was actually disturbing that the closest character to an antagonist was offered a kind of redemption as if what he did wrong was ever forgivable. That such a brave film could weaken at the part where it was supposed to be the strongest left me with a slight disappointment.
I understand it's difficult to adapt a novel, especially if the book is a doorstopper, but while Irving did a fin job for the most part (he won the Oscar), his story is so rich and multi-layered that it needed more discipline in the structure and maybe a more engaging actor to play the lead, at least as powerful as Caine, who was extraordinary.
Il postino (1994)
Michael Radford's "The Postman" follows the sweet and engaging friendship between a seemingly dim-witted postman named Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi) and the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in an Italian island near Sicily. I could call the friendship unlikely but what would have been unlikely was for Neruda to dismiss a man like Mario, why would a man who's been exiled from his homeland reject a man himself? Rejection is the ugly fruit of judgment and judgment is a perversion of rationality, which is itself estranged from poetry.
Because poetry isn't an exercise of intellect but the expression of a rare ability to see the secrets of life through the many images it provides us. We admire beaches and their angry waves, w contemplate stars in their solemn stillness, we feel the caresses of breezes on our necks, we taste wine with the same delight that we touch the beloved one's delicate skin, and yet when it comes to express feelings as deep as love and passion, to materialize them into words, most of us are left powerless. But a poet is someone capable to transcend these very barriers of communication, using among many tools, metaphors, though for the cynical minds, they'd be called tricks... and Neruda a manipulative expert rather than a poet.
The film is set in the early 1950s, a post-war climate where the Communist views still prevailed in Italy, but rather tactfully, the film never associates the artist's talent with his political views, but with his growing friendship with a man who seems incapable to formulate clear thoughts when we meet him. Mario's relationship with his father and his new boss are made of a lot of respect but a few words, in fact, Mario's gestures precede the words, it's like speaking is a torture to him, making his friendship with an eloquent literate man more fascinating. Troisi is intriguing first but this is one of these performances where the speech pattern speaks deep truths about the character, like Karl in "Sling Blade" or Rocky Balboa. Troisi was suffering of a heart condition and waited for an operation when he made the film, he died shortly after, and sadly, maybe his condition affected his performance.
Still this made his performance even more affecting, as a man suffering inside, condemned to passiveness, incapable to act beyond his own intellectual skills, and the role even more tragic in its authentic vulnerability, from Mario's struggle to obtain one cordial exchange of words with the poet, to his despair when he tries to seduce the beautiful Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the woman he fell in love, and also his lack of eloquence when he confronts the liberal big shots who harangue the crowds with big promises. Mario is a man with a political conscience, reinforced by the presence of Pablo Neruda and can't handle the way lies can blind conscience. He count on Neruda's presence to enlighten people the way it enlightened him, in fact, everything in Neruda gives him power to overcome his limitations, Mario both uses and benefits from poetry.
But all the good things come to an end and when Neruda gets back to Chile, something is clearly missing in Mario's life. He lost the one man who could understand him. And so the idea in "The Postman" might be that some things are bound to be misunderstood or create misunderstandings between people, poetry or politics are part of opposite poles of the same spectrum, one uses beautiful words to express ideas but too beautiful to inspire trust, another use more accessible words to better reach people, both poetry and politics can reach one heart, but when it comes to the masses, it's a lost game. A central character is Beatrice's aunt (Linda Moretti) who sees in Mario's poems an attempt to get her niece on bed, what starts with words ends with hands but then later she trusts the new mayor and get into financial trouble for that.
Politics are like the antithesis of poetry and maybe Mario and Pablo became friends because they developed a true political conscience through poetry, a sense of justice and truth less dictated by the books of Marx or the theories of Lenin, but the beauty and harmony that reigns in nature. When Mario is caught plagiarizing his master, he claims that poetry should be used by the one who needs it, Neruda finds his view rather democratic, he might not share it but he respects it. And that's the charm of the friendship between these two men, the two remain secrets one for another, and for the viewer and yet their friendship is a platter on which are displayed touching aspects of humanity: soul generosity, love, passion, curiosity.
The story starts with Mario delivering messages to Neruda, all from female admirers, and at the end, it's Mario who delivers the most important message about life to his own 'master'. Troisi was magnificent in his posthumously Oscar-nominated performance but Noiret deserves praises as the gentle soul who could see beneath his rough and banal surface, a soul set on fire and passion. He's all approbation and helpfulness and only at the end, we see how far from the confident successful man he was. Maybe it takes sad eyes to be poet, joyful eyes are too busy to see the real world, and it's only at the end that the poet realizes how much he's learned from his friendship. Noiret is such a compelling actor, a man of towering presence and droopy eyes, a body that speaks authority but eyes that are all gentleness, a man we want to follow until we might realize he's been following us, like his Alfredo in "Cinema Paradisio".
And the world is such a "paradisio" with so many images to offer, a poet can die old or young, it doesn't matter, some might not even have enough of a life to become poets.
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Cathartic Romance served by Streisand's tactful directing and a powerhouse performance from Nick Nolte...
I have to confess, "The Prince of Tides" isn't the kind of titles that instinctively grab me, which is why for many years I didn't avoid the fifth Best Picture nominee of 1991 as much as I didn't care for it. Looking back, whether the title was to be taken literally, I expected a mellow romantic drama à la Danielle Steel. I sort of figured that the "tides" in question wouldn't exactly make the protagonist a fisherman or a lighthouse keeper and would be another corny metaphor for the passing of time, but maybe I underestimated the talent of Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand who both starred in and directed the film, not to mention Pat Conroy, both author and screenwriter.
So when "The Prince of Tides" begun, I knew this was a film to swim in very familiar waters so I kept my guards up but not too long. The film opens with dazzling rose-tainted shots on the Southern river and then comes Nolte's voice-over narration about his bucolic childhood, with his twin sister and older brother. I sensed that the film wouldn't insist too long on the troubled childhood, hence the pleasant use of narration, I listened carefully knowing that my patience wouldn't be challenged. And then the flashback culminated with a sequence that fans of "The Simpsons" will probably remember. The 'Aunt Gladys' episode is one of my favorite and the film marked one point by making me finally get a reference after 20 years.
After the (not-so) nostalgic opening, what it took to let the magic operate can be summed up in two words: Nick Nolte. As soon as Tom Wingo appears on screen, as a lovable child-like father teasing everyone around from his three daughters to his patient wife (Blythe Danner), I paid farewell to the pathos I kept expecting and enjoyed the actor's screen-presence. The man's always ready for a good joke, but so many we might suspect it's an artifice meant to hide some deep insecurities or past secrets, a suspicion confirmed by the mother's visit. Lila, as she's called by everyone, played by Kate Nelligan, doesn't care for his wisecrack and bluntly announces that his sister tried to kill herself again. Tom gets his composure back and leaves for New York City, but not after a confrontation with his wife leaving us enough to worry about his own marriage.
In less than ten minutes, the stage is set, it will be New York City, not the dreamy beaches of the South, and the protagonist won't be some gruff and taciturn but a rather approachable and enthusiastic man whose present is obviously more complicated than his past. We get it there's more than one luggage he takes with him to that trip, something rooted in that childhood where the three kids plunged in the water to escape from their problems and got back to the surface after they're short of air. Maybe the sister let herself drown this time, the other brother is dead, and Tom seems to be the one confidently floating. As a matter of fact, he meets his sister's psychiatrist, Dr. Lowenstein, to be his sister's memory, the man has no problem whatsoever in the sense that he does admit his childhood was crappy but didn't let his demons win over him.
Dr. Lowenstein is played by Barbra Streisand, she's a pure New Yorker, in all metropolitan wealth-driven confidence, the perfect contrast with Tom. Their interactions are enjoyable to the degree that they're realistic and their disagreements never seem clichés or gratuitous. We know it's a matter of time before the romance blooms but there are movies that don't much impress you by the way unpredictable things happen but the surprising way predictable things do. As Tom, Nolte (who'll get an Oscar nomination as well as Nelligan) never overplays the Southern guy, he's funny, hot-tempered, flirtatious, he's not the enigma wrapped up in a icy façade, waiting for the right words to melt it. In fact, even he will play an interesting role by coaching Lowestein's troubled teenage son (played by Jason Gould, Barbra's son with Elliott Gould) and revealing what doesn't work in her own present, in her own marriage with a snobbish violinist.
This is a film where every protagonist has things to be healed, whether from the past or the present, and the chemistry between Nolte and Streisand is integral to the film's effectiveness. There's no false note ringing from any of their interactions. Streisand shows a remarkable patience and soberness in her directing without getting too solemn about it, letting us time to get used to characters, to see them being inhabited by their own pretenses and false certitudes, to have fun with them, so when the right revelations come, we're as shaken and devastated as anyone. The revelation part could have been tricky, a lesser director would have made it a 'a-ha' moment and an excuse for a climactic breakdown before everything turns fine, but there's still a lot to come after, lessons are pointless if we don't see them working being applied for real.
In a way, I wouldn't be surprised if the film inspired the writing of "Good Will Hunting". Like Van Sant's film, "The Prince of Tides" teaches how to accept our weaknesses and never back away from the burdens of the past, to better embrace what life is giving us. There's no good barricading oneself behind walls of false strength and many characters act that way, ignoring how memories work like tides come and go. In any other film, that metaphor would have been overplayed but "The Prince of Tides" uses humor and realistic violence to emphasize the violence during the most dramatic moments and make us appreciate the quieter and more tender scenes.
This is a mature and honest film that left me surprisingly satisfied at the end, especially since it ended with another Simpsons' reference, that one I saw coming.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
To the Thunderdome... and Beyond!
"Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" goes beyond your expectations of a movie sequel, it's a standalone classic, an adventure movie that could have been as enjoyable and admirable had it been the first or the only film of the legendary franchise from director George Miller.
Well, it's not, it came three years after "Road Warrior", which was already a fine departure from the bleak and nihilistic tone of "Mad Max" (which suited its minimalist budget). The first film, becoming the most profitable movie of all time, met with universal success, allowing the second to challenge the odds and be an exciting action picture, but what "Thunderdome" accomplishes is a miracle, this is a film where any viewer would expect spectacular chases, fight scenes and action set within communities of people with bizarre neo-punk fashion and a ruthless larger-than-life villain and while these elements are present, they all take you off-guard.
A bit of contextualization, the film is set at a time where oil has become more than a luxury and in every part of the Australian wasteland, micro-societies are being built to ensure minimal chances of living. There's no money, not much oil and people trade for food and water and insurance for survival. In this definite setting, we meet Max, with longer and greyer hair in a remote city named Bartertown, a sort of advanced society in that post-Apocalyptic Australia where a sort of equilibrium reigns under the firm authority of Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) and where the energy is supplied by the Master Blaster, a composite of two persons, a little man for the brain (Angelo Rossitto, he was the "loving cup" dwarf in "Freaks") and the muscle is Blaster, a giant who terrorizes the workers. Those workers handle the main supply of energy, which is the waste coming from pigs and turned into into methane. When a whole ecosystem depends on pig feces, you know humanity reached quite a low.
