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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With its fatalistic resonance, the quote, used by the Coen brothers in
"Raising Arizona" and borrowed from "The Night of the Hunter" could
almost work as a subtitle for "No Country for Old Men"
And any critic toward 2007' Best Picture Winner, is irremediably confronted to that opening "No" summarizing everything the film stands for: nothing. The Coens brothers made fun of nihilists in "The Big Lebowsky" gave the word an entire new dimension here, thrilling like a dream and haunting like a nightmare. Indeed, in this film, it's not the night, but the "Nightmare of the Hunter".
But I'll be honest, I didn't get it the first time I saw it, but I give myself the benefit of the doubt since I was 25 at that time, and I think I was intelligent enough to grasp the film's concept. And indeed, I saw it again yesterday, 5 days before my 32nd birthday, and I didn't get it more than the first time; except that I started looking at the so-called flaws with more comprehensive eyes
I remembered the words I choose to title my review of "Shane", an old-fashioned and traditional Western classic, "the unseen and the unspoken elevate it to its iconic status". This description also works for "No Country for Old Men", except that the unseen is what divided opinions the most, it's for what we didn't see that some believed this movie had more a lot to say than what its first acts presented, but it's also why the rest felt betrayed and dismissed it as a pretentious attempt of making art for the sake of it.
But let's get back to the film. There are three men that fate reunited (although they'll never meet), each one is in one side of what we, humble mortals, call morality. There's Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, an old timer contemplating the degeneration of humanity through the peaks of barbarity crimes had reached. But we can't be fooled, surely he belongs to a time where lynching, rapes and horrific crimes prevailed, he's not too old but too good and goodness and strength don't form quite an efficient pair.
On the other side, there's the one who elevated the film to its iconic status, Anton Chigurh (Oscar-winning Javier Bardem) the most impacting movie villain since Hannibal Lecter. He's dark, tall, looking even bigger thanks to a meticulous camera work, has a deep authoritative voice and an ominous aura above his shoulder, like a real-life Darth Vader. He would indeed look like Darth Vader from behind with his weird haircut. And there's his inseparable oxygen tank hiding under an everyday banality, a spectacularly deadly weapon. Anyway, in vileness department, Anton means business.
And in the course of his morbid odyssey, he'll meet friendly people from the American side of Rio Grande, and many of them will pay the biggest price to their encounter, a price that can be worth a quarter sometimes. Anton reminded me of a story about a king who was so cruel that when he surprised one of his slaves mocking him in public, he then told him the worse punishment had to come. What did he do? Nothing, and that was even worse, because the poor man died out of fearful stress. This is what we, what the poor gas station attendant understand, like can hang on nothing, a simple call, a coin, two millions, whatever.
Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a hunter who found two million dollars in the middle of the desert, only trophy from a drug deal that left many Mexican cadavers and a dog rotting in the desert, the crime scene is magnificently rendered by Roger Deakins' cinematography, like a still-life painting. There's still life indeed, Moss takes the money and run, but out of principles, gets back to the crime scene to give some poor man's water. Wrong move, he puts himself on the track and worse, gets Chigurh on his footsteps. Moss is in the crossroads, bad enough to steal and endanger his sweet and caring wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) but good enough to care. You know at that time that either him or Anton will survive.
We have a sadistic killer, whose use of violence is random, remorseless and even more chilling when you try to give it a meaning. Then, you have a fatalistic journey where despite all of Moss' efforts, you feel like there's no way he'll get through it, because there's a movement incarnated by Chiugurh' slow walk in the middle of a model, from nowhere to someone, this is the Great Reaper coming, you can't escape from it, you can only postpone the delay. And there's the main protagonist, a defeatist sheriff who can't face the facts that he's not cut for the job anymore, and spends most of his time desperately static, the's the nihilistic, he's the "No" in the title. He's the main character, the key of the story.
That might explain the narrative liberties the Coens took both Moss and Chigurh are neatly drawn characters, they're mysterious but not their motives, and the movie's intelligence shall rise above obviousness. Bell, in his last courageous attempt to listen to Carla Jean's pleas, to save Moss and get Anton, comes too late, he didn't see what happened, neither did we. Why insisting on so many details, so many on-screen deaths, why making Woody Harrelson introduced as a bad-ass bounty hunter and killed as mercilessly as you stamp on a cockroach?
Because it's the unseen that best expresses life's futility, things either guided by God or the devil's hand, and there's no guarantee that goodness will be rewarded and that's what scares the most. The film has style, yes, but it's not about being deep, depth is nothing when nothingness can be deeper
So, don't blame the Coens brothers for what you didn't see, blame Sheriff Bell.
With such a title, the tone is set: whoever leaves the elevator will
probably go to the wrong doorstep, the one in the right, right? Wrong!
Surprisingly, the elevator never plays the required role plot-wise, only the two doors on the 6th floor do, to the point one of them got credited in the end (cute gag). Still, the movie with its improbably weird title is the expected comedy of errors, with its share of incidents and misunderstandings. It was directed in 1988, by an expert of the genre: Edouard Molinaro and it starred the perfect actor for such a twisted movie: Pierre Richard, as Yan, a successful painter leaving in one of these big bohemian lofts in Paris' upper class quarter.
Indeed, Richard was born to play that role, (although it's not saying much about the film). For instance, there is one scene where Yan shows two guns, on his right hand, the one his father brought from Algeria, on the left, a gun-shaped lighter his friend bought in New York. As he struggles to explain to two bewildered policemen that he accidentally shoots his neighbor Boris (Richard Bohringer) because he thought the real gun was the lighter, he pulls the lighter's trigger, and you certainly haven't seen enough comedies if you don't expect a 'Bang!' to come after. You got it, both guns were real. The gag doesn't work despite but because of its predictability.
