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Hmmm ... Let's just take a cool, objective look at a few of the
comments made by IMDb users who have reviewed "American Beauty".
"Haunting." "Riveting." "Brilliant." "More than meets the eye."
"Uplifitng." "Never contrived." "By far the best I have ever seen."
"Makes you think." "Exceptional." "Never gives stereotypes." "Classic
masterpiece." "Movies don't get any better than this."
And that list is by no means exhaustive. Now let's contemplate the actual film that these people have been watching.
Lester Burnham is Suburban Man. An unremarkable individual not valued by his employer and ignored by his family, he has wasted his entire adult life by succumbing to the routine of work and home, and failing to indulge his own individuality. When two key events coincide (the loss of his job and the dawning of a 'crush' on his daughter's friend) Lester is suddenly free to "beat his drum", slough off years of conformity and be his eccentric self.
Yes, that's right, yet another dull, cliche-ridden suburban situation comedy hinting at inchoate unease deep in the soul of bourgeois America. All the predictable bases are touched during this smug box-office home run - petty snobbery, keeping up appearances, repressed yearnings for Bali Hi, and that profound American lament, "I've Never Been To Me".
And what does Lester do to express his newfound rebellious individuality? How exactly does he challenge the suburban world which he has rejected? Form a witches' coven? Invent a world language? Assassinate Castro? Reproduce indian cave art using bison dung as paint? No. He drinks beer in front of the TV set, and gets a job in a hamburger joint. Can America's big-budget Dream Factory come up with nothing more exciting than this?
Before dealing with the wider themes, I would like to tackle some details which bothered me. What is a gun doing in this story? Are Hollywood's screenwriters so bankrupt of ideas that they can't construct a plot without relying on the dreadfully-overworked device of pistol-packing? The opening shower sequence was embarrassing. Adult jokes are fine by me, bawdy humour is great ... but this was unnecessary and degrading. It simply didn't belong. A narrator who announces that he is dead isn't a clever touch, it's just sloppy work. Is Mena Suvari REALLY the embodiment of American beauty? I find that hard to believe. And what about the total loss of nerve surrounding her character? Isn't this brash film supposed to be proud of its handling of adult issues? So why does the temptress have to be revealed as a trembling little virgin? We hear a great deal of American trumpeting of feminism as a cause. Can't anyone see that this moral cave-in is profoundly anti-feminist? On a similar note, what was Thora Birch's topless shot all about? It defines the term 'gratuitous'.
And so, back to the broader picture. "American Beauty" isn't any of those amazing things that people have claimed it to be. It isn't even mediocre. It's a tired, self-satisfied, deeply unimaginative rehashing of a format which was outworn by the time "My Favourite Martian" hit the TV screen. Challenging the regularity of suburban life isn't clever and isn't funny. It is gut-achingly DULL.
The question which arises, then, is why so many people are sincerely convinced that "American Beauty" outshines "Citizen Kane". I offer this for consideration ... they feel that way because they are told to. It doesn't work every single time, and sometimes it misses spectacularly, but Hollywood knows that as a general rule, advertising pays dividends. Tell people often enough that they need to see this mighty film, and they will accept the premises - both that they need to see it, and that it's mighty.
Barnum said that nobody ever went broke by under-estimating the public. There's truth in that. Just provide the bread and the circuses, and the docile populace will take you at your word that the bread is delicious and the circuses thrilling.
The public wants what the public gets.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This modest little study of marital infidelity deliberately restricts
itself to a narrow canvas. Its events all transpire in a single day,
beginning with the bedside clock which bleeps at eight in the morning.
Marta sets about the unappetising routine of her little middle-class life.
We see her dropping off her teenage daughters, one at medical school and
other at the toddlers' play group where she works as an assistant.
The place is Pozuelo de Alarcon, an ugly, featureless suburb of Madrid. Marta chats with a neighbour in the supermarket then rides the suburban train into the city. Her world is bound by the confessional box and the shopping mall, both of which she visits without either enthusiasm or displeasure. They simply exist. They are the landmarks by which she navigates.
It is the dead of winter, with Christmas trees on sale in the Plaza Mayor. Director Miguel Angel Rivas uses the colourless, lifeless climate as a quiet commentary on Marta's life. The rail station at Pozuelo is unattractive and without any comfort, but at least the harsh environment gives Marta an excuse to wear her fancy fur coat. Madrid is shown in greys and browns, mirroring Marta's psychological drabness. "Vidal is my husband" is all she needs to say. What else does a bourgeois wife and mother need? Later, when the truth emerges, Vidal tells her, "You don't understand anything." It is true. Marta hasn't bothered to think or see for years.