Except that the system works and makes sense, people have work, they can trade, eat and drink and like in the Roman society, they have their coliseum, a dome that reinvented the art of fighting, where the two opponents are attached to elastic ropes and can move backward, forward and up and down and can grab any weapon from a stick to a chainsaw, and the spectators are all hanging on that very dome, chanting the battle slogan "two men enter, one man leave". And this is how we get one of the most original fight ever put on screen, "Road Warrior" had the chase, "Thunderdome" has the duel between Max and Blaster. So many action pictures take the fighting for granted and doesn't dare to reinvent the wheel, this one does and the fight not only surpasses our imagination but even manages to end with that little twist that makes Mad Max more than a bad-ass fighter, but a hero. What happens at the end is something in the vein of the fight in "Spartacus", since we were speaking of the Romans.
The dome is just halfway through the movie and there's more to come when Max is exiled in the desert that would have made Lawrence of Arabia go back to his native England, a desert where the sun and the quicksand leaves no chance to anyone crossing it and makes Bartertown a real-life Valhalla in comparison. But Max is rescued by a group of kids who formed a new society, as if Bartertown wasn't spectacular enough. The survivors of the crash formed a sort of Nevrland group waiting for their prophet "Walker" to make their plane fly again, they see Max as Walker the one who'll fly them back to "Tomorrow-morrow", another promised land. Obviously, the plot borrows some elements from "Road Warrior" but we still get many surprises including another heart-pounding chase scene between cars and a train served carrying a load of methane and a little house, I can't describe how effective and thrilling the stunts in the chase are.
And as it wasn't enough, it all leads up to the final duel between a plane and cars, where the same game of who's going to jump first plays like the common denominator between the three movies. And beyond the "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" aspect, the real winning moment of the film isn't the one you expect and I daren't to spoil it. If Ml Gibson is terrific as a more human and talkative version of Max, Tina Turner has literally stolen the thunder... dome. Indeed, I always figured that the little weaknesses in "Mad Max" were the villains, too one-dimensional and vicious for the sake of it, whereas Aunty is a totally competent leader who knows she can't rule a new order in a post-apocalyptic world by being nice. Even Master Blaster who starts as a villain reveals more depths as the film progresses, so if Max was an anti-hero, they're obviously anti-villains, and it's quite ironic that the film is renowned for its Award-baity song "We don't ned another hero", a line taken from the first hero, while the real motto is that "we don't need another villain" and Miller understood it.
Yes, there comes a time where survival is so fragile that no one benefits from sheer evilness and there comes a time where engaging in merciless fights become futile and pointless, so when a film is humbled by that level of self-recognition, it respects the audience's intelligence and provides something that challenges all expectations. The film is a mature version of "Road Warrior" and the most accomplished version of the trilogy, adventure-wise. And it's certainly one of the best action pictures of the 80s, to the Thunderdome...and beyond!
La città delle donne (1980)
"Marcello... don't come here...."
The opening shot of Fellini's "City of Women" is a train about to enter a tunnel, not exactly the subtlest shot to suggest a certain type of act, but in that case it works perfectly for two reasons: the POV is the train so we don't watch the phallic symbol but its 'target', plus the penetration into darkness foresees the trip into the hearts of darkness that awaits Guido, the film protagonist, played by an aged but still charming Marcello Mastroianni. That darkness is associated with women's liberation might divide opinions, but Fellini is not the man to say 'mea culpa'.
So the film opens in a train, Guido has a fling with a beautiful but rather severe-looking woman, he follows her to the bathroom, obviously not to talk about the latest dress fashion in Milan, the two conclude, the train stops, he follows her again, and finds himself in a feminist convention with the most incongruous set of female characters steaming off centuries of repressed anger and resentment against men and patriarchy, expressing in the most turbulent and truculent way their desire to build a more just society rid of phallocracy and ever archetypes that made Italy the Mecca of Latin seduction. And that's only for starters. If you're surprised by the aesthetics, then it's probably the first Fellini you ever saw, and then I'm afraid you didn't pick the right one.
Indeed, this is a film to satisfy the fans (mildly) and disconcert the newcomers, on the surface, like all Fellini movies, "Cities of Women" is a never-ending succession of disjointed vignettes forcing us to endure with enchantment, disgust, puzzlement and even embarrassment the shenanigans, not of a loony protagonist but of a gallery of female characters who cover the whole spectrum of women's attitudes, from the castrating to the nymphomaniac type, from the kitschy to the one who rhymes with it, from the frigid icy intellectual to the voluptuous matron. And in the content, I'm afraid the film doesn't provide more than a certain view of Fellini regarding the aggressiveness of feminism in the late 70s... and whether he sides with these women or looks at them with amused detachment isn't a matter of opinion, Fellini knows where he stands.
The film was made after his "Casanova", a critic against the Italian Don Juan who tries to pass as a sophisticated bourgeois in order to hide his crass obsessions. It's possible that Fellini had the same defiance against a certain hypocritical expression of feminism which, in the name of positive values: freedom, liberation, independence carried the same vulgar obsessions about sex. And in that cacophony of anti-men slogans, rapidly, a think-thank sessions turns into a heated debated where sexual positions and references to genitals are dropped, so it's not much Fellini criticizing the women that hate men, but the women whose hatred toward men cloud their judgment and bring the worst masculine traits in them.
In a way, every intellectual woman according to Fellini has her mind focused on her vagina or her relationships with men, seeing phallic symbols everywhere, and Guido embodies the point of view of men who, like Fellini, grew up with homely big-bosomed women incarnated by their mothers and aunts, came to age in the post-war era with sexually liberated women but then came the late 70s where religion and patriarchy stopped having a saying in everything. However, Guido doesn't handle the hostility with bad spirit but acts like a man visiting a curiosity, a zoo, and tries to understand with false benevolence what he believes to be a foreign language. To Fellini's defense, this misconception about feminism has hold up a long time until the 1990s... and to his defense again, the exaggeration wasn't that exaggerated.
To make a timely parallel, the film reminded me of Mr. Burns' visit at Yale ("The Simpsons"), Fellini at least had the guts to go against the stream and stick to his guns by expressing his nostalgia for the old-fashioned women, and he does so with the same flamboaynt bravura and extravagant flashiness that made his trademarks. And he does instrumentalize women like he did with his own wife Giuletta Masina in "Juliet of the Spirits", where she was given a rather ungrateful role in a movie that was also venturing in the fantasies of her husband, made of the same kind of attractive women, to whom she didn't belong. In "City of Women", women are all here, but for the biggest part of the film, they're not tantalizing him, "La Dolce Vita" had Anita Ekberg sensually inviting Marcello to "come here", this time, the invitation is reversed.
"O tempora! O mores" said the Romans, and Fellini takes us to a journey where women have seized the microphone. However, being the unapologetic macho he is, he proposes a second immersion in a universe where the roles are reversed again and that's where the film loses its pace. Guido visits the house of a man who had 10000 conquests and what follows is another "8½" fantasy ride, made of naughty games and an interesting trial that reminded me of "Pluto's Judgment Day". As to counterbalance his previous act, Fellini had to get back to another Casanova figure, without any sense whatsoever of restrain and measure, he's an artist so carried away by his instincts that he believes any idea that pops up in his mind deserves to be included.
Which makes the film like half an hour too long while it could have stuck to its initial idea and be a social fantasy-induced comment on feminism and a companion piece of "8½". "City of Women" has dazzling imagery, a wonderful set design, and reflects the powerful imagination of the director, what it lacks is just 'control' and a discipline. But it's still worth the watch as his last hurrah before the 80s, and seriously, it shouldn't offend much because the offensive parts are so cartoonish and over-the-top, they're no worse than a Benny Hill skit.
Absolute Power (1997)
Eastwood "In the Line of Fire" again in a political "Unforgiven"...
"Absolute Power" is such a well-written and complex thriller that I could close my eyes on two or maybe three plot contrivances. Yes, if it wasn't for William Goldman's intelligent screenplay and Clint Eastwood's attention in to making intriguing but realistic people inhabit his films through complex and believable relationships, I wouldn't have cared more about the story than if it was "The Rookie".
And even these little weaknesses of the plot were inevitable once we gather that the heart of the story isn't much in the resolution of the crime (after all, we all know what's there to know) than the two troubled relationships: between Luther Whitey (Eastwood) and his daughter Kate (Laura Linney) and also with the crime he witnessed, something so ugly and sordid it's impossible to back away from it, Eastwood might play good or bad guys, but they never back away; Whitney might be a master thief and burglar but he's got principles, which can't be said about the film's antagonists, if except overzealous patriotism.
While Eastwood has rarely been reluctant in depicting men of power with decadent and corrupt behavior, as Allen Richmond, Gene Hackman reaches such a height of hatefulness he makes his Sheriff Dagget a Wyatt Earp in comparison, and makes Whitney the closest character to a hero, despite being a criminal. I complained that "Unforgiven" was about the killing of two men while only one committed a cruel but not lethal act and his friend apologized but this time, no ambiguity, the violence is handled in a more permanent and horrific way and no one is apologetic about it.
It starts in a private property where Whitney effortlessly broke after shutting down the security system, the burglary ensues as smoothly as a picnic until it's interrupted by the entrance of Richmond and Christy Suillivan (Melora Harding) his mistress. Whitney hides in the vault and sits on a chair whose incongruous presence is explained later. With the sheer disgust of someone who'd rather watch painting than indulge in gross voyeurism, he sees what looks like inebriated little games of teasing and kissing, then one slap too many leads to a fight and we know nothing good will come of it. Eastwood demonstrates his acting talent through his powerful eye-reactions.
So Christy has the misfortune to get (literally) the upper hand on her assailant and has an open-letter ready to stab him, when she's shot by secret agents Bill Burton (Scott Glenn) and Tim Collin (Dennis Haybert) but even when the Chief of Staff Gloria Russell (Judy Davis) decides to clean the place and makes it look like an accident, we "understand". Then the first contrivance occurs when they left the one piece of evidence that could incriminate Richmond: the weapon, it's already in Luther's hands and he managed to sneak away. However, Luther doesn't care much about the case and is already planning his departure. It takes time for the film to have him change his mind, but time is used preciously because there are too reveals coming.
First, the use of the chair, Christy's husband is Walter Sullivan, an elderly philanthropist, played by E.G. Marshal, a unanimously respected man who couldn't satisfy his wife and used the vault to "watch", not that he enjoyed it though. I must say Marshall was terrific in the film, a performance of Oscar level, as a good man who might end "the joke of the world" if his habit was to be revealed, though Seth Frank the case investigator (Ed Harris) promises he won't say a word about it. The second reveal is much more frightening, Richmond is not just powerful, he's the most powerful man, which makes the case even more impossible: how can anyone incriminate the President?
But that's where the film gets tense and interesting, once again, it's not about the crime being solved, Eastwood has already shown us the "truth", but it's in the way he can't handle the man's hypocrisy, the way he can prevent his daughter to believe he was capable of such a crime, his principles outgrow his thirst for vengeance. Of course, once he approaches her, he has already made a target out of her and set a cycle of events that made his involvement unavoidable. In a pivotal scene, he meets her in a place where not two but three parties wait for him, the Secret Services, the Police and a professional hit man, the way he escapes is a second contrivance but it doesn't hurt the film.