So, what we've got here is the quintessential 'Pierre Richard' gag. Pierre Richard, with his curly hair and goofy appearance, has specialized in roles of unlucky schmucks whose well-meaning intentions always lead up to crazy situations. And it often works within the same binary timing. 2 years before, In his last movie with Depardieu, where they played their "clown / straight man" duo for the third time, him as a fugitive and Depardieu, an ex-convict, he was asked to bend his head when he goes outside. Naturally, seeing two cops walking toward him, he bends it so low he hits a lamppost, drawing their attention. He moves forward, saying he's okay only to hit it a second time.
Hilarious classic Richard! His characters are so desperate to play by the rules they make the situation even crazier. In "On the Left as Leaving the Elevator", despite being 54 and 23 older than his love interest, Florence, played by the sweet and sophisticated Fanny Contençon, he looks young enough, to play one of his trademark characters before the "Tall Blonde" would look shorter with unrecognizably white hair, and a comical appeal belonging to the past. The film plays like a last gasp of nostalgic air. Nostalgically speaking, Molinaro, who directed such comedic gems as "The Birdcage", "Oscar" and "Jo", all adapted from plays, proves that he works on familiar territory.
Indeed, the late, twice Oscar-nominated, director provided classic behind-closed-doors comedies and never has the expression been so appropriate since it works as the film's opening and running gag. Noticing that her boyfriend Boris forgot his briefcase, Eva leaves the apartment and then locked herself out of her in sexy underwear (I'm sure this movie established her status as a French sex-symbol). She rings at Yan's doorbell but expecting Florence to come at any time, and given the way she's dressed, or more specifically, undressed, he's reluctant to let her in. He eventually accepts and suggests to get to her apartment from the adjoining balcony and opens the door.
Naturally, Boris comes back because he forgot his briefcase and when Florence calls Yan, Eva picks up the phone. Yet the film goes transcends its vaudevillian aspect, Florence doesn't get easily upset, and Bohringer expresses his jealousy in such a flamboyant way he becomes the film's romantic lead while the 'hero', Richard is the eternal victim of 'bad' luck, reaching its peak in the cops' scene. The superior officer is a tired and not-too-smart looking Michel Creton and his subordinate is a freshly graduated black nerd-looking officer played by the ironically named Eric Blanc. Oddly enough, what used to be my favorite part doesn't ring the same bell in my mind (no pun intended).
I won't go as far as suggesting that the fact that the character was black was supposed to be the gag, it was probably his young age and the fact that most cops in France carry the reputation of being dumb. I give the writers the benefit of the doubt (although the portrayal of the sexy black maid was not deprived from racial stereotypes). But the thing that makes the joke fall a little bit apart is the fact that what Yan desperately tries to explain are pretty obvious for the audience, and it doesn't even take a smart officer to clear it for us (no pun intended). This is why the lighter-gun mistake, one of the film's best moment is still not as funny as the lamppost gag. You see it coming.
I guess this is why I'm not too enthusiastic about Pierre Richard's performance as he was part of the most predictable gags. As for Boris' jealousy, it's a bit overused as it goes from a running gag to an irritating gimmick. Overall, the film is not a laugh-riot, despite some solid performances, it's not the masterpiece of the year, but it has a sunny freshness, maybe the lighting has to do with it, it also carries an old-fashioned innocence probably due to the film-maker being a man from the 60's, an era where it was possible to laugh at stereotypes, it worked better with gay than with black people in this film, and despite its kitschy 80's English song, some bits seem out-of place.
I noticed the number on Yan's doorstep was 6, so I think it's the right rating plus one for Richard's last great comic role, Bohringer's fierce passion, Béart's sex-appeal and a reasonable length (less than 80 month) making the film enjoyable from being to end.
A man in his early forties, washes his face in the toilet and looks at
himself in the mirror, trying to put his spirit very high, "you'll get
them, you're a killer, Michel" (the word 'killer' is used in English),
and then another man, who's like coming from an aftershave ad towers
him and without saying words, intimidates poor Michel Berthier. The
subsequent job interview is a disaster "why did you quit your first
job" "the company bankrupted" "couldn't you prevented it?" "yes, but
they wouldn't listen to me", in this maze of fallacious and off-topic
questions, the ill-fated Berthier loses both his nerves and the job.
The killer is killed.
Although unemployed, Berthier tells his wife (Victoria Abril) that he was promoted, and loses his money buying expensive stuff, guided by an impulse as irrational as his denial. Ultimately, he loses the job, the money, and his family. "A Wonderful Era" chronicles the falling into poverty that could affect any decent and honest man like Berthier in the early 90's France. With a powerful combination of pathos and cynicism, the film is both enchanting like a fable and truthful like a documentary, in-between, Jugnot finds the right tone to depict the banality of poverty, without overdramatizing or sugarcoating it.
And if there's ever a message in this film, it is to never underestimate the odds of becoming poor, and if it ever happened, to think you will keep your dignity up and never beg for money or (worse) steal. In a nutshell, the film shows all the steps that turned decent men into hobos and their struggle to get their foot back to society. It also enlightens us on the pasts of these dirty people we meet every day, probably as respectable as ours. And there is a reason why the second Gérard of French cinema, after Depardieu, is such an endearing and popular actor in France.
Indeed, with his short stature, his bald head, his round traits and common look, Gérard Jugnot was born to play the average Frenchman. In this film, he incarnates all the vulnerability of regular taxpayers who took their life for granted before realizing that liberalism and competition would cause their downfall. And I suspect there's a deliberate correlation implied between looks and competence. Berthier doesn't exude this power and self-confidence, so we suspect these French big shots and these tall and beautiful executive women are Americanized enough not to see in this schmuck Golden Boy material. And Jugnot tackles his physical appearance, with a delightful Woody Allen's sense of self-derision.
