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A haunting and emotional tale of guilt, family ties and redemption..., 19 February 2017

Whenever I see someone being uncommunicative, acting unfriendly or being plain rude, my immediate reflex is to give this person a respectful benefit of the doubt. This presumption of inner goodness is essential because… seriously, how many people we know in our lives have gotten such a bad break from life that they can't manage not even to fake happiness? A lot and we know it, life can be tough in the blindest and meanest ways, so no one can be offensive and happy. As a matter of fact, no one can hate people and love himself; unhappiness is deeply rooted in guilt and low self-esteem.

This is the core of "Manchester by the Sea", Kenneth Lonergan's powerful family drama starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler. Lonergan wrote and directed the film and it's simply one of the rawest and most authentic portrayal of the way family ties can be profoundly affected by tragedies, and the way relationships, mostly those where love is taken for granted, are undermined by the very lack of love directed to yourself. But I'm making the film sound too complicated while it's about a rather simple but harrowing journey. Lee Chandler (Affleck) learns about the death of his brother Joe (Chandler), he informs his nephew Patrick (Hedges) and learns that, according to his brother's will, he'll be his guardian until his eighteenth birthday.

When this happens, the movie has already been on for one hour, and so far, what we discovered from Lee is that he's a reclusive and secretive janitor and handyman and whom likability isn't the strongest suit. Patrick on the other hand is a teenager who doesn't strike as a very troubled one, pleasantly far from the usual archetypes, he's articulate, sarcastic but rarely in a hurtful way, he's in good mental and physical shape: he's in the hockey and basket teams, he's in a band and he can also afford the luxury of two girlfriends. The reason why he keeps himself so busy becomes clearer as we get more insights about his childhood, raised by a positive father figure who divorced from his alcoholic wife. But Patrick never resented his mother and kept in touch with her.

One of the merits of "Manchester by the Sea" is that it never really tackles its subject with the usual material, we do have death, alcoholism, loneliness and bar fights, but the characters make it look fresh and unusual in a realistic way. For all the demons that inhabit them, they also act like normal, ordinary family members, skipping some subjects, commenting on trivial stuff, many things are left unspoken but with such a rich subtext we never need to know more. This is a triumph of screen writing and I'm looking forward to seeing Loneegan win the Oscar for Original Screenplay. And it's also a great piece of storytelling, because a linear narrative would have made things clear from the beginning, but for such a tremendous loss in emotional impact.

Indeed, we've got to follow Lee for one long and painful hour, ignoring a woman who's obviously trying to make out with him or punching one guy because he didn't like 'his look' but then after one hour, and a few flashbacks, we finally get his "problem" and we understand why he's acting this way, he earns our immediate empathy, it's not just an 'attitude'. Never underestimate the many moments of quietness the film offers, they might the silence before storm of devastatingly poignant resonances. And without relying too much on the good old "you'll laugh! You'll cry" tag-line trope, but this is also a screenplay that injects a good deal of comedy sometimes, in order to remind us that even in the most dramatic situations, there's room for a little smile.

"Manchester by the Sea" belongs to that so unfairly overlooked family drama genre that produced masterpieces like "Terms of Endearment" or "Ordinary People". There are actually ordinary people in this film with their flaws, their lack of obviousness, so to speak, and on that level, while everyone deserves the praises and I'm glad that both Hedges and Williams were Oscar nominated but Casey Affleck gives one of the most authentic performances ever. It's simple, you never feel like he's playing, many times, he's like hesitating, neither happy, nor sad and I wondered why he picked that angle in his performance. Well, because Lee doesn't know, he's figuring out what to say. An actor who's learned his screenplay knows exactly what line he's going to say, but Affleck has this incredible ability to make a situation feel as awkward as embarrassing as if it was real. And the authenticity he pulls in his performance is so great, you don't feel like watching a film but eavesdropping.

I hope to see this film win at least two Oscars, and one of them is for Affleck. But even without any awards, this is a powerful story that will resonate in the hearts of many people who had their tough deal in life. There's no message, no point except that one "can't just die", no matter the problems that poisoned your life, if you're alive enough to think about them, you better get busy doing something else and loving yourself a little, because otherwise, you're screwed. Both Patrick and Lee get busy living but their experience allow them to learn one thing or two about life, and so do we. And by closing the film with a shot similar to the first, less optimistic but with a bittersweet quality on its own, Lonergan tells us that there's always a gateway from social exclusion and a time to get rid of our demons and come full circle.

And in this melancholy time where it's "finito" for IMDb message boards, I dedicate this review to their memory and the great time I spend there. It's been a privilege and it's been fun.

The Man in Black who Could Heal the Darkest Souls..., 19 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was just watching the Bonus Features from the three-disc DVD set of "Walk the Line" and then I was surprised to learn that both Johnny Cash and June Carter gave their blessing to the casting of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. That said many things actually: that the two country legends were positively involved in the making but since both died in 2003, the math also implied that it took quite a long time. In fact, it was a project from director James Mangold that came so early that it was the performance of Phoenix as Commodus in "Gladiator" that put him on the radar.

So I guess it must have been frustrating for Mangold to see in 2004, another musical biography named "Ray" telling the story of no-less legendary Ray Charles and following the same sequence of events: traumatic and life-affecting death of a sibling during childhood, the rise, the addiction, the second chance, the marital troubles and the overwhelming effect of success. "Walk the Line" suffers from a déjà vu effect but the blame is less on the film but on destiny that generally blesses the most tormented souls with talent or… are they tormented because of their talent?