It's all in the dialogues, the relationships, the way one of the agents start having remorse, the way Gloria or Collin get carried away by their duty, the little flirting between Frank and Kate, Eastwood makes his characters three dimensional, they're not props for a thriller's mechanism, which is saying a lot. It's a wise choice because despite his reputation, Whitney is not a killer, his job is to dodge the bullets and wait for the right time to strike, because it's obvious that if will only take one hit and the hit the film finds is extremely satisfying and made me wonder why Marshall, one year before his death, didn't get more recognition, he's the acting force of the film.
"Absolute Power" is a solidly constructed thriller, served by great performances, though I'm not sure I liked Judy Davis' acting, and a few shortcuts it could afford to make the plot move forward. One can't also ignore the prophetic undertones, not because of the scandal of 1997 but the recent ones that revealed what men of power, have proven themselves capable of during these last decades.
Broadcast News (1987)
Good comedy-drama but not the masterpiece it's cracked up to be...
Tom (William Hurt) is the anchorman whose rapid ascension and good looks stir both jealousy and fascination, Jane (Holly Hunter) is the neurotic executive producer whose constant dedication to her job kept hiding the messiness of her private life, and Aaron (Albert Brooks) is the cynical reporter too aware of his competence and high intellect to accept to stay in Jane's friend-zone while she falls in love with Tom. That's the triangular love that makes "Broadcast News" an interesting watch, all three were good enough to land with an Oscar nominations but not likable enough to make me enjoy the film beyond its journalistic value.
Directed by James Brooks who knows the ropes of TV production and journalism, the film is an interesting warning about the dangerous sliding toward sensationalism that found its niche within the 2000s mentalities. We live in an era where the news moves so fast that the priority is to give the audience not what it wants but what it thinks it wants, journalists find their reason to be when they attack "big subjects", address alarmist messages but behind their hypocritical look, we can spot the emptiness, and the way we're slowly taken into an intellectually debilitating process. Jane was shocked that Tom would fake sadness in an interview but what would she think of web journalists who use click-bait titles for shocking news?
We're certainly reaching the degree zero of information today and maybe the merit of Brooks' film is to show the way things were done during the teleprompter times, before Fox News and before the digital age, but if I was to judge the film on its present value, then I would say it's a more lighthearted version of "Network", without its sharp satirical tone. And I wish I could connect more with the characters in "Broadcast News" or maybe in the way they tried to connect between each other, for a film that has such strong personalities, it's a shame that the outcome of each relationship ends up in a frustrating and anticlimactic way.
William Hurt is believable as a jock whose redeeming quality is that he's able to admit his flaws but never at the expenses of dignity, his momentum is kept intact and clean and he's a monument of serenity. Holly Hunter is the epitome of stressful professionalism, a woman always hanging on the present, so that she has to schedule a few moments to be alone to steam off the pressure and cry like a poor little girl. Finally, Albert Brooks plays the man whose notability can only depend on the others' work, he's the last one to get the praises so maybe he found balance by being the first to throw wise-crackers.
What characterizes these three personalities is that they're engaged in a racket that count on their qualities and they're all able to provide the good work, however they're involved in relationships that takes the catch of their qualities, so while we appreciate their competence, we endure their clumsiness and awkwardness when it's about feelings. The journalism business doesn't even help as things are always tight on schedules and unpredictable, one day, you're the king of the world, and another, you're history. A successful coverage of a diplomatic incident is handled perfectly and ends with congratulations, Tom and Jane's symbiosis through the earpiece was as exhilarating as sex, and a few scenes later, a massive layoff is announced.
Things are so unpredictable that they made me yearn for something constant and solid, like the three protagonists' competence, despite a limited range, a messy private life and a hateful bitterness. But their professionalism is inevitably engulfed within the journalist subplot so what is left is their relationship and no one is likable enough to inspire empathy, Tom is too limited, Jane is too unstable and Albert is a perpetual malcontent, at the end, neither of these three is capable to behave in a way that would either makes a relationship advance or stop, it's a series of misunderstanding and possibilities that last as long as it takes for the movies to throw romantic dialogues, move forward and then backwards.
As we gather, there's a death rape interview that play the key part in the film, and I think I have a problem with that part. Basically, I have a problem with Tom feigning a tear to play the compassionate type, I kind of liked him and I thought it was quite a nasty touch to have him turn into such a shallow man but maybe this shallowness is part of that same personality that attracted Jane in the first part, so while Jane had all the rights to feel angry, did that justify to throw their relationship in the bin? Was the ethical shift just that big? And finally, Aaron is the snitch who makes the whole triangle falls apart because everyone is unlikable in his/her own way and the final sequence is supposed to show that things have healed and they could get over it, but there's a sense of bitterness and regretful mood in all over that made the experience quite unpleasant. All that fuss for what?
There are some good moments in the film, a race around the clock that certainly got Joan Cusack her ticket for "Working Girl" the year after, a hilarious failure of Brooks as an anchorman, but the problem with "Broadcast News" is that drama-wise, it doesn't show nothing new that "Network" hadn't covered and anticipated and laugh-wise, nothing on the level of hilarity reached by the "Anchorman". What remains them is that love triangle between the guys in the poser and I couldn't believe the efforts to make them so unlikable.
Also, couldn't they find a more substantial role for Jack Nicholson?
The Danish Girl (2015)
Lili's legacy deserved better than Redmayne's Oscar-baity pathos...
In a heartfelt interview related to his role in "Tootsie", Dustin Hoffman recalled that existential epiphany when he was trying for different ways to look convincing as a woman, he realized that the issue wasn't about how realistic he looked but how beautiful. He then realized how demanding was society toward women and he cried at the thought of many interesting women he missed just because he himself applied that pressure on them. The role allowed him to approach the beauty-burden of women and in that fragment of interview lays one truth that the whole "The Danish Girl" movie flirts with but never embraces.
I know Tom Hooper's film isn't about cross-dressing as much as it's about gender-identity so I'm not comparing the film to "Tootsie". However, there comes a moment when the pre-surgery Lili Elbe, played by Eddie Redmayne, enjoys the idea of being believable as a woman and does the best to hide whatever can betray the male assets and deep inside, I couldn't help but feel as though I was watching an actor giving his best shot as a woman, because the initial idea of a woman was to be beautiful, to look sweet and sensitive, to let an innocent chuckle, a few sobbing breaths slip, and Redmayne looked believable in these clichés situations, but that was all.
In a film where you have the wife Gerta, an independent painter and strong female character played by Alicia Vikander, it's rather frustrating to see that a transgender person, once she becomes a woman, abandons all her dreams and makes her best to fit in a female crowd, talking about the last fashion of Paris and giggling like a schoolgirl. In "Tootsie", being the beautiful woman was the means, in "The Danish Girl", it's the end. When Lili becomes a woman, I'm sorry if this comparison offends but I immediately thought of Mr. Garrison in "South Park" who, as soon as he became a woman, enjoyed talking with girls about girly things such as men and the 'curse', it was like joining a club. I know the film goes deeper than that and the real-life story of Lilu is an inspiration for many people who feel trapped in the wrong body, however, I'm blaming the treatment for making the gender identity something as superficial and predictable.
For some reason, the film was more effective when it started like a game and Edgar started enjoying the way his modelling inspired a believable lady, having that same Tootsie "epiphany", when the struggle to search his identity was within the framework of art, the film could deliver its message without being too forceful, and art was the perfect medium. Think about it, what is the purpose of art, it seeks beauty, goodness and truth, a certain truth as perceived by the artist. Lili starts as "beauty" and then she reveals what Lili feels like the best part of herself and then at the end, it turns out that Lili was the truth, the one she's been longing for, she's his, no, her reality. "The Danish Girl" starts as a wonderful movie about art and the way it can speak some deep truths about our own personas, only this time, the work of art serves the model's epiphany... it's the idea of being looked at as someone, and then be treated like that someone, and then become that someone, it's a fantastic journey between the realms of reality and art, highlighting the latter's universal language.
Tom Hooper had a fantastic material in the original novel written by David Ebershoff, but for some reason, he decided it to turn it into a sober and melancholic drama whose second act is obviously tailor-made to shine a light on an important issue, in other words, it played the Oscar bait thing with the dragging sequences and the sad piano theme. I enjoyed "The King's Speech" not because of the stuttering performance or because of its climax (it was only a speech after all) but because it told a terrific friendship story, one can argue that "The Danish Girl" is also a tale of love between a woman and her husband who becomes a woman, but Redmayne plays a frustratingly passive character whose efforts to be a woman are only highlighted through sad monologues, cries and sorry for the term, cross-dressing and impressions that are so artificial that they never show what it is to feel like a woman, only to look like one.
Redmayne is a good actor but he pushes the pathos button way too far to make for an enjoyable experience and I'm not sure people who belongs to the community like to be their lives seen as eternal reservoirs of sadness. Vikander pulls off a terrific performance but she's clearly the leading character and while the producers put her in the supporting character to win, we're forced to enjoy Redmayne's continual pathos, regretting these true-to-life moments where even when she looked like a man was playfully posing like a woman. The second act is just the typical biopic material chronicling the final years of Lili and although her life is an inspiration, I wished it inspired more than a fade and pale drama from a director who seems to love playing on the safe side. Lili's legacy deserved better than Redmayne's performance.
The appeal of Quentin Tarantino: a tale of triangular fetishism...
"We" all anticipate the next Tarantino movie, like Scorsese and not so long ago Woody Allen. A Tarantino film is an event by itself: casting, trailers, ads, interviews attract us like candies to window-shopping eyes and our reaction is always the same "it's gonna be great".
Who's "we"? Maybe a generic term for movie fans who respect directors that don't try to make tear-jerkers, crowd-pleasers or Academy boot-kissers, Tarantino makes the movies HE likes and that's his trick: he belongs to a certain breed of directors who make their fans believe they also belong to a certain breed of "connaisseurs", an auteur without the pompous undertones. And the more polarizing he gets, the more exhilarating it is to belong to that little team of aficionados.
But why do "we" dig a director whose chief inspiration is camp and nostalgia?
Think about it, most of us appreciate good films, adore masterpieces and enjoy a few guilty pleasures, but if we had a choice between a Wilder or a Hitchcock classic and some badly-dubbed Kung Fu film or random sexploitation flick directed by an Italian named Steven, we'll probably stick to our guns and opt for quality... the "rep" is important, the rating too (we're on IMDb after all) and our time is too precious to care for celluloid trash no matter the nostalgic value... yet this trash was precious to QT, and because of that personal value and the way it made possible masterpieces like "Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill" (I wasn't a fan of "Basterds" and "Django"), we connect them to a greatness they didn't have.
The result is simple: any B-movie made by QT is regarded as a sort of "Ed Wood"-like masterpiece, it's like the tools became the art, once he defined his skills and style -which were truly revolutionary- and became successful, the less he felt the need to revisit his art. At the end, we don't love his films as much as the way they speak about what HE loves, the story doesn't matter when style is doing the storytelling.