Yet in France, they have what they call, System D. D like "débrouille" which means resources or smartness, it's a characteristic of French people to be able to overcome adversity by being smart and cheating a little bit, Berthier will be formed by a trio of outcasts. Their leader and mentor is played by a colorful and larger-than-life Richard Bohringer, Toubib ("Doc") is his nickname due to his experience as a stretcher bearer. There is the late Ticky Holgado as Crayon, "Pen", Doc's follower since the day he healed his crushed leg, he's rude, funny, dirty but within the group, he's probably the most available and gentle of all. And there's Mimosa, a child-like force of nature, built like a rock and played by Chick Ortega.
There are some hints of George and Lenny from "Of Mice and Men" with Paris' Great Depression as a backdrop. And the voice of wisdom, "Doc" chants his love to life like a prophet of poverty and a poet of misery but never losing his pragmatism: they have to find a way to live from day to day, to stay clean, to eat with losing as little money as possible. Berthier had time to make his bones, to sleep on benches, phone booths, to ask for coins. The process of losing one's dignity working like slow erosion, we never feel when it happens, but once it's done, it's done and you're one of 'them'. And by sticking together, the group manages to survive, to live, to be friends, to be men.
This camaraderie is induced by these funny nicknames they give each other and if the fact that Berthier never gets one probably marks his status as the outsider, it also makes him a potential leader, as the closest to the 'other' world, the most likely to help them, after all, you can try anything when you have nothing to lose. "A Wonderful Era" is a powerful immersion within French marginality and resourcefulness, without being an exhilaration of some sort of freedom innate to poverty. There's no doubt that Berthier is a miserable man, and that he hates his situation, the film gets tragic at times, hilarious at others, but as we witness the downfall of Berthier, we better understand what makes poor people behave sometimes rudely.
Indeed, these are not golden-hearted tramps, they're untrustworthy, they're cheaters and why shouldn't they? they played the game and lost. In his first night in the subway, Berthier is asked if he's a tramp, he says "no, it's temporary", you suspect many real tramps said the same thing once. From a denial of unemployment to a denial of poverty a poverty that is till nothing compared to the lows reached in the 2000's, that make the film almost optimistic with its depiction of a France not undermined yet by all the cultural conflicts and by the abundance of crimes, sex and prostitution, nothing compared to the benign thefts committed by our protagonists.
I guess the fact that I loved the film when I first saw it as a kid, when it came out in 1991 says a lot about its lightheartedness I remember laughing my ass out when Crayon started shouting on the upper class woman with the dog and when they drove over the female agent's foot, it took me some maturity to see the tragedy behind the laughs.
The mark of a true artist is to project his own visions and fears in
life and let them work as insight for ours. And since there are as many
ways to get to the truth as to get to Rome, Woody Allen makes as many
films as he tries to find an answer to the ultimate question: what is
the meaning of life?
Indeed, whether his movies deal with age, art, love or death, the central them to Allen is the meaning of life. And "Blue Jasmine", the story about a New York socialite who falls into poverty confronts us to the ephemeral aspect of happiness, when meant as a synonym of wealth, and invites us to reconsider the true value of life when the monetary one is void. And it is a brilliantly written and acted character study, starring Cate Blanchett in one of his best roles.
In fact, "Blue Jasmine" is less an intellectual study than a vivid exploration of the ways our behaviors, judgments and actions are all driven by personal and unflappable views on what life should be. Therefore, when these models are undermined, the effects can be devastating. "Blue Jasmine" illustrates two Arabic sayings: "Pray God to make your end better than your beginning" (literally) and a quote from the Quran: " it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you".
Jasmine's journey is like a reverse 'wags to riches' story showing a woman whose hopes and beliefs have all collapsed after her rich husband (Alec Baldwin) revealed to be a fraudster. All the dreams, all the conventions, all a lifestyle that built her personality left a character with no 'character' whatsoever, a woman who can only express herself the way she used to, reviving a glorious past to the point of irritating rumination. In the opening scene, she tells the story of her life to a well-meaning old woman in the airport, who ends up telling her husband that Jasmine was talking alone.
She's indeed alone, obviously in total denial since she travels in first class and with Vuitton luggage despite her being broke and going to her sister Ginger's apartment to 'find herself'. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is skinnier and more common looking, as Jasmine said, she got the good genes, she's the lucky one, she pushed her quest for difference and exoticness to the point of changing her name Jeannette to Jasmine, obviously she had high plans for her, and this is where the second quote takes its full meaning : beware of how high you want to fly, the higher you'll go, the harder you'll fall.
And Ginger's life is a collateral damage to Jasmine's downfall, she and her previous husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) won $200,000 in lottery and instead of starting their own business, they gave the money to Jasmine's husband and lose it all, this is what happens when ego surrenders to the premises of easy wealth, it's like a flash that keeps you blind before you wake up and realize what life is made of: deceptions and treacheries. This slice of Ginger's life is Jasmine's tragedy in microcosm.
Progressively, Jasmine's journey reveals deeper wounds in her heart, it starts like a funny gimmick: she talks alone, she acts rich, but underneath that facade, lies the heart of a needy little girl who wants to live the fairy tale again. As a matter of fact, many characters are all in need in the film and can't find the proper ways to find their path. Even Ginger, who's a modest hardworking woman, finds love in Chili, a modest blue collar worker played by a scene-stealing Johnny Cannavale, but under the influence of her sister, she's convinced that she can find better.
It's a part of a fatalistic need to ask for more than what we have but in Jasmine's case, it's forgivable and understandable since she's got the natural assets for it, and no one really tries to open her eyes. She's a tragic character indeed, but an essential one to all the wannabe Carrie Bradshaw, "Blue Jasmine" isn't Wisteria Lane either, and sometimes, modesty, humility and acceptance are the true marks of moral strength, the best is the enemy of the good, Jasmine tasted the best and unfortunately, she got addicted to it.