Returning from the shopping expedition to Madrid, Marta walks in on Vidal kissing the voluptuous young Ana in the family's living-room. Ana Obregon, playing Marta, does a good job of putting across the wife's indignation, but why is her character so reluctant to confront Vidal directly about his treachery?
Ana is a character who suffers from insufficient thinking-through on the part of writer and director. "It wasn't for love or sex," she opines - so what was it for? She ends her affair with the PE teacher in order to concentrate on Vidal, but we are given no convincing explanation as to why she would do this. Most puzzling of all, why does she remain in the house after the discovery, pouting and enduring Marta's tirades?
The film has a nice little jazz score. I thought more could have been done with the redhead Nida.
Spain, more than most nations, has to deal with its ghosts. The Franco
years were a time of enforced stasis, a period when no creativity was
allowed to thrive, and progress of any kind was suppressed ruthlessly. A
false mentality was imposed on the nation, a communal fantasy looking back
in time to a supposedly innocent 'golden age'. Spaniards were forced to see
themselves and their culture in terms of Carmens and castanets, fans and
fandangos. A people was frozen in time for forty years, and fed on a diet
of synthetic movies and novels which summoned up a sexless, crime-free rural
idyll, Franco's concept of nationhood. While the West had the Rolling
Stones, Spain had troubadors in sombreros. The galloping modernity which
has transformed Spanish society in a single generation has given the young
adults of today an interesting 'window' on history. While the West has
moved smoothly from Sinatra to Sid Vicious, from Marilyn Munroe to Marilyn
Manson, Spain has a deep chasm between today and yesterday. Almodovar is
intensely concerned with this gap, and his films serve two functions in
respect of it. They analyse the social forces which created it (and were
spawned by it), and they help Spain to bridge the barranco. It is time now
for Spain to move on. When Elena meets Victor for one final date, the
purpose of the sexual coupling is to wipe out the guilt which clings to
their shared past.
New and Old clash on every street corner. We hear a soundtrack of anodyne 'traditional' songs overlaid on scenes of black immigrants doing drug deals. Sancho is a model of old-fashioned manhood who tries, but fails, to castrate the New Man, Victor. The house left to Victor by his mother is out in the northern satellits township of Ventilla, a working-class ghetto of high-rise tenements, Franco's already-rotting 'solution' to Spain's social problems.
Cinematically, "Carne Tremula" is second only to "Todo Sobre Mi Madre" as an example of Almodovar's assured command of the film-maker's craft. Transitions are especially well-done. A bus door opens and we see, through the cab, Victor standing, waiting to board. This is the portal of movement opening for Victor, the boy with the gift of lifetime freedom of the buses (symbolically, the 'new' Spaniard, born to a life of movement). Clara remembers her first sexual intercourse, and looks at a photo of herself in First Communion dress. Both events were first communions, both were rites of passage, abandoning the childhood phase. Almodovar moves the action forward from 1980's Madrid to Barcelona in the Olympic Year (1992) by showing the olympic logo on the cycle track, viewed from overhead, as the cyclists cross it. To end Victor's prison sequence, a bus (always his symbol) passes right to left, 'wiping' the prison and revealing the free man. Sancho the housebound husband is re-introduced with power and economy when Clara crosses her own 'welcome' mat to be greeted by him. Fire, earth, ice and water are used as 'gates' in the narrative, marking new beginnings (for example, Clara's frying-pan catches fire because Victor distracts her by announcing the end of the affair). Isabel's waters break on the bus, and we see men in water at moments of 're-birth' (David in the bath, newly secure in the permanence of Elena's love).
Stalking is a strong theme, Almodovar inverting and perverting the idea of sexual arousal and pursuit. Voyeurism can be innocent and healthy (young Victor watching Elena in her apartment) but becomes sick when the watcher is impotent and jealous (David filming the Victor-Clara couplings). Victor pursues Elena, even wearing a wolf's head in order to close in on her.
Clara is the woman with no sense of direction, whose emotional life is arid. She depends on but does not love the useless Sancho. She loves but cannot possess the sexually potent Victor. The mutual gunning-down of Clara and Sancho is pre-ordained, both in the earlier attempt, and in the shooting by which Sancho launched the narrative.