It doesn't actually matter because once again, it's all about the performances, and I'm glad to know that both Cash and Carter left the world with the awareness that their legacy wouldn't be cheated, and Phoenix and Witherspoon achieved the difficult task to transcend the usual musical biopic pattern and make a powerful and harrowing romance. And I'd go as far as saying that Witherspoon takes maybe more than half the credit because she really lit that little sparkle, she's that source of inspiration that works on the movie like it did with Cash. And in the commentary, they say something actually true, whenever she's not in the film, we miss her and once Cash can finally marry her, the film closes because this is exactly the best way to close his journey, he can finally be happy.

I was watching yesterday a documentary about Belgian singer Jacques Brel who left the stage at the peak of his career in 1966 because he felt he couldn't pretend to be sincere in his songs, he would only be repeating himself and cheat the audience as his songs only had meaning when they expressed genuine pains. And this echoes a powerful scene in the film where a struggling young father Cash auditioned with Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts), he starts singing some gospel, and Phillips dismisses it, then he asks him, if you were hit by a truck and only had one sing to perform, one that would say what you are, which one would you pick? Cash gets the message and tries with a song he wrote when he was in the US Air Force in Germany, about some prisoner who killed a man to see him die, and he could sing it as if he was that prisoner. That was Cash' thing, he sung like he meant it.

And if there ever is one thing to take from his legacy, is that he might not have been the greatest singer, not the greatest voice or guitar player, but his songs had such a raw authenticity that they find an immediate echo in the audience. The catch of course is that a man capable of singing such songs couldn't be any man, his family life was an obvious decoy and once Cash crosses the path of June, he knows he's just met his muse. This guy who lost as a kid the only person who loved him and saw the good in him finally discover the "one" that would make him 'walk the line', and you know what, because she's his.

"Walk the Line" is about an artist whose life has been derailed by low self-esteem, the lack of love from his father (Robert Patrick) and rejection from the only thing he know for sure to be destined to him. So, this is a long walk on a line that would finally lead to inner peace but punctuated with so many obstacles, among them an addiction to pills. While this line has inspired some of the greatest songs of rock n' roll and country music, the focus on June Carter prevents the film from being a conventional biopic and works as much as a romance. Reese Witherspoon is actually more of a supporting actress if you judge by her screen time but from the way she totally influences and drives Cash, she's the lead. She gives her greatest performance, one that swept all the major awards and she sure deserved it. This is a woman who starts as a lively funny girl but whose sassy personality hid many demons, such as living under the shadow of her more versatile sister Anita and two divorces that ruined her image among traditional God-fearing American audience.

In a way, she also resists Cash because he makes her feel like a part of herself she tries to fight, and it's also a matter of time for her to get clean with her conscience, once Cash gets clean with his addiction and his past. It's all about trying to get clean but having dealt with so many troubles that we can finally spill the guts and speak the languages of those who also got the crap of their world. The masterstroke of Cash' career is to have marked his return by singing live at Folsom prison, as if only he could cheer up even the lowlife, the criminals or the scum. Your audience is Christian, he's warned, they won't like seeing you singing for prisoners. "Then, they're not Christians".

And maybe there is something almost Christianic in this black-clad figure who could heal the wounds of the lost soul, one who could not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk… and the line.

Apollo 13 (1995)
One of the 90's Finest Hours..., 17 February 2017

"Houston, we have a problem".

This simple and yet ominous announcement, ranking fiftieth in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movie Quotes, became a staple of pop-culture, referencing to any acquaintance with an inconvenience... of as yet undetermined seriousness. Well, problem is the word to underline.

They say in journalism jargon that a train arriving on time is no news but it becomes news when it doesn't. There's a moment in "Apollo 13" where the three men en route to the moon: Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) are clowning around in front of the camera, ignoring that they're not even aired on TV. When Jim Lovell's wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) asks why, the answer says it all: the audience finds moon missions as exciting as a trip to Pittsburgh. But the fact is that Apollo 13 never made it to "Pittsburgh". And that was news, at least, news enough so Ron Howard would make a film of it, a film with actors and screenplay, but with the realism and the accuracy of a docudrama, and quite a good one.

There's some talk now about a Neil Armstrong biopic to be directed by Damien Chazelle but so far, it says a lot that Apollo 11, the one with the small step and giant leap, one of the greatest adventures men ever embarked in (also the most hazardous, according to JFK) never made into a film, not even "The Right Stuff" which ended with Gordo Cooper's flight and mentioned the deaths of astronauts Grissom, Chaffee and White in the infamous 1967 Apollo 1 fire. "Apollo 13" actually starts with that tragic incident as it established its kinship with the other all American space-themed classic. Indeed, "Apollo 13" can be seen as a continuation of "The Right Stuff" with Ed Harris as a common link, Harris playing the Oscar-nominated part of Nasa Flight Director Gene Kranz. And what an irony that it's Apollo 13, the third mission to the moon that made Kranz famous, not the first.

And apart from Armstrong, Aldrin (and to some degree, Collins), I don't think anyone remembers the name of the other astronauts that went to the moon, but I'm sure everyone remembers the story of Apollo 13 and the name of Jim Lovell. Not that posterity matters, but it says something about memory's selectivity: as much as we need heroes to admire, we need danger to emphasize their heroism. I trust Chazelle to inject a sense of danger in the epic odyssey, but will it be as intense and palpable as when the lives of Apollo 13 men were at serious stakes when an explosion deprived the spacecraft from oxygen supply and fuel? One can say the film will have the merit to show the magnificent outcome of human intelligence and a rigorous combination of skills and talents, but isn't it through the miraculous way the NASA crew got their men back home that we could appreciate them the most?