And the film reveals more facets of a rather complex personality, depicting Jasmine as a woman who deliberately overlooked her husband's practices (financial and extra-marital). Too strong-willed to be a victim, her tragedy is that she was capable of making her own moves, but it made everything worse. This is why, I find less similarities between Jasmine and Blanche Dubois from "A Streetcar Named Desire" (after all she seems mostly depending on the pocket of strangers) than what I consider the greatest female performance ever.
I believe today's generation of actresses has been blessed with a talent equal to the great Gena Rowlands. Cate Blanchette delivers a rightfully Oscar-winning performance as a woman who's like a continuation to Mabel in "A Woman under the Influence", one so wrapped up in her own illusions that she can't take a proper start to her life because all the boundaries she had revealed to be phony and destructive, and this is why, despite her good intentions, Jasmine became authentically phony and destructive.
The film never falls in the fairy tale or sentimentalist trap, a credit to Allen's writing not to invite for an obligatory empathy, but we do feel sorry for her, for she's not just under the influence, she's also influencing people around her in some sad domino effect. Indeed, she made one hell of a New York socialite, but in Woody Allen's world, even the best must come to an end.
And I suspect this is not the best we saw from Woody Allen's talent.
"August: Osage County" centers on a dysfunctional family, rooted in the
plains of Oklahoma, as dry and bare as the heart of its remaining
matriarch who has nothing but 'belittling comments' to distribute as
wry marks of affections, giving a disturbingly ironic significance to
the oral cancer she suffers from
We understand that Violet, Meryl Streep in another
(what-did-you-expect) virtuoso performance, let bitterness grow in the
heart of her three daughters, each one proving that there can be more
than one worst-case scenario.
By the way, it's interesting that many dysfunctional families feature daughters. I remember Woody Allen's dramatic masterpiece "Interiors" was about three sisters struggling to give their life a meaning after the deterioration of their parents' marriage and their mother's descent into madness. Again, you had the practical and rational sister, the easy-going one, and the tormented middle-child. I think there is some Oedipal meaning to it, while brothers, protective toward their mother tend to stand together, sisters are closer to the father, and are more liable to be rivals either to their mother or for their father, which is conflict-wise, more promising.
The oldest daughter is Julia Roberts as Barb, the one who inherited her mother's strong-willed genes, a strength that ultimately lead her husband to leave her for a younger woman, and naturally, her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) grew as a disturbed pseudo-rebellious teenager. There's no excuse for her husband's behavior, but Ewan McGregor strikes as the kind of decent guy who can only be 'accidentally' bad, and it's as if Barb made such situation inevitable, as if there was an innate incapability to express love in her heart.
The other sisters are Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest and most deluded one, who embraced life with an ersatz of optimism to better cancel out her crappy past and came to the house with a sleazy Florida businessman (Dermot Mulroney) the last of a string of boyfriends, and I want to add : so far. And there is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who stayed close to home and as a reward, suffers from the old-maid syndrome where any attempt to express her personality is repressed by her mother. No rewards to her good intentions except low self-esteem and bad luck (for reasons I won't spoil) that lead her heart to her first cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch).
And in this drama whose witty and punchy dialogs are fueled by alcohol and unhealthy rainbows of pills, pain-killers and anti-depressants, each scene manages to be both entertaining and true to life, painting the live portrait of a family collapse, whose warning signs were the slow disintegration of its founding marriage. Basically "August Osage County" is to Family what "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is to couple, and the film is driven by fantastic performances, all carrying their level of pathos with talent and authenticity mostly from women, but men have their words to say.
Chris Cooper is the husband of Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), a lighter version of the infamous Hillary Swank's redneck mother in "Million Dollar Baby", lacking compassion and empathy toward her only son. Benedict Cumberbatch who'd make any heart melt as the ill-regarded "Little Charles". And if poor Charles couldn't stand up for his beliefs, at least, he'll inspire one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the movie, and established men as the Yin to the film's dysfunctional Yang. Ironically, the only positive female figure is Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native maid hired by Violet's husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) a once-renowned poet, a decent guy too.
With these characters brought all together after Beverly's disappearance, you have all the ingredients assembled for these great family brawls, with their share of secrets, revelations and twisted plot twists, and you have the local Oklahoman touch, making the film a mix between "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (it was adapted from a play by Tracy Letts) and "About Schmidt". It's greatly written, full of authentic moments such as the dinner scene, Cooper's graces and many mother-and-daughters truth-telling moments it's an ensemble movie and I guess this is the role Julia Roberts should have won an Oscar for, not Erin 'gimme-a-break' Brockovich.
And while I saw the film, I thought I already had the title of my review in mind, something like "one's end inspiring many new beginnings", something about the necessity of reuniting to finally come to terms with the past and take a new start. Yet, the film ends quite abruptly, leaving too many interrogation marks. I don't expect a happy ending again, but all the movies I mentioned had somewhat of a resolution, a way for us to catch our breath and fill our hearts with hope. I know "hope" is a big word but it's precisely because the movie didn't leave much for optimism in the beginning than I kept having in mind this "it can't be worse" feeling.
I understand it was meant to be a realistic drama and in reality, many problems are left unresolved, if only because most people chose to escape or hide instead of facing their responsibilities, but maybe the reunion was a way to put an end to it, maybe there had been enough secrets in this family and it was time not just to let them out, but to make it worth it. I will never see these characters again, so I wish we had a few glimpses of what would happen to them after.
