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I collect View-Masters and am a fan of Petula Clark.
Pilot #5 (1943)
This is one anti-Fascist WWII propaganda movie that must have hit close to home
This has to be the single most articulate WWII propaganda movie in existence making the point that the Fascists were not just in Europe and Japan but everywhere the profit motive and the reign of fear were trumping democracy in the good old USA. This message still resonates today.
This is a rare American film that actually denounces corrupt and anti-democratic greed-is-good practises and equates them with fascism. It mustn't have gone down smoothly in Republican circles where fighting for lower taxes for the rich was a more important priority than actually fighting the war. To make the movie even more remarkable, the level of violence exerted against the poor exploited Italian farmers in the film is actually on a par with the violence of war and the atrocities of other future American films noirs.
There is absolutely no other film like it and it's a wonder that its script-writer and director were not suspected of Communist affiliations after the war. The only reason they escaped scrutiny was that the writer died ealy in mysterious circumstances and the director only dabbled in light musicals and romantic comedies before and after.
The kamikaze ending ("Poppa's little bomb rack isn't working") must also have been a shocker to many.
Highly recommended to anyone who doesn't think Hollywood ever showed any balls.
De helaasheid der dingen (2009)
When urine, excrement, sperm and vomit are not enough as narrative devices...
... you can always count on tears, blood, placenta and spilt beer.
Having said this, this film uses all of them to good effect. This brutal confrontation with the Flanders of Pieter Brueghel and Jacques Brel, is not without its pathetic and touching moments. It reminded me a lot of Quebec's "C.R.A.Z.Y" in its enthusiasms for its subject but with, of course, much more squalor.
The actors are all convincing and attractive in their own way and the direction is transparent and unobtrusive. The viewer should be warned that the opus is generously peppered with scenes of fornication, sometimes public, pissing, sometimes public, defecation, sometimes public, vomiting, sometimes public, public male nudity and transvestism, not to mention lots and lots of binge drinking.
I liked the anecdote in the "making of" documentary telling how one of the father's fake moustaches was fashioned from the male actors' and crew's pubic hair. It seemed fitting somehow.
Makes all other creature features look like crap
There are many reasons for the film's success. It is imaginative and daring in its concept, actually basing its story on a real incident of formaldehyde poisoning caused by American military negligence. This aspect of the film makes it very political: the real villain here is not the monster, it's the American hubris and incompetence that created the monster and invented a virus scare to cover-up its idiocy.
The viewer's interest is maintained throughout not only with stunningly integrated special effects but by the great humanity of the characters, even the secondary ones. These are presented to the audience in cursory but satisfying fashion, then elaborated. This is called character development and it is almost totally absent from dumbed-down mainstream American movies these days.
The plot is also full of surprising twists which add to the complexity of the characters instead of subtracting from it. The ending is surprising, heroic and disquieting and a long ways away from Hollywood's traditional happy end.
The whole thing is held together by technical brilliance in special effects, dialogue writing, photography, art direction, lighting, sets, acting, directing, visual imagination, suspenseful editing and a magnificent score that alternates between a Fellini slice-of-life score by Nino Rota and the romantic effulgence of Michel Legrand.
In short, this film is so advanced it can probably never be topped by anything on this side of the Atlantic for a long time.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Perfect in every way
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this film. It's incredibly well-conceived on an intellectual level, it is well-planned in the ways of art direction, lighting and photography, exhibiting a look that many live-action films can only dream of. The script is spotless, the idea is original and the talent is outstanding. (Gerard Butler is the most underrated technical actor of his generation, even when he keeps his shirt on.) Furthermore, it carries a positive message that young people should not necessarily follow in the footsteps of their elders when they find a better way. The only people who could object to that have to be Republicans or Tea Partiers.
Finally, am I the only one who finds a resemblance between the friendly dragon Toothless and Stitch but also with Totoro of "My Neighbor Totoro"? It is wonderful to see that Dreamworks Animation has attained such brilliance after acquiring talent from Disney Studios and borrowing the best technology around. (Weren't those clouds in the 2003 live-action "Peter Pan"?) I was very impressed by the off-beat humour of "Over the Hedge" but this film's expressive animation just blows me away.
Finally, it is very refreshing to see a film with a full spectrum of colours as opposed to the depressing blue-green live-action atrocities of the last ten years.