Elena, like many young bourgeois adults, had a heroin phase in her teen years, but has put that behind her and leads a useful and caring life. However, character is fate. She cannot escape the consequences of her sexual union with Victor. The 'final date' is the powerful climax of the film, the fatal destiny to which all of these characters are tending. It speaks volumes of Almodovar's talent that his highly-improbable last reel, with all of the central characters converging on one spot, is entirely believable.
In a film predicated on contradictions, David is contradiction personified. The sporting champion with no life in his penis, the good man who cuckolded his friend and partner, the hero of the stand-off in the apartment who becomes the raging jealous spectator on the sidelines, David is both admirable and despicable. His obsession with basketball is psychologically neat - a sublimation of his damaged machismo - and also a devastating revelation. The wheelchairs swoop around the court in a Busby Berkley parody of athleticism, and the ball pops into the basket in clever mimicry of the coitus for which this is David's substitute.
And Victor? He is the picaro, the innocent who is always on the move, never comprehending the forces acting upon him, yet never defeated by those forces. His 'life on wheels' is the true life, in contrast with David's sterile life-in-death on wheels. Victor, alone of all the characters, grows because of his suffering. Franco's Spain was static, but Victor has broken free of that prison, and is dynamic. He moves. Thus is he the true victor.
This lean, mean cheapo has all the virtues of economy. Lawrence
Tierney is great in his impressive debut, ideally cast as the cold,
humourless psychopath. In a little over an hour we get the complete
biography, with the bad guy hero gunned down with seven dollars and twenty
cents in his pocket, the exact amount with which he began his criminal
The scene transitions are tight and efficient, and the story-telling terse and elliptical, giving us only the significant moments in this brief, violent life. No words are wasted when Pa Otto meets his end.
Dmitri Tiomkin provides his customarily excellent music. The lone wailing horn in the prison scenes captures superbly the despair of the inmates, as indeed does the unyielding regularity of the jail architecture.
Verdict - Less is more in this commendably spare gangster flick.
Clint does his tight-lipped Harry thing, and Hal Holbrook does his
sinister-insider-perverting-American-institutions thing in this Dirty Harry
offshoot which shows unmistakeable signs of a format creaking at the
A group of vigilante cops is administering 'street' justice to criminals acquitted by the way-too-liberal San Francisco courts. Can Harry stop this uniformed lynch mob? You know he can.
The film starts well, but quickly degenerates into feeble formula. The early scenes of the mysterious motorcycle cops are striking. David Soul's character, Davies, is depicted cleverly as the 'fragments' of a policeman, with badge, gun and bike standing in for the man. He relies on these symbols and at the same time desecrates them.
And then the rot sets in. The 'crowd' scene at Ricca's acquittal is feeble. The hi-jack is quite ludicrous, and Mitch Ryan (McCoy) overacts outrageously. How come Davies is officiating at the funeral? Doesn't anyone think of the fingerprint evidence left on the car? Since when have lieutenant detectives done their own ballistics analysis, or defused bombs themselves? If evidence is processed as casually in California as this film suggests, it's no wonder that OJ Simpson was acquitted.
Why does Harry meekly obey Briggs as they drive along near the end? What has he got to lose? Or is the film just limping mindlessly along to the next location?
One of Almodovar's favourite conceits is the use of old TV and movie
images as ironic commentary on our modern lives. He loves the sheer
trashiness of those millions of hours of low-grade output and he likes to
mimic 1950's sitcom formats ("Women On The Verge") or to splice 'quotes'
from old footage into his modern tales. It's a device which he uses very
effectively in this film. When the gun is fired in the apartment, a shot
rings out from the TV set in the corner. The fake news item of the bus
birth, in black and white to represent the drabness of Franco's Spain, is a
loving recreation of TV's golden age. Women are mannequins in these old TV
shows, used by men as objects of prurient displays, and of violence. Our
mass media have drugged us, suggests Almodovar, into being passive
recipients of authority's handouts. We can no longer distinguish between
entertainment and reality. David confronts Victor and wounds him in the
testicles, but the two enemies are immediately distracted by the soccer game
on TV and become 'guys together', forgetting their hatred in the communal
false orgasm of the scored goal.