Besides, Tracy Letts meant the film as a tribute to his background, to show that Midwest isn't just populated by Rubes or Rednecks, like in the movies, I'm not sure the ending would reconcile a perplexed audience with the Midwest. I know it's not a requirement for a great film, but after all the pain, and noises and stress, we went through, even a temporary resolution would've been enough. Some characters' arcs were meant to be closed even temporarily
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Along with "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Misery", "Single White
Female" is one of these 90's thrillers whose ordinary setting and
minimalist casting are transcended by the aura of a next-door villain,
modern and feminine metaphor of the wolf on sheep's clothes, in a time
where post-modernist alienation rhymed with isolation. The isolation is
only psychological, the villain could be anyone's neighbor and the
extents of her craze would make you wish to live as far as possible
And Jennifer Jason-Leigh is perfectly cast as the girl-next-door villain, Hedra, the word next- door taking all its promisingly horrific meaning since she plays the roommate, the one who shares the apartment, the titular "single white female" being Allison played by a lovely Bridget Fonda. Allison lives alone in one of these large, old apartments with an ominous Polanski feel, where walls have ears, and doors these old-fashioned invitations for peeping, the voyeurism induced by the apartment is clearly established in the opening sequence, but more than a simple gimmick, it will give it a subtle Hitchcockian touch.
The film borrows many elements, plot-wise, from the Master of Suspense. Allison lives is a sort of 90's Marion Crane, living alone in her apartment, having an illegitimate relationship with Sam (Sam Weber), she eventually breaks up after she finds out he's still with his ex-wife, and then finds comfort in friendship with Graham, the upper neighbor, an aspiring actor. Her profession? She's a fashion designer working in freelance with Meyerson (Stephen Toblowsky), whose goofiness effectively hides some unprofessional interests on Allison. Anyway, to go through her own isolation, she posts an ad in the press for a roommate. The house is big enough to welcome two person and it's the cute Hedra who catches her eye.
Basically, Hedra fits the requirements because Allison wants a woman like her, single, white the title says it all, carrying the second Hitchcockian: the dual personality, when one dominates another. And gradually, we witness a reverse of roles. Since "Play Misty for Me" and "Misery", mental characters like Hedra can't fool anyone. She starts as a very fragile and sensitive creature, traits accentuated by Leigh's natural looks, even Fonda looks dominant compared to her. But progressively, she shows signs of possessiveness, she erases mails from Sam, she buys a little puppy to compensate Allie's loneliness, she talks about an obscure twin she lost before, of course, a survivor's guilt undermined her life. Finally, it's Allison feeling an emotional gap in Hedra's life.
The only problem with this kind of film is that you see where it's getting at very quickly if you're familiar enough with psychological thrillers. I remember when I saw it the first time, at 15, I already mourned the puppy as soon as I saw him, at least he didn't suffer from boiling water and had a quick death. I knew from watching another film that when someone finds the victim tied up and get rid of the villain, he's too busy 'playing the hero' to notice what comes behind him I must admit I felt sorrier for poor nerdy Toblowsky for dying such a straight- to-the-point death while he played his character somewhat à la Ned Ryarson from "Groundhog Day", so as predictable as his death was, I was still in shock.
This is the power of "Single White Female", its use of clichés doesn't deprive them from so many horrific bits of unpredictability. To give you an example, you know someone's got to die in an attempt to save the heroine, or someone dear to the hero to show how evil the villain is. In "Misery", it was the poor sympathetic Sheriff, who died just like that when he found Paul Sheldon, in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle", well, no spoiler, but you know who got the horrific glasses treatment. So in "Single White Female", there had to be a horrific death, and I must say, I didn't saw that one coming, and neither did Sam whose last shot caught by his eye was a stiletto heel coming to it. And guess what, this is a third connection with Hitchcock, the banal object, a clothing item like scissors in "Dial M for Murder" or a tie like in "Frenzy" serving as a deadly weapon.
The stiletto heel death is indeed the film's trademark, the bit everyone remembers, carefully set up by a scene of oral sex performing. Oh yeah I forgot to mention the film is an erotic thriller but never is the use of sex gratuitous. It provided an atmosphere, a texture of sin and depravity making all the players of that comedy, except 'Allie', cheaters. Barbet Scrhoeder injects some style to what could have been a one-dimensional slasher film, something like the dreadful "The Good Son" with Macaulay Culkin as a kid who was just bad for the sake of it, or to be a breakthrough role for his young star. While "Single White Female" centers on characters that are unnecessarily good or evil, Allie is sweet, comprehensive and patient with Hedra and their mutual affection never quite fade out.
Some bits could have been better handled, why wouldn't Hedra kill Graham instead of keeping him in the bathroom, how wouldn't we expect him to be a last-minute savior? Maybe Hedra would only kill those who tried to hurt Allison, but she was about to kill her anyway. Still, despite some flaws, the film's descent to hellish madness is efficient and the hit-or-miss part, the climax is perfectly done because if your heart shouts "hurray" when the villain gets the last blow and yet for some reason, you feel sorry for her you know the erotic thriller served its purpose, and now, it's finally time to catch your breath.
"Single White Female" is based on a simple premise, and provides the perfect requirements of the genre with a sumptuously designed sexy atmosphere. And yes, it's delightfully Hitchcockian.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Mrs. Miniver" is an insightful slice of upper-class life in small
British towns. And Oscar-winning Greer Garson was born to play that
role. She illuminates the screen with her delicate traits and her
naturalness covering a wide range of attitudes (rather than emotions)
from gravity and dignity to sympathy and some bits of extravagance. Of
course, every now and then, Walter Pidgeon steals the show as the
loving and caring husband, but the focus is clearly on the titular
And speaking of heroine, it seems like within its documentary value, William Wyler also tries to highlight the everyday heroism of women like Kay Miniver before the word would take its fullest meaning when War would be declared to Germany. Yes, it takes some moral strength, some guts, to raise a family, to make a man like Vin (Richard Ney) out of a boy, to make his involvement to defend his country going without saying, to take care of a house, man, children during a time where women were not -like feminists love to point out- slaves of men, but like the trustworthy sentinels of the family sanctuary, no less sacred than the city, whose defense relied on men's shoulders.