An ugly little film about ugly little people
"Splice" is an unattractive sci-fi film about two unattractive and nerdy young scientists who are also wannabe hipsters. One is played by Adrian Brody and the other by Sarah Polley. Brody's character functions in three modes: (1) as a continual whiner worrying about the deep mess that his partner is getting him into, (2) as an irresponsible idiot willing to go along with anything his partner gets him into and (3) as a person who says "f***" a lot. Ms. Polley's character is just as complex and works in the three following modes: (1) as a producer of mucous, (2) as a person who is demanding, difficult, bitchy and premenstrual and (3) as a person who says "f***" a lot. This use of the "F" word is actually one of the saving graces of the film as it does much to shorten some truly unbearable dialogue.
The two nerds are geneticists who have developed an hybrid species and want to push the experiment further, unbeknown to their employer, by mating the new breed with human DNA. The monstrous result is a cross between a chicken, a squirrel and Britney Spears. The irresponsible couple decides to make matters worse by allowing the abomination to grow and develop, the Polley character seeing it as a kind of safer and more controllable motherhood than her own dysfunctional family past, and the imbecilic Brody character just being along for the ride.
As the cage cleaners at the zoo are found of saying, "monkey s*** will fly".
The two anorexic main characters are so repulsive in their own right and on every level that I found their sexual coupling even more difficult to watch than the much more unnatural matings that follow. The film takes the viewer irretrievably down the slippery slope of unresolved and unexamined moral and ethical dilemmas right into the realm of the frankly - and splashily - disgusting. It overstays its welcome by a good half hour before everything is made permanently wrong all over again.
Still, it's a little demoralizing to note that the apparent conclusion of the film seems to be that all the two protagnists really needed to settle their myriad problems and contradictions was a good f***.
I only found two redeeming qualities in this puke-fest. First, the director and PD were not total slaves to the inescapable cliché that is the obligatory blue-green colour scheme of 90 % of the American movies and 99 % of the sci-fi films produced during the last 10 years. Some colour does poke through occasionally, although not enough to make the experience less depressing for the viewer or to counter the effect of the mortuary music that bathes the whole. Second, there is an imaginative use of the back speakers at exactly the 1:00:30 point of the film, that made me jump right out of my skin. It's sort of nice to know that at least the sound man stayed awake during part of the making of this horror.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
The music of the shite
I must begin by stating my horror for the music of "The Phantom of the Opera". This is the musical that taught me that music could be, all at once, vulgar, boring, popular and dishonest. This new film version has given me ample occasion to add to the long list of songs, musicals, operas, film scores and symphonies that were plagiarized, from Puccini to Max Steiner, for the production of this imbecilic opus. Stealing is not vulgar in itself, but swelling the orchestra (or crashing a chandelier into the audience) anytime emotion cannot be achieved by honest means, is.
As for vulgarity and popularity, suffice it to recall that the stage version was marketed, during the decade of Greed, to uneducated nouveau riche audiences of Thatcherites, people who couldn't stand or even recognize opera if they heard it - or read a book - but were willing to indulge their cheap sentimental side by listening to this swill at inflated prices at the same time art and music appreciation courses practically disappeared from British schools.
I have already suffered through a chill-inducing stage performance of the "Phantom" in the early eighties so I am quite familiar with its let's-throw-all preceding-versions-of-the-story-into-a-blender-and-see-what-comes-out kind of script. This extra-dumbed-down movie version only adds a supplementary layer of convolution and soft-core porn to the original abomination.
The direction by Joel (let's put nipples on the Batman costume) Schumacher is quite sufficient to bring shame to the project all by itself. This version finds a way to defeat its purpose at every turn: the action is set in 1870 instead of 1881 - five years before the actual opera house's inauguration (1), no particular attempt is made to make it resemble the Palais Garnier, the mirror scene has no mirror, the rooftop scene has none of the stage version's (or the 1925 film's) flamboyance, the Mask of the Red Death scene has lost its red colouring, the Phantom is sort of attractive and Christine sort of has the hots for him, the chandelier crashes at the wrong time and sets fire to the theatre in an orgy of CGI effects while the only original bit of business of the stage production - the graveyard scene - has been replaced with a sword duel. So the film can't even be counted on as a faithful record of the stage play. Oh, and the only song that is half-way decent (a Phantom soliloquy) has been thrown to the DVD extras.