Indeed, we never realize how difficult it is to make these flights possible, especially in a time where IBM computers were the sizes of pool tables, where men could control a spacecraft hundreds of thousands miles away but when remote controls didn't exist. This is how craft and rudimentary the material was and this unique capability of mankind to improvise, to be resourceful, is illustrated to the fullest in the extraordinary adventure of Apollo 13, highlighting each step that made the miracle possible. And there is an extreme attention to procedures: how to stop the oxygen leaking, how to keep enough power to maneuver the spacecraft and make the transmissions possible, even to make the Command Module's square filters work in the Lunar Module's round receptacles with a bunch of space bags and duct tapes the NASA crew worked on it. It's not just about intelligence, but practicality and sheer astuteness.

And there's always the human factor, Lovell recalls a botched mission's that wouldn't have succeeded if his cockpit lights hadn't shorted out. Similarly, when Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) is replaced at the last minute, that makes him available and a much valuable asset during the crisis as he's assigned to find a way to turn on the Command Module systems without drawing too much power, by using the simulator, no one knows the spacecraft better than him. In the 1989 documentary "For All Mind", Mattingly says he doesn't know what the others do, but he knows his part perfectly and it won't crash because of him. With that mindset, it's obvious that "failure isn't an option". They still called the mission a successful failure, but I wouldn't count it as a failure as it succeeded to say more about courage and resourcefulness than any other mission.

And it's a credit to Ron Howard's precision and talent to have recreated everything for his film, not one single footage shot, from the equipment to the weightlessness, this is a remarkable achievement that even didn't get him an Oscar nod, while the fact that he made such a film without CGI is as remarkable as sending men to moon with an equipment that would belong to a museum today. It is also remarkable that Howard didn't inject any artificial subplot but stuck to the core of the story, only allowing to show the "problem" from the emotional perspective of Oscar-nominated Kathleen Quinlan, as the wife who accepts her man's job but would rather see him on the safer side, another element that is handled in the film's bigger brother "The Right Stuff".

Driven by an intelligent and to-the-point screenplay, "Apollo 13" is one of these movies that can be screened in professional environments to show the merits of team work, processes and intelligence for crisis resolutions. And it much deserves its twelfth spot in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Inspiring Movies.

Gigi (1958)
They don't make like "Gigi" anymore..., 16 February 2017

.. and maybe it's not such a bad thing.

I have nothing against these old Hollywood Technicolor productions but all the Crayola feast in the world can't make up for monotonous and predictable plots, although I concede that, within its own limited but existent appeal, it was a little more enjoyable than "My Fair Lady..., because it was shorter and there was some believable chemistry between playboy Louis Jourdan and "petit bout de femme" (as they say in French) Leslie Caron. I wish though a less sordid story line would have reunited these two actors.

Indeed, for all its old-fashioned 'charm', "Gigi" is the story of a young and lively girl, cute as a button, a real Gigi (whatever this sassy name evokes) groomed to become a courtesan, a euphemism for 'escort girl' that didn't fool the audiences. But why not? It's actually a provocative premise and the fact that it's adapted from a novella written by Colette could have provided a modern, thought-provoking, touch. But the whole thing is enclosed in a Cinderella structure, where men are not exactly charming princes. On a pedestal of admitted social superiority, they are looking upon these funny little creatures called women (even the really little ones) who are not even seen as potential doctors or engineers, who am I kidding, they're not even seen as potential mothers but only adorable soon-to-be providers for men's luscious thrills.

I guess there wasn't much to seek for women in the Paris of the early 20th Century, "La Belle Epoque" as they say in French, apart from money-driven seduction or seduction-driven wealth. And the (in)famous "Thank Heaven for the Little Girls" has the merit of setting the tone of the film and being clear about its intent. I'll go past the creepiness of an old man staring at younger girls with that little sparkle in the eyes, Maurice Chevalier is actually one of the best things about the film and had another nice romantic scene later in the film. But the whole tone of "Gigi" is quite condescending and patronizing toward women who only seem to exist in order to fulfill men's frivolous recreations or egos in the best case. No wonder the film is compared with "My Fair Lady", Gigi could have been a more independent and appealing version of Eliza Doolittle, but she was wrapped up in a cynical plot and entrapped in the claustrophobic atmosphere of reddish walls and over-furnished rooms.

So, Gigi starts being the mistress of Gaston (Louis Jourdan), the most coveted bachelor of Paris, and it's a matter of time before they fall in love. I refuse to believe that women didn't think of themselves highly even in that time. But I'll make an effort, I'll forgot that the film was older than my mother and I will judge it from its context. So, it's set in 1900: wasn't that a time where Marie Curie was working as a young promising physician in Paris? Where Coco Chanel started modeling? Could a girl as beautiful as Gigi look for a brighter future instead of letting herself at the hands of two old ladies who only see her as men's accompaniments then deciding to belong to Gaston. Leslie Caron exuded such passion and liveliness that I couldn't believe her character wasn't given more substance. She was everything Audrey Hepburn wasn't in "My Fair Lady".

But that's the way it is, it's a film about men and the way they can dispose of women. Gaston doesn't strike as an unlikable character but he's likable by default as his first mistress (Eva Gabor) cheats on him and he takes his revenge causing a suicidal attempt that is supposed to make us chuckle. Indeed, in this (not so) gay Paris, we're supposed to root for him. But I could only root for Gigi and I couldn't accept that she would start her 'platonic friendship' by being a lousy substitute. Some would also say this was the way movies and women were portrayed, but again, let's not forget that in 1958, two progressive movies were made "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Defiant Ones", not to mention "Vertigo" or "Touch of Evil" that weren't even nominated.