Men outside and women inside, this was not a denigration of women's rights but an equilibrium that every civilization had reached in a long natural process whose ultimate goal was to ensure harmony on a longer term. A film like William Wyler's "Mrs Miniver" is the perfect answer to feminism because it demonstrates the positive role played by women in the early 20th century, they weren't devoted to men, but to an order that valued men and women as well, in different yet complementary ways. And now that characters like Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Lara Croft or the Bride became fashion, there is something refreshing in the more traditional form of courage and strength embodied by Garson. In her own personal way, she kicks ass.
Of course, I'm not ignoring the film's political motives. I concede a similar film could have been made with a "Frau Muller" mother a happy German family, but "Mrs Miniver" is immune against such accusations because the film clearly was made at a time where Germany had the upper hand (maybe even released before America's involvement) therefore, Britain was the hunted, the wounded one, and it's legitimate to show British people victims of a war they didn't start, well, not the civilians anyway. Later, a film would show Germany destroyed by the bombings, "Germany: Year Zero" but it was in 1947, "Miniver" is from 1942, these five years, let's just say an eternity, war wasn't over yet and Germany still could win, "God defend the 'right'" was still a prayer, and the year of the film's release makes the atmosphere of the final act even more unsettling.
And the film evokes the War's infamous 'innovation', as the vicar says at the end in the memorable speech: "it's people's war", homes became battlefields. It's very revealing of the war's barbarity that the three victims of the final bombing were a child, an old man and a young lady. Fighting became such a natural choice, the word 'hero' I mentioned lost its meaning. For us, these people are worthy of admiration, but for them, they were just doing their duty. Men were assigned to escort some ships and could not 'sail back'. Being a father myself, I hope I'll never have to cover the ears of my daughter, and pretend nothing will happen while hearing a strident whizzing getting louder. The merit of "Mrs Miniver" is to show the war from the distant perspective of civilians, working like warning for future generations. No one who lived a war can wish for one to happen, and no wonder we have so many warmongers in our politicians' baby-boom generation.
Still, "Mrs Miniver" could've been just a war picture, with an emphasis on 'picture', a story, with events working like plot devices. A brave wagon master played by Henry Travers wants to enter his beautiful rose named after Mrs. Miniver, in a contest that only Lady Beldon (a great Dame May Witty) ever participated in and won ... we know the old coot will have a change of mind (or heart, in that specific case). When Carol, her grand-daughter, played by the beautiful Teresa Wright comes to ask Miniver to convince the man to withdraw his rose, her son Vin accuses her of snobbery ... naturally, they fall in love right after. Men talk about a disappearing German pilot, and bingo, guess who finds him. It's like every chain of events works in the most predictable way, and this is why, as soon as good old Vin joined the RAF... he made his death the most predictable one.
The omen starts with his parents' concerns, the last-minute calls of duty, the reluctance of Lady Beldon to have her Carol lose her husband at war like she did at a younger age, and naturally, Carol herself, who shares her fears with her mother-in-law, and explains that she wants to make the most of life before turning into a widow. And God, I didn't see it coming ... the story's masterstroke. I don't know if it can be labeled as a twist ending, but it had for me the same shocking effect. It's an irony of fate or maybe God's response to men's presumptuousness. Tragedy struck down the Miniver family by killing off Carol, and as sad as it was, this was the highlight of the film for me, I was blown away by that ending, because all the inspirational and emotional stuff that rhymed in conventional was immediately redeemed by Carol's death, one that was true to life's unexpectedness.
Sorry to conclude with movie-geek jargon, but enough of grandiloquent words, "Mrs. Miniver" features perhaps one of the most underrated (and powerful) twist-endings, and this is why I went from liking to loving it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've often wondered maybe naively- why is it that anti-Semitism is
always "associated with" but "never included" within racism. In these
times of extreme communitarian sensitivity, I'm fully aware that these
questions can hide an unconscious form of anti-Semitism but I know my
conscience is crystal clear on that level.
Let's first put facts into their historical context, anti-Semitism is undoubtedly connected with an indelible stain on Humanity's soul called the Holocaust, six millions of Jews died of something that started with an individual belief, a devastating number in a dramatically short time span. The historical trauma made obvious the distinction between anti-Semitism and racism. Now it angers communities who protest against the supremacy given to the Jew suffering, above others from the past and the present, but as a retort, these protestations are liable to get the 'anti-Semite' stamp, making the snake biting his own tail.
Now it's impossible to see where and where is not anti-Semitism, the only certitude being that its injurious effect acts on a reputation like a torpedo on a U-boat. But back then in 1947, things were a bit different. Directed by Elia Kazan, and written by Moss Hart, "Gentleman's Agreement" explores anti-Semitism in post-war America. Gregory Peck is Phil Green, a noble-hearted journalist assigned to write a series about anti-Semitism to see which aspects of his life he took for granted would be affected if he passed as a Jew. And boy, no matter how confident, charismatic, and well-spoken he is, the mere mention of his ethnicity carves a sign of undesirability on his front.
And the time the film was made is crucial: 1947. Two years after GI's discovered the extents of Nazi barbarity in Death camps and one year before the creation of the state of Israel, not without American help. What Kazan's film offers is an interesting view on America's mindset toward Jewish people: bigotry, misunderstanding and defiance, remarkably contrasting with the US Foreign Policy. Basically, it's not the film that is dated, but minds. The anti-Semitism discovered by Phil is one that hasn't been confronted to its devastating effects. After all, what Nazis did, started with the way Americans thought, shocking but true.