And "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" is pure 1969 style, a pivotal year for "New Hollywood" fans and those who're familiar with either the book or documentary "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls". It's also another occasion for QT to remind us of the movies, the TV programs, the era he grew up with and even a non-expert fan will appreciate the love-letter. But that's the catch for me, the film was enjoyable to the extent that it kept making connections with its era.
Rick Dalton, played by Leo Di Caprio was consistently inserted in fictional or existing shows where he played the heavy-who-always-loses, his struggles to give a fine start to his career was in line with the evolution of Hollywood and made for a great character's arc. Cliff Booth, the stunt double, played by Brad Pitt is like a macho version of his Chanel counterpart but I couldn't resist his confrontation with Bruce Lee, played by a scene-stealing Mike Moh.
As Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie has a touching moment where she smiles at the screen-performance of her real-life counterpart and she inspires a terrific cameo with Steve Mc Queen (Damian Lewis).
Those scenes are great because they do put us in the mood of then-Hollywood, but whenever we're stuck with fictional characters, the charm is lost, temporarily.
That's the problem when the story matters less than the cover, especially when the cover is Hollywood's history and the way Charles Manson put an end to its all-rainbow-and-flowers state of grace. But that's what makes the experience very particular. The horrific details of Tate's savage murder are still haunting me, I remember the aftermath interview of Polanski and how he insisted on Sharon never doing drugs or alcohol... so I was wondering how a film that involves the massacre of an innocent pregnant woman be tagged a comedy...
I watched it with the same dread as "In Cold Blood" and the generally lighthearted mood and the overplayed sweetness of Tate felt unsettling if not obscene.
But that's underestimating Tarantino who understood perfectly that he couldn't capitalize on such an event, and that it needed a revisionist take. It's the smart move for three reasons:
First, we hate the Manson killers so much that the violence that explode at the end had the good old Tarantinesque cathartic feel, and boy, did the climax feel good!
Secondly, it confronts the two "heroes" to reality again and that's where they're at their best.
Finally, it ties the plot together and gives its full meaning to the Pacino character who insisted that in Hollywood, the hero always wins. which is precisely why the film ends that way. The irony of Hollywood being that if life happened like in Hollywood movie, Tate would still be alive. "Once Upon a Time"... like in a Hollywood fairy tale. Style does the storytelling and QT isn't just one hell of a writer/director, even his directing tells stories.
And I thought Al didn't have an important role, he basically makes the film's statement. Leo and Brad have enough scenes to even garner a few nominations... and all Robbie did was irradiating her sweetness, making Tate a sort of overarching angel on that telegenic mess (a tactful touch).
I only regret a few moments that seem to beg for a Sound Editing Oscar nomination, fillers made of driving, smoking, feeding etc. Giving more value than needed to insignificant or inconsequent material wouldn't make "us" fans of QT but fetishists. Maybe a response to his own fetishism for old movies? Still, and this comes from someone who shares "that" fetishism, QT should lay off the foot thing, it's turning to an obsession.
Or maybe our love for QT is a metaphor for his own foot fetishism, this is a guy who enjoy campy "stinkers", but if he ever made some, would we tell?
In fact, does it ever stink with QT?
L'arroseur arrosé (1895)
The Birth of a Notion...
... the gag!
The Lumiere brothers didn't just invent cinema, an art without which IMDb wouldn't exist, they reinvented the gag, an art (yes, an art) without which the French expression "Sprinkler Sprinkled" wouldn't exist, not to mention... cinematic comedy, you know... Chaplin, Keaton, Lewis, Carrey etc... if laughter could be counted in royalties, well, there's always a little cent owed to that seminal piece of celluloid from 1895.
The joke is as old as the Lascaux paintings: a man is watering his garden, a naughty boy steps on the hose and... I won't spoil the ending, I know what goes after is a joke even someone with a QI lower than his shoe size would guess. Still, it works. And we laugh. You know what? Because the essence on the joke doesn't lie on its premise but on the anticipation, the second of the three-act structure. Set-up. Anticipation. Punch-line.
We know the punch-line, which weakens the comedic effect a bit, but we enjoy it nonetheless because the anticipation prepared us for the laugh, if the predictable outcome happens, we're happy because it satisfies our intellect somewhat, comedy appeals in an intellectual way you know... of course the gag doesn't reinvent the wheel but how can you get a twist on that story anyway?
So, what we've got here is the shortest but the most primitive comedy ever, a short intended to make its targeted people laugh, maybe we grew too sophisticated not to appreciate that kind of humor but I dare even the most skeptical one not to let a little chuckle slip. Sure, this is no Chaplin or Keaton but this is comedy in its rawest form and the Lumière brothers got it right, all you've got to do is toy with your audience's anticipation, whatever will happen will happen and will make them laugh...
There's no need to get over-analytical in a ''sprinkler-sprinkled' short, let's just say the film has one merit: it proved that the silver screen needed to provide one emotion and the most universal one, the one that could work with that initial format: laughter, and that it happened so shortly after the first film ever proves how essential comedy was to a Boeotian audience.
It's one thing to show a train arriving or workers going for lunch, but a comedy has one edge over any filmed stuff: it tells a story.
Set-up, anticipation/ action, punch-line, maybe in this simple trilogy, you've got the seeds that planted the art of storytelling, comedy as the essence of film-making. One of the reasons Chaplin is the most emblematic figure of cinema is that three out of the four pillars that made the foundations of cinema is comedy, and "The Sprinkler Sprinkled" constitutes the birth of the visual gag.
The film might even be the first to have an official "villain" even if it's a little prankster and he gets his comeuppance in the end, so even this limited range of plot points, there's an Aesop after all.
Simple but essential...
(a short review maybe, but what did you expect for a 30-second short?)
Working Girl (1988)
The gender-driven battle between horizontality and verticality...
As soon as the chorus triumphantly shouted "Let the River Run", I knew "Working Girl" aimed high. And high is the right word as the film opens with a zoom on the Statue of Liberty's face; the panoramic view on this Great Lady hints us about the film's subtext: when women show the light. Carmy Simon's song will win an Oscar and its uplifting tune is undeniable and integral to the success story.
The titular "Working Girl" is Tess McGill who looks like your typical sexy girl who can only dream of being secretary or assistant to some big shot in a big company, but there's more in her, she's not a Harvard alumnus but she took classes and reads a lot. She works hard and is able to provide sound advice whose credibility is spoiled by her little-girl voice and eyes that seem to ask for permission to exist in a man's world. Speaking of men, they treat her like dirt, for lack of another word, feeling she's got more chances to work her way by sleeping with a sleazy coked-up manager played by Kevin Spacey. If she's hungry, she should accept.
Let's get back to the film's opening now, the Statue of Liberty is a woman who stands and stands tall, defying the same verticality than the anonymous and numerous phallic skyscrapers and she's the most emblematic figure of New York. Following the metaphor, Tess is a woman who wants to move vertically, climbing up the professional ladder but through her merit. So when she's asked to sleep with "Bob from Arbitrage", it's again her perception of success. They call it horizontal promotion and she won't have it.
Melanie Griffith has an effective way to play the innocent girl yearning for respect her vulnerability can't earn, she's not a cynical person but she's got her pride and is tired of being looked down as someone who must either sleep or stand wearing skimpy lingerie. Her boyfriend, played by Alec Baldwyn, offers her stockings for her birthday, which says a lot about his own vision of ladies. Dame Statue of Liberty doesn't show anything, and she's the one who's guiding people.
This conflict between horizontality and verticality can even be expressed fashion-wise: men wear typical suits, women having those vertiginous 80s hairdos, Joan Cusack who plays Tess' friend Cyn couldn't have been any more New Yorker on that 'level', and when Tess gets back to the office, she trades her sneakers for high heels, anything that can artificially make women higher than men is welcome. But some women don't need any artifices, or do they?
When her new boss, Katharine Parker comes into the picture, the woman exudes alpha confidence in every gesture, every detail of her notability, she's warm, amiable and authoritarian, always attentive in keeping things smooth and punchy. Parker is the woman Tess wants to become, she adopts her speech patterns, she cuts her hair and cut off the fancy jewelry, but the catch is that she becomes her servant and ironically, Parker become as condescending and insulting as a man would be, a fine touch in a script that could have been labeled as anti-male.
So Tess doesn't turn out to be the lady who shows the light but the one who carries the torch, the casting of Weaver is crucial because she does a great job at hiding her feelings, she's much taller than Griffith and she wonderfully echoes the situation of women caught between two worlds. She's feminine and seductive with the guys, especially Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) but then harbors her status as a weapon to destroy the spirit of an ambitious woman. Her ambivalence allows us to appreciate the hypocrisy of some women who pretend to be pro-feminism, and yet are only product or accomplices to the system that only select a few to keep the majority under their feet.
This is when the film gets a bit problematic and I won't get into the romantic undertones that could have been kept away from the script. Being a film from the 80s, directed by a man, Mike Nichols, and with Harrison Ford as the top-billed actor, we're allowed to wonder how sensitive to the pleas of women it is.
First of all, I was pleased but also puzzled by the many scenes featuring Griffith in sexy underwear, it made sense where she sneaks into Katherine's wardrobe, but the moment where she vacuums her place might be a tad gratuitous, as if the male gaze found a tunnel through the director's camera, to betray the script. That said, there's a moment where Harrison Ford who plays the smooth office worker, have two long cocktail drinks and women are gazing at him with "yummy" looks, the size of the glasses leave no doubt over the symbols and overall, it was an interesting twist on the usual gender-roles tropes (no pun intended).
The second problem was in the comeuppance Katherine would get, as deserved as it was, I was perplexed by the vulgar way she was treated. The 'bony' line wouldn't have been kept today, but maybe it was her way to 'perish' by the very weapons she used, when a woman gets at the top like a guy, why should her womanhood be an excuse to hinge on. I'm not sure about the way Parker was vilified at the end but maybe her contrast with Tess was crucial to comprehend that the best way to climb your way to success is to do so without compromising your femininity but more importantly, your integrity.
Indeed, and that's why, more than a chick (or chic) flick, it's such a culturally significant film marking with "Wall Street" the end of the yuppie years, there's no dress code to be a successful man or woman, and keeping on the Statue of Liberty metaphor, what's the purpose of standing tall if you have no light to show?
Wait Until Dark (1967)
The doll-faced heroine and the doll full of heroin...
When a doll is stuffed by heroin, heroin becomes the stuff a big nightmare is made on, and if you think your comfortable viewer's position will get you immune to genuine fright, you've got another thing coming... or jumping.
So, we have a blind woman named Suzy Hendrix, left alone in her apartment and three men who want to get the doll. How that doll got in Suzy's possession is swiftly handled like a typical Hitchcock McGuffin. How the two con-artists Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) accept to help a sinister black-clad sunglasses-spotting criminal named Raut (Alan Arkin) to get a hold on the doll is smoothly executed in an expositional blackmailing. And how we get to this get-the-doll premise to a harrowing thriller is the second of a three-act structure from Frederic Knott, who wrote "Dial M for Murder".