Names are always important in Almodovar films, and in this one they hold the key to the story's many meanings. Elena is Helen of Troy, the creature who radiates unconscious sexual appeal and leads men into war and destruction. Victor Plaza's name contains several layers of symbolic importance. He is the film's real victor, overcoming the misfortune of the shooting and his own sexual imbecility to attain true happiness in America. Many Spanish towns have a 'Plaza de la Victoria', a municipal tribute to the great historical sea triumph of Lepanto. In this sense Victor's name makes him the personification of ordinary Spanish life, a hispanic Everyman. Isabel Plaza Caballero, the prostitute whose wretched short life becomes a saintly image of suffering and continuity, has the name of Spain's great Catholic queen and the title of a 'gentlewoman'. For Almodovar there is no contradiction in a whore having nobility. Sancho is a kind of Sancho Panza to David's Quixote, the latter idealistic but impotent, the former iconoclastic and comical.
Almodovar's trademark is the looping circular plot in which the characters both repeat and vary their patterns of behaviour, crossing one another's paths and inadvertently echoing the actions of others. Nowhere is this better illustrated than here. The plot is almost literally circular, beginning and ending with childbirth in a wheeled vehicle, and Victor's life-defining moment hinging on the circular bus ride which brings him back to the identical spot where he started, a payphone on the Calle Eduardo Dato. The characters penetrate one another's lives in ways that are totally convincing, and with a grounding in human psychology which few writers or directors can display.
Opposites and contradictions are everywhere. Victor is the prison convict, the sexual inadequate born of a prostitute on a bus, who rises to become an admirable man, sexually proficient, successful, and a loving husband and father. Sancho the macho cop is a spiritual cripple, relying on alcohol to deaden the pain of his failure as a lover. David the real cripple is a national sporting hero. The mother is the whore, the charity director is the heroin addict and the naive lad is the jailbird. The welcome mat on Clara's threshold is the cruellest of ironies. Marriage and sexual coupling are the fabric of the story, but in fact everyone is cuckolded sooner or later. David used to 'service' Clara, now Victor performs that function, and the 'manly' Sancho is sexually redundant. Elena copulates with Victor at the dramatic climax, and we recall that it was a sexual encounter between these two which launched the whole story.
It is hard to watch Almodovar's work without thinking of Bunuel. The adolescent preoccupation with the 'obscure object of desire' is a good example. Almodovar is fascinated by the vagina, and over and over again in this film we see men's heads buried between women's legs. Two boy children emerge from wombs, David performs oral sex on Elena in the bath, Victor studies Clara's pudendum, David approaches Elena's genitalia along his wheelchair ramp. The great sloping twin towers of Madrid's Puerta de Europa form an architectural pun, a visual representation of a woman's open thighs. Victor's emotional speech at Isabel's burial site (apart from advancing the plot neatly) is one more image of a man's face in a woman's vagina, the grave being the ultimate womb. This particular vagina brought Victor into the world, and through its immoral earnings it gave him the money to live.
The first Christmas in the film, like the First Christmas, happens in a very unpromising setting. It is cold in Madrid in every sense. The final years of Franco's joyless, oppressive reign are conveyed very effectively in a restrained palette of blacks, browns and greys. A state of emergency has been declared by a faceless Authority, grown paranoid about the danger of 'outside influences'. Victor has entered a drab and frightened world, with a bus driver as his reluctant Joseph. By the close of the film Christmas has acquired its cheerful capitalist trappings. This is a 'Christmas in the sun'. Victor is in the young land of freedom and opportunity. He has come of age and is now the complete man. The future looks bright for the New David, father and son.
Frank Serpico begins his career with the NYPD as an idealistic rookie
who believes in the moral value of policing. He has a simple and
old-fashioned ethical code, an outlook which used to be known as honesty.
What he finds is a moral sewer, five boroughs wide, in which almost every
cop is on the take. The police are just another gang of hoodlums, but with
more guns than the bad guys. Even basically decent cops go along with the
kickback culture, because a locker-room psychology prevails in which values
have become perverted. Squad loyalty is now a criminal conspiracy of
silence. Detectives do not hesitate to shake-down hoods who are slow to
pay. To Frank Serpico, this is simply wrong. He wants no part of it. And
so his long agony begins.