And "that" anti-Semitism didn't wait the Holocaust; its roots are Biblical before being cultural: defiance toward people without a land, but with influence, a mix of envy and hate, an ugly feeling indeed, fueled by the certitude to belong to the right side. This is Green's subtlest discovery, there are anti-Semites and there are people guilty of silence, feeling on the safe side from the anti-Semitism they observe. To give you an example, there were three kinds of kids in the schoolyard: bullies, victims and cowards who either supported the bullies or didn't help the victims, to avoid the hits. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
And speaking of good persons doing nothing, Green finds one and falls in love with her. Dorothy McGuire is Kathy, his boss' niece, a divorced woman who actually suggested the theme of the series. Yet, despite her well-meaning intentions, as the romance grew, she betrayed in many occasions her unconscious bigotry. It started with her confused concern whether Green's Jewish or not (ruining a promising dinner) and culminated after Phil's son (played by a young Dean Stockwell) complained about kids attacking him because he said he was a Jew. She doesn't comfort him by saying that they were bad, but by him not being a Jew causing a justifiable anger from Phil.
She finally closes the door after a remarkable speech that says a lot about her conception of "being a Jew", it's obviously a social handicap according to her, and although she has nothing against Jews, she feels exactly like someone who's handsome, young or rich instead of ugly, old or poor. In other words, it's nothing to feel ashamed of. Phil's journey reveals the ugliest side of American narrow-mindedness, even to the point, ironic but insightful, that his Jewish secretary is part of the same conspiracy, speaking herself about 'right' and 'wrong' Jews and it's a Gentile teaching her a lesson. This is for subtleties like this that the film overcomes its self-righteous impeccability.
One can also regret that the survey didn't exceed the limits of the upper-class but maybe anti-Semitism is an educated disease, which makes it much more detestable. Could there be an uglier euphemism than "Gentleman's Agreement"? Thankfully, Green finds some strong support from Anne, a free-spirited woman played by the Oscar-winning Celeste Holm, he finds it in Dave, John Garfield as his Jewish friend who knows too well what Phil is going through, and there is Anne Revere as his loving and caring mother. It seems that despite this great casting, Kazan and Holm didn't get along with Peck, I can see why if Peck really immersed himself into his character.
And despite winning the Best Director Oscar and the film winning Best Picture, Kazan felt that the film lacked passion (indeed, Stockwell's cries said more than any Peck's speech), and that the romance was forced. Well, I think it would have damaged the film if it distracted it from its political agenda. But Green goes back to Kathy after her redemptive act showing that times have changed for the best, and making Anne Revere wishing she could live up to see how this century will evolve. But, I don't think times have changed much. Sure, anti-Semitism isn't as deep and extreme in America, but go ask the average or upper-class Americans what they think about Muslims.
Sure they'll talk about terrorism and September 11th, but remember, there's no racism that doesn't start with a belief and there's no belief that doesn't start with misinterpreted facts. Finally, I stand corrected, there's nothing in "Gentleman's Agreement" that has lost its relevance, which is good news for the film, but sad for humanity.
"Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against ? -Whadaaya got ?"
This simple exchange sums up the spirit, or lack of , that inhabits the tumultuous heart of Johnny Stabler, the leader of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club bikers riding like formerly the horsemen of the Apocalypse their Triumphs, or their triumph over a square alienating norm whose only trophy is defiance and suspicion. People see them as hoodlums, they define themselves as rebels but Johnny gives the perfect answer to the inevitable question. What have you got?
Indeed, there's nothing that doesn't invite to rebellion, it's not just being against the norm or the system but not even making a norm out of one's rebellion, the idea is simply to go, to escape from the conditioning and alienating effect of civilization. These guys aren't the baby boomers, they lived the War, they remember its effect on the elder, they inherited an America to rebuild, but the spirit was all lost in the greatest generation's souls. They're part of the rebirth of America and its conquering spirit, but only in the name of motorbikes, bottle of beers and rock'n'roll.
"The Wild One" directed by Laslo Benedek is the first of a trilogy that can be defined as the "Rebellious Youth of the 50's" followed by "Blackboard Jungle" and the the iconic "Rebel Without a Cause" (a title that could have fitted this one). James Dean's movie dealt with rebellion from an Oedipal point of view, showing the roots of the youth's unease, the absence of a true model to respect. "Blackboard Jungle" was more about the failure of education. But "The Wild One" shows the results without getting through their background, all we see is these kids in their 20's looking for vast landscapes for driving, bars where partying, and towns for terrorizing.
And the first two films have one thing in common, they start with the infamous headliners, you know these big words that don't take the viewer's intelligence for granted. Yes, we know the whole rhapsody; this lost youth is revealing of the failure of a system and let us pray for it will never happen again. Did we need that? I guess it's like the famous Cagney-Robinson movies in the 30's were people weren't used to see gangster playing the lead roles. Well, the 50's had to deal with rebellious minds, no less dangerous, except for the fact that they didn't cause trouble for money, they had no reason whatsoever to act like they did, they did because well, why not?
And the casting of Marlon Brando as the seminal rebellious kid is the film's masterstroke not just because of his iconic look, 2 years before James Dean with the leather jacket, the hat, and the Triumph, one of the most defining images of the 50's, there's more to that, there's Marlon Brando, there's this constant enigma engraved in his face. This is something I sensed in most of the characters he played in the 50's, we never exactly know what he thinks, what he feels, and most of the time, his character gets away with his secret. Johnny Stabler is no exception, he doesn't emerge from the group as a leader but as a natural outcast with one hell of an aura.
This is pure Brandonian detachment, and I love it. See how he subtly escapes from the gang as soon as he sees the beautiful Kathie (Mary Murphy), yes, it's obligatory romantic subplot but Brando elevates it to another dimension ever improving HER acting by the miracle of his presence. I suspect the moment she tried to get the capsule of his bottle and he took it away from her, was one of these improvisations he has the secrets. Brando plays everything, he's tough, sensitive, intriguing and fascinating. Ultimately, she despises his gang, but in no way, she can despise him because there is something incredibly attractive in that guy who doesn't enjoy attracting.