So "Gigi" feels anachronistic even in its context, when French youth was dancing under the beats of Rock and Roll music and emulating the American idols, old-school Hollywood was still being nostalgic over a not-so-gay Paris that didn't exist anymore. "Gigi", for the sake of being a musical, doesn't try to push its premise a little farther, to spice it up a little, it doesn't even play fair with the genre as there's no particular song or choreography that stands out. This is a film that is not devoid of charming desuetude , but it's rather forgettable, and belongs to that string of mega-Best Picture winners of the 50's and 60's that were instantly forgotten like "The Greatest Show on Earth", "Around the World in Eighty Days" or "Oliver". And "Gigi" winning is a repeat of "An American in Paris" beating "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "A Place in the Sun". I'm happy for Vincente Minnelli but his Best Pictures weren't exactly Hollywood's finest hour.

Speaking of the director, I saw a documentary about the life of Leslie Caron right after "Gigi" and I wish the story of Gigi was half as captivating as Caron's, she didn't have all fond memories of her Hollywood days and I can see why, as she was sort of victim of her beauty and used by Hollywood producers like a puppet, there was something of Gigi in Leslie Caron, something of a missed opportunity. The actress could play and she deserved better than being just the foil or the… 'faire-valoir'... as they say in French.

Moonlight (2016/I)
1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
"Moonlight" is an enlightening experience... but not quite on a 'full-moon' level..., 16 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

You have this little boy who's so enclosed by a secretive pain that it takes the patience of a Buddhist monk to pull out a word from him. Two adults he meet try to help him, a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae)... the little boy, nicknamed "little", won't say a darn thing.

But his silence doesn't matter because we know, we know "little"'s problem; far from a little problem, especially in an environment that isn't all 'rainbow and sunshine' about it. That's a tough deal treated in a rather nuanced and tasteful way by Barry Jenkins. It starts with Kevin, Little's best friend encouraging him to be or act tougher, then you have 'comparative' games played by little boys and finally, the mother (Naomie Harris) who after being so hostile to Juan, reveals herself as a crack whore, not oblivious to the way her son "walks" and "behaves".

It all comes down to that moment where Little asks Juan what a 'faggot' is, this is an emotional culmination and Juan's answer is just perfect. "Little" will have time to figure out what he is, but he sure ain't what that word describes, if anything, he'll be gay or he'll be whatever he wants to be. This is Juan's point, it's not about knowing what you are, but sticking to it once you know, because no one can change you, not without your consent anyway. When the first act ends, you know you're onto something very special. Then comes the second: Juan is gone, Teresa is still here and takes care of Little, now Chiron, like a real mother should do. And the real one is in an even worse shape than she was, she takes Chiron's money to do her stuff while Chiron must deal with bullies in school and they sure have grown up too.

The teenage part is the best thing about "Moonlight" because it transcends the whole 'gay' issue and becomes a heartbreaking denunciation of bullying and harassment. And while not gay, I could relate to Chiron more than any other character from this year's movies, this is a guy, torn apart at a crucial time between homophobic thugs and even his mother who 'bullies' him on the basis that she's his mom, his blood, using emotional blackmail which is even more painful than fists. Naomie Harris does a terrific job in a rather ungrateful part but she's an essential element of Chiron's soul deterioration as she embodied the cruel reality that sometimes those who 'love' you harm you more in life than those who physically harm you.

But Chiron will pay the biggest price to that lesson as a teen. He meets Kevin again who's a rather popular guy and whose taste for girls worked like the perfect decoy to his hidden homosexuality. When he encounters Chiron on the beach, there's a sweet and tender discussion that ends with an intimate contact, then you can see that something has just clicked in Chiron's mind, positively. But the day after, Kevin is asked to hit Chiron. The conflict is obvious, if he doesn't play the game, he blows his cover, if he does, he won't destroy Chiron's face but his heart as well... and soul. And Chiron's reaction is just the perfect response to mindless violence: he stands up and forces Kevin to hit him again, because he knows that's exactly what he fears.

This moment has the emotional power of a climax and I couldn't believe it came halfway through the film. Teen Chiron was the soul of "Moonlight" because he was all 'torment and conflict' and the way he finally takes his revenge left me conflicted myself. I didn't know if I was supposed to gasp or cheer when he broke that chair on his bully. But at that time, you could tell his soul and faith in life were so shattered that it didn't matter. I think I felt sorry for him but deep inside, I thought he did the right thing. It derailed his life so much he became an adult full of muscle and confidence, everything I'm lacking. But was he still Chiron? The first two acts are nothing but masterpieces that could have been successful and acclaimed short movies if they were released alone... but the third act makes such a big leap in the time-line that Chiron feels like a whole new character.

You could tell the teen and the kid were the same introverted and uncommunicative persons but adult Chiron could have belonged to any gangsta movie, so obviously, we're waiting for something to connect him with his past, and not just recalling memories. "Moonlight" is obviously intended as a coming-of-age story, but it doesn't really come in a satisfyingly full-circle way. All through this reunion with his friend Kevin, I was on-guard. For all I knew, Chiron could have wanted to kiss him as much as kill him, since he's partially responsible but it never really comes out from their talk, it's all about "where have you been?" and stuff of such trivial level that I kept my eye on the running time and expected something big to close Chiron's journey. I know life can be authentically anticlimactic but how about just confronting Kevin to his responsibilities and ask him: "Why did you hit me?".

That says a lot when even the talk that used to be captivating leaves you cold. I expected more and I felt a bit let down. I also kept asking myself whether Mahershali Ali's performance was deserving all the hype. When Juan is gone, we have time to forget about him, and there are so many great performances you wonder why they picked that one, if anything, teen Chiron (Ashton Sanders) deserved a nod. So, this is a great movie for the two thirds, but the story never tops the emotional knock-out of the second act.

La La Land (2016/I)
4 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
La La Life..., 15 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"People love what other people are passionate about."