Both responding to and helping to shape the mood of its time, a weary cynicism towards authority, "Serpico" arrived on the screen just as Watergate built to its climax. Americans could no longer regard their institutions as gleaming examples to mankind of optimism and good government. The film begins gloomily with Serpico badly wounded, having been shot in the face. We hear police and ambulance sirens fading, symbolically representing the life-force ebbing from Frank, and the withering of American dreams.
This first-class film is a triumph, and one that could easily have misfired. Had the crooked cops been depicted as mere thugs, then Serpico himself would have been an archetype, just another two-dimensional crusader. What gives the film its psychological richness is the realisation that the dishonest cops are NICE. These are affable, reasonable men who want to like Serpico and want to welcome him onto the team. The camaraderie is seductive and it's difficult for Frank to hold out against it. He is besieged by self-doubt, wondering if he is just a one-man awkward squad, or worse - a prima donna, sacrificing personal relationships on the altar of his own ego.
Again, the easy (but disastrous) course would have been to give Frank some big heroic speeches, allowing him to inveigh against corruption. The film chooses instead to go for psychological truth, and this is what makes the project outstanding. Appalled, afraid and despairing of ever changing anything, Frank withdraws into himself. He becomes the spectre at the feast, the silent rebuke, the muted but ever-present conscience of his colleagues.
Though Frank rejects the golden shield which is eventually offered, we feel that the system still means something. There are still some honest cops, and even after all these vicissitudes, the United States is still a nation of laws. Lumet's profoundly liberal and optimistic view of America ultimately shines through, but the final mood is one of quiet resignation rather than triumphalism. Right can prevail over wrong, but a price has to be paid. Serpico wins his titanic struggle, but he is diminished and saddened as a man.
The film contains some marvellous technical things. In the opening minutes, the action cuts between Frank as he is now (wounded, broken and alone) and as he started out (the clean-cut, idealistic rookie). These transitions are seamless, and the narrative logic is smooth and natural. We see Frank's first moment of disenchantment in a cafeteria when it dawns on him that cops get free handouts of food, but they have to take whatever comes. This first bewilderment develops until we see the gulf open up between Frank and the dishonest cops, the ones who take the money but also take the self-loathing.
The terrible stress to which Frank is subjected is depicted with skill. The police department has a huge institutional inclination to protect its own, and this vast weight is brought to bear on Serpico. Equally, the pressure is relieved cleverly at appropriate points in the narrative. Frank's 'collar' of Rudi Casaro reaches an explosive climax as this all too human guy reaches breaking-point. On the other hand, the romantic story-telling interlude with Laurie and Serpico's undercover cameo as an orthodox rabbi break the tension and vary the pace beautifully.
The second-unit work is of a uniformly high standard. We are shown atmospheric New York streetscapes with grubby brownstones and the massive, overbearing masonry of the Brooklyn Bridge, in knowing homage to the films noirs of twenty years earlier. The symbols are powerful. This city, and this police department, are too colossal for one man to stand against them. Practice sessions in the police firing gallery intelligently reinforce the film's undercurrent of foreboding. Paper targets obscure the gunmen's faces, suggesting a monolithic force united against Frank, then come hurtling towards him on pulleys, signifying the fate which is rushing to meet him.
Mikis (Zorba the Greek) Theodorakis has provided a classy score. I particularly liked the jazzy, minor-key horn passage.
Pacino puts in another of the towering performances which have distinguished him as the profoundest acting talent of his era. He is simply wonderful. Barbara Eda-Young gives top-notch support as Laurie, the genuinely loving partner who is destroyed by her man's seeming eagerness for martyrdom in rejection of domestic happiness. If ever an actor exuded confidence it's Tony Roberts, and he is ideally cast as Bob Blair, Serpico's well-connected ally. Though he can open City Hall doors, he can't actually help Frank at all. Nobody can. Christ-like, Frank understands that it is ordained - he must go to the hill alone.
I came to this film wanting to hate it, but I was seduced by it and
affected me deeply. Why hate? Because I had just seen a TV documentary
about Almodovar. He talks a good deal of shallow rubbish, and the
showbusiness darlings who surround him are vile. However, his film speaks
with the sincere voice of artistic talent. It even has a touch of
It is a film about Woman. Almodovar is well-known for his preoccupation with feminine sensibility, and here we go through the range of female awarenesses - Madre, Puta, Actriz. This is not the 'macro' masculine world of war and politics, but the feminine 'micro' universe of caring, loving and suffering. In a real sense, it is "All About Eve".