The stage version may have been a classic example of production overkill masking the lack of substance at its centre, an interminable sequence of spectacular scenes lacking in subtlety and signifying nothing. But the film, surprisingly enough, with all its extra loudness and vulgarity, and ADD editing, only comes off as a dud. Imagine, if you can, "Moulin Rouge" without any good songs.
I had no particular wish to renew my acquaintance with Andrew Lloyd Webber. The only reason I rented the DVD is that I'm re-reading Gaston Leroux' original novel, a melodrama that would have been considered second-rate pulp fiction in its time (1911) but practically stands out like a masterpiece of symbolist poetry in retrospect and in comparison with this piece of cinematic tripe. What is interesting is that Leroux gave the reader every possible indication needed to recreate the music he was thinking of for every scene of the book. And it sure ain't Lloyd Webber
(1) Another indication of the idiocy of the scriptwriters comes right in the opening auction scene when the aged Raoul is referred to as the vicomte de Chagny when his deceased wife's tombstone clearly states she was the comtesse de Chagny in the closing shot of the film. Just another reminder that this musical was written for the illiterates among us.
A successful attempt at emotion (major spoilers)
This mercifully short art film is yet another example of a technique introduced in Quebec cinema by Gilles Groulx in his 1964 "The End of Summer/Le temps perdu" short which, for better or for worse, has propagated the use of the indefinitely sustained camera angle /sequence testing the limits of the viewer's endurance that is a hallmark of so many nice, little independent productions making the art circuit.
The film starts as an apparent documentary about a 69-year old man living alone in an isolated and sprawling rural junkyard that ensures his survival as a reseller of used car parts and antiques (hence the title). The man tells the camera and various visitors and customers about his strange lifestyle, his diversions, his good health, his love for his work, his girlfriends and his philosophy of life, saying "I don't care if people think I'm crazy, they can't live my life".
One day when the man is away on an errand, a group of four nomadic teenagers with Down's syndrome invade his domain and go through his belongings mostly looking for food. There are three boys and one girl. One boy seems to be the lover of the girl. One boy is carried around in a shopping cart, apparently because of a wound on his lower left leg which has been awkwardly bandaged with what appears to be a shower curtain. The third boy likes to play with a presumably unloaded rifle and make believe that he drives a derelict truck.
The owner is aware of and tolerates the presence of the intruders and carries on working as usual in full view of his transient visitors although no words are exchanged. Later, the wounded boy, left alone, reaches for a water bottle and dies. His companions proceed to bury him in the yard. The owner joins them and helps with their task. Shortly afterwards, the survivors leave the yard and shake hands with the owner who is left to ponder what happened.
This film is on the surface a reflection on time, life, death and the sad fact of our mortality. Its value is in the mood and emotions it inspires.
As the English subtitles of this French-language film are burned into the DVD image, I was sorely tempted to watch it in double or octuple speed but was forced to backtrack in order to catch some of the subtleties of the central event and its effect on the yard's owner.
The film affected me in part because of the closeness I feel for the colloquial Quebec language and the woodland landscape depicted and in part because of its simple unvarnished humanity.
Desire Me (1947)
File under "c" for "caca"
This film is an atrocious failure on many levels.
It is emblematic of the loss of imagination and the draining of talent of the studio system in the late forties when confronted with the genius of European productions of the same time, especially Italian neo-realism.
To begin with, the subject is extremely derivative. It is based on a German play that had already been made into a successful film in 1928 in Germany. This play was inspired, like a whole family of plays and films of the era, by a real event that took place in Italy in the 20's (the Bruneri-Canella case). This case also inspired the 1938 French film "Carrefour" (set in France and remade in Hollywood as "Crossroads"). This French film was later remade in England in 1940 as "Dead Man's Shoes". The same story inspired Pirandello's "As You Desire Me", set in Italy, in the late 20's, which became a Greta Garbo vehicle in the 30's, as well as the novel "The Wife of Martin Guerre" by American writer Janet Lewis (1941), a story set in France in the Middle Ages, which became the French film "The Return of Martin Guerre" (Daniel Vigne, 1982), which was of course remade as a Hollywood film starring Richard Gere, "Sommersby" (Jon Amiel, 1993) and set after the US Civil War. The same Italian story also inspired Edward Wool's 1935 play "Libel!" (filmed in 1959 in England), which has several similarities with the classic film "Random Harvest" (1942).