Being at the top of the quotes' section, I guess that statement had the most powerful resonance in the hearts of all the fools, dreamers, lovers… who experienced, with amusement and amazement "La La Land". This is not Mia talking but Damien Chazelle, Hollywood's child prodigy... although this is sure no "child's work".

Chazelle had already made a spectacular entrance with "Whiplash", a spellbinding masterpiece exalting the virtues of work, passion and discipline. And by tying the Oscar-nominations record of "Titanic" and "All About Eve", "La La Land" makes exactly the point of "Whiplash", the one missed by those who label it as a 'musical', while you can enjoy it without even being impressed by the music (although I find it difficult not to be haunted by that score from Justin Hurwitz, an instant classic that doesn't get off the head easily).

"Here's to the fools who dream".

"La La Land" follows the ups-and-downs of a romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) a pianist as passionate about jazz as J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash" (Simmons makes a memorable cameo) and Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress stuck in Cinderella-phase, working in a Hollywood cafeteria with a string of auditions' failures that severely undermined her self-confidence. And while it's easier for pianists to find jobs, Seb is a purist who can't stand selling his soul for pop music or any modernized, youth-appealing, version of jazz.

But there's no villain in "La La Land" except for reality and its necessary compromises, but Mia and Seb talk the talk, walk the walk and dance the dance, helping each other to achieve their dreams. Seb works with a band lead by Keith, an old friend played by John Legend, so he can provide for Mia while she writes a one-woman-show, and stops relying on auditions. It is very telling that she wants to be an actress and he a jazz pianist, Mia must learn how to act, and not surrender to defeatism, while Seb has got to play the game, and as Keith says "not try to revolutionize something by being traditional". The irony is that while they try to reach happiness, they're happy and have the time of their life.

"Life is what happens to you while you're making projects".

Chazelle doesn't share John Lennon's view of happiness, his vision follows the same pattern than "Whiplash", to the point I wondered if Chazelle wasn't the kind of workaholic guy who decided one day that he had to dedicate 100% of his time to movie-making at the expenses of love comfort. It seems like you can see his personal story behind his work and that's the mark of the greats and it's for this sincerity, that he's one of these artists who peak very early like Scorsese or Tarantino. Now, I know I could go on the stylish directing and the whole love letter to Hollywood but this is one aspect that I'm more "perplex" about.

The first sunny and enthusiastic dance sequence was nothing but a masterpiece of choreographic directing and it will certainly be as iconic as the beginning of "West Side Story" but I was not impressed in the sense that I felt it was Chazelle begging for the Oscar, especially since the scene doesn't stop after the music and the film goes on. It was remarkable but in such a showy way it felt too Oscar-baity for its own good. But that's underestimating Chazelle, the jazzy director: he knows when to over-bake it and when to play it smooth. So, I let myself transported by the film and at the Planetarium sequence, I was literally transported, like "oh, what the heck…" this is good, give these movies the awards it deserves.

Yes, "La La Land" is stylish and you can see the director and writer's touches of unpredictability everywhere, in the backgrounds, in the use of phone calls, even the title is a masterpiece of creativity, this is one of these cases where the directing is in total symbiosis with the story, like in "Goodfellas". Actually, the story isn't even revolutionary and we've seen it a thousand times but it's in the storytelling… and that magnificent 'rewriting' third act. The finale echoed how I felt about life: you can succeed three ways: money, love and dreams, you're happy if you get two out of three. By that logic, they are happy at the end, but indulge to a fantasy sequence where they succeed in everything.

And as dreamy as it was, the 'fantasy' sequence was still plausible... had they engaged in a transparent, sincere and flawless relationship from the start. But who said life was flawless? I spend my whole life rewriting my story and asking myself: "what if I had done this or that?", it's never totally unrealistic, but that's the whole fantasy aspect about it, when you know what awaited you, it's easier to look at your past in retrospect. You only realize your mistakes when it's you late, otherwise, you wouldn't call them mistakes. And well, five years later, they still have good reasons to smile despite the wasted opportunities, because when you sacrifice love for dreams, the lost love becomes the dream. C'est la la vie!


Speaking of life, this is my 1000th review, I'm sad that IMDb is shutting down the message boards and wanted a feel-good movie for the occasion. Yet I felt cheated, because Chazelle doesn't go for sentimentality, this is no slumdog millionaire winning the money and love and dancing at the end… as romantic and deliberately kitsch as it was, "La La Land" is true to life because it has a little twist… called reality. I don't know if I feel so good after all… but I feel good in the way this film made me feel about life.

Whiplash (2014)
Ba dumb bumb cheshhh!, 12 February 2017

"Whiplash" tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young drummer whose obsession is to become "one of the greatest" and who finds his match in Terence Fletcher, a conductor who put the "mentor" in "monster" and "monster" "in maestro" and will push Andrew to heights of unsuspected greatness… and to the edge.

For lack of a sequel, we'll never know if Andrew became the best drummer of his generation, but there's one thing we do know: Damien Chazelle is Oscar-nominated for "La La Land". If he wins (and he certainly will), he'll be the youngest Oscar-winning director of Hollywood history. And there's more: "La La Land" earned 14 Oscar nominations tying the record of "Titanic" and "All About Eve", and it is very likely that the film will tie the all-time records of Oscar wins, if not break them. And Chazelle isn't even thirty, and he sure doesn't even look thirty.

Only two years have passed between his directorial debut and the kind of wet dream for a vet director, let alone a "squeaker". So I'm not sure if I want to review "Whiplash", a fascinating coming-to-greatness story or the story behind "Whisplash" which embodies the same nervously inspirational spirit. Actually, it is not a hazard that Chazelle made his bones through a movie about talent, ambition and discipline as he applied these vital life parameters to himself. How do I know that he's got talent? Is it subjective? I don't know. But there's an interesting moment when Fletcher visits Andrew's school band, looking for a talent to pick.