This is the rebellious attitude, a nihilistic escape in the world and within oneself, without coming back with no one on one's back. Stabler has no connection with the past, he never looks back, if he takes the girl, she's got to go with him, if he doesn't trust the cop, it's because he did before and it cost him a lot. Always moving forward . Is his motto, although when one of his gang friends is injured by an old man, observing the cute Kathie, he decides to stay. The townspeople try to accommodate with the gang but it's only a matter of time, and beer that the generation gap shows its limits, forcing the local councilman, Mary's meek father, to interfere. But the man is incapable to use his weapon, abandoning all the control to the angry mob lead by a local bully.
"The Wild One" isn't the subtlest script ever but I admire its straight-forward way to make its point in 80 minutes that feel longer, this is how thrilling it is. There is a bit of wilderness and soft-headedness in all of us, it's all about which button to press. Its primitive, simplistic, but for some reason it works and Brando is mainly the cause, but I wouldn't attribute all the merit to him, there is a stellar performance, from, Lee Marvin as his rival Chino, almost stealing the legend's show and an unrecognizably young Tim Carey as one of the hoodlums.
As simple as the film is, it'll be forever renowned for its iconic image of Brando and his indelible quote, enough to put it in the legendary 50's, a must-see definitely, a cult-classic or the Easy Rider of the 50's And Marlon Brando was born to be (the) Wild (one).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Surprisingly introspective and frustratingly 'quiet', "Viva Zapata!"
contains more talking and less fighting than what its exclamatory title
suggests. But it might not come as a surprise for a film written by
John Steinbeck and directed by Elia Kazan : through the portrayal of
Emiliano Zapata, the legendary Mexican revolutionary played by the
no-less legendary Marlon Brando, it's the very notions of power and
leadership that are questioned, much more their corruptive effect.
And the result is a strange mixture of conventional Western-like escapism with the local texture provided by sombreros, white outfits for men and black dresses for women and more ambitious attempts of a character study. I particularly like the scene where a group of peasants come to ask the President of Mexico to help them and get treated with patronizing contempt ("my children" repeats President Diaz) until Zapata with quiet and confidence emerges from the crowd, asks the right questions, earning the attention of the elderly leader.
At first, Brando strikes as an odd choice, with this constant expression of so non-leader-like puzzlement he carries in his eyes, but that's the way Brando 'felt' Zapata, an enigmatic and somewhat tortured man. He takes a courageous distance from the archetypal flamboyant hero, illuminating his character with a very odd modernity, even at the risk of being boring sometimes, the whole "I can't read" subplot was too underdeveloped to be of any use for the film and toned down some moments of relief the film needed.
And it's not totally wrong to assume that Anthony Quinn, who was more ethnically fitting, would have made a more believable, if not better, Zapata. After watching the film for the third time, I must say that the casting of the two brothers is perfect. Brando was made to play ambiguous characters, never satisfied with any achievement because of an obsessive capability to look beyond his own existence while Quinn, with his Latin charisma had to be the Yang to Brando's Yin : a colorful, larger-than-life, more human but no less flawed character.
As Eufemio Zapata, Quinn is not just the brotherly right hand's man; he's also the counterpart to Emiliano's personality. After all the fights, and all of the corruptions' attempts, he wants to retire like a general, with all the honors and awards. He embodies the path his brother refused to take in order to let the governors govern and people being governed. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Machiavelli would know the implications of a leader bribing a general, and much more a general refusing to be bribed because it contradicts the values and ideals he stand for.
Yet the power of the film isn't to romanticize Zapata, but to assess his constant status as an outcast. During one of the film's best scene, he unconsciously dismisses peasants just like Diaz did. He doesn't "my children" them, but his "it'll take time" earned him the same answer he gave years before : you can't plant corn on patience. Zapata understands the inner corruption of power from the way he became and what his preoccupations are confirmed when he confronts his brother, a decadent 'general' outrageously spoiling people from lands and wives.
"Viva Zapata!" is never as interesting as when it questions the notion of power and its influence of men, and the interaction between Brando and Quinn, followed by another powerful moment with his wife, played by Jean Peters, reveal the true self-perception of Zapata, not a leader but more of a catalyzing force. Wealth and honor don't interest him, because he learned from the arrogance of his father-in-law that these considerations poison a man's value. What matters is that people are aware of their power, the irony is that after his death, peasants in a poetic denial still consider him as the true leader, and much alive prophet, the white horse hiding in the mountains.
That's the reality Zapata failed to perceive, people need a leader for their own good, otherwise, like Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman) warned him: someone else will come, nature hates emptiness. Many political convictions confront one another in the film, Diaz as the patronizing patriarch, the old general treating the well-meaning reformer like a puppet, while Fernando is the cunning tactician, with no roots, no other goals in life than power in the most absolute meaning. Men like Zapata and his people can only think in terms of land, of food, of survival and this attachment to the most basic values of life is their strength and their curses.
A paradox indeed, but that's what Zapata is, he strikes as an idealistic figure but like his friend Pablo says, what good can come from a man who endures such hardship, how can peace can even be salutary for such a mind. This brilliant exchange reveals perhaps Zapata's most heroic trait: his detachment. Zapata dismisses the very idea of being a strong man, for it applies that without him, people will be weak. And maybe it's this detachment that deprived the film from the required battle scenes, as if it tried to exhilarate the pride the legendary General inspired in this people, rather than true and palpable achievements. Kazan's directing is intimate in most cases, as if Zapata himself was reluctant to forge a legend out of his character, well, he obviously failed.
My only regret is that some abrupt ellipses leave many holes in the narrative, we never know exactly what happened between scenes, or we're never sure about the people they're talking about, but Brando and Quinn's performance (Oscar-winning for the latter) and the intelligence of the script, redeems these little weaknesses, although the film isn't on the same caliber than the two Kazan's masterpieces, both starring Marlon Brando, "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront" and will forever live under their glorious shadow.
Still, as far as Cinema is concerned, I would always say Viva "Viva Zapata!"
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