Manuela loves her son Esteban totally and unconditionally. When he is taken from her, she must forge a new life. Back in her native Barcelona she finds fulfilment caring for Rosa the pregnant nun and Huma the barren actress. A new Esteban appears, and the cycle of living and loving begins again.
This flimsy summary of the story gives no real idea of the film's symbolic and dramatic richness. It is a pattern made of other patterns, with stories repeating, reversing and overlapping endlessly. Names can mean a break with the past (Agrado, Huma) or they can insist on continuity (Rosa, Esteban). In the guignol tradition, names can also delineate character - Agrado tries to make life agreeable for others, Huma Rojo is red smoke, a hollow illusion, and Nina is an adult with a child's personality.
Almodovar deliberately offends against social custom. Women are fathers, birth means death and drama is more real than life. It is tempting to think of Almodovar as the new Bunuel, and he takes the same childish pleasure in shocking the 'decent' Spanish bourgeoisie. When Agrado gives her performance in the theatre, the old folks walk out in disgust while the youngsters stay and are entertained.
"This play marked my life," says Manuela of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. It made her a mother (the defining experience of her existence) because it introduced her to Lola. She explains that she played Stella and Lola played Kowolski, literally and figuratively. The male symbol is brutal and cruel, the female symbol is the nurturer of life who endures abuse because she loves. Like Stella, Manuela escaped, pregnant and alone. The play returns later as Esteban's birthday treat and the cause of his death. Manuela knows the text by heart, and when she follows the production to Barcelona, fate pulls her into the drama and she triumphs as Stella. Huma is Blanche, the sad derelict, "relying on the kindness of strangers". (Another link with the play is the title of Almodovar's own production company, "Deseo".)
Esteban's delight with his new book is shown in the reading of the foreword - "es un prefacio maravilloso!" The film, similarly, has a marvellous preface. A bag of plasma drips purposefully, its valve shaped like a crucifix. The symbolism is rich and catholic, and prepares us for what will come - here is a figurative mother, giving the blood of life and suffering the cross of sorrow. Taps, console and graph represent institutionalised care, as opposed to the natural, personal care of a mother. These things are neat and orderly, but cold and soulless. This is the organ donation unit of a hospital. It does excellent work, but we see its effort in fragments rather than a whole. The files list organs, not people - 'higado', 'corazon'. Technology can help us, but it can never replace maternal love. We feel uneasy when we are told that "the machine is breathing for him".
Manuela works as a nurse (symbol of the nurturing mother) in this unit, and we see her as an actress appearing in a training video, playing a mother whose son is dead. Two doctors ask for the boy's organs. New life must be nourished from his body's wreckage. When the scene is repeated for real, it is almost too painful to watch. Almodovar takes us to the 'meta' level, with Manuela's anguish setting up cross-rhythms with her professionalism. Love is stronger than systems, and the organ co-ordinator weeps for Manuela.
The real Manuela stands tiny before a vast advert for 'Streetcar', showing Huma's face. Is the image more potent than the individual? Or is Almodovar saying that superficial impact fades, whereas human empathy endures? What is the relationship between the true woman and her made-up face? Esteban dies pursuing the 'red smoke' of an actress's fame. If he had stayed with his real mother and not chased an illusion, he would have been safe.
Esteban will bestow new life. We go with Manuela as she follows her son's heart to Coruna, where another young man has hope restored. The mulch of death feeds the roots of life. Manuela knows two places, Spain's first and second cities, Madrid and Barcelona (importantly for Almodovar, these are the two pre-eminently 'modern' towns). She moves between them along the tunnel umbilicus, as a pregnant teenager, childless mother and finally as triumphant madonna with the 'new' Esteban.
The spectacular vista of Barcelona and sumptuous portal of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia rapidly disappear, and we are soon in an ugly wasteland where prostitutes parade as grotesques in a hell worthy of Goya. These two Barcelonas recur again and again - the outward city of quirky, appealing architecture and the mean streets of the hopeless, directionless underclass.
Almodovar's narrative has been engrossing up to this point. Now it will expand and deepen as a new cast of characters is woven into the film's fabric.
Private dick Phil Marlowe is hired by a "paltry, foppish man" to
accompany him on a midnight assignation. What follows is a glorious piece
of Chandleriana, a ganglion of a plot involving a jade necklace, a jailbird
who carries a torch for a showgirl, a "big-league blonde" with a rich old
husband and an eye for private eyes, and more narrative twists and turns
than a Restoration comedy on acid.