I'll pass over the mockeries and derogatory comments to the other players, so you have Andrew as the second drummer and not even appreciated, Fletcher lets the first drummer play, then Andrew. They play like one second each, yet this second is enough for Fletcher to detect the real potential. It seems that Andrew's got the little sparkle… just enough to be considered a page- turner in Fletcher's conservatory, but it will be a long road till he earns his part… or not. Now, has Chazelle talent? Well, judging by whatever was displayed in this film in terms of acting, directing, writing, editing, and even sound mixing: I would say, hell yeah! The 'squeaker' earned his part as one of the most promising directors of his generation.

And "Whiplash" is a long road to greatness paved by the harrowing mind wrestling between the fierce mentor and his ambitious disciple, and one of the most captivating love-and-hate relationships of recent years. And as painful or cringe worthy it gets, we feel that harassment is the kind of "end-justifying-the-means" technique to go beyond expectations. Fletcher does have a point, and it's true that there's no good coming from casual complimenting. I myself remember a teacher who used to harass us in prep school, she could let me fill the blackboard for four uninterrupted hours and always commented the work we did by "could have been better" or "pathetic". One day, I managed to elicit a jaw dropping "very good" and it was an extraordinary feeling. I wish sometimes I had someone harming me for the sake of my accomplishments.

But now, I'm projecting my own experience in "Whiplash", while the film goes deeper in the enigmatic personality of Terence Fletcher. He believes in Andrew's talent but he doesn't like him for all that. Fletcher is an antagonist and the paradox is that his antagonism improves Andrew's talent more than anything. JK Simmons, who owned the Supporting Actor category during the awards season, is an instant icon in this film, and the way he loudly asks Andrew if he's dragging or rushing was so intense I felt like he was shouting at me. Fletcher shows us the key to self- accomplishment: not rushing and not dragging, seizing the right timing, the right tempo to get to action and secondly, an indirect lesson: no one owes anything and the least you expect from others, the more you expect from you.

Andrew isn't perfect either, there's a moment where he breaks up with his new girlfriend, killing the relationship before it even started. He didn't want her to undermine his path as if he was convinced already he was going to be the great embodying what Muhammad Ali said; "I was the greatest before I knew I was". But as admirable as his self-confidence is, the journey of Andrew doesn't go without a few 'accidents', some more deserved than others, and I wouldn't dare to spoil the third act, which elevated the film from a fine Indie music to a fantastic duel of egos with drums and music and venomous rancor as weapons.

"Whiplash" is one duel after one, between rival drummers, Andrew and Fletcher, and ultimately Andrew and himself. He doesn't belong to a musical family, he has dreams, that alienated him from family and friends, but he knows if he was good enough to catch the ear of Fletcher, that might say a thing or two about his talent. Granted Fletcher isn't the nicest guy but nice guys aren't all talented or successful. So it all comes down to "Whiplash"'s third act; a satisfying jazz crescendo culminating with a super finale where everything is beating, your feet are tapping and for one moment you do believe that jazz is the finest musical expression of all time after classical music.

And maybe beyond ambition, talent and discipline, the reason why this awkward college boy- looking director made such a sensational impact, is because he knew about jazz, it was his passion. So maybe passion is the key. And he was so passionate that in order to get the money, he simply made a shorter version and submitted the film to Sundance, and the rest is history. Like a sort of "Rocky" with drums and its extraordinary ending, "Whiplash" is (simply said) the embodiment of its own success story.

Ba dumb bumb cheshhh!

So what with the Six Dwarfs..., 11 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."

That's Woody Allen talking and you know what, the neurotic genius is right. And I had to start my review of "Time Bandits" with that statement for two reasons: I think the film failed to deliver its premise, but it is a failure signaling the emergence of a unique talent: Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python artist whose mind was like a laboratory of fantasy images and psychedelic extravaganza, responsible for some of the most peculiar movies of the last decades. They were not equally appealing, he's certainly one of the most divisive directors, but if you judge innovation by the frequency of failures, he might be the most innovative director.

"Time Bandits" is about a curious and gentle little kid embarking in an time-traveling adventure, from Ancient Greece to Sherwood Forest, Napoleon Wars to the Titanic sinking, from a futuristic time to a pirates ship, with six dwarfs specializing in robbing relics and precious items from the eras they visit, this premise alone is just too irresistible for words. But for some reason that totally beats me, Terry Gilliam turns it into a rather dull, repetitive, unfunny film, one that goes uninteresting quite quickly anyway. Maybe a director like Steven Spielberg could have given it a more entertaining structure and compelling story, but Spielberg was busy making "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and then, he would make "E.T.". There are reasons why these films are classics and "Time Bandits" a cult-movie mostly known by Gilliam aficionados, Spielberg knew the kind of thrills and emotional elements the audience wanted.

"Time Bandits" doesn't even provide an alternative to the "Spielbergian" adventure; it is an assemblage of different vignettes, all set in different times but that stopped to be impressive as the film progresses. It is worth starting by giving Caesar's what is Caesar's: the production design and settings are top notch, on an Oscar worthy level. But like it often occurs with Gilliams' movies and this one should have been another signal, Gilliam gets so carried away by all the special effects that you never get the feeling he's really directing the film, you don't get the direction, literally. Some parts stretch for far too long without providing much novelty, apart from the visual escapism, and the fact that the kid is more of a follower doesn't provide much room for gags or inventiveness. The dwarfs lead the show and it's not saying much.