As if the story was not tired enough, the big mistake was to transpose a German play about the aftermath of the First World War in a post-WWII French Brittany setting - filmed on the back lot - that just doesn't gel. The sets appear to be the ones used for the South of France in "Song of Bernadette" and the music by (the ordinarily trustworthy) Herbert Stothart is unconvincing in its attempt to convey any real sense of France or Brittany. Everything in the art direction is stilted and false. Its un-Frenchness is almost frightening. The viewer may get an occasional glimpse of O'Neil, Strindberg, Ibsen, Murnau and Rossellini, but never, never of a French fishing village.
The subject and acting try very hard to reconnect the story to some sense of lustful reality while channelling something of the drama and realism of European serious cinema. But they fail. Imagining Robert Mitchum and Greer Garson as a French fisherman and his wife is simply an exercise quite beyond anyone's powers of self-deception.
The end result is a cumbersome imitation of European simplicity with misfiring Hollywood production values, an embarrassingly stodgy melodrama that tries very hard to be a thoughtful little art film. It stinks and it sinks and it will forever remain as an example of one of the first signs of decadence of Hollywood's golden era.
The novel explains everything...
I was repulsed by this film. I couldn't understand why Jeanne Moreau, who didn't age gracefully by any stretch of the imagination (or the plastic surgeon's art), would expose her ugliness - both physical and moral - in this vehicle about an ageing female crook without any redeeming qualities falling in love with a younger man and pushing her equally decrepit ex-lover to suicide in the process.
Thanks to Ms. Moreau, her character is seen as vulgar, sly, coarse, selfish, calculating, heartless and sexually decadent.
Then, I read the novel by San Antonio and everything became clear. "La Vieille qui marchait dans la mer" is a masterpiece of the French language, which is surprising coming from an author who has specialized for decades in the kind of literature made popular by Simenon and Mickey Spillane. It is one of the definitive French works of fiction explaining the nature of physical attraction. It is also surprising that such a macho writer would take the trouble to delve - with such eloquence - into the meanders of a woman's soul.
In the novel, the old woman's intentions and her love for her young protégé are clearly understood through her many frank dialogues with God. The novel's character benefits from not being "seen" (except in descriptions) so that we can judge her soul and not her body. Unfortunately, the spectacle of Ms. Moreau's spectacular decrepitude - playing an 85 year arthritic old woman at age 63 - is enough the prejudice anyone against the personage she is supposed to interpret and the whole thing comes off as a freak show in very bad taste - "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" meets "The Grifters".
Still, one has to admit that it took quite a bit of courage - or recklessness - on Moreau's part to expose oneself in that way for all the world to see. And the film does take an added resonance when one has read the novel. It would have taken more imagination and a better director to actually transpose the novel's many interiorized levels of meaning and fleeting glimpses of poetry to the screen. As it is, the movie is only the exact physical equivalent of the book's unflinching descriptions, locales and storyline. It's the same difference that separates Mary Shelley's original "Frankenstein" novel (romantic, introspective, reflective and philosophical) from all its adaptations (outright horror films).
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A Beautiful Lie
If this movie is the nadir of Hollywood dishonest trickery and whitewashed falsehoods masquerading as fact, how does one explain its popularity? Here are some clues:
In the part where the film does talk about mathematics, it makes the viewer feel that he is more intelligent than he actually is, which is always a good idea when you're aiming for the lowest common denominator and you want your picture to sell tickets in the Ozarks as well as in Hollywood.
In the part where the film talks about romance, the worst possible woman's picture clichés are dragged out to show Nash as "different" and desirable. In actuality, he was nerdish, odd and gay.
In the part that talks about his schizophrenia, terrible care is taken to avoid mentioning the fact that the 1950's persecution of homosexuals had a lot to do with Nash's worsening condition. John Nash was forced to conceal his homosexuality and was persecuted for it by the same government that expected him to decrypt secrets for them and keep quiet about it. If that isn't enough to turn any brilliant mind into a paranoid-schizophrenic, I really don't know what is.
In all the other parts, the bad script and the bad out-of-place acting by miscast actors are immensely aided by photographic special effects and by the music (or rather non-music) of James Horner, the inventor of today's omnipresent minimalist "fear music", where the cinema's sub-woofers are put to maximum use to make the viewer feel danger directly through his anal sphincter, the only part of one's anatomy that is actually needed to "enjoy" this film as written.