Then Terence Young's nonsense directing transcended the unity of time and space and plot, making for an experience that would frighten the audiences through a vicious exploitation of theaters' darkness. The film is indeed known for its exceptional demand of minimal lighting in the theaters in order to enhance the sense of sheer terror at the climax. And yes, while experiencing it, I was wondering how it would have looked in the theater, the last scene that made me think so was the horrific shower in "Schindler's List".
Remember, women were taken to the camp shower, they have heard rumors about hem being death traps, but what could they do? The door was closed and then the anticipation is worse than the ensuing situation. Of course they scream, what else could they do? Since the dawn of ages, darkness has been associated to death and terror in a way that's been rooted in our DNA. But here we get a plot where for once, darkness is synonym of life, because that's how the blind person's life is defined... and yet it doesn't make the moments in the darkness any less scary.
And the whole story is based on an audacious plan that relies on the writer's creative ability in anticipating his own character's creativity. First, Suzy is the center of a plot meant to earn her trust so the three thugs can look for the doll without awakening suspicions. And progressively, she starts to realizes that something isn't right, she's capable to hear familiar footsteps or stores being opened and closed. It's a matter of time before she assembles the pieces of the puzzle, not without the help of a kid named Gloria... who lives upstairs.
The film sets the tone and the mood in an effective way, and no matter the flaws that come in the way, the ending is satisfying because we're kept at the edge of our seat, rooting for a heroine twice, because she's blind and because she's Audrey Hepburn... and because she's facing a villain who mans business although I'm not much a fan of the way Arkin played his Raut like a master of disguise, it looked too farcical for such a no-nonsense film. Anyway, after "The Miracle Worker", I wanted to stay on the 'blind' theme and watch another classic, so "Wait Until Dark" came as a natural choice.
I expected another tale of damsel in distress lost in an apartment and I got that but a little more I didn't expect, a film that seems to exploit in a playful way the idea of having a blind protagonist surrounded by criminals and turn a promising gimmick into a frightening and unforgettable experience, especially during the final ten minutes. Indeed, if one must judge a thriller by its climax then Terence Young" "Wait Until Dark" ISa masterpiece.
What can be blamed though is that it take a little time to build up and that the film is so cautious in not letting many loose ends that we ought to find a few glaring ones. Roger Ebert kept wondering why Suzy didn't lock the door, I saw the film carefully and I guess that one can be so distraught he might forget. I had just forgot my glasses today and have difficulty writing right now, quite fitting for the movie. But I'm not giving up easily on the film, there are a few contrivances here and there but Audrey Hepburn gives the kind of performances where she encourages our own suspension of disbelief.
From the very start we can feel that she smells something fishy, too many things happen in a short span of times, two many intrusions, a cop, an old friend, but in the confusion, she seems to maintain her trust on Crenna because their interaction seems to work despite its malevolent starter, which speaks for the film's effort to maintain a realistic touch.
And it is realistic from our own POV, we wander through the house enough time to get used to it, to feel the place and then like Suzy, be able to anticipate the moves and counter-attack the bad guys. The building allows her to count on the help of her neighbor Gloria and determine whom she can trust. Some users said why didn't she leave the place, well maybe because if there's one place to be blind, you're your home....
Not that it says much, it all comes to the point where she realizes she must destroy all the sources of light in the film (almost)... if she's got to face a ruthless killer, let's make it a fair fight... one wouldn't believe she could pull off but "The Miracle Worker" thought me a blind and deaf person could become a writer, I can buy that a blind woman can do it. Still, the film isn't interested in the what she does but how she does and this is where it gets is spot as one of the scariest and thrilling experiences ever.
Young knows how to dispose a few jump scares and taking the ultimate step by plunging the screen in full darkness. If only for that, this is an experience any movie lover should live.
The Miracle Worker (1962)
In the beginning, was the Verb...
"The Miracle Worker" has teased my curiosity for years: fifteenth film in AFI's Most Inspiring Movies, roles that allowed Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke to win their respective Oscars (Lead and Supporting roles) over two iconic villainesses: Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate", Mrs. Bancroft being praised for her performance in "What's My Line" (she used the language signs during the show)... but all these considerations don't amount to much when it comes to the film's subject.
It's hard enough to imagine being plunged in an eternity of darkness that the combination with deafness can only feel like a dirty trick played by God. In a bit of ironic coincidence, I'm right now deprived of my glasses and must come at one inch to the keyboard and can't even check the spelling on the screen, as a near-sighted man, I can at least relate to Annie Sullivan's blurred eyesight... but my hearing is perfect... I guess one sense out of five is a fair bargain, but two is just impossible... unless you count that magical sixth sense that made a "miracle" possible and allowed Annie Sullivan to pull a young blind-deaf girl off the abyss and become Helen Keller.
This is the premise of Arthur Penn's "Miracle Worker" adapted from William Gibson's play, a story that chronicles the first contacts between Annie and Helen and how, step by step, the young Helen learned to translate words into signs until the feat could be bridged with the real accomplishment: associating these words with the things they describe, water, ground, mother etc. Almost Biblically, Helen was taught the verb before the creation, saying before identifying as if it was the only measure of humanity, the edge over animals.
An animal is almost what Helen is when we first see her, she 'masters' a few signs but nothing a trained monkey couldn't do, she behaves like a wild animal and to put her off that bestial state, Annie has no other choice but to tame her, literally, use her muscle as well as her brains to remind her that she's a human being, something she might not even be aware of... and also remind the parents that they shouldn't be too charitable. The mother (Inga Swenson) is so sensitive she puts her daughter in a bubble of love that alienates her from the real world and her father (Victor Jory) is too rational to expect any possible "miracle". Only the brother (Andrew Pine) can see the good in Annie's unorthodox methods.
So, making Helen more human and the parents less is Annie's psychological struggle as the film is all about learning and the crucial way it extends to the parents. In a way, "The Miracle Worker" reminded me of these reality TV shows where a Nanny teaches the parents how to deal with bratty kids. By the way, Annie has the nerve to call Helen spoiled to emphasize the responsibility of her parents' behavior, it's not just part of God's great scheme. And by demonstrating her lack of empathy, Annie's temper and guts show more respect and consideration toward her pupil. The performance of Anne Bancroft is a mixture of sweetness and pugnacity that finds a perfect echo in Patty Duke's energy.
Considering Duke, she doesn't look too old for the part and doesn't let herself immersed by the role, so we can't get intuitions from her actions, she can feel there's an intruder who has an other way to communicate and somewhat she both refuses her help and accepts it. Helen swings between two opposite states where she tries to get into that breech and others where her handicap is too overwhelming to let anyone make it worse. In fact, everyone seems governed by a dual perception of things, a mix of pure human love and comprehension and a necessity to get things done the most painful way, this is where the conflict between Annie and Helen culminates in the breakfast scene, a sequence of eight minutes where the two wrestle, just to learn how to eat properly.
Helen would slap, bite, pinch, throw Annie in the face but Annie had no mercy as well, the sequence is so excruciating that when it ends, we're glad something came out of it. At that point, I knew the film had taken me and was thrilled by the learning. The next step was in that hunting room where Helen could get off her zone of comfort and learn manners as well as words, and we'd get more relief from the physical stuff.
The film offers more latitude than the play, allowing the camera to go in the outside world so Helen could learn... the directing is superb in a sort of cinema-vérité (did I mention reality TV?) and the performances extraordinary though sometimes the parents' derives toward sentimentality, a criticism that applies to the movie near the end. The film makes it so difficult to grab one word from Helen that its conclusion seems too hasty; when the second breakfast scene ended, I thought we'd get through a second part where Helen would start to 'write'. Yet the director seemed satisfied with that conclusion as if the first step was enough to make the rest history. When you care for a documentary-like precision, there's no problem for adding a little.
I didn't mind that absence actually but I don't think the film needed that "I love you" at the end, there was no way Helen would be capable to pull this... and a simple hug would have been enough, it doesn't take eyes or ears to show love and I think the film was beyond that misstep. But the story is so extraordinary and gripping that there's no way anyone wouldn't recommend to watch it. It ends abruptly but what goes before is quite a cinematic experience!
Mad Max 2 (1981)
Fast, Furious and Nihilistic...
In 1979, George Miller made "Mad Max" on the cheap and the film became an international sensation, a cultural phenomenon with the iconic Pursuit Special roaming across the desert as Max' Batmobile and a vehicle for Mel Gibson's rising star. It worked too well not to be taken seriously; those were the New Hollywood days, the petrol crisis had struck again, "No Future" was more an existential motto than a slogan, so "Mad Max" could only find echo in the punkish new generation and critics who saw more than an action film.
They were right to a certain degree: "Mad Max" turned the Australian wilderness into a cemetery of civilization, marking the decline of a world too dependent on industry to survive out of gentleness and humanity, the world Chaplin warned us against in "The Dictator". But reading my review of the original again, I was wondering if I didn't get too over-analytical. For all we know, maybe the film was just a warm-up for something more spectacular, more extravagant and more cinematic, something less "New Hollywood" and more in-line with the rise of the blockbuster world.
Indeed, in 1981, Miller had the money and "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" showed such a remarkable kinship with "The Empire Strikes Back" I found it actually eerie. The opening plays like the long crawling intro of the "Star Wars" movies, a mini-prequel showing through historical footage a world we're familiar with and that was sacrificed at the altar of flag-brandishing selfishness, reducing the democratic world to a no-man's land with people left at the mercy of gangs of racers and motorcyclist, with a name this time: the marauders, the dark side.
The term mirrors the symbolic line between the good and the bad people established in the first film, those who want to settle and drifters. The paradox is that both needs the same petrol to move about, and when the settlers own a refinery that provide enough fuel to take them to the coast where they'll establish their "Great Northern Tribe", like pioneers following Horace Greely's advice, they naturally attract the greed of the marauders who need oil to fu(e)lfill their chosen lifestyle. Only this time, the settlers are together and ready to fight, still like pioneers.
The time of the cavalry, the Police Patrol is over and Max isn't even a vigilante anymore; after losing his wife and child, he's alone with his dog, a drifter, too and a scavenger, eating on dog food and looking for some oil in any wreck he'll find, a ramshackle car or a gyrocopter where he meets its goofy Pilot (Bruce Spence). Together they witness the brutal assault, torture and rape from the gangs whose clothes carry some strong sexual undertones, to say the least. In a shocking move, they don't help them, one of Max' repeated lines (which is saying a lot since he hardly talks) is "I'm here for the gas".
Max never believes in being a hero, nor that he wants to be one, in a land that looks like the old frontier world, half-mystical, half-disillusioned, and still caught, he channels an Eastoodian Han Solo in his attitude. But what draws the biggest parallel with "Star Wars" is the big bad guy, the colossal Lord of the marauders whose mask doesn't fool no one, Humungus, over-the-top and troubled, is so shamelessly and blatantly similar to Darth Vader he's actually effective. And the measure of a great villain isn't how bad he is but how capable of fairness he can be.