Don't get me wrong, there are some pretty good parts, the opening where the kid meets the six little thieves and they leave the room, followed by an ominous divine-like figure, is thrilling, unsettling and overall captivating. The Evil One, played by David Warner, is an interesting antagonist in his obsession to surpass God with a creation that would take technology as a focal point. There is also a magnificent climax that kind of redeems the flaws and perhaps provides, as Gene Siskel named it, the ultimate rescue, from any movie, but then it is also ruined by a rather bizarre and abrupt ending. And watching the show with Ebert and Siskel, I could see a glee in Siskel's eyes, he wanted to recommend the film but found it too boring. And I agree, I can't recommend this film that feels like a draft of "Munchausen" which wasn't flawless anyway.

Ebert liked the film a little more but there was no enthusiasm in his eyes, and he conceded that kids might enjoyed it for what it was, a series of adventures in different settings, maybe like a video game or a Tintin book. I don't even think he's right. First, the film is just too long even by adult movies' standards, it drags on for two hours and not every scene is indispensable. It could have done without the Titanic part where the special effects didn't match the previous parts. Secondly, the kid is a passive character, he doesn't even have the biting wit of Sally in "Munchausen", he's an adorable little boy who just follows the dwarfs and that's it. There's no coming-of-age element of any sort, no real change of character's arc, I wouldn't underestimate the kids and take for granted that they don't expect a character's arc. Finally, the tone oscillates between moments of sophisticated wits and surrealistic confrontations that might disconcert children.

Maybe "Time Bandits" tries to be something between "Tron" and "The Man Who Would be King", with a mixture of Monty Python flavor, a video game of Kiplingesque magnitude, I guess, but it just comes anachronistic compared to what the 80's had to offer and not just Spielberg, a film like "The Princess' Bride" has got the wit, the warmth and the charm "Time Bandits" is lacking. Maybe Gilliam takes its setting, and casting (Sean Connery, John Cleese, Patrick Vaughan and many of Gilliam regulars) for granted and doesn't care for showing some real warmth or depth in the characters, so even as a kids' movie, it doesn't quite succeed.

Now, it all comes down to a dilemma, either you praise the film but not with enthusiasm or you condemn it with magnanimity. This is a film full of good intentions, but in its own right as a two-hour spectacle, you better have something to do while you're watching it, it's not really an attention grabber.

We all have a 'Brokeback Mountain'..., 11 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In summer 1963, two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) are hired by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to herd his sheep through Wyoming Mountains. Ennis is introverted and laconic, Jack lively and romantic. In the midst of their mission, they discover mutual love… somewhere in Brokeback Mountain.

The bond is tacit first, but culminates on a cold night where they have sex, in a violent yet passionate way. The day after, they decide to let the matter rest. What happened in Brokeback stays in Brokeback. Yet they can't fool their feelings. Each one follows his path, gets married, has children, but when they meet again a few years after, the joy is so overwhelming they surrender to an urgent desire to kiss each other, perhaps the most desperately passionate of recent movies' history. Then they decide to go 'fishing' in the setting of their previous isolated passion, marking the start of a two-decade secretive relationship. Brokeback becomes the kind of destination inviting you, for once in a lifetime, to be true to yourself. To a certain degree, we all have a Brokeback Mountain.

It wasn't my intent to introduce this review with the dull cliché about a place being less a geographical location than a 'state of mind' but this time, it's essential to establish from the start what the film is not: a 'gay cowboy movie', it does feature a love story between two cowboys but the focus isn't on their forbidden relationship. Of course, a homosexual romance in the Midwest or in Texas wasn't the most cheerfully welcomed thing in the 60's and 70's, but Ang Lee isn't interested in the "message", this is not a film supposed to open your eyes on homophobia, but just to show how the lives of two persons are profoundly affected by a crucial choice they have made early in their youth: renouncing to their happiness because of social pressure, and affecting in the process other people's lives. The film is full of bad but understandable decisions… like life I guess.

Life indeed, that's what earns this film its universal appeal, had it focused on homophobia then the two cowboys would have inspired sympathy but not the right one, as victims, we would have true feelings but not strong enough to transcend the 'gay' context. The merit of the Oscar- winning script, written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana was to create a story where the real suffering was actually self-inflicted. It's all in their renouncement, the fact that these two men, after having what they think is an unfortunate roar of passion, decide to go back to 'normal' lives, and resign to lives that weren't theirs. These are average blue-collar unambitious guys, why should they even dream of happiness after all? But they realize they simply condemned themselves to hell because they regularly have a taste of the very happiness they're missing.

Watching the film, I had the feeling I was looking at my own condition, and I thought to myself, anyone who ever renounced a dream to follow the other sheep (I wonder if the imagery was deliberate) until realizing a few years after that he screwed everything, will relate to the story. And reading Roger Ebert's review, I appreciated that he spotted the same thing : "I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker." Count me in the 'artist' category. Through the story of these two cowboys spending their all lives lying to people they love and to themselves, while movies exhilarate the acquaintances with destiny, this one hits a universally sensitive chord because it's about wasted lives.

Annie Proulx' wrote a short story that could hardly fit in a film's format, and that inspired the screenwriters the idea to expand the romance over the limits of Brokeback. And that's the element that elevated the film, because from the forbidden relationship between Ennis and Heath, we also see how it profoundly affects the lives of their wives, especially Alma (Michelle Williams) who witnesses the passionate kiss and confronts Ennis about his so-called fishing trips where he came back without fishes, many years later, we can feel the pain of betrayal. A similar scene occurs with a waitress played by Linda Cardellini, who genuinely falls in love with Ennis ignoring what he had inside. Ennis and Jack aren't victims, and they don't enjoy hurting people, but the film makes the right choice of embodying the laconic personality of Ennis and the confusion of Jack, so we can feel their unhappiness from very subtle and silent moments.