Will Moose be reunited with Velma? Who's the brunette in the gulch? What is Anthor's precise relationship with Marriott? How many more times can Marlowe get slugged from behind without having his skull disintegrate?
Golden tenor Dick Powell may not be the obvious choice to play Marlowe, but in fact he turns in THE definitive performance. Chandler once defined the ideal hero in one of his essays as a special man, but at the same time a man of the people. Not amazingly bright, subject to bouts of confusion and wrong-headed wilfulness, but for all that a tough, decent, dry-humoured guy who just happens to be as sexy as hell. Powell delivers.
Watch out for a remarkable dream sequence after Marlowe is forcibly injected with heroin (yes, heroin). Expressionist cinema was never as evocative as here!
All in all, the film is an example of a genre captured at its apex - "like lighting a stick of dynamite, and telling it not to go off"!
I am certainly not above criticism. I get things badly wrong
sometimes. Visitors to IMDb often correct me in forthright terms, and when
they do, I write to thank them. However, it's one thing to point out
errors, and quite another to trash an honest opinion because it doesn't
happen to chime with your own.
The other person who has reviewed "French Dressing" (probably the only other person who has SEEN it) goes by the nickname of 'hernebay'. This individual accuses my review of 'hastiness' (evidence, please?) and tells the world that my description of the film is 'distorted by ... animosity'. I challenge hernebay, or anyone for that matter, to point to a single inaccuracy in my review. Where are these distortions?
I take it that I am included among 'those determined to make hostile judgments'. This is simply wrong. I watched the film and found it weak and unconvincing. Hernebay cannot possibly comment on my state of mind as I saw the opening credits rolling. He or she does me a disservice by accusing me of bias. But then, Ken Russell himself (we learn from hernebay) didn't understand the film, and he directed it!
If I am open to criticism because I mention the film's stock devices, so be it. The feeble humour on display owes more to the Boulting Brothers and Ealing than to 1960's 'with-it' sensibility, and the lame gags were already old by 1963 - it is no argument at all to claim that we're viewing this tawdry effort from the wrong end of the 60's.
The film is about much more, hernebay tells us, than a French sex-bomb meeting randy English councillors. Viewers who can find more to it than that are welcome to write to me and explain whatever it is that I'm missing. What it's REALLY about, according to hernebay, is 'a loving parody of the French Nouvelle Vague' (dealt with in my review, actually), 'wistful lyricism' (praised in my review, actually) and what hernebay sees as links forward in time to a TV series (these links are not explained) and backwards to Victorian operetta (oh come on!)
I pointed out that the film catches one of the first whiffs of vibrant-youth-versus-pompous-middle-age, that overused 1960's format, and went on to explain that "French Dressing" is just too early to do it properly, remaining stylistically and psychologically in the 1950's of Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice. Hernebay tries to have it both ways, blaming me for not understanding the stuffy mood of 1963 (Christine Keeler etc.), and at the same time not seeing that this is the first of the "pop" films. Anyone who cares to read what I actually wrote may feel that these carpings are unwarranted.
I didn't CONCEDE that Naughton is pretty. I SAID she is. My point was that she disappeared after this flop. Hernebay points out that she starred in another damp Russell squib. My point exactly! The reason why her stocking-tops are ridiculous is that she has just removed a pair of jeans. Perhaps hernebay knows a lot of women who wear stockings and suspenders under jeans. I don't. Hernebay thinks the cinema riot is well filmed, and on that point we will never agree. See the film and form your own view.
I am, it seems, hostile and prejudiced. In a sense, this is true. I am hostile and prejudiced towards slapdash films which try to be funny but fail miserably. Hernebay gives Russell credit for knowing that parts of a Kent town would collapse in the following decade. Pardon me for not commending the auteur's prescience.
If hernebay had taken the trouble to read any of my other reviews, he/she would have seen that for my summary I almost always lift an apt quotation from the screenplay. It is simply foolish and unfair to accuse me of not knowing what I was doing when I quoted Judy.
There is a difference between defending a much-loved work from unmerited abuse, and simply refusing to acknowledge its weaknesses, just as there is a difference between honestly disagreeing with someone, and mounting a discourteous attack on him.
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