Humungus offers a deal to the settlers: leaving the refinery with its petrol and they'll get a safe passage, otherwise it's war and oil is its force. The deal seems fair within the vileness of the character but what stroke me the most is the way he appeased one of his "dragons" (a Mohawk punk named Wez who was among the rapists) when his boyfriend is killed by the Feral kid, using a cutting boomerang as a weapon. He reminds him that everyone's lost someone he loved, they should look forward.
Interestingly, even the settlers share the same vision, when offered to haul a semi-truck and make a diversion, Max refuses (he's only there for gas) and then the leader Papagallo (Michael Preston) confronts him to his past and the way he uses it as an alibi to escape the present or that bright future, set 3000 miles away. Violence or hope are the sides of the same sword, and the past like a boomerang can come back to haunt you or hurt you if it's too sharp. And heroes are still wanted.
But here I make the film too philosophical, the point is that everyone is quite the same, only the villains more depraved and savages than the other. The film even uses something as basic as uniforms (white vs. black, tunics vs. leather) to make the distinction, obviously Max is between the two worlds, and his gyrocopter-flying sidekick wears light hearted clothes maybe to anticipate his easier immersion within the settlers.
The film is full of colorful characters who stick to your mind almost instantly (did I mention "Star Wars"?) but it wouldn't be a "Mad Max" if it didn't feature car chases, the climactic one is a reference of that genre along with "Bullitt" and "The French Connection" with a fine nod to "Stagecoach" to stay on the Western theme, chases that aren't there for effects but are handled like vital moments of the plots, and vehicles aren't just props for the characters but 'settings' as well.
The chase with Max driving the truck, attacked by the marauders is one of the most thrilling and exhilarating climaxes I've ever seen, enough to elevate the film as one of the greatest action pictures of all time, with a few remains of meaningfulness from the first film and the way everyone pictures the series.
Lady Bird (2017)
Millennial Graffiti (or Where were you in '02?) ...
At seventeen, I dreaded that first puff thinking it would instantly turn me into an addict...
At seventeen, I was checking my height every day wishing for a growth spurt that never happened...
At seventeen, I wanted to lose "it" so badly I was losing my mind...
And don't get me started on the high school diploma...
So many things we yearn for at seventeen that the resulting confusion and the impossibility to stay focused might be the age's defining trait, a volatility in spirit that befits the nickname of the heroine Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan. More 'bird' than 'lady', she flickers from one ear who'd listen to a mouth who'd advise with one unshakable certitude in her mind: she wants to leave Sacramento, a city that became the epitome of static boredom.
Indeed, if there's one thing we resent at seventeen: it's boredom, even nerds want to have fun ... at seventeen, we're all little birds who want to learn about flowers and bees. Now, being a teacher in a Catholic secondary school, handling kids from eleven to fifteen every day, I was wondering whether the film wasn't infantilizing teens much, guilty of a nostalgia-driven naivety, but in fact Lady Bird's immaturity says a lot about how things have changed since 2002, when teens weren't young adults but plain teens.
In that palindrome of a year, the second after 1991, I turned 20. 1999 wasn't too far and at seventeen, I was wondering how I was going to celebrate the New Millennial. Eventually, I went with my best friend in a restaurant full of adults, I looked ridiculous with my white shirt and a black vest borrowed from my uncle, my buddy was a big stocky guy wearing a purple shirt and beige pants with side pockets, and boots, and as if it wasn't enough we had to wear cones... so we celebrated 2000 in a "Superbad" way and after that we went for a night walk in our equally boring hometown, I'll forever cherish even the lamest memories.
Sorry for the digression but in a film where a girl can suddenly jump off a car, unpredictability shouldn't be a big deal. So I was saying kids would laugh today at Lady Bird and her impressionability when it comes to the things of s-e-x, but it's not about what the film shows but what it doesn't, even I was caught off guard. The environment looked so familiar that I forgot it was a time without social networks, when wireless phones were only used for communication, mail still meant paper and that went for adult magazines too (I plead guilty for that one) and the one shot on a computer is the father (Tracy Letts) playing solitaire.
I love how subtle these indications are (though the references to September 11's aftermath get a bit repetitive), Greta Gerwig doesn't overuse the context but builds around it the emotional bonding between Christine and her world. With her strong personality, she would definitely be on Instagram today and posting videos where she rants about her Mom, I didn't notice how lucky we were to escape from that, we were immature in a time that allowed us to grow up. And "Lady Bird" is quite the coming-of-age story.
And it's tricky to make a good coming-of-age story because you've got to draw an audience into liking a character who might not have anything to do with you, generation-wise.
Here's another digression: coincidentally, the film I saw before was "I Never Sang For my Father", a movie made a decade before Gerwig would be born, but I found in the tense relationship between Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas some eerie parallels with the mother-and-daughter issues between Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, showing that some things just never change. Both films depicted that failure to communicate, the same obsession for the mother to keep her daughter close to her (the father didn't want his 40-year old son to remarry and go to California), it was out of protective instinct because parents know life better as the ones who make ends meet, so they don't allow children to make the same mistakes, they forget one thing, mistakes are part of the learning... that's the parents' mistake.
There's a beautiful moment where Christine tries on new clothes for the prom and one thing leading to another, she asks her mother why can't she have a nice word for once, the mother tries to get away with a "I love you". But what follows is such an intelligent aversion of that cliché I daren't to spoil it, the film might be one of the best written of recent years, it doesn't try to sound "hip" all the time like "Juno" but unveils a real wisdom and acute knowledge of people's vulnerability, no one is to compliment or to blame, and Lady Bird isn't a pretentious nickname (nor the films is) but a pious hope.
So many things have been said about Gerwig's nomination for directing but this has been diluted in a year of gender-driven polemics while the film flies over these considerations with the lightness of a hummingbird, and the writing didn't get the credit it deserved. The actors all excel but with such beautiful lines, you can't miss, I was impressed by how realistic and down-to-earth the film was, made by someone young enough to relate to Lady Bird and old enough to take some perspective and admit that parents weren't wrong.
"Lady Bird" follows a simple chronological storyline, filled with romantic subplots (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet play the opposite love interests), interactions with friends (including Beanie Feldstein as the BFF) but just when the film swims in familiar waters, Gerwig avoid the usual traps: drugs, violence, social comments etc. and proves that the best way to keep an edge is not to try to be edgy all the time... this is a sweet movie whose ending resonated deeply in my Millennial heart.
I Never Sang for My Father (1970)
Death is a certitude leaving uncertainty for the living ...
This is not a spoiler, the son's voice says: "Death ends a life but doesn't end a relationship". Gilbert Cates' "I Never Sang for my Father" opens with these words and a black-and-white photograph of an elderly father and his middle-aged son, both with uncertain smiles. looking in the same direction with expressions that say a lot about their characters and make us suspect they diverge in many aspects. And yet they do have the same focus in their lives: the father himself.
His name is Tom Garrisson (Melvyn Douglas), an eighty-year old man whose existence consists of contemplating his success; making sure he's surrounded by people who'd listen to his wags-to-riches stories: how he beat the odds, took care of his siblings and grandfather after his mother's premature death, kicked out his father at her funeral and then visited him at the hospital and sent him oranges shortly before he died. In fact, when the movie ends, we could write a twenty-page summary of Tom's life and not much of his wife (Dorothy Stickney) or his children Gene and Alice (Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, who ironically also starred together as a 'beta-couple' in "Bonnie and Clyde").
Beta is the word and I wasn't even surprised that Hackman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite him having more screen time than Douglas, the film builds a pedestal upon Tom's feet to make everyone else exist from his perspective. We know that Alice was thrown out of the house because she married a man of 'different background' and Gene always lived in his father's shadow, trying to please him the best he could, to earn his admiration at the expenses of accomplishments that would make him proud of himself. Gene is recovering from his wife's death, he fell in love with a gynecologist and is determined to live with her in California, which means far from his parents. "It will kill your mother", warns Tom, but the mother takes it in all stride while what actually kills her is a heart attack that leaves Gene with a dilemma: should he leave his father alone, jeopardizing their relationship for his own independence?
Even the mother's death is handled like a detail, only significant in the great scheme of their tumultuous relationships Gene needs to exist outside his father's shadow but he can't avoid communicating his sentiments to him. But does he know how he feels? Does he hate Tom because he's been constantly towering over him, or because he didn't let him become a man in the Freudian sense ("killing the father") this hatred is what Gene hates the most and vents it on himself. He can't resign to hurt his father who once was a school boarding governor, a mayor, an important figure and who finished alone and forgotten. Gene is the only person who can tie him up to his glorious past forever. The fascinating paradox of Tom, magnificently portrayed by Oscar-nominated Douglas, is that he keeps on pretending he doesn't need anybody to handle his life but he needs his son Gene to tell him that.
Alice was relieved from that burden; by being disowned, she earned a freedom that allowed her to be her own destiny's master. Her feelings are clear, she doesn't like her father but that's a defensive reaction because he never loved anyone but himself. She's not totally right but not totally wrong either, the truth might be that Tom is such a self-confident man that he's only capable to love people who enter his comfort zone and pledge allegiance to him. Yet Gene believes there's more than a control freak in his father, that the father-and-son relationship is complex and he can't believe a man who accomplished such great things couldn't be capable to accomplish an even bigger feat which is simply to soften his heart. Gene tries and the film chronicles his attempt to win his father's respect without losing their love, it's all within the fragile balance between these two feelings.
"I Never Sang For My Father" belongs to that breed of difficult, adult, heavy-loaded and poignant dramas that rely on the difficulties to reach someone's soul, Douglas gives an extraordinary performance as a man who can't accept any weakness to invade his fortress of certitudes and can only betray some vulnerability with a few hesitations, memory holes (we gather he's in the early stages of Alzheimer disease), blinking eyes and some heartbreaking displays of sadness, and Gene Hackman is almost adorable as his son, a big man, adult and all, who turns out to act like a little child, scared by his old man's shadow, a man who blames his father for not letting him become a fully developed adult and who's struggling to communicate that resentment while still saying in subtext that he loves him, communication or lack of is the soul of this melancholic generational drama where Douglas injects life and can be desperately comical and Hackman gives it humanity and gentleness.
The script, written by Robert Anderson from his own play, also earned a nomination and is remarkable by his stark and sober realism, I only wished the film didn't indulge to a few unsubtle moments such as a musical interlude, a sex aftermath that drags a bit too long for the sake of expositional dialogue and a sinister visit to retirement house that seems to be borrowed from a "face of death" film, the ridiculously ominous muic and the editing insisted too much on the horrors of old age. It was like the film ended on a note that echoed the famous lines De Gaulle after watching Petain's downfall during his trial "old age is shipwreck" but the real shipwreck that is portrayed in the film isn't old age, which is part of life, but its effect on relationships... and that even death, as the opening monologue says, doesn't end.
A powerful sports drama with a motivational score like only the 80s could produce...