Indeed, seeing them in their ordinary lives highlight what is truly missing and that's how "Brokeback Mountain" displays an astonishing maturity with a relatively simple plot, there's no message, no political statement, it's all in the unseen and unspoken. Although there are a few heartbreaking moments where you have lines that say it all, the most haunting being "I wish I knew how to quit you" or when Ennis mentions the memory of his father showing them the corpse of a dead gay cowboy (killed in the most atrocious way), we know it's both an explanation for his tacit nature but maybe an omen for a tragic ending. But this is a credit to the screenwriters to have let a magnificent love story unfold and surprise those who expected the 'gay romance'; the film isn't about homosexuality, but a love that happens to be between men.

The script waited for years before being adapted, known as the greatest non-adapted script, as if it waited for the right director. Ang Lee managed to provide some depth and heart in the film rightfully winning an Oscar for his sensitive directing. The talent of Jake Gyllenhall and the late Heath Ledger doing the rest…

When Individual Fears Don't Compromise Collective Courage... and Vice Versa..., 11 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the middle of the 50's, McCarthyism reached the heights of fear and terror. It appears that it is partly due to the personality of Senator McCarthy and lines of questioning that confined to bullying and intimidation at the expense of legal procedures. Being submitted to the HUAC could make you as communist as Stalin, so no one dared to criticize McCarthy for individual safety's sake. Terror and fear were the vital components of McCarthyism, a shameful time of America's history, that was close enough to repeat itself in the 2000's for that's the way history punishes those who forget their lessons.

And the main lesson we can grasp from George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" is that you can't fool everyone every time. McCarthyism crossed a few boundaries, notably when the Air Force threatened to expel a soldier if he didn't denounce his father and sister, suspected of communist inclination on the basis of revelations… sealed in an envelope. So CBS 'Person to Person' host Edward Murrow (David Strathairn) felt it was time to confront the dubious methods of the Commission. This was a time where television was the new medium and Murrow was a man of no-nonsense rigid face and unflinching cigarette perfectly exuding unflappable professionalism. Strathairn gives the performance of a lifetime as a journalist who's confident, sometimes overly, but who's a pro to the core, he only consider facts and can't accept that lives would be destroyed without any substantial proof.

And Murrow isn't a lone crusader for he finds support from his colleagues, his co-producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), the CBS news executive (Jeff Daniels) and chief executive (Frank Langella). If anything, "Good Night, and Good Luck" praises the merit of team working and the solidarity driven by decency and principles. There's a moment where (before attacking McCarthy), Friendly asks the team if any of them can be accused of Communist sympathy even in the loosest way. The conclusion of this scene says it all "terror is right there in this room" and the scare of the moment was enough a reason to walk the walk. The paranoia is even induced by an interesting subplot involving Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, as two workers of very strange behavior, until we realize the purpose this subplot served: highlighting our own paranoia.

George Clooney's retelling of the pivotal moment where America rebelled against McCarthy through the figure of Ed Murrow carries the mark of the 50's, it has a great black and white cinematography, a lot of smoking and the use of real footage of senator McCarthy complete the touch of authenticity. But the film is also a timely reminder of the value of good and honest information, it says a lot about the 50's but speaks volumes for the 2000's. Clooney has always been vocal about human rights and democracy. By choosing to tackle this subject, he reminded the audience that America has been through this, and September 11 instated a Green Scare that had nothing to envy from McCarthyism. And from the Patriot Act, it became clear that you had no other choice than proving loyalty to the flag or you were deemed as a traitor. But a good American beyond any reproach had the guts to destabilize McCarthy in the 50's, by doing his job.

And "Good Night, and Good Luck" with a meticulous precision shows how the job is done, the meetings, the way they all pick quotations for McCarthy and deconstruct them. Murrow criticizes the Senator but invites him to give any refutation or correction. McCarthy's defense is to accuse Murrow of Communist sympathy. I thought that was the 'dramatic' moment where Murrow would finally take a hit. No, Murrow's next statement was nothing but brilliant. Since McCarthy didn't make any reference to all the statements made, that means he found no mistake. That's the power of Murrow, he doesn't flinch and his professionalism, empowers everyone around and it's a matter of time before McCarthy gets destabilized with the infamous "have you go no decency?", when brave people, without showing sympathy to Communism echoed this famous line of Sir Thomas More: "I would give the devil the benefit of the Law, for my own safety".

It's not about McCarthy but Law.

The downfall of McCarthy is a victory for Murrow but of bittersweet taste because the program will not be renewed, for lack of sponsors. And that might be another of the great lessons from such a short yet complex film. Like many movies about the 50's, ads play a significant part on TV, "Quiz Show" had Geritol, here we have Kent cigarettes and Alcoa, and as a buff of TV game shows like "What's my Line" I know that TV couldn't survive without it. So, the film rises the most important issue, one that works as a bridge between the 50's and now: if people have money to sponsors shows, if they can threaten a show to be canceled then information obviously belongs to the sponsor. It's as simple as that, and in a context of globalization, this reality gets even scarier..

The movie ends with a warning, that if we take TV as just a medium for entertainment and not information, then we'll be alienated candidates for mediocrity. One can argue that Internet provided an alternative, but in a way, it also alienated us a little more and too many information are harder to control and verify so anything can be build on rumors and falsehoods. If McCarthy could use the Internet, maybe more lives might have been destroyed, he might have as well become president… or someone like him.

But that's a prophetic aspect of Clooney's film I don't want to venture into, it depressed me to the point I envy anyone leaving this ugly world, and if it ever happened to me, I would be tempted to tell those I love; "good night… and good luck".

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