"We love it when giants fall. It's part of our collective social consciousness. We build up heroes and once they reach a certain plateau of success over a period of time, we tire of them. We love underdogs and want to see an upset"
This is from Stephen Denny's "Killing Giants", a fascinating book drawing many parallels between business competition and the sports world, insisting that while anyone can be small size-wise, there's no such a thing as a small player, it's even the most enviable position as you've got to beat the odds as well as the opponent. That's why cinema too loves underdogs, it's the stuff dreams are made on.
David Anspaugh's "Hoosiers" is one of these sports movies, distilling from real-life a story that underlines the term "underdog" so much the film might only be accused of insisting too much on the "small" thing; small town, small high school, relatively small basketball players, to the point that "Rudy", the second feature film from Anspaugh makes a perfect companion piece to "Hoosiers". And like "Rudy", the main cast doesn't actually play the game, the team is "only" the instrumental device meant to bring pride to the Indiana farmers, the Hoosiers people. Their shot at the championship is theirs for feeling significant and happy and accepting the banal normality of their life. Sport is an instrument of social cohesion and it's the film's credit to evoke the passion from the outsider's perspective.
Here's another example: few weeks ago, the Moroccan team was eliminated from the African Nations Cups in the worst possible way: a missed penalty shot at the 93rd minute that would have meant victory. Those make-it-or-break-it moments define the fascination for sport, a metaphor for life where one tactical choice, one move, a boost of insurance or a moment of hesitation make the difference, one can get off a game as a hero or a pariah, the verdict of the crowd is part of the game too. As Moroccans, we all felt shaken and betrayed not much because our country lost but because we were prevented from an opportunity to be happy. And the vox populi blamed the coach for having picked the wrong player. This is a situation Norman Dale could have related to.
Some aspects of the Hickory team's story have been fictionalized and I read that the real coach wasn't exactly a middle-aged man but it doesn't matter, the film does add a few cinematic conventions but finds a nice way to make Hickory's ascension to the title tie the plot together, with the overarching idea that everyone deserves a second chance, it's all a matter of seizing the opportunity once it comes. For once, it's not about the players, they're good already, the closest to a real underdog is a vertically-challenged boy who must deal with mockeries and his own insecurity, and Jimmy, an enigmatic young prodigy who's mourning the death of the previous coach and refuses to play anymore. We expect his entrance to be pivotal in the plot and it is, but in a way that honor the script's restrained tone, not going for cheap emotionality despite the temptations. This is not the eighties' "Rocky's".
The film doesn't play either the circumstances that pushed Dale outside the basket court like a sort of trauma or big reveal, Gene Hackman with his unbeatable instinct to play normal guys, plays it smoothly as someone who doesn't want to get into trouble and tries to deal with the defiance of the townsfolk who disapprove his methods (some are on his side though). The philosophy of Norman is that whoever wants to play gets in the court, he respects Jimmy's choice and never tries to overstep the boundaries of his authority and doesn't want in return his authority to be defied. He's a man of discipline but not an iron-hand either. And because he believes in second chances, he gives one to Shooter, a former star and player's father, played by Dennis Hopper (Oscar-nominated for the role).
Hopper gives a remarkably desperate energy that cuts straight in your heart, a man for which basketball meant something and is transmitting not only the passion but the expertise, that's the kind of nuances so smart and well-pointed that I regretted the film's needless romance with Barbara Hershey or a few missed moments with the players, who're getting with the coach the chance to be on the top of the world, and even once in a lifetime makes it all worth it. That was the philosophy of "Rudy" as well, something that transcended the banal goal of victory and make sport the real star of the film. Basket-ball couldn't have a better homage, the tactical moves aren't just artistic licenses and we get enthralled by the final game and the way the winning points are won at the last minute, you might think it's unbelievable but sports is full of such unbelievable stories.
In his "Killing Giants" book, Denny provides an interesting example example among many others involves a 1941 boxing game where Joe Louis won by knocking down his opponent, a cocky Irishman named Bill Conn who wanted the knock-out although he had the game already, he seized the final opportunity to get him with an uppercut and the heavyweight title in the process proving that it's not over till it's over. Basket-ball allows more latitude to the players but also works under the same conditions, and right now I still don't know which score stuck the most to my mind, the final 43 to 40 or Jerry Goldsmith's inspirational theme that makes me want to take my trainers and go run ten miles, right now I have that music playing in my mind!
Lilies of the Field (1963)
The year Martin Luther King had "a dream", Sidney Poitier built one...
It's of common notoriety that Sidney Poitier was the first Black actor to receive an Academy Award in Best Leading Role, but I wonder how many self-proclaimed movie lovers know the title of the movie that earned him the ultimate honor after such a "long journey" as he claimed while holding tears when he received the statuette.
The title is "Lilies of the Fields", a not-so little gem that seems always capable to draw a smile in your face even when the narrative falters a little and when Sidney Poitier, yes, the great Sidney Poitier indulges to some grimaces or hazardous comedic attempts. One thing I got from "Lilies of the Field" is that there is a strong comedic potential in Poitier, an actor who's been almost typecast as a suit-wearing charismatic man superior to everyone, but unsubtle humor isn't his strongest suit and the film is never stronger as when it focuses on the battle of prides between two strong-willed characters.
"Lilies of the Field" is a story that could have been pitched in one sentence: a Black man, a jack-of-all-trades with a name as banal as Homer Smith is hired to do manual work for a group of East-German nuns near the Mexican border, eventually, he's asked to build a chapel for the people (mostly Mexicans) who can only rely on a ridiculous van posing as church. Now, is it relevant to mention that the nuns are German? Of course, because there's an undeniable comedic premise in the contrast between these women and their environment, they're in such a deeper part of America that you'd feel in Mexico.
But here is a trickier question, is it relevant to mention that it's about a Black man or wouldn't the movie work just the same had it been about a white man? This makes the whole difference; in fact especially in the context of 1963, it means a lot, the movie doesn't deal with racism as much as it deals with the cultural barriers that undermined America during the "I have a dream" year, and yet highlights the fact that the nuns didn't care about Homer's skin. And yet they cared about his strength and only paid him by offering him a shelter and food. It's not slavery for one reason that is not so obvious: the film is told from Homer Smith's perspective and since he doesn't feel it's slavery, then it's not.
Homer's no fool however and knows it's a blatant case of abuse of power and as the film relieves us from the 'racial' tension, we're thrilled by the psychological arm-wrestling between the Mother Superior Maria (Lilia Skala) and Homer. It's not a movie in black and white (literally, symbolically or in reference to the nuns' outfits) but a movie that prepares us for racism to better fool us. In fact, the only brief glimpse of racism is when Homer is called "Boy!" by a construction businessman (played by director Ralph Nelson) who later comes to respect him. I loved that touch because it didn't feel forced and because even Homer didn't need to retort badly, he taught a lesson by the strength of his hands. And I liked it because the film didn't need to have any villains and it didn't try.
The merit of Poitier is to play a man who's employed for his strength and accepts it because it's something he's not ashamed about, he doesn't feel used because he appreciates the authority he's earned with the other nuns, that allowed him to earn their sympathy and buy them nice food once he managed to get a part-time job as a freelance contractor. Regularly, he teaches them English lessons and American psalms whose most defining song is the unforgettable "Amen!", the thing that stuck to my head after ten years without watching the film again. The performance of Poitier is integral to the enjoyment but Lila Skala is a great match, she obviously appreciates his help but all through the film, only sees him as an instrument of God's will and is never capable to be appreciate to his own work.
In a way, her pride drives Homer's own pride and when she asks to build a chapel, you can feel the dilemma: if he obeys that little tyrant, he also realizes his dream to be an architect. Homer's own ego is being tempted. And it's all the more interesting because in his own way, and like many characters played by Poitier, Homer seems to have a few prejudices of his own and when he's being offered some help by the Mexican workers, he dismisses them because he wanted to build the church alone, he's not Catholic but he has strong beliefs as well, but strong doesn't mean relevant in the great scheme of things. He eventually gets humbled by the well-meaning helpers who turns the construction site into a real Babel tower.
And the film is full of supporting characters with the same selfish tendencies: a Mexican shop owner helps building the chapel because he takes it as life insurance, a sort of Pascal's wager. There's an Irish priest who wished to be assigned in a better place and realize the faultiness of his attitude. Homer learned to appreciate people's help and not be blinded by his own ego and in the end, even the Mother Superior learns a lesson or two about the value of human help, she might have prayed God, but it was people who helped her.
The film seems rather simple and straightforward but it shows a group of imperfect people bound together by strong beliefs and ideals that no matter how debatable they can be, inspired the best of them. When the film ends with that "Amen!" I didn't see it necessarily as an endorsement for a specific faith but as recognition of the way faith can bring people from different horizons together and allow them to accomplish little miracles. Amen!
Darkest Hour (2017)
Approved by the Academy...
The year is 1940, war is raging all over Europe. Poland is occupied, Holland and Belgium surrendered and France is undergoing the Nazi rollercoaster. All democracies are defeated.... All of them? No, an isle commanded by a stubborn Prime Minster won't stop to put up resistance. Yes, I'm an Asterix fan, in case you haven't noticed... and not much a fan of Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour", a movie whose very merit draws an interesting parallel with Churchill himself, a man whose heroism could only be unveiled by a dramatic opportunity, a matter of timing. Churchill was overdue a biopic and Gary Oldman an Oscar, and that's that.
There's nothing more satisfying than a movie tailor-made to win Oscars and that fail... it's fun to see them stumble and fall and remind a few producers that having movies based on true stories, involving a real-life larger-than-it figure, slightly more eccentric than the average schmuck, with actors who've proved to be bankable, isn't a guarantee for gold. In the same vein, there's nothing more frustrating than seeing the Academy biting the bait. By no means, am I implying that "The Darkest Hour" is a bad film, but is it anything new after "The King's Speech" or "Lincoln". Again, we have a historical figure facing a moral dilemma in the midst of a war on which the future of a country hinges, countless discussions between Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Hallifax (Stephen Dilane) to decide if one should discuss peace and two patriotic and rousing speeches that seal the country's fate. On the paper, it's terrific but on the screen, it doesn't demand more than what a simple play could have provided.
Indeed, having Gary Oldman, the actor who made a specialty out of playing original and/or slightly disturbed characters, play the most iconic British figure was an offer fans and movie lovers couldn't refuse but how on Earth did the film, good but never great, garner six nominations including Best Picture. The film isn't a war movie but a huis-clos centering on the month of May 1940 where Europe surrendered to the Blitzkrieg and the British isle became the next target. The conflict is simple: should Britain listen to the terms of Hitler or fight... we all know surrendering won't be an option (so much for the suspense) but the thrills rely on the way Churchill is never totally approved even after his nomination at the head of the country, it's as if he was embodying the country's own insulation. In a way, it's a good premise for a film but I suspect its existence was to be more of a vehicle for Oldman than any attempt to inspire a new interest on the British Bulldog.
If you're going to have a movie about Churchill, why not go straight ahead with it, and call it the "Darkest Hours", why making it on the cheap and not have anything about the Blitz attacks and the magnificent way the Royal Air Force counterattacked... the film only exists to show the way Churchill win the battle of opinions, while real battles are either won and lost, having glimpses of hesitation at times and be the histrionic chap we expect. On that level, Oldman never disappoints but don't count on me to consider his performance deserving, here's why: Churchill is a living icon, he's hot-heated, hot-tempered, gross and vulgar in a sophisticated way, all you've got to do is chomp on your cigar and chew the scenery anyone would get away with it. A character like Churchill provides so many constraints that it's easier for an actor to depend on them and then let the inspiration take a life of its own. That's why I believe it's easier to play characters like Stephen Hawkins than the role that earned Casey Affleck his much deserved Oscar the year before.
Speaking of Hawkins, I called "The Theory of Everything" one of the most Oscar-baity films I've seen and "The Darkest Hour" reminded me of it, I didn't expect there would be a connection. Screenwriter Anthony MCarten seems to adore crowd-pleasing tear-jerking Oscar darlings, he's not a bad writer but I'm afraid he's diluting his talents in heavy-handed projects that might sometimes end with failed melodramas and he won't make quite a name for himself following that trend, though he did better with "Bohemian Rhapsody", a film with a greater scope than Wright's war drama. Now, I didn't want to enter that turf about bait or not bait but when I got to the tube scene, I couldn't help but feel that the film was trying too hard, much to hard to pay tribute to a certain vision of London that would appeal to a 2010's audience and give Churchill a sort of sacred halo à la Gandhi (a man he despised by the way) watching that scene, I thought the real Churchill would roll over his grave.
There were enough good biopics lately and it's unfair to make critics on the basis of comparisons but I wish we could have more movies like "Patton" or "Lawrence of Arabia" making biopic rhyming with epic, and not limiting itself to a timeline where FDR is inexistent and De Gaulle not a name yet, there's a lot of talk in "The Darkest Hour", I just wished the film could walk the walk. Rumor has it they're planning a sequel, maybe it's a recognition of how limited for such a grand figure the original was.
The Founder (2016)
Founding a business is good but building the foundations of its durability better...
I often go to McDonald's, especially with my daughter, it's not much a product of the world's mass-market globalization but the way globalization has influenced our lives and standardized the approach to fast-food, people need to eat quick and well, and restaurants are kept for birthdays of Valentine's dates, job meetings or anniversary celebrations.
It was during summer 1993 when the first McDonald's restaurant opened in Morocco, in Casablanca on the seaside. For a kid my age, it felt like going to Disney World (quite an omen knowing that a few months after, I would visit the actual place). I remember it as if it was yesterday, everything looked clean and impeccable, the hamburgers on the pictures were shiny and the names resonated like something that would come off the TV set. Then, I had my first bite on the cheeseburger, it felt like having a 'taste of America'... and it didn't taste bad.
The rest is history, one couldn't count how many 'Golden Arches' are in every big city of Morocco, many kids were born with it and didn't have the privilege to taste that crispy apple pie whose cream would burn you tongue if you didn't wait long enough (I guess that's why the dessert was removed); for these children anyway, McDonalds' (which we call "McDo" like the French do) is part of their everyday line, anything but something to feel privileged about. "McDo" became part of the urban landscape and not just in countries with churches and American flags, but before going global, it had to prove its worth locally, and boy, did it deliver!
I'm not praising the place as much as I praise the concept, one that proved to be in symbiosis of modern societies' expectations, to the point that the mark of modernity in an emerging country can be measured by the number of international franchises it got, McDonald's being generally among those that started them all. And I can't believe my grandmother was refused to open a McDonald's franchise back in 1981, the local bureaucracy couldn't share her visionary flair... something that echoed the journey of Ray Kroc, the titular "Founder" in John Lee Hancock's underrated biopic.
First of all, what strikes in Ray's name is his lack of fame compared to the empire he built, we all expect McDonald's to be the creation of a guy named likewise who envisioned the fast-food chain like Bugsy did with Las Vegas or Zuckerberg Facebook, a man of guts and vision... and yet whoever made McDonald's possible wasn't meant to be praised like Steve Jobs would be, not because he didn't deserve it but because McDonald's is the result of a long process that preceded him, one that involved many protagonists until he gave that little boost it needed to definitely take off, a business masterstroke that might have looked great on the paper, not enough to convince producers to make a film out of it.
It starts the Great Depression convinced the two brothers, Dick and Mac McDonald to invest in food business because hey, "people gotta eat", and then they decided to have their little trademark: the Speedee-System, why bother with dishes, with fancy plates when 90% of the food goes into burgers, fries and sodas, they didn't invent the wheel, they just applied Ford theories in food business, but there's nothing like an idea "coming from nowhere". Anyway, we get through an exhilarating ten-minute sequence where it's both about the content than the form. I loved the way the two brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carrol Lynch) kept switching the lines like a story they've been telling countless times and you can see it from the listener how spellbinding it is.
In fact, Kroc only came because they were one of the umpteenth clients he visited to sell some ice-cram multi-mixer but when Kroc learned about McDonald's, it was obvious they couldn't keep the concept for themselves. He convinces them to start making franchises and progressively, the man becomes the third parent to McDonald's... until he gets full custody, literally. I didn't expect much and I got a taste of what made the concept successful, more than any documentary, analytics would leave anyone cold, but the film treats its subject like a great story.
The film doesn't glorify the brand, nor the name but the persistence that drove a man who didn't have the original idea, who didn't have an exceptional talent, but who could spot a good idea and talents when they hit him and didn't miss the opportunity. The film is straightforward and linear but is remarkably effective ... and Michael Keaton is just so good, I kept wondering where the hell was that film during the Oscar talks, I know it's not "progressive" to praise business values, nor that the film handles any timely subjects, but it's culturally significant and smart in a punchy way.
At first sight, it's your typical business-driven success stories with a few dilemmas that force the protagonist to cut a few corners but the dynamics are good, the interactions with the brothers full of subtle comedy, and Michael Keaton is just the perfect actor for such roles. There are a few clichéd moments (Laura Dern has the thankless role as the abandoned wife) and the film works better when it gets to business. Even the title is provocative because one of the first 'a-ha' moments you get in the beginning is that Kroc didn't create McDonalds. Still, at the end, and that's why the film works, we accept him as the Founder, who bought an idea so big the creaors (relegated as passive observers all through the film) couldn't handle it... it's one thing to create, but it's another to build the foundations of durability of that creation.
Some would compare the film to Fincher's "Social Network" and they'd be right, I wish the comparison could have extended to the Oscar reception.
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Poetic Justice Served by Clint Eastwood...
A heat haze reigns over the high plains, making them look like the valleys of the shadow of death. Emerging from the mistiness a lone rider seems to make one with the shadow, coming to our direction. It's not an entrance as much as an appearance, and in the small town of Lago, not the most welcomed one. From the simple by-standers to the business owners, gazes of bewilderment and barely concealed fears converge to his direction, stares that say "who is he?" "where does he come from?" "what is he doing here?". As usual, Clint Eastwood looks like he doesn't give a d***, and we -viewers- know we'll be lucky if one of the three questions gets an answer.
That's the attitude Eastwood built his legend on, as the emerging Western icon after John Wayne but closer to a Bogart-like figure, Eastwood had that edge over Wayne, he didn't need a story, his 'presence' could make a film. Eastwood emerged with the late 60s and his "Man-With-No-Name" character immediately appealed to a young generation of movie goers longing for outcasts who could reflect their own defiance toward the petty preoccupations of a conservative society, minus the insecurity. Eastwood played rebellious characters but with coolness oozing from his apparent detachment, he made his charisma so effortless that he stole Wayne's thunder.
Speaking of Wayne, that he criticized "High Plain Drifters" in an open letter to Eastwood proves the latter's point, he might have played a "right-wing fantasy" in "Dirty Harry" but when you're criticized by Wayne in 1973, you're not in conflict with the Western icon but with the out-of-touch director of "Green Berets". Eastwood was old-fashioned but in a revolutionary way. And this is why his figure as the lonesome stranger coming from nowhere but not for nothing became an enduring trademark of his own, one that stuck to him until his Oscar-winning "Unforgiven". And twenty years later, Eastwood knew the secret ingredient he had to instill in his movies: making his Stranger's character as quiet and stingy in words as his Leone's counterpart and as effective in words and action as his Don Siegel's Harry.
Some critics saw in the film an attempt to imitate the masters but that's an unfair trial because what Eastwood imitates (not without a few ounces of self-awareness) is the character he created and whom he plagiarizes with insistence, because that's the way you build your own style. As a director, he's rather minimalist and linear, with a few flashbacks cleverly inserted to give a needed boost to the plot, until a climax that looks like nothing seen before, not in old Westerns, not in Leone's: surrealism with a meaning. In "Pale Rider", a similar confrontation would be handled in a less showy manner but "High Plain Drifters" redeems its lack of subtlety by the boldness of his protagonist and his personal motives that give a weird of plausibility in his actions, it might even be Eastwood's way to renovate the Western genre, whipping the dust off with a mystical savagery.
That's Eastwood's touch, to infuse spirituality in seemingly ordinary stories, with mysterious but not unreal protagonists, men with a way with the gun and the ladies and yet accessible to the common folks, never too detached, never too straightforward... there's an element of humor and balance that keep his heroes rooted in reality while their aura evokes supernatural elements. Now, it would ruin the experience to reveal what "High Plain Drifters" is about but let's say it involves a town that is so full of coward people that it makes Hadleyville people look like the Magnificent Seven The film opens with the Stranger killing three thugs who were literally begging for it, as a result, the town asks him for protection against three outlaws who are coming to attack them. He accepts, but not without a price.
As the plot moves on, a few hints are given, the sound of a whip alerts the Stranger, a woman bumps into him in a way to 'make acquaintance' What he does after is condemnable and ugly but what the scene denounces is the apathy and lack of reaction of the men not without reminding of "Dirty Harry" and whose correlation with the Stranger's mission is revealed later. Meanwhile, the film oscillates between moments of ominous quietness, brutality and humor, especially when the town is ready to accept any of the Stranger's wishes including the nomination of the town's midget (Billy Curtis) mayor as sheriff and mayor. The Strangers throws customers out of the hotel, making an enemy out of the owner, and a friend out of his wife (Verna Bloom). Later, some treacheries are revealed among the "good" people of Lago, which broadens even more the notions of good and evil, an issue that became persistent in Eastwood's body of work as soon he started making movies.
"High Plain Drifters" denounces the evilness lying in every human being who acts wrongly but also the lack of reaction of the seemingly good citizen, the more violent scenes involves a nasty public lynching by whipping where we see people staring at a good man being tortured, with a silence that truly gives consent. We never really get to know what ties the flashback with the Stranger, however we know there's a record to settle and that some incidents are so dramatic that it takes a certain dose of poetic justice to fix it, a vision of what is right that doesn't necessarily indulge in being good, that might not be the vision of everyone of the West, but it was Eastwood's and it fit the mood of the 70s and we're disillusioned enough to embrace his poetry almost five decades later.
John Wayne was in position to criticize him but time certainly did justice to the director who did justice in his own movies... when he gets back to the heat haze, we know justice was done and it's satisfying enough.